Sometimes hidden gems pop up where you least expect them, like right in the middle of downtown Austin.
Located on Congress Avenue at Ninth Street for the past five years, it’s a wonder that Quattro Gatti Ristorante e Pizzeria is as low profile as it is. While you can guarantee a long wait outside Bufalina most nights and the close quarters of The Backspace fill up easily, the same delicate, Neapolitan-style pies can be obtained in Quattro Gatti’s spacious dining room.
Owner Gianfranco Mastrangelo was born in Jersey City and grew up in the restaurant business in New York City, where his family still owns Campagna Quattro Gatti, a family-style trattoria on the Upper East Side. (“Quattro gatti” translates to “four cats,” which is an Italian idiom referring to a small group of people.)
Mastrangelo began learning the art of baking from his family who owned a bakeshop in Provinca de Solerno, where he’d spend summers. He also learned much from his grandmother, who grew up in a house with a woodfired oven to make bread.
After working as a busboy in his family’s restaurant at the age of 14, Mastrangelo decided he was more comfortable in the back of the house. “I started off in the dining room, but I went into the kitchen because I’m a person who stutters,” he explains. “I didn’t think I’d be able to do any job where I’d have to speak, so I thought I better learn how to use my hands just in case.”
This would come as a surprise to anyone who has dined at Quattro Gatti, where Mastrangelo is often found greeting customers at the door and circling through the dining room, chatting with regulars and newcomers alike.
Mastrangelo began learning the art of pizza by working at a friend’s restaurant and furthered his knowledge of pastry working at the pasticceria and gelateria located next door. Through the years, he worked with multiple Italian chefs who came to town, such as Mastro Ciccio from Sicily; Francesco Etzi from Rome; and Antoinio Starita, an acclaimed third-generation pizza maker from Naples who Mastrangelo accompanied to Las Vegas for a pizza show.
“What [Starita] taught me was not so much how to do things, but how to explore myself,” says Mastrangelo. “And throughout all this time, I realized that I loved to work with dough.”
Mastrangelo began making his own bread. “I made my first loaf of bread and it immediately ignited something in me — a passion,” he remembers. “All I wanted to do the next day was make another loaf and make it better! And the next day — the same thing! This started years of study within myself, where I couldn’t go a day without making bread. I'd bake bread every day because every day I was searching within myself for something ... I would stay up at night and I would think, 'Okay, what if I try this.'"
The resulting perfected focaccia is served with each meal at Quattro Gatti. It’s perfectly moist and chewy with well-placed air bubbles, rich in flavor but light in texture. The other dough Mastrangelo has fine-tuned is his pizza dough, which results in a super thin but sturdy crust with the deliberate delicacy of pastry.
“The nuances are in the lightness and the digestibility,” explains Mastrangelo. “Digestibility is something that, here in America, is not even spoken about ... but for Italians, it’s key. You want to be able to go out at night, have this pizza, go to bed, sleep and not wake up in the middle of the night feeling the gluten in your stomach, which you will feel if it’s not digestible.”
Mastrangelo says that, because of the process he’s developed over the years, his sourdough pizza has a gluten content of less than 50 parts per million. He even has some regular customers with gluten insensitivity who swear by his pies only.
Though pizza is the star of the show at Quattro Gatti, Mastrangelo also makes fantastic gnocchi in house, each one like an angelic little pillow melting away on the tongue. He also rotates specials on handmade pasta fresca like papardelle or lasagna. Cheeses, olive oil, tomatoes and prosciutto di Parma stagionato (aged two years) are imported from Italy. His wine list runs the gamut from Italy to California to local Texas selections, and he has an array of Italian amari from which to choose as well.
Be sure to end your meal with a plate of his perfectly brittle and subtly sweet homemade biscotti accompanied by a glass of vin santo for dipping.
“It’s a very simple thing — it’s not complicated,” says Mastrangelo as he swirls sauce on a round of dough. “It’s the sauce, the basil, the cheese. It’s about simplicity. That’s very important. Few ingredients, but made right.”
With that, he slides the pie into the oven he built where it will cook in less than five minutes over the blazing oak wood fire. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the real pizza,” he says. “I respect other people’s pizza though. Food is a very personal thing. You need to really love the product. And this is a product of passion and love.”