Peter's Blog
Peter's Blog: Charlotte Mini-Quest Part Two
Peter Reinhart

A few weeks ago I posted about the first part of a local mini pizza quest I went on here in Charlotte. In that post I focused on Wolfgang Puck's new Pizza Bar, but that was only the first stop of the day. From there, journalist and fellow pizza lover Michael Solender, along with photographer Tonya Russ Price and went to three other places, which I want to tell you about now and in upcoming posts. Unfortunately, I can't seem to get the photos up but I wanted to post this now since it's long overdue.

Luisa's Brick Oven Pizza

I've written about Luisa's Brick Oven Pizza in the past (there is a brief essay in Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, by Ed Levine, that tells of my discovery of Luisa's when I first moved to Charlotte as part of the requisite check-list of things anyone must do when they move to a new city: find a doctor, dentist, bank, Chinese restaurant, and a great pizzeria). And, even after nine years I still feel that it is my favorite New York Style pizzeria in Charlotte. I use the term New York Style loosely, though, because it such a big, all encompassing term that it really can mean anything or even nothing. I  need for some of you hard-core NY pizza freaks to chime in here with your idea of what it means, whether narrowed to "by the slice" versions, or classic Neapolitan inspired coal-fired versions like John's, Lombardi's, or Totonno's, or just plain old Ray's and all the Ray's clones and doppelgängers.

For me, though, it's just a way to differentiate from Boston-style (thicker crust, sometimes referred to as Greek-style), Sicilian (focaccia-like, baked in pans), Americana-pizza that focuses on breadier crusts and heavy on the toppings, Detroit and St. Louis-styles with their cracker thin crusts and cross-cut servings, and of course, Napoletana-style pizzerias (attempts to recreate the VPN, or rival associations' pizzas) of Naples, of which only a few American pizzerias do a decent job. In other words, when I say New York pizza what I mean is pizza, round, thin to medium thin crust, nice tomato or other sauce and gooey cheese, aka "Neapolitan" pizza, which means, in my opinion, Naples-inspired pizzas as interpreted by the American pizzerias originally in New York City and thereabouts. Whew, does that make sense to anyone but me?  It can be baked in any kind of oven; therefore, most pizza as we know and love it in America is, for the most part and with infinite nuanced permutations, New York-style pizza. But that's just a digressive rant.

My main point is that I love Luisa's because the crust is thin (but not cracker thin), and it's baked in a twenty year old combination wood-fired/gas forno, and I always eat all my crust "bones," and at least four slices more than I should. The owner, Jeffery Russell, had been the manager for a number of years when it was still owned by Luisa herself, and later, when she decided to focus on her wonderful neighborhood osteria Dolce, Jeffery bought it from her -- I think this was about seven or eight years ago -- and he has done a great job keeping the wheels spinning, the quality high, and continues building a very loyal clientele.

Generally, I'm not a big fan of pizza buffets, but the weekday lunch at Luisa's is one of the greatest bargains in town: all the pizza, salad, and soft drinks you want for $8.00. The day we went there on our mini-quest (I wanted Michael to experience it for himself, and for the article he was writing -- God knows, I'd been there many times already)  the line was the longest I've ever seen it there and the pizzas were flying out of the oven to keep up, and the giant salad bowl kept getting replenished with more lettuce and fixings. My favorite "specialty" pizza on their menu, The Luisa (made with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and ricotta cheese, pesto, and garlic) is prominent in the buffet rotation, so I was in heaven.  When I go for dinner with a small group of people, I often recommend that they also order the Fiorentino, which has spinach, garlic, mozzarella, Parmesan, and Fontina. But the specialty toppings are not the point here and not the reason Luisa's is about the only local pizzeria I go to frequently (other than my own, Pure Pizza, which we'll get to in a future posting). There are a few other reasons: Lori Flanigan has been our server for ten years (and there are other servers too, of course, but Lori is always there for lunch service) and you can't underestimate the value of a consistent and friendly face when it comes to establishing customer loyalty (refer to John Arena's Guest Column series on "going pro" for other such difference makers). Until recently, the pizzas were always made by the same guy, Ray, who said very little but always knew just how much char I liked -- he recently got a better paying non-restaurant job that he couldn't turn down, but his sidekicks, Oro and Marco, provide a seamless transition. As we've often cited, a memorable pizza is in the hands of the pizzaiolo and it bodes well for a place, at least in my estimation, when the employees stay and the turnover, whether front or back of the house, is minimal.  While the most important thing at a pizzeria is the quality of the pizzas, they are not the only factor in making a place memorable. In the end, it's more about the connectedness we feel that reels us back in, and connectedness works on many levels. So, for all these reasons, Luisa's keeps reeling me back.

Which brings me to another successful operation, just a few blocks from Luisa's, that has figured out a formula for success using a trifecta of compelling lures.  Mellow Mushroom, a small franchise concept that began in Atlanta about thirty years ago has developed a brand loyalty among its regulars that is as passionate as Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix even though the two concepts are as different as night and day. We'll explore that in my next Peter's Blog.

