We’d recently been a on a roll, discovering a Thai and a Chinese restaurant that both leapt to the top of our favorites lists for those cuisines. So we decided to go for a trifecta, adding good ol’ American food — pizza. We cheated, though, by finally getting around to check out Neo.
It was hardly a gamble, since word is out that one of their pizzas was voted the best among 40 competitors in the Northeast Region Pizza Challenge in Atlantic City this past September. Yes, that’s the northeastern United States, and no, New York City has not been relocated. The 12 judges of the Pizza Today trade magazine contest decided that Neo Pizza, a tiny 17-seat place in the wilds of Cranston, made a better pie than can be found on Mulberry Street in Manhattan. According to the magazine, judging was based on “taste, appearance, creativity, marketability, practicality, etc.”
The folks at Neo were pleased, too. As you enter, you see a wonderful photograph of the proud proprietors, Charlie Adamonis Jr. and wife Peggy, exploding into a hug when their triumph was announced.
The paper takeout menu you’re handed upon arrival declares that they make “Handcrafted neoclassical, Neo-politan pies.” Two faux marble classical half-columns, “supporting” painted vases, bracket the counter. It’s cute, but also a hint that Adamonis has the Platonic ideal of the Perfect Pizza flickering somewhere in his imagination. A forthcoming space expansion, and the addition of a wine and beer license, will improve the situation.
Neo offers calzones and sandwiches, but the longer list is of the pies, 12-inch and 16-inch, priced from $6.25 to $14.75, with white or whole-wheat crust. You can construct your own, adding toppings to a template with tomato sauce, or a white version with olive oil, garlic and herbs, and three cheeses. Most people will defer to those wiser, of course, picking from the 19 combinations formulated by the resident professionals. Some of the names are a bit twee, such as “Arruda” Wakening (diced chicken under Buffalo hot sauce and crumbled blue cheese), and Say “Grace” (starting with breaded eggplant). But most are as serious as a hunger pang, such as the Anthony, with extra cheese and extra pepperoni.
But we came for the Gian ($11.75-$13.75), the pizza that won the fame and garlands. The five of us at the table idled our appetites over a Neo salad ($3.75, $2 more with grilled chicken), whose balsamic vinaigrette was mercifully under-vinegared. Eventually, out it came, placed by our friendly counter server on a wrought iron stand. The Gian is a white pizza topped with pancetta, spinach, and a three-cheese blend, plus garlic and herbs fried in olive oil. It’s as flavorful as it sounds. The white crust we chose was thin and tasty on its own. Among other things, I appreciated how, rather than evenly distributed ingredients into homogenized bites, the components were applied in dollops here and there, even the cheese.
Their signature pizza, the Neo ($12.75-$14.75), is a contender as well. Both that fact and its price (higher than pizzas with meat items) surprise me, considering the Neo’s simplicity. It’s a simple red version, topped with black olives, mozzarella, and strips of fresh basil, with halved grape tomatoes studding the tomato sauce. That last ingredient — called “Neo sauce,” as though it’s a reinvention — was the best part for me, beautifully balancing sweetness and acidity. The Margarita pizza ($7.75-$9.75) might be a better deal, price-wise, encouraging a splurge on extra toppings.