A lot of U.S. companies sell wood-burning pizza ovens, but every once in a while you hear of a young chef who insists on buying a handcrafted oven from Naples, the birthplace of pizzas. It's a clear indication that the chef is serious about what he or she is doing. Such is the case of chef James Lewis, whose passion for Italian food goes well beyond his Neapolitan pizza oven and the authentic, beautifully blistered thin-crust pizzas it produces.
Bettola, the restaurant he owns in Birmingham, AL, is an expression of his love for the cuisine of sun-soaked Campania, the region where Naples lies. Lewis uses flours, cheeses and tomatoes from there, and he's also established a network of Alabama farmers who supply him with top-grade ingredients, including produce grown from seeds originating in Italy. His desire to showcase authentic Italian food borders on obsession, but once you eat his pillowy, melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi, you understand why.
Lewis is a self-taught chef with a degree in business. His quest for authenticity results in higher-than-usual food costs, yet check averages at Bettola are lower than many of his competitors. Clearly, his artistic side guides the business, but he's quick to point out that his rent is low, as is the number of chefs in his kitchen.
Lewis frequently perfects his craft in Italy where he works with masters who butcher, cure meats and hand roll pastas. His plan is to open a butcher shop/restaurant patterned after the classic butcher shops of Italy. Meanwhile, Lewis will be heading to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen this summer as one of the magazine's 2011 Best New Chefs in America.