It’s a cold January evening in the dead of yet another New Jersey winter. The skies are pale gray with the state’s biggest storm of the year looming on the horizon. My teeth chatter and I duck into a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria on the corner of Main Street in Little Falls.
Inside, my surroundings brighten. Shop owner and pizzaiolo, Jerry Arcieri, is throwing wooden logs into a brick oven. I can feel the warmth even from across the room. A healthy mix of jazz plays throughout the restaurant during dinner service, highlighting New Jersey’s own premiere station, WBGO. Behind the counter, he prepares this week’s pizza special without a care for the storm or rush hour traffic just a few feet outside his door. The moment feels like a miracle. In fact, it is—because what Arcieri is able to provide for you in his quaint, 20-seat space exceeds the quality of what most wood-fired pizzerias offer nowadays. Aquila Pizza Al Forno turns geniusness into impeccable pizza.
Pizza is one of the single most abundant foods you will find in the state. But it wasn’t until the last decade that New Jersey pizza has stepped out of the shadow of NYC, receiving the recognition it rightfully deserves. So, it is increasingly difficult to enact yourself as a premier pizzeria when so many other great spots exist just minutes away. If you asked 100 different people from NJ about their favorite pizza, you could get 100 different answers. It takes care, skill, and expertise—three traits Aquila is bursting at the seams with.
Aquila, though, is about more than exceptional fare. Arcieri’s space is warm and inviting. Photographs Arcieri took when he was a New York City street photographer in the 1990s and early 2000s decorate the walls. The shelves are laden with empty wine bottles and beer cans gifted to him by his guests.
Like jazz, with its complex harmonies, and improvisation, Arcieri finds a way to bring that intricacy to the table through his pizza. In a way, the dough acts as his baseline for which he improvises—and the guests are his listeners. Art, when boiled down, always shares similarities to cooking.
Sure, Aquila goes way beyond pizza, but the pies, as always, are what keep people coming back. For Arcieri, pizza is much more than a meal to have on Fridays—for him, it’s an obsession.
It all started back in 2011 when he built a pizza oven in his backyard with a vision of a new career looming on the horizon. With the dream of opening his own spot constantly in the back of his mind, Arcieri figured a method of R&D based out of his own home was the best possible option.
Hours of research from tomato sauce to homemade mozzarella recipes ensued, but nothing perplexed Arcieri more than the contents of what would eventually make up his signature pizza dough.
Anyone who has ever attempted to make pizza knows that the dough is the single most important aspect of a great product. It is to my understanding that a sub-par tomato sauce and cheese atop a perfect dough would be more desirable than the best tomatoes and hand-made cheese that money could buy placed on top of a sad, miserable shell. It took some time, but in 2015, Arcieri evolved a small dream into a reality when he opened his very own pizza shop. Seven years later, the pizzas at Aquila Pizza Al Forno rival that of some of the best pizza shops in New York City, and the entire tri-state area.
Of course, Aquila isn’t just throwing any topping onto their nearly perfect dough. Each topping—whether it is the handmade mozzarella cheese, the duck sausage from Goffle Farms, squash blossoms in the summertime from Bracco Farms, or the local Jersey tomato sauce by Sclafani—is thought out to a passionate extent. So, it may astonish the normal diner to discover that they only offer five never-changing pizzas on their menu.
“Five pizzas that are really great are better than 20 that are just okay,” Arcieri told me. I couldn’t agree more. Aquila also adds a unique sixth pizza each week, combining ingredients that are in season or fresh on hand. Take the Meyer lemon pizza with ricotta cheese, kalamata olives, and sweet capicola—a part of the rotating specials at Aquila that have become a fan favorite.
In addition to the pizza, Aquila offers a small spread of appetizers, as well as calzones. Noteworthy are the Polpette; tender meatballs simmered in rich, tangy tomato sauce all day long before being blasted in the pizza oven and finally topped off with fresh ricotta cheese before arriving at the table.
Taking pizza seriously is not a new thing. In fact, in Italy, they have a system for deeming pizza as Neapolitan or, well, just pizza. Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG) is a quality scheme that assures certain products arrive at the standard they are expected to. For Neapolitan pizza makers around the world, this means using a strict list of ingredients and having actual pizza experts come and eat to assure the quality is met. Many pizza makers in the United States work tirelessly to achieve this plaque. When asked about it, Arcieri’s response was, “I don’t care about that… at all.” Being confined to certain ingredients and practices would only hinder Arcieri’s expertise.
“If I wanted it [the TSG plaque], I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of what I do. I would have to import mozzarella cheese rather than make it fresh daily. I would be restricted in the toppings I could use—the quality of my product would take a hit,” Arcieri continued.
He is absolutely right in thinking this. The second Arcieri changes his pizza to be more “authentic,” the more it starts to resemble a thousand other pizzerias and less like his own. Personally, I know I don’t need to see a plaque on the wall to conclude that Aquila offers what I consider to be one of the best pizzas in New Jersey.
Seven years later, this formula has proven to work. Aquila has a robust list of regulars who return weekly to enjoy Arcieri’s pizzas, as well as newcomers who have heard through the grapevine that something special was behind the doorway of this beguiling Little Falls spot. Takeout only on Wednesdays, and dine-in on Thursday through Saturday has cemented itself as the Aquila Way. Simple, and to the point, is just how Arcieri rolls.
Aquila rides the line between a place for newcomers who want to get their feet wet and one where pizza “snobs” can come to enjoy a perfectly crafted product. The first time I ate here, the dough alone was a dead giveaway that colossal amounts of care were being put into this restaurant every single day.
As a lifelong Jersey guy, I can tell you we’ll all argue about food until the end of time. But one thing is for certain, when talking about the best pizza in NJ, Aquila Pizza Al Forno deserves to be in the conversation.