The cult of Neapolitan pizza rises on Stuart Street

DeSano Pizza Bakery is located at 94 Stuart St.

DeSano Pizza Bakery ran a creative ad campaign in advance of the opening of its second pizza bakery: the pizza pies noted "ricotta" with arrows of red, green and white pointing to white mounds of cheese on a stylized pizza, not "regatta" lettered under a fleet of sailboats; and bufala, the cheese, not buffalo the animal. The ads got your attention as the pizza bakery took shape on the spacious lot at Nassau and Stuart streets.

The pizza bakery's roots run short to Atlanta, where Scott DeSano purchased the concept of Antico Pizza Napoletano with plans to create a pizza franchise. He changed the name to DeSano Pizza Bakery and began the process of modern culinary re-enactment. And repetition.

Location No. 1 opened in Nashville, Tenn.; sister pizzeria No. 2 opened in September in Charleston. Next up is Los Angeles.

Prices are consistent in both Nashville and Charleston and, closer to home, they are in alignment with Vespa on Daniel Island, EVO in North Charleston, Monza in downtown Charleston and La Pizzeria in Mount Pleasant. There is price fluctuation among the larger pies and the four size options offered at La Pizzeria.

DeSano subscribes to the quality standards established by the VPN (the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) in 1984 in Naples, Italy. The association's stated goal is to protect the "verace pizza Napoletana" and "promote and protect affiliated pizzerias and products." Twenty-five countries have VPN-certified pizzerias. To date, no Charleston pizzeria is VPN certified.

The criteria are stringent: 11 pages of culinary dicta that must be upheld before you can call your pizza "verace" or true. This primitive hearth flatbread has come a long way from the ancient street carts that produced folds of dough with tomatoes and cheese baked in wood-fired carts along the streets of Naples.

VPN calls out for a specific species of yeast, saccharomyces cerevisiae, an ancient variety used in brewing and baking. They regulate the speed at which the dough must form (10 minutes) and the length of time it must be mixed (20 minutes). Water must maintain the dough at a pH of 5.87 and the tomatoes must be the San Marzano-type grown in a designated agricultural zone of Campania. A little leniency is extended to cheese: mozzarella di bufala Campania, D.O.P. or mozzarella S.T.G.

The pizzas must be cooked in dome-shaped ovens that are wood-fueled and, yes, even the wood types are called out. A perfect pie should cook in 90 seconds.

To their credit, the DeSano operation adheres to many of the rules. Go to the website, www.desanopizza, to read in detail about how the restaurant crafts its Pizza Napoletana. They may not be VPN certified, but they definitely embrace the cult of authenticity.

DeSano is set up as a bakery operation. There is the service counter where orders are placed; there is the proofing room where the San Felice doppio zero flour sacks are stacked in a humidity- controlled proofing room with large jugs of Primo water. Carmelina tomatoes, dehydrated Mediterranean sea salt and fresh bufala mozzarella cheese (flown in from Italy) affirm the franchises' commitment to this ancient flatbread of Naples. The menu is vigorous in what it will allow. Call it conceit or attitude, the specialita pizzas come as they are.

For the uninitiated, the pizza of Naples is a soft pizza; the finely milled "double zero" flour tenderizes the dough. It is not a bread-like Sicilian pie or Chicago deep-dish pizza; it is not snappy like New York-style pizza and it is never saturated with excess toppings.

The tomato sauce is pure veneer; the cheese and oil, patina. The crust is the sacred slab that transports ingredient simplicity to sublime eating. In Naples, the pizza is not cut and the sauce, oil and cheese puddle into "pizza soup" in the middle. Some are off-put by this liquidity. Think of it a pizza juice and dip the crust of a Margherita into it.

DeSano has named their ovens for saints: San Gennaro (a bishop and the patron saint of Naples), San Paolini and San Felice. These pizza infernos are centrally positioned in the bakery and at times the pizzaiolos, or pizza makers, need some divine intervention. We have had pizza scorched by the heat, split by the peel or served so quickly that the ingredients were deprived of melding and melting. To their credit, the staff quickly repaired or replaced the recalcitrant pies.

The dining space is sparse in decor, atmosphere and ambiance. The model for the DeSano franchise, Antico Pizza, is similarly bare but the space is not as cavernous or industrial in its proportions.

Keeping with the bakery theme, the pies are brought out on sheet pans. The cutlery and cups are plastic, the napkins are paper towels and stacks of pizza boxes are conveniently available for your leftovers.

The salads have not received as much thought as the pizzas. Served in clear plastic clamshells, they are cumbersome to eat and haphazardly arranged. Elements such as these brought home the fact that this is a franchise, one that is looking for reproducible results, speed, simplicity and immediacy. There is a disconnect between the desire to honor the integrity of Neapolitan pizza and the attention paid to ingredients and ovens and the salads, wines and beers served - even the knives and forks.

The Margherita pizza remains my favorite, just not with garlic. The brief baking in the pleasure dome of heat and smoke is insufficient to soften the garlic so I ask that it be left off. The broccoli rabe has the same fate. This toothsome vegetable of fall and winter needs a thorough blanching before it can adorn a pizza or stuff a calzone; otherwise its fibrous texture is no match for the tender crust of pizza or sandwich.

The lasagna specialty pizza earns high marks for its flavor composition, with bits of meatballs, ricotta and tangy pecorino and excellent bufala mozzarella that convert an Italian pasta favorite into a delicious pizza topping.

The mozzarella at DeSano is the best in town. It acts as an emulsifier, bringing rich flavor and creaminess to every pizza it tops.

Their plush calzones are quite filling and the generous side of marinara assures every bite a bit of red unction.

The pedigree of the ingredients does not come cheap. Be prepared for what that does to the cost of a pizza and you will not be disappointed.

DeSano honors the spirit of the Neapolitan pizza. The wood-fueled ovens demand skilled pizzaiolos, an expertise that comes with time and practice. But knowing when to kiss the pizza to the top of the dome requires more than a prayer to San Gennaro. When DeSano masters these, well, its pies may be truly "apizz."