Last month, two days before Aymiee and Kevin Ricks were set to open Noemi Pizza Romana on upper State Street, they listened intently to the thick Italian accent of Massimiliano Saieva. The pizza master was detailing the dough’s 72-hour-long fermentation process, the blue-steel pans, and the heat-capturing ovens required to perfect the soft and airy yet crispy crust of Roman-style pizza.
“The dough is healthier, and it’s all about finesse — it’s the perfect combination of cuisine and pizza,” said Saieva while working in the sparkling new kitchen of the former Pizza Guru, which the Rickses purchased in February and set about turning into their first restaurant. “Now is the moment for Roman pizza. It’s not just trendy in the U.S.A. It’s not just Europe. It’s everywhere.”
The couple recently graduated from Saieva’s Roman Pizza Academy in Miami, so their teacher had come west for a final lesson before they launched Noemi. Together, they were training Noemi’s young cooks Giuseppe Dattilo and Quentin De Haro, dialing in the recipes, tweaking the oven, and practicing their supplì, which is Rome’s egg-shaped, cheese-filled version of the Sicilian risotto balls called arancini.
Since Roman-style pizza is usually cut to order from a large, rectangular pie — that’s why it is more accurately known as pizza al taglio, or “by the cut” — Saieva was particularly excited about Noemi’s single-serving pans. “This is going to be the first place in the United States making Roman-style individuals,” said Saieva. He should know, given that he estimates his students have opened more than 80 percent of the existing Roman-style pizza joints in the country.
“We just wanted to bring something to Santa Barbara that wasn’t here,” said Aymiee Ricks, who’s lived in town for two decades. “There are a lot of Neapolitan-style pizza places, but no Roman-style.”
The trend took off in the United States about three years ago, when American eaters began welcoming the thicker, square-shaped Roman-style pizza as a counterpoint to the circles and triangles of the dominant Neapolitan style. Rome’s pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci delivered the style to Chicago with much fanfare in August 2017, followed almost immediately in California by il Romanista in El Segundo and Triple Beam in Highland Park.
The Rickses could have kept the Pizza Guru concept alive but wanted to refresh the space and do something new. Their edible research led to an epiphany that came after visiting il Romanista. “I drove an hour and a half back here and it was still crispy,” said Aymiee. “I knew that was the pizza.”
They met their own pizza guru at the Roman Pizza Academy. Born in Sicily but raised near Rome, Saieva ran an Italian restaurant in Caracas, Venezuela, for seven years. He made traditional recipes, but then got inventive, as well. “I was doing modernist cuisine with pizza,” he explained. “I was making pizza with foam, just to play around.”
As Venezuela grew dangerous, Saieva moved to Miami and opened what may have been this country’s first Roman-style pizzeria in 2012. He started teaching as a favor, but that student went on to win an international pizza competition, so interest grew. He opened the Roman Pizza Academy in 2016 and now rattles off prize-winning students, Michelin-starred chef friends, and consulting clients faster than a pen can keep up.
Aside from Kevin working at a pizza joint during his UCSB days and Aymiee’s dad owning a Thai place in Atwater when she was a kid, restaurants are a brand-new world for the Rickses. She works as a software developer for a finance company by day, and he worked until recently as an operations manager for an environmental company. They saw the restaurant as an interesting business opportunity and named it after their daughter Naomi, opting for the Italian spelling.
“She’s our miracle baby, she’s so precious to us,” said Aymiee, explaining that doctors had said they couldn’t have a child together. “Running a restaurant is like raising a kid. You really have to be here.”
The Ricks readily admit the timing could have been better, and the COVID-19 pandemic did delay the opening. But pizza restaurants are the cornerstone of the American takeout and delivery experience, so they persevered, serving their first slices on June 27. They also serve calzone, salads, sandwiches, and more and are now open every day of the week. Noemi delivers to San Roque and other nearby neighborhoods and investigating other delivery options for orders from farther away.
Upon Noemi’s opening, Saieva returned to Miami, ready to take on new students. “I just show the technique; that’s my job,” he explained. “When my students are doing great, I can say, ‘Yes, I’m an artist.’”
3534 State St.; (805) 869-2119; noemipizza.com
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