I hit North Carolina a couple weeks ago to see some family and oddly enough they all wanted to take me to their local pizza shops! Who was I to argue? Here’s a rundown of where we went.
The first stop, which we hit immediately upon landing in Charlotte, wasn’t a pizzeria at all. I was invited to Johnson and Wales University by the great Peter Reinhart. If calling him “the great” doesn’t fully explain Peter’s majesty, allow me to explain. I first found out about Peter’s work through his book American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza. I then found out that he wrote THE seminal book about bread, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Now Peter teaches baking at JWU and runs the website Pizza Quest, for which I am proud to write the occasional guest column. Coincidentally, Peter was scheduled to give a lecture about pizza just a couple hours after my plane landed. Such luck! Not only did I get to attend his lecture, he also asked me to say a few words to his class. It was amazing to share the space with him. PLUS I got to watching him make some killer focaccia! Then we ate it. It was seriously so damn awesome.
Peter gave us some good tips (for pizza and fried chicken) but we were running out of time in Charlotte so decided to hit them on the way back through town.
The first proper pizzeria stop was Pi Squared in Hendersonville, NC. This was seriously the most recommended pizzeria in town by far. Everybody mentioned it. That made the decision pretty simple, so we headed over to this little shop to discover the last thing I thought I’d find in the state: Detroit style pizza. Here I thought this style was only picking up steam in major cities, but there it was in a small town in North Carolina. Not expected at all. If you’re not familiar with Detroit style pizza, it’s a pan baked pie with a thick, airy crust. It’s sort of like Sicilian pizza but this stuff gets baked in a steel pan with angled sides so the cheese slips along the dough’s edge and forms a caramelized crown around the perimeter. It’s so dang delicious!
Even though their name clearly indicated that square pies are king at Pi Squared, I had to try their thin crust as well. This is a round pie made from a purchased shell. It’s pleasant enough, but not nearly as special as the square pies. Nevertheless, the square pies were so good I’ll have to add this to my list of must-visits in the state of North Carolina. No question about it.
Next up was All Souls Pizza in Asheville. Peter recommended this one and I can see why. This is a serious place for bread lovers. Not only do they use natural fermentation (a starter instead of packaged yeast), they also mill their own flour. HELL YES! The owner is a partner at a nearby bakery that mills it for them. This is a trend I’m starting to notice at the really hip spots that want to control every aspect of the process.
We had two pies: a spicy shrimp pizza (directly above) and a spicy soppressata pizza (above the shrimp pie photo). Both were pretty good, but felt more like topped breads than pizza. It’s hard to put my finger on the big difference, but there was just a level of cohesion missing from these pies for me. Still, the crusts were great and I’ll definitely go back next time I’m in town.
Here’s a shot of the pizza guys at All Souls Pizza. Very cool spot with house-milled flour.
After All Souls, we headed around the corner to a place called Fresh Wood Fired Pizza. They have a wood fired oven (it’s beautiful!) but the pies come out looking like they were fired in a standard deck oven. I’m cool with that, but the pizzas just weren’t anything to get excited about. This is what I expected North Carolina pizza to be.
Next up was an unexpected pizza recommendation from some of the Johnson and Wales staffers. This place is called the Purple Onion and it’s located in Saluda, NC. This tiny town was already on our destination list because my girlfriend grew up there. This is one of the favorite (of the few) restaurants in town and the pizza seemed interesting enough. We ordered one with mozzarella, parmigiano, mushrooms, and arugula. It was super tasty, but once again we were eating something that felt more like a topped bread than a pizza. I don’t think they have a pizza oven at the Purple Onion, so this may have been baked in a pan inside a gas oven.
Finally, we hit Pure Pizza just before heading to the airport. I was really excited to check this one out because the opening consultant was my friend Peter Reinhart! We didn’t have a chance to visit with him, so we made it a quick stop during our final moments in town. They offer a couple different crust options, so I ordered a chorizo pizza with the original crust (pie on the right) and another with the pulled pork pie on their sprouted ancient grain crust. I should have ordered something with tomato sauce, but these two were jumping out to me at the moment. They were super tasty! Great job from Peter and his team.
My overall take on pizza in North Carolina (Charlotte and Asheville) is that it’s much better than I anticipated. It’s not a must-visit pizza city just yet, but the puzzle pieces are certainly there. I saw a degree of attention to dough and bread that is totally necessary for good pizza.