Recently I wrote about Durham’s Mateo and how it made that city feel ever more cosmopolitan. While Mateo brings Spanish flair to the Bull City, just down the block Pizzeria Toro bolsters the European vibe with Italian charm and elegance. It’s not an upscale restaurant, per se, but Toro offers a beautifully simple style, and, more importantly, excellent food. I’d say it rivals Bella Mia as the best pizza in the Triangle, in a much more attractive setting (for me). It fits perfectly in Durham, whose restaurant scene continues to evolve with more and more high quality, big-city caliber joints.
Toro occupies a small space that is dominated by a circular wood-fired oven towards the rear of the restaurant. Actually, the restaurant is shaped like an “L”, with entrances on two adjoining streets: one door to the narrow bar, another (main) door to the dining room. The space achieves an effortless chic with minimalist decor, but they have clearly put plenty of thought into details like the lighting (spotlights on the wood logs that fuel the oven), flatware, and “hand-towel” napkins. There’s a communal table in the middle, and high tables along the sides, along with a few window counter seats. Although the high tables and stools are not really ideal for small kids, the restaurant appears to be adaptable: witness the very small child I saw recently suspended in a basket-like contraption clamped to the side of the table – I’d never seen anything like it. This place gets crowded, so come early.
The menu is limited in the best way. A few apps, a few salads, a selection of fine hams (similar to Mateo) and more than enough pizzas to choose from. The problem is choosing one. Divided into “red” and “white” categories, they all sound fabulous, many with exotic toppings like spicy lamb meatballs, brussel sprouts, or clams. Note that the menu changes frequently to feature local seasonal ingredients. My wife assured me that one pie was enough for both of us, so we chose the onion/taleggio/pistachio (white) pie ($13). It arrived looking great, with a slightly charred, lightly oiled crust sprinkled with sea salt, hunks of melty tallegio, and plenty of onions. Indeed, this pie was loaded with raw red and white onions, which was fine by me. The crust was mildly sweet, and not really as ethereal as that at Bella Mia, but almost as good in its own way. The toppings were more substantial than I’ve had at Bella Mia. Overall, the pie tasted great, with perfect seasoning, but I’d be eager to try out a different one next time. Really minor quibbles would be uneven distribution of toppings and fairly un-crunchy pistachios. My wife, as usual, was right – the one pie was plenty to fill us both up.
As Durham’s restaurant scene continues to expand in exciting ways, Mateo and Pizzeria Toro are helping to fill some of the Triangle’s bigger culinary voids (excellent tapas and gourmet pizza, respectively). Judging by the meals I’ve had at each and their initial popularity, here’s hoping these restaurants are mainstays for years to come. And though I probably won’t mistake myself for being in Barcelona or Florence, I’m thankful that the comparison is even possible.