Canton's Verde tops the heap of new pizzerias

Baltimore has been experiencing a pizza renaissance in the past few years. Pizza joints have been popping up around the city like the blistered bubbles on a well-made crust. Not only is there an influx of pizza-centric palazzos, but they are peeling off top-quality pies that would make a homesick Italian smile. The latest in this lengthening line of pizzerias might just be the greatest thus far.

Verde Pizza Napoletana (641 S. Montford Ave., [410] 522-1000, in Canton has been renovated from the husk of what used to be a restaurant called Birches. The inside has been transformed by husband-and-wife owners Marianne Kresevich and Edward Bosco into a bright and open space that is at once old-fashioned yet contemporary. The marble tiles on the floors and walls lend a hard frame to all of the rich, warm wood that fills and accents the space. A reclaimed wooden wall in the dining room flows into a row of tinted concrete-backed benches that nudge your eyes toward the wood-burning oven that is the flaming heart of Verde. This coal-bellied monster runs at around 900 degrees and cooks the food fed into its mouth in a matter of seconds.

The menu at Verde is short, and the pizza sections are broken into categories of red and white for ease of ordering. The Sorrentina pizza ($12) is a white pizza that redefined for us what a pizza should taste like. Smoked buffalo mozzarella gave smokiness and depth while basil added a floral note that was sharpened by lemon sliced so thinly that it was see-through. The lemon undergoes a transformation when cooked and its inherent bitterness is blunted to let the true flavor shine and transform simple ingredients into something special. The dough used at Verde is flavorful and the oven gives it crispness and a slight char that makes even the cornicione, the puffy edge of the pizza, a pleasure to eat. Another successful presentation was the pistacchio e salsiccia ($16). A pistachio pesto is the base for fior di latte mozzarella, basil, pecorino romano, and finely ground sausage. It was completed for us by the red pepper flakes and fresh grated parmesan that Verde serves as a side seasoning for its pizzas (none of that green-can junk parm here). While good for a few bites, the padrino ($15) became a victim of overcrowding. The sopressata and the gaeta olives were rich and salty by themselves, but, when eaten together, overwhelmed the wonderful sauce and subtle caciocavallo ragusano cheese. If it were one or the other of these briny toppings, the pizza would be fantastic. The roasted olives ($5) are a delight to eat but are a bit of a puzzle. The mix of green and black olives, lemon, rosemary, and sage is a classic combination and it is delicious, but there is no indication that anything was roasted. If the olives were roasted and got a little blistering and charring going on, it would add flavor as well as a give a rustic acknowledgement that they came across fire. The soft little slices of bread that accompanied the olives were exactly what we wanted to sop up the emerald-green olive oil that anointed the dish.

Pizzas aren't the only dough-based creations at Verde. The calzone con prosciutto cotto ($16) was a mix of tomato sauce, artichokes, ricotta, prosciutto cotto, and parmigiano reggiano that was devoured quickly. The head-scratcher, oddly, was that it wasn't presented as a calzone as much as it was a pizza that had been smashed on all sides before cooking. It should have looked like a giant pocket of deliciousness but instead appeared like a silent scream of a pizza (that was delicious).

Verde features a rotating cast of Italian beers on tap and the Tipopils ($11) complemented all of our food with its floral, lemony, and bitter notes. If you're a fan of Peroni, think of this beer as its more experienced older brother. The bright and citrusy Falanghina ($9 a glass), a white wine, was mineral-forward with a back-end of alcohol. It also paired well with the crusty creations on the menu.

If you're not doughed-out by the end of your meal, the pizza con ricotta ($10) was a clean and simple dessert pizza that satisfied without being cloying. Soft ricotta was offset by toasted almond slivers and a charred crust with warm honey, giving it a sweet and earthy unctuousness. The blood orange sorbet ($6) cleaned and refreshed the palate and offered a light alternative to heavier dessert options.

Verde is not perfect, but it's also not just another beautiful restaurant with nothing to offer. Pizza, traditional Neapolitan pizza, is what they do and they do it better than an overwhelming majority of pizzerias in Baltimore. With a fine space in which to serve and the time to tweak their menu, Verde could potentially become the standard-bearer for pizza in Baltimore.

VERDE is open for dinner Tuesday and Wednesday 5-10 p.m., Thursday and Friday 5-11:30 p.m., Lunch and Dinner Saturday Noon to 11:30 p.m., and Sunday noon to 10 p.m.

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