Photograph by Jeannine Rae Steinkuhl
EAT – APizza di Napoli
Of all of the food I’ve tried in all of the places I’ve lived and travelled, nothing beats an Italian pizza. It is the standard to aspire to reach, it is pizza perfection. And perfection is what Cliff Garzzillo, owner of Apizza di Napoli requires of his staff. This Aiken gem of a restaurant has earned them a spot in the Association Vera Pizza Napolitana, a designation only given to pizzerias that adhere to a strict code of ingredients and cooking stipulations.
These requirements include importing high quality ingredients like flour, tomatoes, sea salt, and mozzarella di bufala campana from Italy, and having a wood-burning pizza oven that bakes at 900º Fahrenheit to cook the pie in less than 90 seconds. Understandably, it’s a lot of guidelines to follow, making Apizza di Napoli recognition as part of this international association of particular noteworthiness.
It’s been a few years now since the last time I had an Italian pizza in Italy but there are certain things you don’t forget, namely: Trust the guy making your pizza; he’s the expert. Garzzillo grew up in Connecticut, where the standard of Italian pizza has managed to be passed down through generations. When he moved to the South years ago, he couldn’t find anything close to what he had known as a kid and so started making his own pizza. He read recipes, experimented with toppings, and finally built his own stove, all in an effort to create the perfect pie. By the time he retired as a medical illustrator, he had it down to an art and was ready to open his own restaurant. For the last seven years Apizza di Napoli has been serving up authentic Neapolitan pizza. With thin crusts and high quality ingredients, these pizzas are best eaten with a fork and a knife, and the classics ordered as listed on the menu without substitutions or additions.
This doesn’t keep the pizzaiolos from experimenting with flavor combinations or offering American variations like The New Haven – a staple of New Haven, Conn. pizzarias, topped with tomato sauce, smoked provolone, mozzarella, and spices. The Vesuvius is an Apizza original topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, ricotta, salami, pepperoni, plus another crust. It comes out of the oven bubbling and steaming in all its volcanic pizza perfection. There are tons of options but the menu wouldn’t be complete without the Margherita, with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, parmesan, and fresh basil. According to tradition it was made for Queen Margherita of Savoy when she visited Naples and reflects the colors of the Italian flag – red, white, and green. This piece of history is one of the most popular at Apizza di Napoli. The Margherita is the closest you can come to Italy without having to buy a plane ticket.
SIP – Ubora Coffee
Science has never been my strong-suit – chemistry especially. But I can appreciate the complexities of it and the people who understand it. I’m not sure I understood how much chemistry is involved in the perfect cup of coffee until I was sitting there across from Andre Leon, owner of Ubora Coffee in downtown Augusta, the newest addition to the downtown scene, as he explained to me all the intricacies of the perfect pour. My absolute favorite thing about interviewing cafe and restaurant owners is listening to their passion. Leon’s excitement is clear as he tells me about all the different aspects of coffee. Where the beans are grown matters and what altitude they’re grown at. How long those beans are roasted matters. How finely they’re ground matters. How much water there is, what temperature it’s at, and how long that water spends flowing over the grounds matters. Everything is “temperature controlled, timed, and scaled.”
And I must concede, it is one of the absolute best cups of coffee I have ever had. I probably couldn’t explain the chemistry myself but as someone who drinks a lot of the stuff, I can say it truly is a work of art and science. “Excellence in every cup” is their motto and if it’s not perfect, it’s remade. Even the name – Ubora – means excellence in Swahili.
Leon and his business partner, Phillip Weisner, are active duty military and realized their mutual love of coffee when they were both stationed in Maryland. With some solid roasting experience and great business sense thrown in, they opened Ubora and started selling roasted whole beans first. So if you can’t make it into the shop, or aren’t local, you can order their beans online and even sign up on a subscription basis if you’re as obsessed as I am.
Local Augustans have the privilege to walk right into the cafe downtown on Jones Street (directly behind Mellow Mushroom) and get a perfectly brewed cup or freshly roasted beans in person. The early 20th century building has been renovated into a comfortable and open space that retains much of its industrial charm. So whether you’re in need of a new place to study, wanting to meet up with friends, or are just in desperate need of a fabulous-tasting, brewed-to-scientific-perfection cup-of-joe, Ubora is my newest recommendation.
Artisan – Chinaberry Foods
As a non-native Augustan I love learning more and more about Southern culture and the things that make Augusta special. I first learned of Chinaberry Foods when given some of their cheese straws as part of a Christmas basket and immediately fell in love. I’d had cheese straws before but these were easily a step above the rest with just enough flavor and bite to give them a good kick that wasn’t so overwhelming as to keep me from reaching down into that bag over and over again. I just had to drive out there and find out their story (and maybe purchase some more cheese straws while I was at it).
I instantly fell in love with the charm of the building that Chinaberry Foods calls home. Passed down from Tommy Samuels’ father who had owned a country store across the street in the early 1900s, the Southern charm is evident in the white painted siding and wide front porch complete with rockers. It’s right off of I-20 at exit 175, making it incredibly convenient when passing through on the way to Atlanta. That said, 80 percent of their sales are processed online. They can ship all over the country and of course locally for those who can’t make it out to the shop in Thompson. With their ability to customize labeling as well, they fill tons of orders for corporate gifts, wedding favors, and caterers plus other brick-and-mortar stores around the country.
What people may not know is that in addition to their famous, small batch cheese straws, Chinaberry also offers a selection of other unique products from Georgia and around the world, making it easy to create the perfect gift basket. Whether you need a single basket for a hostess gift or 500+ for customers or wedding guests, Chinaberry can package and ship them for you, filled with unique products like Spicy Southern Squeal BBQ Sauce, Blackberry Pepper Jelly, Lil’ Devil Ghost Pepper Sauce, Southern Peach Pecan Preserves, and Big Tom’s Bloody Mary Mix. Of course their cheese straws, made and packaged by hand using their secret recipe, are always available in different sizes and both a spicy and mild version. As the company continues to grow, Tommy’s insistence on quality stands strong, making Chinaberry Foods cheese straws just as yummy from batch to batch, whether you’re buying a special snack for yourself or feeding an army.
Some people are confused by the shape of the cheese “straws” at Chinaberry Foods. Though traditionally piped and baked in the shape of a straw, Tommy Samuels recognized that the shape was prone to breakage when shipped in the mail. He had his own cheese straw “gun” designed, much like a gigantic cookie press, and a cutter that creates perfect squares to fit neatly into their boxes, making them both unique and easy to ship safely.
Article appears in the February/March 2019 issue of Augusta Magazine.