AAS 2007 by Michael Corcoran
When Liz Mahoney and Michael Dinsmore moved to Austin from the East Coast as newlyweds three and a half years ago, there was much they loved about the creative community they now call home. The weather. The film scene. The laid-back vibe. Emo’s.
What kept this from truly being paradise, however, was that Mahoney couldn’t find the thin crust New Haven, Conn.-styled pizza she grew up with at Harry’s Pizzeria Napoletana, owned by her parents in West Hartford, Conn. Dinsmore, meanwhile, pined for the simple, spectacular pies of Santarpio’s in his native Boston.
For Jen Scoville Strickland, a former food editor at the Austin Chronicle, what this Tex-Mex mecca lacked was a yeasty-scented neighborhood joint where she could get big, foldable, crispy and chewy slices of pizza like those that provided heavenly sustenance during her four years at New York University in Manhattan.
You remember your first great slices forever, and for Bill Graham, who was Güero’s longtime manager, that meant the tantalizing triangles of crust, sauce and cheese at Don Campiti’s in his old hometown of Pittsburgh. If only Austin had such a place . . .
From such stomach-growling longing, a pizza awakening has emerged in Central Austin, with Strickland’s Home Slice Pizza on South Congress Avenue leading the way in November 2005. Graham and business partner Brad Yerkes gave SoCo a one-two pizza punch when they opened Southside Flying Pizza in July, while Mahoney and Dinsmore brought Salvation Pizza to a quaint house on West 34th Street in August.
Add East Side Pies on Rosewood Avenue, which grew out of co-owner Noah Polk’s craving for non-Domino’s pizza while he worked the bar at the Longbranch Inn, and Austin has become a new haven for pizza lovers.
Folks also swear by the pizza at Mandola’s Italian Market at 4700 W. Guadalupe St., Mangieri’s Pizza Café at 5900 W. Slaughter Lane and Constantine’s in downtown Buda, which all opened less than a year ago. Rejoice, Austin, and keep your eyes on the pies.
It’s not that there wasn’t good pizza in town before this new wave of thin crust-aceans. In North Austin you had the big three of Saccone’s, Reale’s and Roppolo’s, burning the upper palates of homesick Yankees for years. With the subsequent openings of Frank & Angie’s on West Avenue, Rounder’s on West Sixth Street and Flying Tomato Pizza Kitchen, just down the street from the Brick Oven on West 35th Street, it was no longer necessary to get on U.S. 183 for a tasty discus of dough and toppings. Mangia brought the classic Chicago deep-dish style to A-Town and the young rock ‘n’ roll crowd discovered the Parlor’s pizza was totally awesome. Even the Drag could finally boast a taste of Brooklyn with Slices N’ Ices opening next to the Hole In the Wall.
Who could’ve envisioned that Austin would one day have more great pizza parlors than barbecue joints? But when you think about it, pizza is the ultimate communal slacker grub, able to feed the whole band. As minimalist food that you can eat walking down the street delivering existential lines in a Richard Linklater film, pizza could be among the most Austin of foods.
But old perceptions are hard to shake and some East Coast transplants and visitors continue to knock Austin as a city that does pizza like Rhode Island does breakfast tacos. Some say the water’s not right here, that the climate’s too warm, that Austin’s too far from the ocean to make an authentic Neapolitan pie.
“There’s just never been much of a pizza tradition here,” says Yerkes, a lifelong Austinite whose local restaurant experience includes helping to open the Mezzaluna and Siena restaurants in the ’90s. “It’s important to educate folks in Texas that pizza isn’t all the same.” In other words: time to lose that Mr. Gatti’s number (if that were only possible).
Slices of life
Unlike settlers from Eastern Europe and Mexico who profoundly influenced Texas cuisine, Italian immigrants generally didn’t make it this far southwest. There were almost no old-school “pizzaioli” here to pass on the tricks and secrets.
But you could go to the master pie men up north. Almost two years before Home Slice opened, Strickland and her husband, Joseph, a native of Houston, apprenticed for a couple of weeks at Angelo’s, a New Jersey pizzeria. “We didn’t do it just to see how it’s done,” says Jen, whose home-baked thin crust pizza was already legendary among her circle of Austin friends. “Joseph and I just wanted to make sure we wouldn’t hate working in a pizza joint 60 hours a week.”
When they returned, newly determined, they started rounding up investors, eventually spending nearly $400,000 to turn the Aqua antique furniture store into the hippest pizza destination in Texas. “We were slammed from Day One,” says Joseph, who drew up the business plan for Home Slice after he was laid off in the dotcom bust.
