July 08, 2015 Edibles » Cover Story

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Pure Pizza is the new kid on the block 

New pizza joint on Central Avenue marches to a different drumbeat


Some have furrowed their brow at the mention of yet another pizza place popping up in Plaza Midwood, as the opening of Pizza Peel in early 2014 already made for three similar shops (adding to Fuel Pizza and Intermezzo Pizzeria and Cafe) along a half-mile stretch of Central Avenue.

Social media's been abuzz, but to get people's true feelings on the mid-July opening of Pure Pizza just a quarter-mile east of Pizza Peel, I hit the neighborhood. By that, I mean I bought a beer at the local bar-with-a-salon-next-door and thought, "What better place to get people's true thoughts on what's being built around them?"

An hour of discussions with local bartenders, hair stylists and their clientele showed me most locals are open to welcoming the new spot; which will be a stand-alone, self-sustaining version of Pure's original location inside 7th Street Market.

"I'm not going to join the other people in the neighborhood that bitch and complain, I think it's good," said Brent Davidson, co-owner and stylist at Salon 1226. "Variety is good, but every pizza place is different, so there is variety."

Next door at Pint Central, bartender Henry Schmulling said he thinks the self-sustaining nature of the new restaurant makes it a pioneer, not a Johnny-come-lately.

"Everybody has a different take on pizza these days. If they can come in and offer something that's unique that brings the neighborhood people in, that's great," Schmulling said. "(The self-sustaining aspect) is badass. I totally support that, and the neighborhood needs more places like it."

Building something unique is exactly what Juli Ghazi has been working toward for the last three years. Ghazi opened the original Pure Pizza in April 2012 and realized within six months that she was going to need a bigger boat. The Plaza Midwood location will be the culmination of multiple plans she's had since then for changing the way the restaurant industry operates; some of which she's already practiced at the market and some of which she will now get her first crack at.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this vision is the self-sustaining practices she plans to implement throughout the 2,500-square-foot building. The restaurant will compost its waste through Charlotte-based Crown Town Compost, and the resulting fertilizer will be used to grow ingredients in a shed-turned-greenhouse behind the building. Those ingredients will, in turn, end up on customers' plates.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates food waste makes up between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply in this country. In Mecklenburg County, 65,853 tons of residential food waste accumulates annually, according to a Food Waste Generation Study conducted by the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources in August 2012.

Ghazi says she wants to show that it's possible to put a huge dent in numbers like that.

"When you think about how much trash is being thrown away by restaurants on a daily basis and going into our landfills, it's disturbing," Ghazi says. "We make these little, tiny micro-shifts and realize, 'That wasn't that hard.' If we're doing it collectively as a community, then that creates bigger ripples and bigger impact."

Ghazi is even replacing the asphalt roof with a galvanized-metal one and constructing water-harvesting cisterns to keep the garden growing with rainwater.

Ghazi is a south Charlotte resident, but between the multiple yoga studios she patronizes, a sleeve of ink done at Ace Custom Tattoo, the Tuesday Night Plaza Midwood Night (Bike) Ride and just hanging out in general, she said she probably spends more of her time in the neighborhood than at home.

It was during a night like any other in the 'hood that Ghazi was approached by friend and then-owner of beloved Plaza Midwood eatery Lulu's Fabrice Dinonno. He heard that her prospective new location in NoDa had fallen through and he had an offer for her.

"He said he had 10 years left on his lease, but he was ready to retire," Ghazi said, her eyes still projecting her amazement at how perfectly everything has fallen into place since Dinnono offered her the location. "We originally wanted to be (in Plaza Midwood), anyway. I just love being there so much."

From there, Ghazi got to work on making her restaurant a location that can stand alongside the neighborhood staples that drew her there in the first place.

"It was really important for us to be able to develop the space into a place that you walk in and you feel like you've just come to your friend's house to have a meal," she said. "My daughter said, 'Mom, you guys are like family over there.' Everybody on our team has this sibling relationship with each other where there's an amazing amount of respect; a playfulness, but a seriousness about what we do. It's just a place to come and there's no ego, no pretentiousness, nothing other than to come have a good meal and relax."

Chris Reinhart, who manages the 7th Street location but will play a bigger role in the kitchen at the new location, believes Ghazi's leadership affects each customer's experience.

"She has a big vision on being community-involved," Reinhart said. "She wants us to feel like family, so we treat the other employees like family and it has that great vibe. Customers pick that up. We treat them like family. The ones we don't know by name we know by their order. That's what Juli wants and that's now what I want to see."

Reinhart will be working alongside longtime kitchen-partner Austin Crum at the new location, and its evident in each of their voices that the two are ready to show what they can do with all that kitchen space.

