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Three questions for Joe Nelson and Kristen Brown of Benny Pennello's 

NoDa welcomes huge pizza in a little shop

To say this summer has been a busy one for NoDa resident Kristen Brown would be an understatement. One life-changing month would be a more fitting expression of what Kristen and her husband, Bryan, have experienced.

On May 10, the couple welcomed their first child, Nora, into the world. Just 23 days later, the Browns opened Benny Pennello's, a pizza store in NoDa connected to Heist Brewery.

Luckily, the Browns had the help of Joe Nelson, a Johnson & Wales grad who worked at a Benny's — as it's often called — in Fredericksburg, Virginia before moving to NoDa to manage the new location.

Within the first month, stories began spreading about the 28-inch, hand-tossed pizzas. Kristen once came across a woman in the parking lot struggling hard to fit the pizza box into her Mini Cooper. The late hours Benny's keeps on the weekends have also made it a quick favorite for folks who need that perfect ending to a night of bar-crawling.

Creative Loafing caught up with Brown and Nelson to discuss the mythical "Virginia slice" and how NoDa has taken to the new pizza spot.

Creative Loafing: How did you get involved with this new Benny's location?

Kristen Brown: My brother-in-law, Chris Brown, is the original founder of Benny's. He and his friend, Zach Toth, opened up the original one four years ago at Virginia Tech and slowly started expanding through Virginia. We finally confronted him (to bring one to NoDa) and he was like, "Look, I'm not going to be able to do it, but if you guys want to partner with me, then fine." Joe had all the knowledge we needed. Ironically, he was the one training us. Now that Nora's a little older, I've been working a few nights a week. It's been really cool. It's a nice way to meet neighbors.

Joe Nelson: I always wanted to come back to Charlotte, being that I went to school here. I always loved the area but I was so busy with class and work when I was in school that I didn't have time to be part of the community. I was working as chef de cuisine in a restaurant in Fredericksburg and I got bitter with high-end cuisine. Now I've found something that still has a lot of love, craft and technique involved in it.

How have residents and other businesses taken to Benny's arrival?

Brown: I think (customers) expect it to be smaller. They come in and say, 'Oh, I'll have a couple of slices,' and we reiterate, 'Well, just so you know, here's what the pizza looks like,' and they immediately scale back. I like to watch people take pictures because the first thing they want is to capture the slice on their phone. What surprised me was that I felt like businesses would be bitter at other new businesses, but here it's like every business we talk to is so excited. It's a very supportive business community.

How do you decide on the specials?

Brown: Joe has just been having fun with it. This month is curried banana peppers because so many people asked if we have banana peppers last month. If you want to see something, tell us and we will take it into consideration.

Nelson: Being that NoDa has a lot of creative, eclectic people, they're more willing to jump out of the ordinary toppings rather than the traditionals. It's something I want to keep going and find ways not to necessarily change the concept of the company but enhance it.

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