Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
About three years ago, we originally were planning to have lunch at Fête in Chinatown but for some reason, they were closed on a Saturday at noon. We then walked to the next establishment, Brick Fire Tavern, as I read many good reviews about their pizza pies. And not surprisingly, their white pizza was excellent but they also had tasty cocktails and a very good chopped salad, which Ms. S always orders if it’s on the menu. But low and behold, they also had a VPN or Vera Pizza Napoletana certification awarded to them in 2018, and today, Brick Fire Tavern is the only VPN-certified pizzeria in Hawai‘i. In fact, there are only 95 VPN-certified pizzerias in the U.S., scattered throughout 32 states.
L’Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana
Created in June 1984 and based in Napoli, Italy, the association was created to standardize, promote and protect true Neapolitan pizza. The regulations include everything from the type of flour used, the size of the pizza, the oven temperature, acceptable toppings and the duration of cooking. In fact, there is a 21-page guide you can download from the association with all of the particulars. And perchance you do receive the precious VPN certification, members of the association can make unannounced visits to your pizzeria to make sure you are still following the VPN guidelines.
Brick Fire Tavern
Back in 2015, Matthew Resich and his late fiancé, Inthira Marks, traveled to Naples, Italy, to train under master pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia, one of the founding members of the L’Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. Upon returning, they opened Brick Fire Tavern in 2016 complete with a custom-built Stefano Ferrara wood-fired oven. Then in 2018, they received their VPN certification and were in the process of expanding to a second location in 2019 … until the pandemic. During the shutdowns, they decided to move Brick Fire Tavern to the second location off Wai‘alae Avenue and shutter the original location. Resich then partnered with a couple of fellow Chinatown restaurateurs and reincarnated the original location to Pizza Mamo featuring both Detroit and Brooklyn style pies; though Ms. S and I decided to pay a visit to the newer location in Kaimukï.
Negroni Week and Pizza
OK, I’ll fess up. Pizza wasn’t the real reason for another visit to Brick Fire Tavern. It was because Brick Fire Tavern was one of three O‘ahu restaurants participating in the annual Negroni Week (held from Sept. 12-18). For the past 10 years, Imbibe magazine and Campari have partnered, setting aside one week a year where participating restaurants donate a percentage of their negroni sales to a designated charity (this year’s beneficiary is Slow Food), and it just so happens that Brick Fire Tavern had four negroni specials for the week. Over the past nine years, over $3 million has been raised for charitable organizations during these annual week-long events. It’s always nice to know I can enjoy a libation for a good cause.
The negroni supposedly was created by bartender Fosco Scarselli in the early 1900s for Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni in place of the count’s usual Americano when the count requested a stronger libation. Gin was substituted for club soda plus the usual Campari and vermouth and the cocktail was garnished with an orange peel instead of Americano’s usual lemon peel. The basic negroni usually has a base liquor – the standard is gin though variants use various whisky or tequila. It also has a bitter component with Campari in the basic negroni though variants include almost every type of amaro (bittersweet liqueur) and finally a sweet component – red vermouth in the original, though again, almost every type of fortified wine is used. I sampled my first negroni well over 30 years ago at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley, California, and haven’t stopped since then. However, due to the bracing bitterness of Campari, it’s not a libation for everyone, at least not with the first sip but it can grow on your palate.
Brick Fire Tavern’s Negroni Specials:
Angel on the Boulevard
Angel’s Envy | Amaro Angeleno | Punt e Mes | Cinnamon Maple
Bourbon based with a pleasing balance of bittersweet, sweet and warm savory spices – the best negroni variant for the day
Strega | Basil Eau de Vie | Blanc Vermouth
An immediate hit of herbal bitterness rounded the licorice qualities of basil – the runner-up negroni variant for the day
Party Mom Negroni
Seedlip Grove | Giffards Apertif | Crodino Aperitivo
Surprisingly, very negroni-like but with zero alcohol and actually came in 3rd place
Grapefruit Campari | Coconut | Mezcal | Cava
A little disjointed with flavors all over the map therefore it came in 4th place
Our starters included the Burrata and Beets, which was a great savory salad with roasted beets and creamy burrata (think very creamy mozzarella) garnished with crumbled pistachios for a pleasing crunch, refreshing orange supremes, the perfect amount of acid, with the white balsamic glaze. The Smoked Fish Crostini, (which was reminiscent of 12th Ave Grill’s smoked tuna spread that you can find at R. Fields) had thinly sliced pickled fennel and capers, with just enough acidity to cut through the chili aioli with peppery fresh arugula, all served on toasted Breadshop City bread. We then sampled the pizza featured on their lunchtime pre-fixe menu with a white sauce, charred local greens, fresh tomato confit, red onions and pancetta though my favorite is still their crust – VPN regulations require pizza dough pressed down to 0.25 centimeters (with only a 10% variation) likely so it cooks within 90 seconds but the outer edges are still nice and chewy with just a little char.
We previously sampled the carbonara pizza – also topped with a white sauce flecked with chopped pancetta then drizzled with a runny egg yolk after the pizza was removed from the oven. In both cases, Brick Fire Tavern uses minimal toppings as they want to highlight the dough – after all, fermentation of the dough takes up to 96 hours. However, Ms. S did let me know that she would also like to try their fresh pasta and risotto dishes as well as their regular cocktail list at a future visit since I was adamant about sampling just negroni on this day…
Brick Fire Tavern, 3447 Wai‘alae Avenue, 808-379-2430. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Sunday 5-10 p.m.; closed on Mondays. Please, click here to learn more: restaurantji.com/hi/honolulu/brick-fire-tavern-/
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet” (nichi-bei.org/columns/gochiso-gourmet/).