Hidden between two well-trodden avenues – the busy Halaskargazi and the glitz and glam of Vali Konağı – Kuyumcu İrfan Sokak is a back street in the high-end neighborhood of Nişantaşı. Here, cozy little lokantalar (Turkish diners), tobacco shops and chic cafés dwell in the shadow of the ancient Greek and Armenian buildings that give this part of Nişantaşı an aura of timeless elegance.
Adding to that atmosphere is the miniscule pizzeria Azzurro Neopolitano, which in the two years since it opened has managed to snag the attention of pizza aficionados – and Italians – all over Istanbul. A quiet man, co-owner Ünal Yıldız comes out of the kitchen, his hands still dusted with flour. “Sercan has a talent for talking and bringing people together,” he tells us about his business partner, Sercan Çakaroğlu. “It was natural for him to be outside, taking orders and dealing with customers. For me, it’s being in the kitchen and making pizzas” he says. We follow him into the back, where there are shelves full of ingredients, a small counter and multiple ovens.
Sercan and Ünal, an engineer and a manager by training, respectively, were having successful careers in sales when they decided to shake things up, unknowingly months before the Covid-19 virus made its way to Turkey. They had turned their minds to opening a pizza shop because, they say, they couldn’t find a pie that tasted anything like the delicious creations found in Naples.
“We had no clue about pizza making,” Sercan tells us. “We are not chefs.” While that may make them seem like two hopeful dreamers acting on an impulsive idea, Azzurro was the result of carefully-laid plans from the moment of inception. “What we were, and still are, is curious and eager to learn how to develop the best pizza. That’s why we decided to go to school.” At the start of 2020, the duo enrolled in a course at Accademia Pizzaioli, a pizzamaking culinary school in a town near Venice. There, they learned all the techniques needed to make a proper Neapolitan pizza – from mixing the dough and baking it, to the secrets behind getting it to rise perfectly.
“We were lucky enough to get to be in Venice during the famous Carnevale,” Sercan reminisces about their time in Italy, “and after we spent a pizza-fuelled weekend in Naples. We went to all of the most-famous pizzerias to absorb all the little details that make a pizza worthy.”
When our own pizzas arrive at the table, we immediately see (and smell) the results of their meticulous note taking. The crust is thick and foamy, the center is paper thin and loaded with fresh, tasty ingredients. It’s clear: These pizzas are far above and beyond others we have tried in Istanbul. The classic margherita, made with buffalo mozzarella, has the same vibrant colors of a pizza we once devoured in a narrow alleyway in Naples. As an Italian, it’s easy to be extra critical when tasting pizza abroad. But Azzurro left me homesick, the taste was so good.
We were curious to branch out from the classics – marinara, diavola, siciliana, quattro stagioni – and try some of the specials created by the two masterminds behind Azzurro. The roasted garlic pizza was amongst the most scrumptious: an explosive match of sweet and creamy roasted garlic and spicy olive oil, seasoned with an evergreen of Italian cuisine, Parmesan cheese. To balance this out with some more delicate flavors, we also ordered a spinach pizza – not exactly a topping common in Italy. But the combination of spinach, oyster mushrooms, Parmesan and a sprinkle of lemon zest was too interesting not to try. The subtle aroma of the lemon combines perfectly with the earthiness of the mushrooms and the sweetness of the greens.
Of course, the foundation of any good pizza is its dough. At Azzurro, they let it rise for a whopping 48 hours, and it is no less delicious for all that time (as well as super digestible).
Under the influence of the carbs we had just scarfed down, we start to fantasize about the name Azzurro (meaning “turquoise” or “light blue”). It’s an evocative word for we Italians, bringing to mind the color of our national football team (gli azzurri), the song Azzurro by the legendary Adriano Celentano, the famous beer brand Nastro Azzurro … and many more feelings and memories. “We were thinking of a name while in Naples, sitting at L’antica Pizzeria Da Michele, and Azzurro was the first that came to our mind,” Sercan says. “Then we ordered beers, and two bottles of Nastro Azzurro arrived. We thought, ‘That’s it. It’s the one’.”
As a Northern Italian, I can’t really describe myself as a pizza connoisseur. But seeing how quick the news of a really good pizzeria opening in town spread amongst my Italian friends and colleagues, I can say that the pair have done a stellar job so far. “We have a lot of Italian customers, many of them live in Bomonti or in Kurtulus, and they often order from us. Some of them even come by just to talk,” Sercan says. “We even had people from Naples’ football fan club in Istanbul eating here – and I can say that having their blessing is a success in itself!”
Despite the constant praise from Italians and Istanbullus, Ünal and Sercan are firm about staying grounded. “We still see ourselves as amateurs. That’s why we don’t want to rush things. We both work a lot. Our restaurant is quite small. We haven’t really invested in some aggressive marketing strategy, but that’s exactly the point,” Sercan says.
Opening a restaurant during the pandemic was a daring act, as was opening a pizza spot in Istanbul, where many have tried and few have managed to produce anything worthwhile. “I always say that I feel like a modern Don Quixote. I haven’t changed my mind or regretted anything about what I’m doing, even if it may seem a bit crazy,” Sercan says fiercely.
Their pursuit of high-quality ingredients required a lot of effort and some diplomacy, if you will. “In Turkey, you may find a thousand different types of flour to make yufka or baklava, but the type of milling required for pizza dough is pretty much impossible to find,” Sercan explains. “So, basically we went to the mills and talked this through with the staff in order to find the right type of flour for us.”
“There are still some little mistakes here and there, but I think we found a good supplier who is willing to learn with us.” Along with the flour, which is milled in Gaziantep, the other ingredients, from tomatoes to cheese, are also sourced locally. “Importing would have been too costly and quite meaningless. We had thought of bringing the San Marzano variety of tomatoes and all that, but we researched a lot in Turkey and I think we have found good ingredients,” continues Sercan. “We even have some pork products that we buy down in Dolapdere, at Kozmaoglu, so we’re all set.”
It’s a Saturday evening, and in this little pizza shop Sercan is busy with deliveries and orders while Ünal checks the oven. With the certainty that Azzurro’s adventure has only just begun, we walk out whistling that old Celentano song in our heads and thinking of the next pizza we’ll be back to try when we are missing home.