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Craig LaBan visits Ardé Osteria & Pizzeria

Welcome to once-demure downtown Wayne, where pizza - and the hungry mobs that devour it - has become serious business. Ardé, an 80-seat BYOB, serves a full menu of antipasti, pastas and entrees.

Antimo DiMeo (left), father Pino DiMeo and Scott Stein at Ardé Osteria & Pizzeria, 133 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne, Thursday January 29, 2015. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )
Antimo DiMeo (left), father Pino DiMeo and Scott Stein at Ardé Osteria & Pizzeria, 133 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne, Thursday January 29, 2015. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )Read more

The waitress paused at our table looking vaguely rattled. A rowdy bunch near the front window of Ardé Osteria & Pizzeria was growing restless because, well, there was no pizza dough tonight.

"They said [co-owner] Antimo [DiMeo] should be hung up and beaten for not having dough today and that he needs to be punished!" Her eyes widened. "They're crazy!"

Welcome to once-demure downtown Wayne, where pizza - and the hungry mobs that devour it - has become serious business. No fewer than 10 restaurants within a few blocks of North Wayne and Lancaster Avenues are serving various styles of pizza. And two - Ardé and Vecchia Pizza Napoletana - opened simultaneously across the street from each other this fall with the blazing wood ovens, imported flour, and sweet buffalo mozzarella to reach for Neapolitan pizza artistry at its highest levels.

No wonder anticipation is at a fever pitch. When we visited Vecchia for a reconnaissance pie, even owner Frank Nattle nodded across the street to his Ardé competitors: "They're good."

I can't say yet that I'm convinced. Vecchia, whose Regina Margherita instantly vaulted into consideration for one of the region's best, handily won Round One of the Wayne Pizza Throwdown.

My first visit to Ardé was odd in many respects, beginning with the fact that our pizzas were delivered unexpectedly as a late third-course between entrees and dessert. Either way, they were thoroughly scorched, the coveted leoparding of dark spots having swollen into a charry inner-tube of briquette-sized puffs crumbling black dust over every bite. The delicate harmony of tangy San Marzano tomatoes and sweet mozzarella was overwhelmed. A similarly burnt "mais" pie topped with incinerated corn had other issues, with half the crust refusing to rise and a noticeably salty afterburn.

This return visit was a chance for redemption, thwarted, alas, by a proofing box someone forgot to plug in, ruining an entire night's dough. The rowdy diners weren't the only ones disappointed. I'll be back for another pie one day. I know from the owners' Pizza DiMeo in Andorra that they can do better.

But Ardé, unlike Vecchia, which serves only a handful of pizzas and one salad, is much more. This 80-seat BYOB serves a full menu of antipasti, pastas and entrees.

A clue to the menu's jewel is the evocative two-tone mural of water buffalo that runs the length of Arde's handsome dining room, outfitted with rustic touches of exposed brick, Edison bulbs and wooden beams. The image was taken by chef-co-owner Giuseppe "Pino" DiMeo, 47, and his son Antimo, 22, on their trip to the small farm in Campania, whose buffalo produce milk for the sublimely sweet and tangy mozzarella that Ardé features on its pizzas and straight-up fresh from the "mozzeria" bar.

Try a ball whole or stuffed with cream, burrata-style, along with silky San Daniele prosciutto or chewy strips of eggplant pickled to the piquant family recipe. If there is a sweeter, tangier, more milky hunk of bufala mozz around here, I haven't tasted it yet.

It's a good measure of the commitment here by the DiMeos and their partner Scott Stein (Pearl, Red Sky) to quality and authenticity. A glassed-in showcase of excellent salumi (speck, bresaola) and Italian cheeses (Pecorino di Fossa, Piave, Sottocere) echoes that.

But this restaurant's extended menu is a big step up in ambition and difficulty from the DiMeo's pizzerias. And while there were several tasty dishes, inconsistent execution was especially problematic with big-ticket entrees running from the mid-$20s on up.

A $35 branzino special, which was supposed to be presented whole before being finished, arrived as a stack of two carelessly deboned and dry fillets, overpowered by the taste of charred skin and with no discernible sauce to keep it moist. A housemade pappardelle was topped with tender morsels of duck ragu, which I expected to be rich with porcini and prosciutto. But the sauce was so transparent in look and flavor, I wondered whether they'd forgotten to add it. The Bologonese was prepared in a classic way, the finely ground beef and veal steeped with milk. But the sauce was oddly dry in texture and dull in taste, despite the addition of ricotta.

A couple others were not complete misses, but lacked some finesse. A rich mushroom marsala sauce was delicious, but the $24 chicken breast was overcooked. A plate of big day-boat scallops over room temp carrot puree and minced broccoli rabe was a dramatic showcase for prime shellfish, but the speck ham wrapped around them wasn't crisped enough, leaving the scallops' centers too rare and squishy. A "contorni" of pasta e fagioli turned out not to be a side, as advertised, but a brothy bowl of borlotti bean soup not easily shared.

What's most frustrating is that Ardé clearly has genuine appeal and promise, with outgoing (if not experienced) servers and a $15,000 plan to add soundproofing to dampen the din. If the cooking glitches can be fixed, it may well step up a bell by year's end.

I tasted that potential in a house-made squid ink taglioli with a zesty cherry tomato sauce redolent of seafood, garlic and spice. A crock of steamed mussels was perfect in a savory broth cleverly enriched by the pasta e fagioli's borlotti beans. A platter of delicately fried calamari was impossible to resist beneath a sweet-and-hot agrodolce of house-pickled peppers. A superbly moist short rib falling off its bone into sweet parsnip puree with a rich gravy of vegetables milled from its braise had the rustic comfort that duck ragu was missing.

And anything served with Antimo DiMeo's homemade bread - a crusty two-day natural levain loaf baked in cast iron - is worth devouring. That could mean multiple helpings of the homey eggplant-tomato dip. Or even a bruschetta mountain of tomatoes that would have been extraordinary if they weren't out of season, ice cold and slightly soft.

But such details are what elevate good ideas to greatness on the plate. Which is why the disappointment is only heightened when a head-turning platter of stacked Nutella rolls arrives, only to be wrapped in pizza dough so salty that a pucker is the lingering flavor of dessert.

These goofs are easily fixed. But perfecting its doughs (and remembering to plug in the proofer box) will help Ardé tame Wayne's hungry pizza mobs, and win fans from well beyond.