MIDTOWN — Being a successful lawyer wasn't enough for Bruno Cilio — not if the Naples native couldn’t find a decent slice near his Midtown office.
So Cilio, 42, decided to take a break from his practice to open PizzArte, a new Midtown eatery on West 55th Street that aims to capture the authentic sights and tastes of Naples. With the help of his partner Dario Cipollaro De L’Ero, the restaurant serves a duel role, doubling as an art gallery featuring a rotating collection of Italian art.
“The idea was to create a place that wasn’t just going to feed your stomach, but your mind,” said Cilio of his mission, stressing his belief that fine art should be experienced on more than just gallery walls.
While many Neapolitan eateries in the city rely on postcards of old Naples and tarnished silverware stuck to the walls, Cilio said his goal was to create the type of pizzeria that would be built today in his home town.
“Naples is a modern city,” he said, eschewing the stereotypical images of "mandolins and spaghetti."
“We moved on," he said.
But that doesn’t mean messing with tradition where it matters most: the food.
PizzArte's pizzas are overseen by a champion pizza maker, Cilio said, using imported ingredients and traditional methods, and baked in a giant, wood-fired oven fed by cherry and oak. The oven, (it should be no surprise) was built by a Neapolitan artist, using materials from Italy.
Among his favorites are the 'Pizza Verace' with buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes and basil for $19 and the Maccaronara al pomodoro: homemade pasta served with fresh tomato sauce, basil and shaved Parmesan for $18.
For a lighter option, he recommends the Polpettine con passi e pinoli: home-style Neapolitan meatballs with Italian pine nuts and raisins for $13.
While the ingredient lists may be short, Cilio said that doesn't make cooking any easier.
“Simplicity is complicated,” he explained. “You can’t cheat because when you taste it, everything comes out.”
The restaurant was also designed with neutral colors so that the artwork stands out.
Today, the “pizza gallery” features the works of noted Neapolitan painter and sculptor Lello Esposito, who turned the space into a private art studio before it opened, using it to creating all of the 24 paintings now featured on the walls on-site.
All of the works were painted with the artist's hands, “just like a pizza maker!” Esposito said through a translator.
Esposito relies on Neapolitan icons throughout his work, including the masked character Pulcinella and the horn of San Gennaro.
Vibrant bursts of Mount Vesuvius erupt from canvases; colorful faces stare from the walls.
“This work is based on the idea of the communication of a tradition,” Esposito said, adding that his goal was to bring a flavor of home to the city.
Cilio, said he plans to rotate the exhibition, featuring a new Italian artist every four to six months.
Cilio, who moved to the U.S. 14 years ago and is raising four children in Connecticut, said that opening the restaurant was less a business venture than a way to celebrate the art, food and traditions of home.
“We’re part of the city, but we remember where we came from,” he said, and paused.
“I guess we’re a little home sick," he finished.
Cilio also offered advice to those who might want to launch their own small businesses focusing on their cultures in the city.
“We do this for passion…. We just put our love into this,” he said of the business, which now employs 30 people, including waitstaff, cooks and hosts.
“In everything you do,” he said, “You have to find a way to have fun.”