Three years ago, Giovanni Gagliardi left Naples, Italy, for Las Vegas, to compete in the International Pizza Challenge, representing the “International Region” of foreign competing countries.
Gagliardi, known in the pizza world as “La Leggenda” — or “The Legend,” placed second in the competition’s Traditional Division.
“I came to market the flour that we use for pizza in Naples,” Gagliardi said. “I was only initially supposed to be here for a couple of months.”
But he has not returned to Italy, and last year, Gagliardi was hired as the pizzaiolo for Ironside Pizza, a new restaurant in Little River.
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West of Biscayne Boulevard near Northeast 76th Street, amid a hodgepodge of warehouses, art galleries and residences, the business complex where the pizzaria is enclosed gets its name from the stretch of Florida East Coast Railway that runs behind it.
Ironside Pizza is headed by the same group that owns Toscana Divino — a restaurant in The Shops at Mary Brickell Village.
As a member of Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, an international association of pizza makers, Gagliardi has traveled from Italy to Spain to Norway and Croatia, and now in Miami, promoting “pizza napoletana” — a style of pizza native to Naples.
And next week, he will be competing at the International Pizza Challenge again in Las Vegas, but now as a representative of Ironside Pizza. The competition runs Tuesday through Thursday.
“Pizza started off as something that the poor would eat in Italy. They’d put some cheese and tomatoes on dough, and that’s what they would eat,” Gagliardi said. “Now pizza is an international industry.”
“Pizza napoletana” is made from San Marzano tomatoes, which grow in the plains to the South of Mount Vesuvius. The cheese used in pizza napoletana is mozzarella di bufala. Through sponsors, Gagliardi has these ingredients shipped from Italy.
“It’s a kind of pizza where you can eat one or two and not get full,” Gagliardi said. “The ingredients and the quality of the pizza make it light.”
The dough, according to the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, an organization that proposes rules for verifying the authenticity of pizza napoletana, consists of salt, water, wheat flower and Neopolitan yeast. The dough is kneaded by hand and placed in a wood-burning oven for 60-90 seconds.
There are two main types of pizza napoletana: margherita and marinara. The margherita is made with the San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala. The marinara is a cheeseless pizza, made with tomato sauce, oregano and chopped garlic.
“Pizza is like a religion to us, so we treat it like one,” Gagliardi said. “No disrespect to others and how they make their pizza, but the real pizza from Naples is what we make.”
Jeffrey Maxfield, chef de cuisine of Ironside Pizza, helped Gagliardi transform the small pizza kitchen with an oven into the café-style restaurant it is today.
“I didn’t know him, but I knew of him,” said Maxfield, 27. “When you’re talking about a pizza dough, something that only has yeast, salt, flour and water, everything matters. What he does is so good. He just needed a canvas.”
The restaurant’s manager, Matteo Marini, remembers how different Ironside Pizza was less than a year ago when Gagliardi was working in the pizza kitchen by himself.
“It was not what you see now. We got robbed and stolen from. We had these awful white hospital chairs. It was ugly,” said Marini, 40. “But we saw that the place had potential. It’s still a work in progress.”
The pizzeria was first named Pittzza at Iron Side before Maxfield and the new owners became involved in the business.
Maxfield said that since the restaurant’s renovations and rebranding, it has experienced growth in number of sales and customers.
“Where the restaurant used to do 10 pizzas, now we do 10 pizzas within the first 20 minutes,” he said.
Gagliardi comes from a family of pizza makers. His father made pizza. His mother made pizza. His grandfather made pizza. One of his brothers owns a pizzeria, while another operates a pizza food truck, both in Italy.
Gagliardi’s wife and two children, Pascuale, 14, and Federica, 9, are still in Italy. He plans to bring them in June to Miami, where “The Legend” is already making history.
Last week, Charlie and Georgee Kluck, a Miami Shores couple, 70 and 56, visited Ironside Pizza for the second time.
“The food is fresh and we love the atmosphere, with the open windows. It’s very relaxing,” Georgee Kluck said. “We love patronizing places like this.”
The restaurant does not yet have a license to sell liquor, but Ironside Pizza lets customers bring their own bottles of wine – without a corkage fee.
If you go
▪ What: Ironside Pizza
▪ Where: 7580 NE Fourth Ct., Miami
▪ Hours: Noon to 11 p.m.
▪ Price: $8 to $18
▪ Parking: Along the roadway on Northeast Fourth Court. There is also a parking lot located to the north of the restaurant. It’s free during the week, and $5 on the weekends and during special events.
▪ For more information, visit pizzaironside.com or call (305) 531-5055.