For all of downtown Raleigh’s burgeoning restaurant scene, it has long suffered from a shortage of that most vital of urban eateries: a place where you could grab a slice of pizza. The situation has improved considerably in recent months, as these three newcomers have come online to fill the void.
Oakwood Pizza Box, Pizza Times and Benny Capitale’s all sell pizza by the whole pie or by the slice. But that’s where the similarities end.
Note: The limited menus and streamlined nature of these restaurants preclude awarding star ratings based on the usual criteria of food, service and atmosphere. But I see no reason I can’t give pepperonis.
Let’s grab a slice.
Oakwood Pizza Box
610 N. Person St., Raleigh
919-594-1605 or oakwoodpizzabox.com
Rating: 4 pepperonis
I’m not a doctor, but I’d be willing to bet that Anthony Guerra’s blood type is PS positive. That’s PS as in pizza sauce, which I’m pretty sure must be coursing through his veins. Guerra grew up in New York, where he counts legendary pizzerias Di Fara and Umberto’s among his childhood memories.
When his father, Rick Guerra, decided to open a pizzeria, he spent more than a year making educational pilgrimages with Anthony and his brother, Louis, to the country’s preeminent pizzerias.
The result of their studies was Bella Mia, which the family opened in Cary in 2010. Turning out authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas from a coal-fired oven, that restaurant has since lamentably closed — but not before raising the bar for a pizzeria so high that I named it Restaurant of the Year in 2011.
Fast forward to last year, when Anthony Guerra opened a pizzeria of his own. He’s quick to point out that Oakwood Pizza Box is not an attempt to duplicate Bella Mia, but is instead inspired by those New York-style pizzerias of his childhood.
Judging by the consistently packed house more than six months after opening, I’m clearly not the only one who thinks he nailed it.
Guerra’s experience as the dough maker at Bella Mia is evident in a crust that he has tweaked to achieve the New York-style platonic ideal: puffed and blistered at the edge, with a bottom that’s well-browned and delicately crisp on the surface, but still pliable enough to fold and eat like a native New Yorker.
Toppings are worthy of that crust, from scratch-made tomato sauce (whose clean, fresh taste achieves the Goldilocks just-right balance of sweetness and acidity to complement the mozzarella) to grass-fed beef meatballs made from the same family recipe that drew raves at Bella Mia.
Guerra still insists on using natural casing pepperoni for its superior taste, recognizable by the fact that it curls into little cups when cooked and lacks the artificial red color of most commercial pepperoni.
You can get pizza by the slice, but if you have the time, do yourself a favor and round up a friend or two for a whole 18-inch pie. Get there early (Oakwood Pizza Box is as compact as its name implies) and order a Narragansett lager — or if you’re feeling continental, a Campari and soda.
Make your pizza a half-and-half, maybe classic pepperoni on one side, white with meatballs and mushrooms (cremini, lightly sautéed with thyme and a touch of garlic on a ricotta-mozzarella base) on the other. Then sit back and enjoy a little slice of New York in Raleigh.
The Pizza Times
210 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh
919-832-4411 or raleightimespizza.com
Rating: 3 pepperonis
Open since late January, this tiny no-frills shop calls to mind the New York City by-the-slice joints that inspired it. Except for one telling detail, that is: The kitchen you’re looking into as you place your order at the counter is stocked with all sorts of things that have nothing to do with making pizza.
That’s because The Pizza Times shares a kitchen with The Raleigh Times, its full-service sibling restaurant just around the corner. In fact, it was the kitchen crew of that restaurant, whose favorite staff meal was the pizzas they made and ate before service, who came up with the idea to open a pizza joint.
And since both of those restaurants (and breakfast eatery The Morning Times) are named for the newspaper that once made the building its home, it seems apt to deliver my report in the form of news.
First, the good news. If there’s a better value than the $2.50 cheese slice, I don’t know about it. Chef Michael Rehm, a veteran of eight years in the Raleigh Times kitchen, has come close to mastering the all-important crust, starting with the slow fermentation of the dough that’s crucial for developing its texture.
Add one or two toppings from the list of 15 or so (I like the house-made sausage) at 50 cents a pop. Or go nuts with a $4 daily special like the Baby Blue (arugula, blue cheese, house-ground beef and red onion on an olive oil base). Any way you slice it, it’s a bargain.
Now the bad news. The Pizza Times is takeout only. If you don’t live or work nearby, finding a place to enjoy your pizza presents a challenge.
Option one: Order a whole pie (12-inch or 18-inch). Ask to have it par-baked. Take it home and finish it in a 450-degree oven (5 minutes or so, keep an eye on it).
Option two: Order a slice, and when you get it, fold it in half. Eat it as you walk down the street — just like thousands of New Yorkers do every day.
Either way, problem solved.
121 Fayetteville St., Suite 110, Raleigh
919-239-4173 or bennysva.com/bennycapitales
Rating: 2.5 pepperonis
The second location of a Virginia-based chain in the Triangle, Benny’s claim to fame is its 28-inch pie. (Benny Cappella’s in Chapel Hill is the other one.)
That’s right, 28 inches. Using the formula we all remember from geometry class, we calculate that a 28-inch pizza is, let’s see, um, well, a really big pizza. (What, you expected an English major to remember the formula?)
Let’s just say a whole pie is about as big around as an adult bicycle wheel, and that a single slice will fill you up as well as those individual-size pizzas at most places.
Given its size, the crust is surprisingly well executed — just the right thickness with a crust that, if not as puffed and blistery as the best, still has a good toothsome bite to it.
Written on chalkboards hanging above the order counter, the selection of half a dozen topping options is as concise as the pies are huge, but still manages to cover a wide range of possibilities from basic cheese to Dirty South (BBQ chicken).
Not surprisingly, according to manager Matt Denton, pepperoni is the best seller, followed by garlic and mushroom. I’m partial to the Dirty Martini, generously spangled with green and black olives, pimentos and garlic on a tomato sauce and mozzarella base.
Benny Capitale’s doesn’t have a full bar, so the obvious beverage pairing for my favorite slice is not in the offing. But a craft beer hits the spot.
And as I settle in at one of the handful of picnic tables and take in a setting that calls to mind a college town hangout, I know that my single slice will last me long enough for a thorough examination of the vintage movie banners overhead and the graffiti on the walls.