It isn’t often that two strangers discover they’re family because of a dish. But so it was that a customer walked into LAMP Pizzeria one day, saw “mignulata” on the menu, and instantly knew that he was related to owner and chief pizza man, Matt Pilato. In the Sicilian countryside near Agrigento, the customs, the dialects, and the foods of every village have their own flavor. And though Pilato produces some of the most outstanding pizzas in Phoenix, it’s the mignulata — a little piece of his heritage — that may be his most distinctive and delicious dish.
“I’m not a chef, I’m a pizza man,” Pilato will insist. It’s not that he isn’t exceedingly grateful for the respect, it’s just that he’s loathe to claim that honorific when it was only a few short years ago that he was a pizza hobbyist with no kitchen training, firing pies in his home oven on the cleaning cycle to get the temperature hot enough (a method popularized by Jeff Varasano, for those who are pizza-obsessed, mechanically inclined, and well-insured). A native of Canada, raised near Toronto, Pilato came to Phoenix with his wife, Lindsay, eight years ago in a bid to escape the cold weather. He had no designs on the restaurant business, but took a job working with his cousin doing commercial knife sharpening — work that exposed him to an enormous number of Arizona professional kitchens, and allowed him to make a lot of friends and contacts in the industry. As his pizza obsession grew, he moved from his home kitchen to a backyard brick oven, and thoughts of going pro started to take hold. With no experience, however, he turned to the owner of a local pizzeria he’d befriended, and offered to work for free to come learn the ropes of operating a restaurant. And after a year of learning the trade while meticulously testing his own recipes at home, he and Lindsay took the plunge and opened LAMP Pizzeria in North Scottsdale.
Pilato, as a pizza man, is meticulous and intense, always experimenting, always tweaking, always refining, and his efforts have resulted in a style that while descended from Neapolitan and similar in appearance, makes for a very different pizza. It eschews the stark minimalism of hardcore traditional Neapolitan, taking liberties with toppings, using a lightly seasoned sauce rather than pure tomatoes, and developing a firmer, crisper crust that maintains the well-developed flavor. It’s exceptional stuff, and stands out as some of the best pizza available in a town with no shortage of great wood-fired pizza. It’s an Italian appetizer, however, that’s one of the menu’s most delicious and distinctive dishes. Realmonte is a small town just west of Agrigento, on the southern coast of Sicily, and it’s where the Pilato family learned to make a stuffed and rolled bread that’s known locally as mignulata. Mignulata is simple food, often made with ingredients that happen to be at hand using humble techniques passed down from generation to generation. “It’s just something I grew up with,” explains Pilato, and he’s simultaneously thrilled and surprised by the attention it’s getting. As with many Italian dishes, recipes and even names can vary wildly from village to village, and very similar rolled, stuffed breads can be found throughout Agrigento going by the name of mignulata, mignolata, mpignolata, ammiscata, miscata, mbriulata and more. So when the aforementioned random customer saw the precise spelling and combination of ingredients in Pilato’s version, he struck up a conversation, only to discover that the two were cousins. (Even today, Realmonte is home to fewer than 5,000 people. If your families are both from Realmonte, it’s a pretty good bet you’re going to be cousins.) As with his pizza, however, Pilato has taken his family’s recipe and tweaked it a bit, resulting in a version of this regional specialty that’s both absurdly delicious and uniquely his.
It starts with an extra-large batch of LAMP’s pizza dough, proofed for 4-5 days under refrigeration and returned to room temperature before cooking. A friend of the family and now LAMP line cook, Maree, has learned from Pilato and taken on the mantle of mignulata master, preparing most of LAMP’s mignulate in the afternoon. She uses a small rolling pin to roll the dough into a large rectangle, which is drizzled and brushed with good olive oil. One of the keys to the dish is fresh cracked black pepper, which is added with a very liberal hand. Next comes bits of LAMP’s house sausage, followed by blanched cauliflower florets. The decision to add onions is somewhat controversial in his family, but Pilato keeps it subtle, shaving them to a paper-thin translucence and wringing them in cheesecloth to remove as much liquid as possible before using them. Pilato prefers the sharpness of pecorino to parmigiano, and a light dusting completes the fillings, though it’s common in Agrigento to see mignulata made with black olives, spinach, or whatever the family happens to have on hand at the moment. The dough is then rolled up like a jelly roll, the ends sealed, and a light egg wash is applied before it’s sent to the oven (a typical commercial deck oven, not the wood-fired pizza oven) to bake for about an hour. Though mignulata is sometimes prepared whole, this differs slightly from the most common preparation in Agrigento, where the raw dough is sliced straight across and the pieces baked individually, so that the resulting bread looks like a savory cinnamon roll. When the mignulata emerges from the oven, golden and crisp, it’s cooled and held until ready for service. When an order comes in, the mignulata is sliced on a sharp bias, lightly brushed with olive oil, and warmed in the oven on an aluminum pan that imparts a light brown crispness to the cut edges as well. Plated with another splash of olive oil and a sprinkling of grated pecorino, it’s ready to serve.
When the mignulata hits the table, its most striking features are the beautiful color and the scent of sweet anise wafting through the air. This is a dish of textures, however, and the first bite brings a full range of them, from the crunchy outer shell, to the lightly crisped edges, the tender inner layers, and almost molten center. What’s remarkable is how the onions completely melt away, and the cauliflower almost dissolves into the bread, to the extent that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The long proofing process gives the bread a deep, well-developed flavor, and the accompanying flavors are a balance between mellow cauliflower and pork, and sharp pecorino and pepper, all rounded out by the light background sweetness of the onion. The mignulata is served and best appreciated unadorned, but it’s sometimes difficult to resist ordering and adding a bit of the house-made Calabrian chile oil, which brings both fiery heat and a little bit of pickled sourness. Though the dish has simple origins, to call Pilato’s version simple is perhaps a bit misleading. Humble flavors, yes, but the precision of the technique and perfect balance make it something special, warm and delicious comfort food from Realmonte by way of Scottsdale, brought into focus by a pizza man with a fanatical commitment to detail and a deep respect for his family’s history.
LAMP Pizzeria is located in North Scottsdale, in the La Mirada Center at 8900 E. Pinnacle Peak Road, and they can be reached at 480.292.8773. It’s a casual joint, and during season it’s hopping in the evenings. All of the pizzas are outstanding, but a few favorites are the Gem, the Scientist, the Gordon, and the simple Marinara, which really lets the bread and tomato shine. And the milkshakes may seem out of place, but don’t let that stop you from ordering them. The toasted marshmallow, in particular, is a brûléed little beauty of a frosty confection.
Sounds delicious. I’ll make a point to eat one in the cooler months sometime after I hike nearby Pinnacle Peak. I’m curious: Are you the owner’s distant cousin, or is someone else the “aforementioned random customer”?
Ha! No, not me :-)
But I did happen to be there one day when said customer was having lunch, and we chatted about it a bit. Great story.