Our Local Commons
MARCH 11, 2015

Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria

Banner for Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria
Banner for Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and technically Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria has just closed, having finished lunch service and not reopening for dinner until 5. Yet, the atmosphere in the restaurant is anything but quiet. There are vendors coming and going, and plenty of slicing and chopping taking place in a mad dash to get prepped ahead of the evening rush.

“We close for two hours, but that’s only so we can catch up for dinner service,” co-owner Loren Mendosa explains, alluding to the packed house of diners here virtually every day since the restaurant opened right before Christmas. Business has been so good that the Lampo team—including Loren and co-owners Mitchell Beerens, Ian Redshaw, and Andrew Cole—is sprinting to keep up.

“We prep 180 doughs for the weekdays and about 240 for the weekends—on a typical night, we’ll have under 12 remaining,” Loren says.

Whipping up a new batch on a busy night isn’t an option due to the dough’s 72-hour fermentation time—part of what makes for authentic neapolitan pizza. “So,” Loren adds, “when we’re out of dough, we’re out of dough.”

What makes Lampo’s success perhaps even more impressive is that its tiny dining room seats only 21 at a time—14 on the floor and seven at the bar. This space—right at the mouth of Belmont on Monticello Road—sits in a small box of a building, which means that not only is the dining room compact, the kitchen is, too.

As he talks, Loren stands at a narrow stainless steel table just beyond the bar, doing a daily task at Lampo: forming fresh mozzarella curd into large spheres. He methodically works his gloved hands through a large pan of mozzarella curd and warm salted water. He is fixing the proteins of the curd, he explains, slowing pulled them, searching for the point when they can stretch around themselves enough to form a skin. Once the curd can do that, he forms a globe with it, then sets it aside and begins the process again. Lampo uses between 90 and 120 pounds of mozzarella a week.

“It’s an absurd amount of mozzarella,” Loren says with a good-natured grin. He points out that doing the mozzarella prep in-house is one of the ways they are able to keep their pies—which currently run between $9 and $15—affordable.

“It’s a really simple process,” he says, noting that doing this specific task themselves allows them to charge $12 for their flagship margherita pizza, which would run around $18 otherwise. “And that’s what we’re so excited about doing,” he adds. “Being able to bring the best ingredients that you can get at an approachable price.”

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That’s what we’re so excited about doing. Being able to bring the best ingredients that you can get at an approachable price.

Beyond the signature dough and fresh ingredients, what makes a Lampo pizza stand out is the way it’s baked—in a wood-fired oven that stands in the middle of the restaurant, its sleek, round figure truly the centerpiece of the entire operation. The three-ton oven is so massive that when it arrived from Italy, where it was crafted, it had to be lifted via crane down through the restaurant’s roof.

The oven was commissioned by the Lampo team after they saw a similar one at Menomale, a neapolitan pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. Menomale owner and chef Ettore Rusciano offered to put them in touch with the craftsman in Naples, Italy, who had created the Menomale oven, and the team readily agreed.

“We called him, spoke some broken Italian and got a translator to help relay the message that we were interested in having one of these ovens made for us,” Loren says. The craftsman set to work and one month later, the oven was ready to ship. Six weeks later, it arrived in Baltimore.

The oven is maintained at a temperature of about 950° F. In order to be able to handle that kind of heat without burning, a high-hydration dough is needed. “That’s a huge part of the flavor of our dough,” Loren explains. “Finding that perfect ratio between the high hydration and the temperature of the oven is really key.”

Learning how to use the oven has been part of the journey for everyone on the Lampo team. Loren points out that he and Mitchell both previously worked at Mas Tapas, up Monticello Road in the heart of downtown Belmont, where they learned how to bake in a wood-fired oven from Chef Tomas Rahal, who also taught them the systems that need to be in place for a strong bakery program.

“Tomas has been a huge mentor and inspiration to us,” Loren says. “His whole philosophy behind food really shaped a lot of our philosophies behind food.”

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At the prep station, tucked into a narrow passage between the bar and rest of the kitchen, with the hulking oven a few feet from his back, Loren reflects for a moment on the whirlwind start he and his co-owners and chefs have experienced at their little pizzeria. One of their main focuses is how best to answer the demand the Charlottesville community appears to have for neapolitan pizza.

“I want to feed as many people as possible,” Loren says, earnestly. “We love doing this and that’s what we’re in it for, but at the end of the day, we have to make sure when we do grow, we grow in the right ways—we don’t overextend ourselves, and we keep the quality of the product as high as possible.”

For now, the team is learning how to master the processes they’ve set up, work efficiently in a small space, and look for ways to improve.

“As busy as we’ve been, it’s been pretty tough to keep up,” Loren admits. “But it’s a good problem to have. I can’t complain too much about that.”

We have to make sure when we do grow, we grow in the right ways—we don’t overextend ourselves, and we keep the quality of the product as high as possible.

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