DINING: First Bites – Garage Woodfired Pizza and Pub

Just about every chef we have ever met seems to have nursed the dream of producing the perfect pizza – a pie far better than anything the world has ever seen.

Chef Michael Lander, whom we first met when he was executive chef at The Moorings Club, is no exception.

So after Lander this past summer closed his Ocean Drive fine-dining restaurant, Michael’s Table, which continues to seek a new location, he turned his full attention to a long-rumored side venture, Vero’s first gourmet pizza parlor.

For weeks, we heard how Lander was tweaking recipes, and trying to get his new woodfired oven to work just right. Last week, we were told the Garage Woodfired Pizza and Pub, located in a remodeled gas station on Old Dixie Highway, was finally open. Showtime!

Headline news: While Lander appears to have all the equipment in place, and all the ingredients assembled, to produce great pizzas, we would not at this point be inclined to cancel all future plans to visit Italy. But our second visit was considerably better than our first, and our interim evaluation is that this is a good pizza place that we suspect will keep getting better.

Look & Feel: The Garage, located in a clever remodeling of a one-time Texaco station (hence the name), is a fairly small restaurant with a roadside diner vibe. With table seating for 24 and an additional 8 spots at the counter, when all 32 seats are full, it is noisy. There are four tables under a canopy outside that would certainly be a quieter dining choice if not taken.

Food: On our first visit last week, my husband, a companion and I sampled three of the garage’s side salads as well as three pizzas.

For salads, I had the local burratta (small plate, $6; full, $10), my husband had the green goddess wedge (small plate, $5; full, $8) and our companion had the Caesar ($5 small plate, full $9).

While the Caesar would have benefitted from a bit more dressing, the green goddess was excellent, with sweet gem lettuce, heirloom tomato, local radish, herbs, and tasty chunks of Benton’s bacon. Best of the three was my burratta, served with arugula and a crostini from the nearby patisserie that was just right for scooping up the outflow of mozzarella and cream.

Following this strong start, we ordered the Don Ho pizza ($14), the carbonara pizza ($15) and classic Margherita ($14).

All three of the pies were soft and chewy around the edge, as you would expect of a Napolitan pizza, but the base of the pizzas was thin and crispy, more like the Roman version.

The Margherita – house milled tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil – was very dry, with the topping pretty much baked away in the heat of the wood-fired oven.

The Don Ho was an interesting mix of tastes with its charred pineapple and braised pork shoulder. The Carbonara was far the most successful of the three, with two farm fresh eggs set atop the tomato sauce, bacon, pecorino romano and cracked pepper. Delicious.

On our second visit, the Garage scored three for three with the pizzas. We ordered the Margherita again – much better this time – as well as the Local ($14) and the Minus the Trip ($14).

This time, the crust of all three pizzas was close to perfection. The Local, with sweet sausage and charred red onion joining the tomato sauce and mozzarella topping, was very good, but the Minus the Trip – a white pizza with mozzarella, ricotta crème, foraged mushrooms, charred onion and wilted arugula – was a consensus choice at our table as the best of the five we have sampled. Outstanding!

Drink: The Garage has a nice selection of cold beers, and offers choice of wines by the glass ranging from $6 to $9 for wine drinkers.

Service: On the two nights we visited, everything seemed to be going quite smoothly, and our servers were very attentive.

Prices: Prices for 12-inch pizzas ranged from $14 to $16 – a bit on the high side for Vero. Our dinner for three, with salads and a glass of wine each but no dessert, ran $90 before tip. The second time without salads, it was closer to $75.

Initial impressions: Lander – an excellent chef – seems determined to conquer the pizza world before turning his attention back to fine dining. While the former goal may be a bit optimistic, the Garage could well shortly emerge as the best pizza place in Vero.

I welcome your comments, and encourage you to send feedback to me at tina@verobeach32963.com.

The reviewer dines anonymously at restaurants at the expense of Vero Beach 32963.

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