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The Barlow: Taste the Art of Pizza at Vignette

At Vignette in Sebastopol, chef-owner Mark Hopper doesn’t toss pizza dough high in the air, putting on a show. He doesn’t slice the pizzas unless we ask, but serves the 12-inch pies whole, so we can tear them with our hands like is done in Italy. And he doesn’t use just any oven, but a Stefano Ferrara wood-burning oven, topped in shiny blue tile and imported from Naples.

That’s just what you do when you specialize in Neapolitan style pizzas, producing a thin crust that’s bubble-charred at the edges in a 900-degree oven. There’s real art and precision in getting the balance of chewy dough that’s a bit soft in the middle, based on imported Italian flour and topped with goodies such as imported Italian tomatoes, mozzarella and meats.

When Vignette debuted at The Barlow culinary arts center on Hwy. 12 in July, it was a departure for Hopper, who established his name as executive chef of casual dining for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, then, most recently, as executive chef at Farmshop Marin. He was well versed in sourcing local ingredients, and working with artisan purveyors for rustic Cal-Mediterranean cooking styles. But this was his first eatery, and he wisely kept things small, with a brief menu offering a handful of seasonal antipasti, pizza, desserts, craft beers and wines, including a few boutique Italian labels.

Flash forward five months. The menu is just as brief, the industrial-chic space is just as intimate, offering 60 seats in the freestanding, modern barn building and on the patio. But the buzz is big.

It’s taken a little while for Vignette to get into its groove. The first time I stopped in, the pizzas were good, but not great. My companion and I shared what sounded incredible on paper: The Red Eye pretty toped in Calabrian chile pesto, local eggs, fresh mozzarella, charred mortadella and grana padano ($17). Yet the pie tasted mostly of the hot pepper, the mortadella was akin to burned chunks of bacon, and we nibbled about half before pushing it away.

The Meatball Parm was much more satisfying, decorated in juicy Corbari tomatoes, button-size housemade meatballs, Parmigiano Reggiano, mozzarella and garlic ($19). Still, though, it all came together in a bit of bland.

More recent visits found a more exciting experience. Whatever tweaks he made, Hopper is now on his game, and seasonings are bolder, flavors are better balanced, and it all creates the kind of dining I’d hoped for. The mood feels good, too, boasting activity around the centerpiece oven as we watch each dish made to order, absorb the energy of chattering diners, and people watch from the patio with surrounding lawns, a fire pit, and the adjacent bakery, juicery, and liquid nitrogen ice cream parlor.

While it’s pleasing enough to enjoy an entire pizza solo, this is more a graze and share kind of place. Peperoni cruschi (rhymes with sushi) is a fantastic start, bringing a surprisingly delicious pile of dried chile peppers that have been flash fried then finished with excellent olive oil and sea salt ($8). Glossy and light like kale chips, they’re addictive with earthy pepper notes and just a hint of spicy heat.

If it’s kale you really want, the Cacio e Pepe ($10) brightens up the sometimes tasteless green in a tasty chop with Peppadew peppers, smoked mozzarella, crunchy toasted walnuts and dollops of thick Greek yogurt. An extra two bucks adds a fried egg, and it’s a lovely extra touch, as the soft yolk makes a golden dressing. In another interesting twist, Hopper tosses roasted Brussels sprouts with dates, adding a sweet, chewy aspect ($10).

While the menu remains short and simple, there are interesting notes here and there, like the Manhattan, a clam chowder inspired pie with San Marzano tomatoes, chopped clams, garlic, mozzarella, oregano and chile oil ($18). The success is in the good clams, meaty and clean, and just the right amount of fiery chile oil.

An Alfredo pie, on the other hand, has too much going on for my taste buds, in a busy mélange of garlic cream, roasted mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, butternut squash, sage and sea salt. I’d rather focus on the uncomplicated tomatoes, basil, olive oil and grana padano plus the excellent, handcrafted mozzarella with the traditional Margherita pie ($16) – Hopper is now using real mozzarella di bufala from real Italian water buffalo at Petaluma’s own Ramini Mozzarella.

Hopper’s heart seems to be in his desserts, as well. With four choices usually on offer, it’s an ambitious list that’s worthy of a much larger restaurant. A big, wood fired chocolate chip cookie is soul satisfying ($5), sipped with a Saint Frank espresso ($3.50), but the most marvelous finish is the pizzelle cannoli, a whisper thin, lacy cookie topped with creamy fresh ricotta, candied fruits and grated chocolate ($6).

All so simple, all so special.

Details: Vignette, 6750 McKinley St., (The Barlow), Sebastopol, 707-861-3897, vignettepizzeria.com. Hours: noon to 10 p.m. daily.

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