Alto Pizzeria is supposed to be the more casual little sister to Ava Kitchen, though you wouldn't necessarily know it by sight.
Just upstairs from Ava at West Ave, there are flat screens scattered around Alto, to be sure, but there are also oversized wrought iron chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of Kirby, and some thoroughly un-casual seating and colors, including low-slung, pumpkin-colored wing chairs that are oh-so-inviting to lean back on after a meal or too much wine.
And yet there are chicken wings on the menu — offered with red wine vinegar and gorgonzola sauce, of course. And the powers that be are adamant this is a place people can walk in wearing shorts and sandals, order a beer and a pizza and watch the game.
They're aiming for casual, but it's a different kind of casual, a just-because-things-are-cheaper-here-doesn't-mean-it-has-to-be-ugly kind of casual, equal distance from other Schiller/Del Grande concepts Taco Milagro and The Grove. (Schiller/Del Grande co-founder Lonnie Schiller is an investor in CultureMap.)
It's a tone that the menu matches. Appetizers and small plates are plentiful, but the focus is on the dozen-plus pizzas that come out of a cylindrical oven that sparkles with iridescent peach tile. There are the classics — margherita, Italian sausage — but most of the pies are full of premium meats and other ingredients. There's speck with provolone, cippolini and arugula; littleneck clam with ricotta, bacon, parsley and chile flakes.
The crust is thin and a little too flimsy for my taste, but it has a nice bitterness even without a visible char. With prices between $10 and $17, the pizzas bigger and more fulfilling when the $8 versions at Caffe Bello and Era, but not by too much.
The genius of the pies is in the design, with toppings that mesh beautifully, hitting every flavor center. I loved the gorgonzola and white cheese pizza, with a bed of bitter arugula that countered the sweetness of dried mission figs, with the cheese and bits of bacon to add another sweet-salty layer. The Italian sausage pizza with broccoli rabe, fennel seed and garlic had a fresh complexity that belied the tried-and-true main topping.
The pasta I tried (shell pasta with gulf shrimp and ricotta tomato sauce) was pretty pedestrian, but I liked the artichoke fonduta appetizer, a sauce-less take on baked artichoke with cheese.
The pizza doesn't have the personality of the pies at Era or the crust of Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria. But in a town that's tragically short on excellent gourmet pizza, there's plenty of room for a solid winner.