It’s almost National Pizza Day. From Carmella’s to Zio, here’s how Charlotte pie makers do it differently.

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Photo by Ben Jarrell
Open Kitchen

Appreciating a pizza you’ve come to know and love is easy. And in the Queen City, whether you prefer a thick crust ringed with caramelized mozzarella, or one that is thin and charred; cheese stretching to the length of your arm, or in a rich, contained bite; toppings piled high or conserved for one special ingredient to shine — pizza makers in town are offering us a range of choices. So, too, do locals have their own personal preferences.

I look back on my pizza progression. A childhood friend, and still best, and I envisioned our artisanal pizza bagel empire all before the age of 12 — inspired by our favorite mid-afternoon snack. In my teen years, the arrival of the pizza delivery man on a weekday night meant Mom was too tired to cook or to argue for green vegetables at Morrison’s Cafeteria.

Brixx late night pizza was my nourishment of choice when I started working in restaurants — the comfort of bread and cheese, alongside a couple of cooks and cold beers, was all the distraction it took to remove me from the stress of the day. And while working as a pastry chef in the Mission district of San Francisco, part of my compensation was a staff meal every day — almost always a 12” pie from their pizzeria next door — topped with everything from hearty lettuces to cherrystone clams to fresh farm eggs.

But give that Bagel Bite-eating kid of my childhood a slice of his future self’s favorite pie — Icaran bubbles blackened by a 1000-degree oven, foreign ingredients, dank cheese, and dripping egg yolk — and he would’ve quit on his appreciation of pizza a long time ago.

Photo illustration by Ben Jarrell / photos via Yelp
A sampling of Charlotte’s pizza scene

So, thank you to all those pizza makers out there who shaped my love of pizza and continue to do so. Without you, I’d still be eating my pizzas as ‘Bites,’ rather than continuing to learn and appreciate what makes each bite of pizza special.

Ahead of National Pizza Day on Saturday, we asked Charlotte pizza makers what makes their pies unique. From dough to sauce to cheese to toppings — find out how your favorite slice in town is made.

Dough

Dough recipes vary depending on the intended need. A dough more rich in olive oil or similar fat will result in a softer crust. Logically, a more lean dough produces a harder, crispier crust. The structure of a dough is formed by the development of proteins in wheat flour — necessary for a classic pizza dough.

Yeast colonies consume starches and sugars, and give off carbon dioxide. The collection of proteins found in the endosperm of the wheat seed, or gluten, allows the dough to stretch, capturing the gases released by the digesting yeast. Even the choice of water is critical from pH to minerality, with dough makers following rigid lines as to what they prefer.

Comprising the vast majority of the mass of a dough, the choice of flour is critical. While an acceptable pizza dough can be created with an all-purpose wheat flour, some kitchens opt for specialty flours like a high-protein blend or Italy’s ‘00’ flour, rated for its fineness.

[Related: Kathleen Purvis explores ‘00’ flour and what makes a true Neapolitan pizza]

According to Grant Arons, owner of Inizio Pizza Napoletana, a pizza is limited by the quality of the dough.

“When it comes to pizza, dough is everything. It’s the foundation on which all other ingredients stand. If you have boring dough, you have boring pizza.”

But it’s not as easy as just throwing it all in a bowl and into a dark corner.

“Great dough comes from understanding the science of bread, from wheat berry to pizza crust. Having a great flour doesn’t mean you’ll have great dough. The baker needs to understand how to coax flavor through fermentation.”

How long is Inizio’s dough process?

“Three days from start to finish,” Arons said.

In addition to their classic Neapolitan crust made from wheat milled in North Carolina, Pure Pizza offers a sprouted grain crust as well as a gluten-free version — championing the nutritive and digestive properties of both.

While owners of TRUE Crafted Pizza were researching their dough recipes, they turned to German-born bread expert and Johnson & Wales professor, Harry Peemoeller, who helped develop for them  “a truly unique pizza dough.”

Pop into one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods to find a microcosm of Charlotte’s dough possibilities. Along just a 20-minute walk through the Madison Park/Montford area you’ll find thin crust at Luisa’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, deep-dish at Jet’s Pizza, NYC-style at Libretto’s Pizzeria and a crust style that may remind you of Papa’s or The Hut’s in Carmella’s Pizza Grill.

Toss yourself down Park Road and you’ll land at Pasta & Provisions, which utilizes a thin, crispy crust — along with elevated frozen varieties. A little further down the road is Portofino’s Charlotte, where loyal fans swear by the giant NYC slices with carbonized edges.  

Sauce

Even the shared name of tomato sauce can have wild variations.

