WOP Pizzeria, Plaza Damas

September 21, 2020

Five years ago, Ikmal Burhanuddin built his first brick oven, cooked his first wood-fired pizza, and began his foray into food services with his wife, Azara Nur Abdul Rahman. Every step they took was a leap of faith forward, from popping up at festivals to setting up tables and chairs for patrons outside their family's home, from renting a corner in a restaurant to opening their first pizzeria in Shah Alam.

Fate and fortune have now taken them to Sri Hartamas, where WOP Pizzeria has found a new lease of life in Plaza Damas. In May this year, Ikmal and Azara closed their Shah Alam outlet, a casualty of 2020's turmoil as customers stopped coming. To their surprise, they then received a partnership offer from one of their fans, SOCAR Malaysia's CEO Leon Sing Foong, who earlier also invested in the RAGE Coffee delivery business. Less than half a year later, Ikmal and Azara are poised to reach their widest audience yet, as artisanal pizzas become one of cosmopolitan KL's hottest food movements.

WOP's oven in Plaza Damas is the first that Ikmal hasn't crafted with his own hands - he previously constructed five from scratch, one of which fell apart from temperamental temperatures while being transported in 2015. There's no such threat with this new Gianni Acunto wood-and-gas kiln, built in Naples by a company founded before World War I.

An oven this magnificent couldn't be in better hands in Malaysia than Ikmal's, the embodiment of a self-taught chef whose skills have been sharpened in fire. Ikmal and Azara have never set foot in Naples - their farthest journey in their decade-old marriage was a honeymoon in New Zealand - but their pizzas are impressive enough to make any of us quote Julia and gush, "I'm in love. I'm having a relationship with my pizza."

Not all wood-fired pizzas are created equal. WOP specialises in Neapolitan-style pizza, the pizza napoletana of Naples. This starts, as a pizza would, with the dough - tipo 00, soft and super-fine, yielding a crust that's thick around the edges and thin toward the middle. Then come the tomatoes, the San Marzano, a variety of plum tomatoes that trace their lineage to volcanic soil in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, beautifully balanced in sweetness, tang and acidity.

The purest way to savour pizza napoletana's tomato component is the Marinara (RM26), uniting San Marzano tomato sauce with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, oregano and basil. Simple and sure, the culinary equivalent of three chords and the truth; it's an unvarnished recipe that's three centuries old, that'll outlive all of us reading these words today.

Another ideal introduction to pizza napoletana is WOP's Bianca Con Pomodorini (RM42), a white pizza without tomato sauce, topped with a choice of buffalo mozzarella or fior di latte (mozzarella made with cow's milk), cherry tomatoes and basil. For this, the dough seizes the spotlight, fermented for 48 hours, then cooked at about 450 degrees Celsius for up to 90 seconds. 

If your favourite part of the pizza is the crust, this is the one to order, with a soft but substantial chew, its rim beautifully blemished with burn marks (which some folks will insist on telling you is known as leopard spotting) and elastically puffy (poke the outer edge, which those same folks will inform you is called a cornicione, and it'll slowly bounce back up). Note: The base is supple enough that your toppings will slip and slide over while being picked up - fold your slice so it won't flop. 

The most famous of Neapolitan pizzas is the Margherita (RM34), which brings all the fundamentals together - that unmistakably tender, warmly smoky crust, the rich and ripe tomatoes, and the marvellous mozzarella. For this, WOP serves what is traditionally the Margherita Extra, with buffalo mozzarella instead of fior di latte, but with a Malaysian flourish. WOP makes its own buffalo mozzarella with the milk of Semenyih-bred water buffaloes; each batch might be a bit different, but ours was even more delicately creamy than imported buffalo mozzarella - it's certainly no inferior substitute, not rubbery at all, a testament to Ikmal and Azara's ability to recognise quality in their own work.

Beyond the basics, there are several WOP originals that succeed in staying true to the Neapolitan heritage while adding well-considered attractions. Chief among them is the Smoked Beef and Rocket (RM49), layered with brisket that's been smoked for 14 to 16 hours, resulting in sensuously sultry meat with deep-penetrating, gorgeously grilled nuances. All the prep is painstaking, taking Ikmal and Azara away from their three homeschooled children - two daughters and a son between three to nearly eight years old, still living in Shah Alam - but their sacrifice results in satisfaction that's worth the price patrons pay.

A smoked duck pizza with duck that's actually smoked by the restaurant? Count us in for WOP's, fleshy and full-bodied, with just enough gentle heat in the meat after being smoked for three hours, garlanded with a balsamic glaze with a mellow tartness to enhance the duck (RM47). It's a lovely melding of flavours that makes us grateful Ikmal chose to renounce a nine-year career as an IT projects manager and pursue his passion for cooking - as a boy, he hoped to become a chef, but his parents steered him toward safer professions; in the long run, things worked out like they should have.

We were ready to leave, but we had to have one more pizza - Azara's favourite, the Spicy Shrimp Garlic (RM47), crowned with plump prawns marinated with garlic and cayenne, reminiscent of the Spanish tapa of gambas al ajillo, as great as a crustacean pizza gets. Though this might shock some fans, Ikmal isn't actually the one who truly enjoys eating pizzas - he loves the process of creating them, while Azara is the one who loves, loves, loves the taste of pizzas.

It seems like a lifetime since Ikmal and Azara sold Pizza Margherita for RM13 by the street opposite a bus stop in Shah Alam. They've been through hard knocks but they've earned their niche through resilience and merit; they've maintained their genuine warmth and modest humility - a gust of fresh air in KL, a graceful admission that even if any of us live to be 100 years old, we'll always have more to learn about food, and being a good person is preferable to having a good palate.


WOP Pizzeria

H-0-8, Plaza Damas, Jalan Sri Hartamas 1, Sri Hartamas, 50480 Kuala Lumpur. Daily, 11am-10pm.

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