Pie in the Sky
Pie town is making pizza that has to be tasted to be believed
Could it be possible that Pie Town has the best pizza pie on Earth? Say what you want about Santarpio's in East Boston, Santoro's in Buffalo, Lorenzo's in Philly, Mack and Manco on the Jersey Shore, Frank Pepe in New Haven, and the thousand or so places in NYC, but is it possible that a place in little ol' Charlotte could possibly know anything about real pizza? My answer is yes.
For those who now wish to bake me in effigy, I ask a favor. Before you pass judgment, go to Pie Town and order the margherita pizza. Experience the chewy crunch of the first bite. Savor the bright but balanced tomato sauce, locally made (Chapel Hill Creamery) golden mozzarella, and fresh basil. Dip the smoky blackened crust in the red chili oil. Revel in the crispy/soft complexity of the cornicione, the bubbly edge of the crust. Wash it down with a sip of good red wine and, as we did on a few visits, look around the table in disbelief that something so simple could ever be this good.
This goodness, however, is not by accident, and it doesn't end with pizza. Chef in residence Peter Reinhart works just across Trade Street at Johnson & Wales as a baking instructor and is a James Beard Award-winning author. His most recent effort is a fine cookbook-travelogue (American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, Ten Speed Press) that takes him from Napoli to Boston to Providence to Philly to New Haven to New York in search of the perfect pizza and the perfect crust. In his wide travels, Reinhart has tasted the very finest pizzas in the world. In the Reinhart family of doughs, you will find a classic pizza crust, a twelve-grain crust, and, for sandwiches, foccacia and panini. All are fired quickly in a ceramic-lined, 800-degree, gas-fired, $50,000 Woodstone oven. (They are very proud of this oven, by the way, and will gladly let you take a peek if you like.) That this place — as well as the partnership with Pierre Bader and Executive Chef Tim Groody — exists in Charlotte is remarkable, and demands immediate attention.
For patrons of the former Town restaurant, little will look different. The space has essentially the same layout. There is a bar in the center, a private room to the right, and the main dining room on the left, just off the kitchen. The restaurant was about half full on each of three visits, which explains the rather flat atmosphere. Lunch patrons seem to be mostly local Gateway Village businesspeople, with the odd J&W student thrown in, and dinner was a mixed crowd of double dates, couples, and larger groups. The service is friendly but uneven. One server barely spoke through a lunch service, while our dinner waiter on one visit was gregarious and answered every question. But I think the biggest challenge for Pie Town is the same challenge that faces other "upscale" pizza concepts—one of positioning. It's a little pricey for the traditional beer-and-pizza crowd and too lowbrow for white tablecloths.
Pizza isn't the only star here. At the core of the Pie Town menu is a passion for pure "farm-to-table" ingredients. House-cured guanciale bacon from Cane Creek, organic flour from Lindley Mills, and seasonal herbs and vegetables from local farmers are featured throughout. Appetizers are simple and delicious ($3-$6) and feature a salumi plate with good house-cured meats, a light and flavorful flash-baked caramelized cauliflower, and the fun and tasty speidini selections. The latter are little rolls of beef, eggplant, chicken, or prosciutto filled with savory stuffings, baked in the oven and ideal for sharing. Lunch features pizza and appetizers as well as a selection of salads ($6.50 to $8) and paninis ($7 to $8.50). Try the velvety-smooth veal meatball panini on the house-baked foccacia — not your typical meatball sammy.
Pierre Bader and Tim Groody, with the help of master pizzaiolo Peter Reinhart, have transformed the sleepy Town into a must-visit pizza joint specializing in artisanal ingredients.
Jon Luther's favorite:
On the simple pizza section of the menu ($10-$16) you will find proven classics like the aforementioned margherita as well as a few regional specialties. Take the white clam pizza, for instance. Name-checking Frank Pepe in New Haven shows the respect Reinhardt has for the places he has been. And the pie, with chunks of fresh clams, garlic, and a blend of mozzarella, Parmesan, and cheddar, pays appropriate homage. Another standout is the wild mushroom pizza. Simple, earthy, and delicious. But the supernova is the bacon and egg pizza. Tangy Gruyère, thick and smoky bacon, and arugula provide the base for two free-range eggs. The pizza takes only about three minutes to cook in the oven, and the eggs are added in the final thirty seconds. It arrives with the whites just set and yolks sunny side up. A quick flick of the wrist from the waiter's knife breaks the brilliant yellow yolks, and they ooze over the hot pie, cooking the yolks in the process. The result is a jaw-dropping flavor and texture assault so ethereal and original, it simply must be experienced to be believed.
Yes, Pie Town is for real. Bader, Groody, and Reinhardt source local artisanal ingredients, knead insanely good dough, and use the perfect oven in which to bake it. But is it the best pizza on Earth? That's probably an unanswerable question. It certainly could be, but who am I to say? We all have our opinions, and the landscape is ever changing. (Have you been to Luisa's, Mezzanotte, or Intermezzo lately?) Perhaps it's not the destination, but the ride. After all, as Chef Reinhart keenly observes in his book, "Pizza is, and always will be, a work in progress."
710 W. Trade St.
$$, L, D, FSB
All of Jon Luther's visits are anonymous. Read past reviews at www.charlottemagazine.com.