In 1952, The World Famous Open Kitchen brought Charlotte its first taste of the “exotic” tomato sauce of Italy.

At Stagioni, a regional Italian kitchen known for handing you oversized scissors with your pizza, new chef at the helm, Eric Ferguson describes their philosophy on tomato sauce.

“Our approach is pretty simple: always use good ingredients and treat gently. We start with San Marzano tomatoes, a little oregano, a touch of chili flakes and salt.  This gets put into a roasting pan and into the wood oven to slowly remove about 25% of the moisture. During this time the sauce develops and takes on a little smokiness from the wood fire.”

And of course chefs, bored cooks, and boozy late nighters have come up with their own versions of sauces with the possibilities only limited by your concept of the word. Purists may easily scoff, but the friendly people at Zablong Peculiar Pizza in Uptown’s Third Ward don’t judge me when I combine roasted garlic puree and ricotta cheese for the base of my pork belly, mushroom, pepperoni, and pineapple pizza (try it -> love/knock it).

Cheese

A pizzaiolo’s choice and use of cheese is personal. Local spots from Fuel Pizza to Hawthorne’s New York Pizza & Bar to Luigi’s Pizza to new spots Sal’s Pizza Factory and Pizzeria Sapienza CLT all specialize in New York-style pizza — but range in their uses of part-skim to full-fat mozzarella.

Sabio Durazzo of the new Sal’s Pizza Factory in East Charlotte mixes whole milk and part-skim mozzarella for his signature mozzarella blend. “I blend it myself. It’s the way I’ve been making it my whole life,” says Durazzo.

At DeSano Pizzeria in Midtown, the prized Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, made from the rich milk of Italian water buffaloes is used. Slices are carefully placed atop the thin dough before being blasted by the 800-degree wood oven.

Intermezzo Pizzeria & Café, a kitchen in Plaza Midwood specializing in Serbian cuisine, makes an in-house mozzarella just for use on its margherita pizza while using shredded mozzarella for all others.

And the power of pizza at Mama Ricotta’s Italian Kitchen helped launch Frank Scibelli’s restaurant empire. Its namesake cheese on a slice alongside a side of meatballs is a treat worthy of a Queen City.

Toppings

Just like the definition of sauce is only determined by your own imagination, a pizza topping is just as flexible. But philosophies differ on whether less is more — or if flavor brinkmanship is the game to play.

Favorites at Wolfman Pizza like the Big Bad Wolf and Mojo pizzas pile toppings requiring either a two finger and thumb tripod for support, or a knife and fork for those Seinfeldian society-types. Every open surface is covered with a mix of a half-dozen toppings or more, making each bite rich and intense.

But hungry 49’ers tend to keep it simple. The pepperoni pizza is up there with the bestsellers at Giacomo’s Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant near UNCC. Likewise, at Da Vinci’s Pizza, simple combinations like pepperoni and even just plain cheese rank with its most popular choices.

At Zio Casual Italian in the Myers Park neighborhood, despite having a multitude of options between their ‘hot-’ and ‘grilled pies,’ single topping pizzas remain some of the most popular.

But owner Jim Consol describes his favorite. “For me, our goat cheese and prosciutto pie has a great mix of flavors — caramelized shallots, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, prosciutto — finished with baby arugula and truffle oil.  A nice combination of contrasting textures, flavors and temperatures.”

And this is only a taste of what pizza makers around town are introducing us to …

Maybe I forgot your favorite pizza spot. And for that, I am truly sorry. It wasn’t, however, out of hatred, but rather out of preference, or perhaps even out of my own ignorance. Or maybe you just moved to Charlotte and think the pizza here sucks compared to your hometown. Share it with us. Let us know how beautiful and unique your favorite pizza is so we can use your experiences to grow our city into a more complete place. Because while you are still ‘you,’ you’re also a part of ‘us’ now too.

Welcome.

In a world filled with growing differences, let’s make an effort to understand them — and perhaps even enjoy them. Let’s understand that other people have favorites for reasons just as personal as our own. Let’s educate ourselves on those differences so we can have a more appreciative world.

But let’s start with pizza.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Partial to The Exchange Pizza Depot in Matthews personally – but maybe that is because two of their pizzas are named after my kids!! 😉

  2. Aw, no craft beer(! locally sourced-hops from the far regions and mountains of the Carolinas…) pairings with the pizzas mentioned. This would’ve been a a perfect time to do so on Charlotte 5’s otherwise craft beer-centric posts (including a beer pairing with an opera, heysus kristo!). Let’s educate ourselves on those differences so we can have a more appreciative world, shall we?

  3. Craft beer nerds can’t give it a rest long enough to focus on Pizza!! Zio does it right but Sal’s is new and making a great pie.

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