Cappello Pizzeria

79 Darling Street Balmain East, NSW 2041

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Opening hours Tue-Sat 6pm-10pm; Sun, 5pm-9pm; Fri and Sun, noon-3pm
Phone 02 9555 1333

A newcomer is chasing a slice of the action.

People will go a long way for pizza. They will brave Soup Nazi-style rules, banning half-and-half combos and anything with pineapple, if it holds out the promise of a crisper, lighter pizza base.

Fanatics who come to fisticuffs over whether Pizza Republic betters Pizza Mario think nothing of crossing suburbs, perhaps even continents, to get just the right level of char on their crust.

Food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, of American Vogue, became slightly unhinged when he decided to make the perfect pizza at home. In an effort to reach the same oven temperature as his favourite pizzeria - 480 degrees - he poured nine kilograms of charcoal into a barbecue, opened all the air vents and watched with joy as it got so hot the paint peeled off and the electrical cord - and the barbecue cover he had inadvertently left nearby - melted.

This mattered not when, from the plumes of black smoke, emerged a single, delightfully crisp pizza.

Happily, we needn't go so far. In June last year, Cappello Pizzeria opened on the main street in Balmain East, at the site formerly housing Sojourn and Duke's Lane. The chef, Ervin Mahilaj, was born in Albania but made his way to the peninsula via stints as a pizza chef in Milan and Naples and six years at Napoli in Bocca, in Haberfield.

He's fond of hats, hence the name (Italian for hat). And hence one of the most surprising artworks I've seen in a restaurant for some time: an arrangement of nine canvas squares, four stuck with black hats, the remaining five stuck with what look like black place mats. Interesting.

The rest of Cappello attains a moody chic, with not a single pizza-house cliche in sight. Forget red-and-white checks: it's all gently glowing sandstone walls, sleek over-sized light shades and black tablecloths. The only thing to remind you of the cuisine is the soft babble of Italian flowing from the kitchen and of course the large wood-fired oven at the back.

The pizza is very good: thin and light, it bends appealingly under the weight of the super-stretchy mozzarella. Toppings are high quality and applied sparingly - try the diavola, with pepperoni, basil and chilli, or the double-smoked leg ham and mushroom.

Cappello deserves its brisk trade in takeaway pizzas but it's the other items on the menu that lift the dine-in experience to restaurant quality. The antipasto is gorgeous: the eggplant and zucchini crisp and redolent of the chargrill; the prosciutto so tender it's silky.

Pappardelle with veal ragu is just as accomplished, the rich sauce glistening nicely on fat ribbons of pasta. They don't overdo the Italian thing in the service, which is welcoming and smart without any theatrical ''buon appetitos''.

Desserts are made by Mahilaj's mother-in-law, Louise Payne, who does a nice line in creme brulee and chocolate roulade. We're there with kids - note to parents: there are no high chairs - so it's hard to go past the gelato. It's brought in from Gelatomassi, in Newtown, and the morsels we steal are most satisfying.

I don't know that Cappello edges out Balmain's long-time favourite pizzeria, Rosso Pomodoro, with its frenetic, family-friendly vibe.

But if you're after something calmer, then Cappello is the place for you. Hats off.