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Brick's Neapolitan Pizza creates masterpieces of old-world flavor

The core Brick's Neapolitan Pizza staff around the restaurant's volcanic rock oven: from left, chef/pizzaiolo Walter Arias; co-owner/pizzaiolo Jess Mattice; co-owner Celina Mattice, and servers Shaunie Spedino and Kendrick Hulse.1 / 2
The core Brick's Neapolitan Pizza staff in the restaurant's dining room: servers Kendrick Hulse and Shaunie Spedino, front from left; chef/pizzaiolo Walter Arias; co-owner/pizzaiolo Jess Mattice; and and co-owner Celina Mattice. (Hudson Star-Observer photos by Chuck Nowlen)2 / 2

Naples, Italy is 5,000 miles away, but its heart, soul -- and above all, its 100-percent-natural, traditional old-world flavors -- are right here for lucky diners in downtown Hudson.

After all, Brick's Neapolitan Pizza is one of only a handful of US restaurants to be certified authentic by Naples' True Neapolitan Pizza Association -- or "Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana" -- which sets strict and demanding standards for hopefuls worldwide.

In other words, Brick's is to Hudson pizza what Puccini is to Italian opera.

"It's an old, old style here," notes Celina Mattice, who bought the Second Street restaurant with her husband Jess in January after working for original owners Kevin and Heidi Bordenave for six years.

Jess adds in an interview in the Brick's dining room last week: "It's been done this way in Italy since ancient times."

So you don't just get get mozzarella cheese on your pizza at Brick's; you get traditional hand-made "di bufala campana" mozzarella, which dates back to 12th-Century Italy.

And you don't just get tomatoes; you get AVPN-certified "San Marzano" tomatoes, first grown centuries ago in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius.

You also don't get pizza baked on a metal pan with gas or electric heat.

Instead, Brick's cooks its pizza masterpieces like traditional Neapolitan "pizzaiolos" did in the beginning -- on the stone surface of an authentic wood-fired, volcanic-rock oven.

The list goes on and on. The AVPN's 11 pages of ultra-detailed trademark specifications cover everything from the type of flour, yeast and salt used in the pizza dough to the fresh basil, oregano and other natural ingredients, as well as the entire cooking process.

The specifications even guide the temperature of the water used to make pizza dough and the types of wood used in the oven.

The AVPN, for example, recommends only "wood such as Oak, Ash, Beech and Maple," which do not "hold any moisture, smoke or produce odors that alter the aroma of the pizza in any way."

"Cooking time should not exceed 60-90 seconds," the association's specifications add.

Rigorous much?

Sure, say the Mattices -- but that makes all the difference in the world.

"I'm constantly hearing about how fresh our food is -- everything on the menu is made from scratch," says Celina.

"Our clientele is really quite passionate about the work we're doing here. New customers who come in are sometimes a little unsure about what to expect. But -- truly -- within the first few bites, we get smiles."

She adds: "It's very important to us that people feel welcome and important here, and that we get to know each other a bit while they're here. That's a huge part of the dining experience in Italy too."

Cold-sauce secret

Another key difference between American pizza and authentic "Verace Pizza Napoletana:" The sauce is never cooked with herbs and spices. That allows the fresh basil, oregano, mozzarella and other ingredients on the pizza itself to lead the taste dance on their own.

"Our sauce is just crushed tomatoes with Mediterranean sea salt that we mix with a blender and keep cold until we put it on the pizza right before it's cooked," notes Jess.

"The main focus of doing it that way is so the customer tastes every ingredient in the pizza individually. And that makes it a real food experience."

The same care, quality and diligence goes into the restaurant's equally fresh and authentic homemade antipasti, panini sandwiches, salads and dressings, tiramisu and chocolate vesuvius.

"This will always be a very comfortable and enjoyable dining experience that we all put a lot of effort into, says Celina.

"Our staff is amazing. They make this happen every day."

She adds, a little wistfully: "Plus, it always smells wonderful here, whether we're roasting garlic or baking bread. You never know exactly what the aroma will be, but it always smells delicious."

That starts with chef and pizzaiolo Walter Arias, who learned much of his craft at fine restaurants in New York City and went on to lead the Brick's kitchen for the Bordenaves for their entire 11 years as owners.

"The title 'pizzaiolo' is one of the most honored positions in Italy," Celina notes.

Arias trained Jess as a pizzaiolo and remains the kitchen's culinary sage.

Jess has also worked at restaurants in Eau Claire, the couple's hometown, since he was 15, and, later, in the Hudson area when both moved to River Falls.

Along the way, Jess has worked in every restaurant position imaginable, from dishwasher and server to chef/pizzaiolo and now co-owner.

"He's our guy," Jess says of Arias. "He makes 60 pounds of hand-made cheese a week. I know how to do it too, but somehow -- to me anyway -- his still seems to turn out a little better than anyone else's."

Celina also singles out servers Kendrick Hulse, Shaunie Spadino and the rest of the staff for special praise.

"They're so good and they work so hard," she says.

Celina, too, has worked in restaurants for most of her life -- first in Eau Claire and later in the Hudson area while pursuing her UW-River Falls art degree. She still works part-time at Seasons on St. Croix Gallery two doors away on Second Street.

Historical 'tidbits'

Brick's offers more than two dozen pizzas, from the simple Napaletane "Margherita" with mozzarella, crushed San Marzano tomatoes and fresh basil to the Bianche "Ricco" with fresh asparagus, bacon, red onions, parmesan, fresh mozzarella and a bit of cream.

Prices range from $9.50 to $16.

Jess notes of the Margherita: "It was created in the 1800s and named after Queen Margherita. It was the first time cheese was put on a pizza in Italy to represent the color white on the Italian flag."

Says Celina: "We love telling our customers about tidbits like that. We try to share the history of our pizza with them without overwhelming them if they're just here to eat."

The entire pizza menu can be customized with many other ingredients according to visitors' tastes. Gluten-free, ricotta-stuffed-crust and children's pizzas are also popular.

Brick's Neapolitan Pizza is open at 407 Second St., Mondays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. , and on Fridays and Saturdays until 10.

Beginning March 1, the restaurant will also be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.

Large groups are welcome with a reservation. Walk-in groups of up to 12 are no problem "as long as we can accommodate them on the spot," Celina says, adding:

"We think larger groups are kind of fun. For large groups, we recommend that you order several kinds of pizzas so you can pass them around and share."

Speaking of sharing, the Mattices emphasize that they're also big supporters of Hudson's wide variety of other pizza choices.

"We're not trying to compete with or compare ourselves with American-style pizza. Everybody here has their own special style, and we're creating ours, too, every day," Celina says.

"In the end, it's all pizza. There's always something about pizza that's a comfort."

For the full menu, go to the soon-to-be-updated Brick's Neapolitan Pizza website -- www.eatbricks.com -- or, for reservations or other information, call (715) 377-7670. 

Chuck Nowlen

Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.

(715) 808-8286
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