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.