Richmond restaurant openings in general have abated since the pandemic. Many have put their latest projects on hold as they wait for things to improve. Nevertheless, during this time, our city has also seen a veritable explosion of new pizza spots, with one after another bursting onto the scene nearly every other month.
In April, we got People’s Pie in Scott’s Addition, brainchild of former Southbound executive chef Craig Perkinson, and got back Anthony’s on The Hill, that beloved Church Hill eatery restored to all its pizza- wheeling glory.
In June, the self-professed “rock-and-roll dudes” of Cobra Cabana debuted Hot for Pizza, a fitting tribute to the late Eddie Van Halen, in the venue once occupied by Sheep Hill Bistro (and The Magpie before that).
And in July, breadmaking wunderkind Ashley Patino took up a weekly artist-in-residency at The Jasper with her buzzworthy Pizza Bones. (Her brick-and-mortar in Church Hill is still forthcoming.)
As far as pandemic-friendly dining goes, pizza checks a lot of boxes. “The nature of the food itself is a perk,” Patino says. Unlike so many other dishes that must be plated or served a certain way, pizza “comes out of a 500-plus-degree oven and right into a box.”
Michael Calogerakis of Anthony’s agrees. “Any kind of plated food is not really going to travel well,” he says. Pizza, on the other hand, is “easy, it’s quick, it’s good. It fits the time perfectly.”
Whereas operators of full-service restaurants have been forced to pivot to doing takeout or delivery, the shift for pizzaiolos during the pandemic has proven far less daunting. According to Perkinson, “The to-go model was already in our brain since day one, which helped a hundred percent. We didn’t have to spend as much time trying to pivot.”
Whether pizza has somehow earned the title of “unofficial food of the pandemic” is debatable. After all, is it ever really the wrong occasion for pizza? That tried-and-true combination of leavened dough and melted cheese, topped with endless possibilities, feels like the right answer to just about everything. So why not a global pandemic?
Suffice it to say, these new pizza joints — signs of life during a time when most of our own lives have been upended — couldn’t have come at a better moment for Richmond dining. Pandemic or not, they’re welcome additions to our food scene. Here are several pies worth getting excited about.
Pizza Bones: Classic Cheese Pizza ($13, 14-inch pie)
Pizza Bones’ Ashley Patino, a Virginia native and Virginia Commonwealth University grad, has sterling credentials when it comes to all things bread, having baked with the best at places such as Tartine in San Francisco and Sub Rosa and Sugar & Twine in Richmond. Just don’t call her pizza “fancy.”
“I get a little perturbed when people say that my pizza is fancy,” Patino says, “because I don’t intend it to be that way.” She adds, “I just don’t want pizza to make you feel bad. I don’t want it to be this junk food.”
Patino considers her pizza-making approach “a sort of counterprotest” to the Neapolitan-pizza craze that’s swept the nation. Instead of employing only white flours, she feeds her sourdough starter with whole-wheat flour, then works some whole-rye flour into her dough, yielding a naturally fermented crust that bakes up noticeably darker, specklier, sweeter.
Fancy or not, Patino is a true artist. Though she crafts a number of specialty pies, the cheese pizza remains her most popular work and almost always sells out. Personally, she confesses, “I always just get a cheese pizza, too.”
A single canvas of melted mozzarella stretches seamlessly over the pizza’s thin yet foldable crust, brushed with a light primer of tomato sauce. The cheese, all salty and tan and covered in golden-brown beauty spots, is adorned with little more than four artistically placed basil leaves. It’s a minimalist masterpiece, one that resonates with your senses in the purest, simplest way imaginable.
People’s Pie: “Craig’s Fav” Pizza ($23, 18-inch pie)
For Craig Perkinson of People’s Pie, pizza-making is more science than art. He’s “a mad scientist,” says Patino about her fellow pizzaiolo. Through scientific research and experimentation and meticulous recordkeeping of ambient temperature and other variables, Perkinson has developed a tangier, more flavorful sourdough crust for his pies. Armed with several different starters, he allows his high-hydration doughs to slowly ferment for longer periods — anywhere from three to upwards of six days.
“Right now, I’m looking at the humidity. It’s 76% humidity in here right now, and I have to factor that into the amount of water I put into the dough every day,” Perkinson tells me during our conversation. “That’s fun to me. I like doing that.”
When it comes to formulating the pizzas, however, Perkinson sheds his lab coat and dons his chef jacket, drawing on years of fine-dining experience to achieve an ideal marriage of flavors and textures.
Take the “Craig’s Fav.” It’s the first time outside of New Haven, Ct., I’ve seen a chef grasp the wonders of mashed potato on pizza. Perkinson pulverizes roasted fingerlings with olive oil and salt. The potatoes are spooned atop the pie in pillowy dollops over a base of sharp and mild cheeses and paper-thin rounds of hard salami. As a finishing touch, raw broccoli gets finely grated atop like Parmesan, hitting the hot melted cheese, the creamy potato and the salty salami with an intensely vegetal element that commands your attention.
It reminds me, in a good way, of broccoli-cheese-and-potato soup, I admit to Perkinson. “In a Panera bread bowl,” he adds, without missing a beat.
Hot for Pizza: Carver-Style Pan Cheese Pizza ($8, 8-inch pie)
Never heard of a Carver-style pie? Don’t worry, there’s no reason you would have. The Carver-style pan cheese pizza was invented by Hot for Pizza owners Herbie Abernethy and Josh Novicki, born of the love they share for the neighborhood that’s also home to their first restaurant.
“We love Carver,” Abernethy says. “Even though I live in North Side, I feel like Carver basically adopted us.”
The pie that Abernethy and Novicki have erected in Carver’s honor is left to rise gradually like an 8-inch birthday cake in the oven, at its highest possible setting, for over half an hour. The end result: a more compact, weightier pie as dense and chunky as Chicago deep-dish and as bready in the midsection, with crackly edges of cheese, as Detroit-style pizza.
The pie’s magmatic surface, beautifully blackened and bubbly, gives way to a volcanic lake of molten mozzarella and thick, scalding red sauce. If ever there was a reason to give the roof of your mouth a pizza-inflicted cheese burn, this would be it.
Anthony’s on The Hill: White Pizza ($18, 16-inch pie)
Unlike so many of its peers, and despite featuring a Detroit-style pie on its menu, Anthony’s pledges lifelong fealty to the New York school of pizza-making. Owner Michael Calogerakis, after all, is a diehard New Yorker.
“We want it to be a real New York-style pizza,” he says. “Everything from the shape, the look, the amount of ingredients (whether it’s sauce, cheese or toppings), the size of the crust, the time in the oven.”
In fact, during a brief hiatus earlier this year, Calogerakis spent a little time at a Brooklyn pizzeria refining his own recipe, from the hydration of the dough to the mixing time, all in preparation for his restaurant’s reopening. Now he’s back and better than ever. (For kicks, he’s even added a Mister Softee-inspired soft-serve ice cream machine.)
Though Anthony’s is deservedly famous for its meatball pie, the white pie ought to make headlines as well. A chunky mortar of ricotta and mozzarella (“rigot” and “mutzarell,” for all you New Yorkers), fortified with an unkissably large quantity of garlic, is spread on the pie’s soft, poofy crust. The headiness of the garlic would otherwise dominate, if not for a big, leafy bed of arugula mounded atop the pie. Finished with an invigorating squeeze of lemon, the arugula has a sharp, mustardy bite that brings natural harmony and balance back into this dish.
Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.