Pie Town strives to make pizza ‘memorable'

Restaurants open and close almost every day, usually without much notice.

But Pie Town, which opens tonight in the old location of Town on West Trade Street, may be a little different. If its partners' dreams come true, it may even win Charlotte a spot in the national pizza pantheon.

To start, there are major reputations on the line. The partners are restaurateur Pierre Bader and chef Tim Groody, who have had a long list of Charlotte eateries, and Peter Reinhart, the baking instructor and nationally known author who has spent years and written books on his passion for pizza.

Second, there is the effort involved. Town closed and Pie Town opened in less than two weeks, an almost herculean task that involved synchronizing an 18-wheeler parked on Trade Street, a plate glass wall that had to come off and go right back on, and the installation of a $50,000 pizza oven.

There is the food itself. Pizza, the basic food group of dorm rooms and delivery service, has been elevated to an artisan mania in recent years. Serious fans resort to the kind of language usually saved for religious movements.

And finally, there is you, the pizza fan. You guys can be a tough crowd.

When news about Pie Town went public a week ago, local postings on food Web sites exploded in capital letters and exclamation points of glee.

Of course, this same group also dissects any new restaurant with the rabidness of frenzied piranha. They could turn on Pie Town as quickly as melting ice cream on a hot stove.

“Everybody's expecting an all-star performance,” Reinhart admitted weeks ago.

Reinhart has added to the anticipation himself. In citing what he has in mind, he's evoked the names of the peaks of U.S. pizza, Mozza in Los Angeles and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. One pie on the menu is even named for the legendary Frank Pepe's in New Haven, Conn.

“All pizzas can be good, but only a few are memorable,” he says. “That's my definition of great – memorable.”

At the top of the food chain, there are really two classes of pizza. Gourmet pizza is about the toppings, while artisan pizza is about the crust – craggy, crackly, almost burnt on the outside, bready and almost creamy inside.

Reinhart spent months working on his dough and finding the right oven.

The Town location doesn't allow an oven that would burn wood or coal, two things pizza fans usually seek. But Reinhart thinks the source of the heat isn't as important as the quality.

Great crust, he says, has to be cooked fast, in less than 3 minutes, usually at 800 to 1,000 degrees.

Their oven of choice is made by Woodstone, the brand used at places like the original California Pizza Kitchen. They found it several months ago at the Piedmont Natural Gas test kitchen.

“To me, it was dramatic. We all took a bite and said, ‘That's it.'”

But Pie Town isn't just aiming for artisan crust, it also wants to be gourmet pizza. Groody and Reinhart, with plenty of input from Bader, have spent the rest of their time focusing on the toppings.

Pie Town's menu will show Groody's devotion to local ingredients, with things like Cane Creek bacon, herbs from Rosemary Pete and fresh mozzarella from Chapel Hill Creamery.

On Thursday, Reinhart was training the kitchen crew on the doughs, which are made more than 24 hours in advance to allow the fermentation that Reinhart believes makes truly great flavor.

Groody was slipping test pizzas in and out of the oven, with flame jets sending out waves of heat every time he opened the glass door.

And Bader was watching it all, looking surprisingly calm.

“I always wanted to do this,” he said.

“Pizza and wine, there's nothing like it. Fun food, everyday food is what I always wanted to do.”