Shiree Kidron suddenly burst into song at Duetto recently, while she and her husband, Eli Navon, waited for their cheese pizza.
The Greene Street bistro was transformed into La Scala for a few brief moments, as the beautiful soprano's rendition of the Italian classic "Oh Mio Babbino Caro" shook the painted walls and plate glass windows. Jaws dropped. Tears were shed. Everyone applauded.
Leonardo and Silvia Baldi and Steve Thomas own the pizza and gelato restaurant, which has become wildly popular with locals and visitors since it opened two years ago. The trio smiled from behind a glass case filled with the tempting slices that diehard Duetto fans sample two or three times a day.
There are many ingredients to Duetto's growing popularity and loyal following, not the least of which is a commitment to keeping things simple.
"We're realistic about what we can do," Thomas said. "We don't overextend ourselves. It's quality over quantity. We'd rather make better pizza than more pizza."
Leonardo and Silvia Baldi emigrated from Italy to the United States in 2002, bringing years of experience making and marketing gelato, an ice cream-like confection that is a staple of the Italian diet.
In early 2012, they relocated to Key West with plans to open a restaurant.
"We always wanted to do something in Key West," Leonardo said. "It's much friendlier down here, with lots of nice people. Everyone knows everyone."
"In Torino, we were freezing," Silvia said. "In Key West, we were going to Bahia Honda beach, renting scooters and riding our bikes through the cemetery."
The Baldis were hesitant to open a gelato shop, not knowing if they could sell enough of the frozen confection to remain in business for very long. So, they invited Silvia's cousin, Giancarlo, to bring his pizza-making skills over from Italy and join them in the business.
The Baldis later met and partnered with Steve Thomas on the venture.
Thomas is an Italian-American from New York who lived in Italy for more than a decade and ran his own restaurant near West Point years ago. He was working part-time designing the interior of Charlie Mac's barbecue restaurant on Southard Street when he heard there was a place on Greene Street serving genuine Italian espresso.
"Italians have high standards for lots of things, coffee included," he said. "When I heard they were serving real Italian espresso, I told myself I'd have to be the judge of that."
Thomas was impressed, so much so that he joined the Baldis and learned the art of making genuine Italian pizza from Giancarlo before Giancarlo returned to Italy. Last year, Thomas spent two weeks refining his skills at Pizza University, just outside Bologna, Italy. Among other things, he learned to make crust that is light, fluffy and aromatic and crispier and more digestable than that found on most other pizzas.
"It was full immersion with premier pizza makers," Thomas said. "Every day for a week, it was all about understanding ovens, dough and how to make the best."
In addition, crushed plum tomatoes give Duetto's sauce its unique sweetness, and higher-quality cheeses make for less oil.
Duetto offers 24 varieties of traditional and stuffed pies, everything from the Italian classics (plain cheese or Capricciosa) to Americanized favorites (with pepperoni, meatballs, chicken or eggplant). Pizza makers produce upward of 130 pies every day for sale whole or by the slice. Demand is so high that some nights, pizza makers will run out of dough well before closing time.
Gelato is another big hit, made fresh daily with all-natural ingredients and displayed in a wide glass case at the front of the store. Since gelato is made with milk, not cream, it has about half the fat and calories of ice cream and allows for more intense flavor.
Servers drop spatulas into creamy peaks of white, pink, brown and green gelato, scooping the dessert into cups, cones and pint-sized containers. Ten of the 12 flavors are standard, with the remaining two rotated out periodically to make room for more options.
"We stick to the basics and do flavors we know people like," Leonardo said.
The menu also includes sandwiches (paninis, wraps and focaccia), croissants, Italian coffees, smoothies and Italian beer and wine.
Chemistry between staff and clientele is another reason why business is always brisk. Leonardo, Silvia and Steve make sure that at least one of them is on the premises at all times, greeting customers (some so familiar that they greet them by name), asking how they're enjoying their food and inviting them to return for more.
"We want customers to feel like they're family," Steve said.
When their pie finally emerged, Kidron and Navon walked to an outside table, lifted the lid on the cardboard box and dug into the cheesy goodness.
"I saw someone walking around here somewhere eating a slice of pizza the other day," Navon said. "It looked so good, I had to ask where he got it."
"He has been bugging me to come here ever since," Kidron said, pointing to her husband.
It took Kidron, cantor at Bet Shira Congregation in Miami, and her husband less than 15 minutes to consume most of the 16-inch pie.
"I'm not sure why we came here, considering we already ate dinner," Kidron said. "But I'm glad we did."