With "Hangry Hour," they'll get a chance to do just that.

Hangry Hour will be held Monday through Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m., and will consist of small, creative plate choices that go beyond the pizzas, sandwiches and salads Pure is known for. Crum and Reinhart will build on whatever they're offered by local agriculture partners like Windcrest Farm Organics in Monroe.

"The Hangry Hour menu will be for people on the way home from work who are grumpy and hungry," Reinhart said. "It's small plates and it will change daily. Whatever we can get locally. For example, if Windcrest has five extra pounds of this or that, then we'll do something cool with what they have and that's the beauty of it. The customers can come back and not have the same thing over and over again."

Crum sites his guanciale — slow-cooked pork jowls — over roasted Brussels sprouts as a dish he can't wait to show off to Hangry Hour customers. He said he never had the time or space to work on a plate like that in the past.

"Our hands were tied in that spot, now it will force us to be a little more creative which is also a good thing," Crum said.

Ghazi said Hangry Hour, named after a specific experience during which she rushed into work at the market and scarfed down a slice Austin had saved for himself, is designed to let Reinhart and Crum spread their wings now that they have the space to.

"The thing is, we're tiny here," Ghazi said from a table at the crowded market, business being done with a dozen vendors around her. "This is high production. On a Saturday, we do 500 pizzas; that's a lot out of a 250-square-foot space. There's not a lot of space to move around, and that can create a bit of monotony for these guys. I can see the boredom kind of set in with these guys sometimes. I want to make sure they're taken care of from a creative standpoint, that they're pushing themselves, and it's not just pizza getting cranked out. Let's have a good time with it."

What would a good time in Plaza Midwood be without a creative display of local art? Ghazi has commissioned multiple artists from the neighborhood to adorn the walls of the restaurant, but their work doesn't stop inside.

While local artist Matt Hooker and Ace Custom Tattoo artist Rodney Raines designed a mural for the interior, Samantha Swan wrapped a mural around the greenhouse.

"I felt like this is going to be our home for a really long time, I hope, and I wanted there to be some interpretation of artists who live in the neighborhood, as it relates to food and the Earth," Ghazi said. "From the materials we brought in, to the designs they're going with, everything relates in some sense to food and the Earth and I said, 'Have at it, see ya when you're ready to install.'"

Local artist Sarah Pollock drew up this rendering of Pure Pizza after the bike rack is installed.
  • Local artist Sarah Pollock drew up this rendering of Pure Pizza after the bike rack is installed.

Topping it off will be the installation of a bike rack, created by local designer Terry Bopp, that Ghazi said she not only hopes, but knows, will grab everyone's attention.

Bopp built an 8-by-8-foot tree out of recycled car and bicycle parts and wired it with electricity. Bikers will be able to hang their bikes from the branches.

"When (Terry and I) met, I said, 'There are some interesting bike racks around Charlotte but I haven't seen anything that I really feel is a piece of art.' When people Google 'badass bike racks', I want it coming up in Washington State," Ghazi said. "I'm afraid people are either going to love it or hate it, but nobody is going to be neutral about it."

One might think Ghazi is stretching herself thin — she's not shutting down her 7th Street location, either – but she's only just beginning. Still in the cards for the new location in the coming year is a local produce market to be held on Saturdays; outdoor kitchens; free classes on composting, gardening and cooking; and a nano-brewery, including beers named after Reinhart (White Rhino IPA) and Crum (Pigtail Pale Ale).

After my trip to the bar, I thought I'd tap Jenna Thompson for her opinion on another pizza joint in the neighborhood. Thompson helped found PM Shows Up, a community organization created in part to advocate against unwanted development in the tight-knit community. She said she's heard negative things, as well, but can't understand the attitude.

"I have seen a lot of negativity surrounding the opening of Pure Pizza, but I hope that residents of Plaza Midwood will come to see any local business opening in the neighborhood as a positive, even if they aren't particularly interested in the products of that business," Thompson said. "We should be focusing on ways to preserve our neighborhood, rather than cutting down people who are trying to actively participate in it."

Even some competing spots have shown support. John Dodson, assistant manager at the nearby Fuel Pizza, which has been there since 1998, said his restaurant's sales have increased since Pizza Peel opened across the street and he foresees no problems with Pure joining the neighborhood. Ownership at nearby Intermezzo Pizzeria & Cafe declined to comment.

It remains to be seen if the neighborhood will take to Pure the way they've taken to spots like Soul Gastrolounge or Diamond Restaurant, but Crum and Reinhart may just be serving up crow to hangry haters soon enough.

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