Varuni brings piece of Italy to Morningside

Biz Journals

Jun 20, 2014, 6:00am EDT
Amy Wenk

Luca Varuni sees himself as a missionary of Italian tradition and culture.

The native of Naples is spreading his message as the master pizza maker behind a popular new restaurant calledVaruni Napoli.

It’s located on Monroe Drive near Midtown’s Morningside neighborhood.

Not even open two months, the restaurant seems to be an instant hit, receiving rave reviews from local media and gracing several “hot new restaurant” lists across the city.

“I can’t complain,” Varuni said, sitting on the deck of his pizzeria on a June afternoon, dressed in his signature attire: a white shirt, newsboy cap and a red handkerchief tied around his neck.

Varuni Napoli seeks to be an authentic Neapolitan experience.

It has two custom-made brick ovens donning the restaurant name. The pizza makers flip dough in plain sight. The marble bar wraps around the open kitchen. Communal tables fill the rest of the restaurant, allowing conversation to flow between neighbors and families.

With its warm and inviting atmosphere, some people see it as the best new restaurant in town, including Morningside resident Derek Eiler.

“I think what [Luca] offers is an incredible Naples-style experience with a better menu than most places,” said Eiler, who’s already frequented the pizzeria dozens of times.

Many of the ingredients are flown in from Italy. The tomatoes are cultivated in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius. The olive oil is from Sorrento. The mozzarella is from Naples.

It’s not uncommon for Varuni to belt out opera tunes during dining hours or come around with shots of limoncello.

“I have a crazy personality,” Varuni said, but in a personable and friendly way.

Growing up in Naples shaped Varuni’s values and personality, he said. Of course, Naples is the birthplace of pizza.

“It taught me a lot of life lessons,” Varuni said. “It’s a city that’s struggled a lot.”

He came from a family of chefs, and he will share tales of following his grandmother around town.

His father was an accountant for a wholesale food company, so he was constantly accompanying his dad to check the quality of various grapes, wine, tomatoes or meat.

Varuni started working in the kitchen at age 14. Later on, he got the opportunity to train under renowned maestro pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia from La Notizia– the only Michelin-rated pizzeria in the world.

Varuni also studied traditional Mediterranean and Neapolitan cooking techniques at the famous Alexia House in Sorrento, Italy.

Varuni came to the United States in 2001 at the age of 19 to work for his uncles. They owned several restaurants in Philadelphia and New York. Varuni went between the eateries, trying to learn the “American way” of running restaurants.

“I was working seven days a week,” Varuni said. “My idea was to suck it up as much as I could.”

In 2009, he moved to Atlanta to be with his wife, LeAnne.

Here, he helped launch Antico Pizza Napoletana with Giovanni Di Palma, a restaurant that’s been credited with creating some of the best pizza in America.

But a couple of years later, Varuni found his passion was dwindling at Antico.

“I was not happy with what I was doing,” Varuni said. “The product and concept was taking a different turn.”

So he decided to return to Naples to sharpen his skills and spent the next three years going back and forth between Italy and America.

“It was a really good experience,” Varuni said. “I really felt stronger.”

During that time, he had the opportunity to participate in an exclusive pizza fritta event in Naples with other pizza masters such as Antonio Starita and Antimo Caputo from Molino Caputo, the most famous flour mill in the world.

Varuni took that knowledge, and in partnership with Ansley Park resident Giancarlo Pirrone, opened Varuni Napoli this April.

Now, the pair is focused on consistently creating the best pizza they can every day.

No matter what success they may find, it seems Varuni will stay grounded to his past. In the kitchen hang pictures of his grandmother, his mother, two aunts and an uncle.

“They are always behind me,” Varuni said. “They’ve got my back.”

Luca Varuni

Age: 31

From: Naples, Italy

Lives in: Virginia-Highland area of Atlanta

Job: Maestro Pizzaiolo, Varuni Napoli

Previous Job: Pizzaiolo, Antico Pizza Napoletana

Family: Wife, LeAnne

Hobbies: Travel, soccer, fashion and food

“I think what [Luca] offers is an incredible Naples-style experience with a better menu than most places.”Derek Eiler, Morningside resident

Amy Wenk covers hospitality, retail and restaurants.