Pie high: What’s the deal with all the new pizza joints piling up?

Tavola chef Loren Mendosa wants to fill a hole in Charlottesville’s pizza scene with Lampo, a Neopolitan-style pizzeria he plans to open in the fall. Rammelkamp Foto Tavola chef Loren Mendosa wants to fill a hole in Charlottesville’s pizza scene with Lampo, a Neopolitan-style pizzeria he plans to open in the fall. Rammelkamp Foto

A pizza is on its way to your table. It’s bubbling with melted cheese, crackling with a blistered crust, mounded by rendered meats and fresh veggies. Underneath the toppings, a bright, tangy tomato sauce holds it all together.

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk pizza in Charlottesville. With multiple pizzeria openings announced and executed in the past several months, where does the ‘za scene stand? What do we have to stuff in our collective pie hole? What can we expect to hit our table in the near future? What can we pan local restaurateurs for failing to bring us?

New York-style slices (loosely interpreted as largish, floppy, thin-crust numbers) are as well-covered as ever. Fabio’s, Slice, Vita Nova, Christian’s—the old standbys. Now Benny Deluca’s, the C’ville outpost of regional chain Benny’s, supersizes the lineup. Serving a giant piece of pie straight out of the oven via a small menu, the lunch counter has gone in a different direction than the standard-bearers. Where Christian’s, for example, has excelled by sourcing fresh, unique ingredients and combining them in inventive ways, the toppings at Benny Deluca’s are more of an afterthought, a seasoning for the floppy triumvirate of dough, cheese, and sauce. Particularly now, while the West Main Street neighborhood is full of diverse, hardhat-wearing construction workers, Benny Deluca’s doesn’t just deliver the biggest slice in town, it’s also offering the most authentic New York-style experience.

When Christian Tamm, the founder of Christian’s who’s sold off the individual locations over the years, and Andrew Vaughan, a C’ville-based restaurateur who owned the Christian’s location on the Corner from 2009-2010, decided to open a new Christian’s restaurant earlier this year, they deemed the local market too saturated and found space in Richmond. Vaughan said moving outside the local market has given him some perspective on his hometown’s pizza scene.

“The one thing we’re missing here is the Neapolitan style,” he said. “The place that is opening up is the most exciting thing that’s happening, to me.”

That “place” is Lampo, the Neapolitan-style eatery slated for a fall opening in the former Farm space in the shadow of the Belmont Bridge. The restaurant is spear-headed by tavola head chef Loren Mendosa, who likewise thinks he’s pinpointed the soft spot in the C’ville pizza lineup.

“There’s nothing like what we want to do in town,” he said. “I would go to DC and have awesome Neapolitan pizza, and that whole pizza culture just doesn’t exist here.”

If Mendosa and his partners get it right, what they’ll be bringing to the local market is quick-fired, thin crust pizzas topped with the freshest ingredients available and made to standards developed by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana.

The idea at the new spot is to turn pizza back into the “food of the people,” according to Mendosa. He said pizza was historically a peasant food, made and sold by farmers in the cooler months as a way to highlight fresh, straight-from-the-source ingredients. The model fits in perfectly with the current trend of farm-to-table eating, and Mendosa said he has relationships in place with farmers and producers of artisan food (think buffalo-milk cheeses and spreadable salami) that will have delicious results.

“[Neapolitan pizza] is about getting in touch with the roots of cooking and food,” Mendosa said. “That is what is really attractive about the whole process.”

The closest local thing to what Lampo is trying to do, at least in philosophy, is the well-regarded Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie in North Garden. With thoughtfully-sourced and combined ingredients cooked in a searing hot oven to sizzling delectability, Dr. Ho’s success may be an indicator of what a place like Lampo can do.

Mendosa’s decision to open the restaurant was driven by his travels to places like New York and Pittsburgh, where small, high quality pizzas for around $10 have been growing in popularity for a decade. The question, as always, is whether C’ville can support a concept that has taken off in more cosmopolitan markets.

Dr. Ho’s owner and chef Michael McCarthy said with all the comings and goings of pizzerias in the city over the years, he’s long been reluctant to consider opening a satellite to his North Garden location here.

“We are an anomaly out here,” McCarthy said. “Going into that market and having to compete with everyone else would be difficult. There are a lot of people serving pizza in C’ville. Some of them close as fast as they open.”

Still, McCarthy’s “pipe dream” of opening a small takeout spot with no dining room in C’ville would likely be hailed by its many fans, including Mendosa.

“I love Dr. Ho’s. Those guys are awesome,” he said. “Being from Nelson County, when they first opened up, it was mind-blowing to me that a place of that quality could be so close.”

Self-congratulations aside, the C’ville pizza scene does still have at least one glaring omission—Chicago-style pizza, be it stuffed deep dish or simply good quality pan pizza. Some might question whether the hearty style, so well-suited to the brutal winters and broad-shouldered clientele of Midwestern pizzerias, would be as successful here. I tend to think a quality deep dish, a la the renowned Lou Malnati’s pies, would be likely to find success in any climate. But the competition around here has certainly gotten thick. 

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