The debate about who has the best pizza in South Jersey is a very serious one. In Atlantic County, it’s a difficult choice when legendary institutions like Tony’s Baltimore Grill and newcomers like Carluccio’s square off.
In Cape May County, the standout pizza joint above all others is Manco & Manco, a Boardwalk staple since 1956.
But if you classify Manco as the clear winner when it comes to boardwalk-style pizza, there’s a new kid on the block that has all of the makings to become a Cape May County legend in the realm of gourmet pizza. And that is Fratelli’s Wood Fired Pizzeria, which has a flagship location in Sea Isle City and an affiliated second location related to La Fontana del Mare in Strathmere.
The key word there is gourmet. Owner Bujar Daku, known for La Fontana locations in Strathmere, Avalon and right across the street from Fratelli’s in Sea Isle City, once again teamed with his brother Gani to offer the same, mind-blowing, authentic Italian cuisine diners have fallen in love with since they opened their first La Fontana in 1998. But this time, they put their passion and attention to detail to create what they believe is the best — and most authentic — pizza diners can find in the entire state.
Fratelli’s, appropriately translating to “brothers” in Italian, takes itself seriously — very seriously — when it comes to pizza. Even though the restaurant offers more than pizza, it is the backbone of everything Fratelli’s is all about.
“Bujar and his family and restaurant are a welcome addition to the community, and we look forward to him opening even more,” says Sea Isle City Mayor Lenny Desiderio.
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Desiderio will have his wish come true, but not exactly how he hoped. Daku’s next restaurant will open in Avalon this summer.
Here is a breakdown on why Fratelli’s is going to be the next big thing in Cape May County.
According to Bujar Daku, when Fratelli’s opened in April, its wood-fired oven was one of only three in the world; the other two were in Dubai and Modena, Italy.
Imported from Genoa, Italy, the wood-fired oven weighs 8,000 pounds, is fueled by oak and can reach up to 900 degrees, but Fratelli’s likes to keep it at about 700, which enables them to cook a pizza in about three minutes.
“The key is the stone top inside the oven,” Daku says. “It rotates and cooks the pizza perfectly. You get that crispiness but there is very little char because of the stone.”
Daku says the oven is lined with stone made from volcano ash, and even the venting system came from Italy.
“No one could design it here like that,” Daku says. “There is a double insulation needed because of the heat. It’s an amazing design.”
The oven is so big that the construction crew had to leave a wall open while building Fratelli’s to crane the oven in when it arrived.
Daku says, like all pizza, the dough is the most important ingredient, and he had to find the right dough to match his amazing oven.
But it didn’t take long.
“I had a friend in Naples who helped with a 150-year-old recipe,” he says. “You don’t mess with that.”
The key to the dough is quality, with Fratelli’s using Antico Molino Caputo flour from Naples that’s low in sugar.
“Most flour that most places use is like 75 percent sugar; this is like 10,” Daku says. “When we first opened, and all I was eating was this pizza, I lost 15 pounds.”
Because of the process, the dough is made 24 hours in advance, meaning that if they go through all of their dough, they close. The closest they came was late summer when they had two pies left at closing time.
The dough, thin, crispy on the outside yet satisfying and perfectly doughy on the inside, is the basis for some of the best pies you ever had. More than a dozen styles come in two sizes: a smaller, round Napolitano pie that would be a medium in most pizza joints; and a giant, rectangle Metro pie that could serve about four people.
When Daku says the margherita ($13.95, $24.95) — mozzarella cheese, crushed tomatoes, basil — is “so good you will never want anyone else’s margherita pizza,” he isn’t joking. It’s that good. Using San Marzano tomatoes and 100 percent mozzarella cheese that Daku buys 500 pounds at a time to ensure quality, it is as good as it gets.
Fratelli’s also gets adventurous: the mayor’s favorite is the Ventura ($15.95, $27.95), a white pie with hand-sliced prosciutto di Parma, mozzarella and arugula; the Salamini Piccante ($15.95, $27,95) is an antipasta lover’s dream with spicy soppressata, capicola, ricotta and mozzarella; the Tonno ($14.95, $26.95) features Sicilian tuna, onion, capers, olives, mozzarella, pepperoncini and crushed tomato; and the Capesante ($16.95, $28.95) offers scallops, mozzarella, sun-fried tomatoes and pesto.
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Daku waited a month to open to make sure all of the ingredients — particularly the cheese — were perfect.
“I could have opened sooner, but it wasn’t right,” he says of the 50-seat Fratelli’s, which features gorgeous brick and stone work on its walls and floors highlighted by windows framed in stone that open in the off-season to make every seat feel like al fresco dining. “If you open and it’s not right, you never get those people back in your door.”
More than just pizza
Of course, Fratelli’s offers more great food than just pizza.
Using that wood oven, they wood-grill a variety of items: calamari ($11.95) marinated with Italian herbs; sausage ($9.95) with red and green peppers and onions; blackened scallops with sriracha aioli; octopus with Roman artichokes, onions and pesto; and shrimp ($13.95) in a spicy grappa sauce.
And the rosemary flatbread served with house-made whipped ricotta ($10.95) and drizzed with the best imported olive oil money can buy may be the best thing on the menu.
There are four great salads, including baby kale ($9.95) with pears, strawberries, dried cranberries and gorgonzola in a sherry vinaigrette; and you can even choose one of four paninis offered like the grilled chicken ($9.95) with broccoli rabe, roasted peppers and mozzarella.
Fratelli’s even makes six homemade gelatos ($5.95), including hazelnut, pistachio — and our favorite — the sea salt caramel.
Next summer, Daku is entertaining the idea of offering some daily pasta and fish specials, but make sure you go there for the pizza first, everything else second.