 



 
Peter's Blog, Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar
Peter Reinhart

Last week I took a local reporter, Michael Solender, on a local mini-Pizza Quest for a story he is writing for a local magazine. We were accompanied by photographer Tonya Russ Price. We picked four local places to visit, all of which I consider among Charlotte's best: Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar; Luisa's Brick Oven Pizza; Mellow Mushroom; and Pure Pizza (where I serve as "consulting partner"). Michael's article, which I'm sure will be great and very different from my account, won't come out till late April and I'll post the link when it does, but I wanted to post a few comments of my own here, since I found the adventure very rewarding for a number of reasons that I'll explain below.

Why Wolfgang Puck chose Charlotte as the launching pad for his new WP Pizza Bar concept, which will roll out nationwide over the next few years, I'll never know, but I'm thrilled. For some reason he likes Charlotte. His Executive Chef over all the locations, Scott Wallen, was the chef for a number of years just around the corner at Upstream, one of our best seafood restaurants, so maybe that had something to do with it.  I've always loved Wolfgang's food -- he truly is one of the great flavorists of our time, as well as a shrewd and driven businessman. When I lived in San Francisco my favorite restaurant  was Postrio, which was the SF version of Spago, and I think it's safe to say that Puck's flavor palate has influenced nearly every American chef of the past thirty-five years. He has also presided over a line of disappointing frozen pizzas and has branded himself on the shopping networks across a lot of so-so products, which I think has contributed to a diluting of his eponymous brand value, but that's irrelevant at the moment because his restaurant food still sizzles. I'm thrilled that his first WP Pizza Bar exists only one mile from my house.  I know that it has nothing to do with me; Wolfgang and I have met only a few times and I doubt he even knows who I am. However, since I don't believe in coincidences (but I do believe in irony), I would say that it is apt and appropriate that he chose my 'hood to be the flagship location for this venture. I like this restaurant very much and I really enjoy the whole menu, from apps to entrees, as well as the pizzas. Chef Wallen (Scott) took me through his process for the pizzas, including a well thought out dough that uses an aged preferment (about one week old before it gets used), plus an overnight biga, plus an overnight cold fermentation for the dough balls, resulting in a surprisingly soft dough, especially considering that the flour is high gluten of about 14% protein. The first time I had their pizza I thought they were using Italian tipo -00- flour because the texture was so soft. Scott told me it took many months of trial and error in their California test kitchen to achieve this dough. It also contains a little olive oil which, I'm sure, contributes to the softness but, regardless, they pulled it off; an original one-of-a-kind dough topped, naturally, with top of the line ingredients including oven slow roasted tomatoes, organic tomato sauce (the same Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes we use at Pure Pizza -- dang, I thought we were the only ones around here who knew about those!), various imported and domestic cheeses, and the full array of Wolfgang's signature bold flavors, including his famous smoked salmon pizza, the one that was first made famous at Spago, as well as braised short rib, roasted wild mushroom, and barbecue chicken concepts, among the 18 pizzas on the menu. As the pizzas emerge from the dual-heat WoodStone oven, the cornicione is brushed with a tasty garlic oil and then the pies are garnished with various fresh herbs or greens.

Being a crust guy, I spent most of my time talking with Scott about their fermentation method; the idea of holding onto a pate fermentee' (aka pre-fermented dough) for a whole week or more is a very unique technique. I hadn't heard of anyone else doing this. And then, combining it with another preferment, a biga, continues to add layers of flavor as they build toward the final dough.
So here's the thing: the pizzas at WP Pizza Bar are beautiful and look amazingly similar to the ones we make at Pure Pizza. The main difference is the texture of the crust.

Whose is better? It depends on whether you like it soft (Pizza Bar) or al dente (Pure). The good news is that for a city that, ten months ago, had no artisan pizzerias at all, we suddenly have two, both of which are very very good. The business models are also very different; WP Pizza Bar is a beautiful, upscale bistro with a full menu that includes great steaks, fish, various pastas, a full bar, inventive sides and specials (I'm a fan of sauteed spinach with roasted garlic and those oven dry-roasted tomatoes), whereas Pure Pizza exists in the Seventh Street Public Market, a kiosk restaurant in an alt-style food court.

I'll write more about Pure in my next post (after we host our first private beer dinner, which happens tonight), as well as tell you about my stops at Luisa's (my favorite local New York-style Neapolitan pizzeria), and Mellow Mushroom, a brilliant and hugely successful concept pizzeria chain that makes what I consider to be some of the best "Americana" pizza around (and having 36-48 draft beer taps at every location doesn't hurt either).

