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Artisan and N.Y.-style pizzas gather fans

Pizza, even with its Italian pedigree, is as all-American as, well, apple pie. While those who have relocated here from New York state, New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio and Illinois may continue their discussion about bragging rights to the best pizza, the truth is that many people prefer the taste of the pizzas they grew up with – that is, the traditional Italian-styled pies. This pizza may have a thin bendable crust or a thicker crust, but the toppings are the traditional with a marinara and mozzarella base.

During the 1980s, California started to change the national perception of pizza with artisanal dough baked in wood-fired ovens and toppings consisting of the unexpected -- items like goat cheese or Thai chicken. Twenty years later, these toppings are commonplace.

For Charlotte, without a strong history of Italian immigrants, pizza has been an evolving dish. This is fortunate because not having embraced one style, the city's populace can be open to all styles. Even in the 1980s, gourmet, née California, pizzas were offered. But it was harder to find New York-style pizzas.

As more people relocated from the colder climes, pizzerias, both chains and independents, sprouted in Charlotte's suburbs. Closer to town, where a decade ago the New York-styled pizzerias muscled in, now more eclectic, wood-fired pizzas with topical toppings have become de rigueur.

Heading the crest of the latest pizza wave poised to engulf Charlotte is restaurateur Will Bigham, whose company's restaurant portfolio includes Moe's Southwest Grill, Mama Fu's Asian House, and the Flying Biscuit. His latest concept is The Pizza Peel & Tap Room in Cotswold.

The building, formerly another pizza eatery, has been dramatically transformed. "We kept the 43 beer taps," Bigham says. "But we wanted more wood." With the help of architect Ruard Veltman, the 80-seat eatery is rustic and cozy, albeit dark, due to the use of the "skin side" of antique flooring. This is not the threadbare rustico look common in Italianate country cooking eateries: This is Southern barbecue bucolic with long-handled pizza peels dotting the walls. Tables are similarly unadorned. The most prized seats in the house are the booths -- an advantage if a kicking child is down the line on the bench. The crowd shifts in the evening from families to a bar and Bigham hopes to provide Cotswold with a needed late-night eatery.

Order the chicken curry rolls, and they will be golden and crackly à la Mama Fu's. Order a chopped salad and it's nothing to write home about. But the pizzas -- there you have something.

The pizza dough, baked in a gas-fired oven, is whole wheat sweetened by molasses (pizza dough guru Peter Reinhart was a consultant) and is as good the next day as the first. Pizzas are offered in two sizes: eight and 16 inches. The specialty pizzas appear in deliciously inventive ways, including the "Heart Stopper" -- lots of pork and beef; Thai chicken; and a potent punch of spicy Latino pizza with chorizo, cheddar, roasted corn and black beans. Look for the fish taco pizza coming soon.

Owner Pietro Iannuzzi tells the story of a couple driving by Angela's Italian Restaurant in east Charlotte and noticed it had the same sign as their favorite pizzeria in Hazlet, N.J. Turns out these were former customers and were delighted to become reacquainted with Iannuzzi, who had sold that Angela's in Jersey in order to relocate to Charlotte.

At its heart, Angela's is an Italian neighborhood joint -- not a Jersey transplant (I lived in Summit, N.J., if you want to quibble). And I mean this in the best way. Iannuzzi is a native of Naples and brings that culinary expertise with him. I went for pizza but ended up having the best calzone in the city with a thin crust and actual ricotta within.

Iannuzzi's pizzas are sold in three sizes and are available with traditional and "gourmet" toppings. Although touted as New York-style, there is a definite Neapolitan taste to these thin-crusted gems artfully arrayed with mildly sweet tomato sauce and the ideal ratio of topping to crust.

The interior of Angela's is wonderfully unassuming with tiled floors and newly acquired Italian kitsch on the walls. The glass dessert refrigerator and the separate take-out counter is very Jersey, while the patio area is strictly Carolina. Angela's is named for Iannuzzi's mother, who contributed many of her recipes -- such as the pasta dishes -- to the enterprise. Yet, many of the ingredients will offer taste memories of the Northeast since Iannuzzi still buys from his New Jersey suppliers. The ineluctable and deeply flavored sausage is from Jersey and the desserts are all imported from Italy via Manhattan.

Tricia Childress offers insights on Latino food in Charlotte at the next Global Dish dinner, taking place June 19 at the Levine Museum of the New South. Tickets are $30-$35, which gets you a dinner from Cantina 1511, Mexican beer and more. For details, call 704-333-1887, ext. 501.

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