Fire in the Belly

Fire in the BellyFire in the BellyFire in the BellyFire in the Belly

O wner Dan Parillo is manning the wood-fired oven at his State Street pizzeria Da Legna. He’s got myriad duties to perform or oversee, but he seems most comfortable here in the kitchen, making signature pizzas and small plates, and trying out new recipe ideas.

“Smell this,” he says, removing a Funghi pizza from the hot oven; wild mushrooms and burrata cheese are topped with ricotta cream and a drizzle of truffle oil. The pie does indeed warrant a sniff; it smells earthy, pungent, intoxicating.

Then he hands me a concoction he’s created that day, not on the menu (not yet, anyway): a quesadilla of sorts, with creamy ricotta and roasted vegetables  sandwiched between his signature pizza dough, created from a sourdough starter. It’s chewy and crunchy, with tasty blackened spots on the bottom thanks to intense cooking heat. Da Legna, literally meaning “from wood,” is a nod to the importance of the wood-fired oven.

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Fire is usually friend here, but it can also be foe. Parillo, formerly owner and chef at Pizzeria Portofino in Madison, runs the restaurant with the help of his managers and friends Dave Foster, who was behind the now-closed Foster’s restaurant on Orange Street, and Derek Bacon. The three initially took the reins at D’Amato’s, an already-established pizza place, in 2011, but a fire in January 2012 closed the business for a year, before it reopened as Da Legna.

Good thing, too, because the artisanal pizza is standout, and the selection of small plates help round things out. You can create your own pie, but try ordering off the menu first; you’ll find something to suit your taste. The Vongole Casino is topped with onion, green peppers, farmland bacon, just-shucked clams and fresh mozzarella. The Capricciossa includes prosciutto, wild mushroom, artichoke hearts, oil-cured olives and more fresh mozz. For something totally different, try the Barbecue di Maiale: BBQ pulled pork, mashed potato, roasted corn off the cob and cheddar cheese.

The restaurant is also remarkable for its robust vegan and gluten-free selection. Gluten-free crust is available with every pizza, and there are currently seven vegan pies listed on the menu, topped with combinations of vegan mozzarella, meatball, chicken and sausage alternatives, and various roasted veggies. You can build your own from these ingredients as well.

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Small plates make up a good deal of the rest, and range from the familiar, like Pasta Fagioli Soup and Baked Penne, to the unexpected, like the Duck Bolognese, which is tossed with scallion gnocchi. For a simple, tasty start to your meal, try the Brussels Sprouts, which are roasted in the wood-fired oven with bacon, onions and aged balsamic vinegar. They’re acidic, with a bit of crunch, and a little addicting.

Foster, who designed most of the menu, says he and his compatriots wanted to make Da Legna “accessible.” None of the small plates run over $9 and the standard pizzas are a reasonable $15 for a small and $21 for a large. The restaurant is accommodating to different people with different missions, comprised of a take-out entrance, a narrow but cozy bar and a large dining room equipped to seat groups large and small, and welcomes children.

Foster even suggested I bring my own kids along for our visit. Upon arriving, Parillo invited them into the kitchen to make their own pizzas, which they happily devoured while he and I chatted, clarifying through action that children aren’t just welcome in the perfunctory sense.

Ultimately, of course, it’s about the food. “We just love cooking,” says Parillo. His parents, originally from Caserta, Italy, ignited that passion. He grew up watching his mom cook, as well as taking family trips abroad to the original family farm. He says he’s been working on perfecting his pizza dough since he was 13.

Having cinched that recipe, he continues experimenting in other ways around the kitchen. “When I get here in the morning, the sky’s the limit,” Parillo says.

Da Legna
858 State St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Wed, Sun 11am-11pm, Thurs-Sat 11am-midnight
(203) 495-9999
www.dalegna.com

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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Cara McDonough has been a journalist for over ten years. She writes regularly about family, parenting, religion and other issues for The Huffington Post and chronicles daily life on her personal blog. She lives in New Haven with her husband, two children and two dogs.

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