Bottom-line on WP Pizza Bar: it may take a few years to cover the country and work out all the remaining first year tweaks but I think this is going to eventually be Wolfgang Puck's most financially successful multi-unit concept, mainly because both the food and the pizzas are excellent, and the restaurant design, as always with Wolfgang, is beautiful. He is the Godfather of the gourmet, "California" pizza, and he is now building a series of shrines to celebrate his contribution to the pizza lexicon. Thanks to Wolf and Scott Wallen for kicking it all off right around the corner from my house. The irony is on me!

I'd  love to hear from any of you who may have also been to the WP Pizza Bar. There is now one in Greensboro, NC and I believe another will soon open, perhaps in Raleigh, and also out west. By this time next year there should be three more and then, watch out, they will probably hit the popcorn stage soon after. But the key to why it works, the star attraction, are the pizzas. Who knows, maybe Charlotte will become a pizza town after all….

 
Peter's Blog, Feb. 28th, 2013
Peter Reinhart

This will just be a quickie, as I'm working on a deadline for a project, but I wanted to give everyone a heads up that in the coming days I will be posting a report on my recent mini-pizza quest around Charlotte, where I had a chance to visit with the Executive Chef of Wolfgang Puck's new "Pizza Bar."  For some unknown but beneficial reason for me, Wolfgang chose Charlotte as the place to launch this new concept, which has been open now for about 8 months and has been very well received. The pizzas are superb so, more on this, plus my visits to Mellow Mushroom, Luisa's, and, of course, Pure Pizza.

In addition, I will post photos and stories from this Saturday's Beer Dinner at Pure which, thanks to some of you, is now sold out. So, lots of news to report and, as soon as I can get my photos up and my words on the page, it's all coming your way.

In addition, Brad is on fire with his new "pepperoni" concepts, so he will be posting another piece on his latest passion. I really think he's onto something here.  And John Arena has promised at least one more, and maybe more, in his series on what it takes to go pro.  And we're also just days from posting the next video in the Basta Pizza/Beer Challenge, so lots of good things coming your way. Keep checking back, as there's always something new here on Pizza Quest.

 
Peter's Blog, Upcoming Event, March 2nd
Peter Reinhart

Hi Everyone,
In light of our recent webisode posting about the Basta/Bruery Pizza/Beer Challenge, I think this announcement is very timely. Sadly, it will be more useful to those of you who live near Charlotte, NC so, if you don't, but have friends or family in this area, please feel to tell them about it.

On Saturday, March 2nd we will be hosting a "Farm to Fork" Pizza/Beer Pairing Dinner at the new restaurant where I am a consulting partner, Pure Pizza, located at 224 7th St, in Charlotte (inside the 7th Street Public Market).

Our pizza team has created two totally original pizzas, both made with dough using spent grain from the brewery, to match with a variety of beers from one Charlotte's newest, hottest micro-breweries, Triple C Brewery. The dinner will also include a farm to table salad (and the farmers themselves will be there to talk about their organic produce) and dessert -- a specially created panna cotta (and did I mention, Triple C's amazing beers? Yes, I know I did but we're pretty excited about the pairings, very reminiscent of what we will be showing you in the upcoming webisodes).

It all starts at 7 PM and will also include live music and lots of fun. In other words, a one of a kind pizza party! All for $40.

For more details and to reserve a place (tickets are going fast) go to: http//purepizza.eventbrite.com .   You can also find more info at our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/PurePizza (we'd love it if you'd "like" it). Anyway, this is our first such event (we've only been open for 9 months) so I wanted to get out the word via this growing Pizza Quest community (I also posted this on the Craftsy.com/pizza website -- we're up to 16,500 subscribers which, I'm sure, include many of you). I'll keep you posted in the future when I hear of similar fun pizza events. Hope you or your friends can make it!  I'll take photos and report back after the event.

 
Peter's Blog: Are these the Best in America?
Peter Reinhart

Hi Everyone,

I plan to write more about my recent trip through Texas, and we have some new postings to add this week, but my friend Steve Steingard, with whom I've shared many pizzas (and cheese steaks) while growing up together in Philly, just sent me this link and I wanted to share it with you, asap, because it highlights some very spectacular pizzas, both traditional and innovative.  No list is totally exhaustive and all are subject to argumentation, but this one doesn't just stop at 25 or even 50 but lists over 100 of the finest pizzas in America, with great photos.  Enjoy, and feel free to lodge your comments here, both pro and con, especially if you think one of your own "worthies" was omitted. As for me, it gave me a whole new batch of places to add to our never-ending quest. Thanks Grubstreet!

http://newyork.grubstreet.com/2013/02/the-best-pizza-in-america.html

 
News Flash!
Peter Reinhart

Great news. --  the Craftsy mini-pizza course launched yesterday and we already have 2,200 subscribers! To get the free video course, "Perfect Pizza at Home" go to www.craftsy.com/pizza and sign up. Did I mention that it's FREE!!  I just watched the whole series from my hotel room (yes, I'm still in Texas) and I have to say, I'm really pleased with how it turned out. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Now, on to Houston....

 

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Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.

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