“We weren’t ready for it,” admits Jen. The biggest complaint at the beginning was that the pizzas were taking too long. “Angelo’s wasn’t nearly as busy as we were and, not being restaurant veterans, we weren’t prepared for the crush,” she adds. “It was kind of scary, really.”
The kinks have been worked out now and the Stricklands and operating partner Terri Hannifin have learned to love the adrenaline rush that comes with serving an average of 200 pizzas a day.
There was also nothing soft about Salvation’s word-of-mouth opening. “We were jam-packed and the air conditioning wasn’t working – in August,” says Mahoney. To knock the stress level out of the park, the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, Keating, had made a young friend and chased him around the restaurant’s three rooms screeching at the top of her lungs. “After we got through that day, we were prepared for anything,” Dinsmore says.
But sometimes the biggest headaches can come from mild-mannered city bureaucrats. Like Home Slice, Southside Flying Pizza had to slowly maneuver through all the red tape that comes when you put a restaurant into a location that previously wasn’t one. “We had to gut the building,” Graham says of the move into the former location of Fast Freddy’s hair salon. “It cost us $20,000 just to remove the asbestos.” The joint eventually cost the owners and their investors $300,000 to open.
Salvation, which moved right into the original Starlite restaurant location where Mahoney worked, opened for about $100,000, while Polk and East Side Pies’ concept man Michael Freid estimate that $65,000 put them in business at the former Fish R Us location.
‘Just like home’
“It was the right decision,” says Freid, who met Polk eight years ago across a chess set at Mojo’s coffeehouse. “We have a figure that’s our daily break-even point and we’ve surpassed it every day we’ve been open.” There’s probably not a more diverse eatery clientele in Austin than their East Side Pies, which serves tasty, cracker-thin pies to tattooed scenesters, longtime neighborhood folks and downtown office workers who pop in for a quick slice between meetings.
“I’d say, no exaggeration, we have five people a day tell us this is the best pizza they’ve ever had,” says Freid, a Culinary Institute of America grad who names his creations, including the Epoch (artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes and feta cheese) and the Damon (salami, green chiles, roasted red peppers, roasted onions, sauerkraut), after coffeehouses and friends.
The Stricklands keep a growing stack of e-mail raves. “The best part of the job is when people tell you they love your food,” Jen says.
Mahoney’s eyes light up when she recalls her favorite compliment at Salvation. “It was a woman from New Haven and she was pretty skeptical at first,” says Mahoney, who at 28 doesn’t seem old enough to run an old-school pizza joint. “She took a bite and then put both thumbs up. ‘Just like home,’ she said. ‘As good as Pepe’s.’ ” The reference was to the legendary Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, which set the standard for New Haven pizza when it opened in 1925. This would be like a Taylor resident declaring a Connecticut barbecue place as good as Louie Mueller’s.
Getting the right ingredients is paramount in duplicating the great Northeast pizza haunts, which is why Salvation imports yeast from Connecticut, which Dinsmore says is the key to achieving Harry’s-like dough.
Salvation uses the same oven brand (Blodgett) as Harry’s, right down to the granite cooking surface. Dinsmore spent two months learning to work the oven in West Hartford, a task that Mahoney jokes she wouldn’t wish on anyone. “My father can be a tyrant. Our kitchen is so laid-back compared to the one up in Connecticut.”
Sometimes, though, things can get a little crazy. Dinsmore recalls the night several people, in several parties, walked in at roughly the same time on a Wednesday night after he’d sent home all but one waitress. This can be a nightmare scenario for a new restaurant, but waitress Sonia Rangel deftly deflected calamity with a speech to the customers. “She said, ‘OK, 30 people just walked in and I’m the only waitress, but I promise you everyone will get their pizza, just please work with me,’ ” Dinsmore recalls. Charmed by such honesty, the mood turned festive and everyone walked into the night satisfied and smiling.
Rangel and Dinsmore were slumped into exhausted yet exhilarated heaps when it was closing time, but one customer stepped back into the restaurant. “Hey, when are you going to open a location up north?” the customer asked. Dinsmore could only let out a slightly hysterical laugh.
Slow down, man. These great new pizza places, where owners have sunk everything they have – emotionally, physically, financially – are just getting started. Give them “the room to breathe” that Mahoney says is a big part of Austin’s appeal.
Patience is a virtue, especially where pizza is involved. Bite too soon into that thin-crust Neapolitan pie, with its beautiful balance of char and chew, and the roof of your mouth will hate you in the morning.