Well, its finally happened. After all of my griping about the lack of decent pizza joints in Durham, we now have two new options within a few blocks of one another downtown not unlike the recent phenomenon of not one but two tapas restaurants opening downtown as well.
I will remind readers that I grew up in New Haven, Conn., where we challenge anyone who scoffs at our claim of having invented pizza. Before leaving for college, I thought toppings like fried eggplant, clams and mashed potatoes were common.
Now, thanks to these new pizza joints, I have immediate access to thin crusts and what my husband used to consider an absurd number of cheeses, meats and veggies to adorn my pies of choice. (He has since come to his senses and also appreciates more than green peppers or pepperoni on his pies as well.) Lillys Pizza
opened over the summer at 810 W. Peabody St. as the sequel to the original, which first opened in Raleigh in 1993. They offer thick or thin crust pies that bake on a stone hearth, and the toppings go well beyond the basics. Reviews have been mixed some say the original seems a far better version for some reason. Ill let you decide.
Just a few blocks away, however, sits a Durham original: Pizzeria Toro
, at 105. E. Chapel Hill St. Here they make wood-fired pizzas that are considered personal pies (though they are generously sized for that purpose,) along with an assortment of appetizers and salads. The menu is broken down into antipasti, ham, pizza (red and white) and salad, and what it might lack in numbers it makes up for in thoughtful menu planning.
Owner Gray Brooks, 45, has covered all his bases with just four red pizzas (including toppings like spicy lamb meatballs, anchovies and buffalo mozzarella) and six whites (potatoes, soft egg, and Meyer lemon!) The salads include the popular kale with chilies, pine nuts and parmesan, the antipasti a ball of burrata (a funky mozzarella with a cream center) with charred tomatoes and crispy basil. The ham options include varying prosciutto and salami.
The Durham native returned home after 20 years of shuffling around Marthas Vineyard, Ocracoke and then Seattle, where he lived since 1999 and mainly worked at the Dahlia Lounge, owned by renowned Chef Tom Douglas. Until recently his expertise was fine dining. But when Douglas asked him to run a new pizzeria, Brooks could not say no even though the joint had nothing but a wood-fired oven and a few butane burners.
Turns out it was something of a revelation, Brooks said of the change. When they took away all my toys, I had to start thinking about food and cooking, and eating, in a way I really hadnt before.
It was the most fun Id had in a kitchen. I felt connected to the food, and to the people eating, than I ever had before it felt like I was hosting a dinner party every night. I love that.
I think we love it too, and thats why people seem to be willing to wait at times to get seated. The restaurant is L-shaped, with a small bar in one section, the open kitchen in the corner and large dining area with many family-style seating options in the other section.
Brooks returned to Durham not only because he knew he could source a lot of the menu locally, and because of how rocking our food culture has become he has a 1-year-old son, and he and his wife, Cara, wanted to return to their Southern roots.
People here have always just been really open, and I wanted that for Cole, Brooks said. I feel like a lot of who you become has to do with the sort of people and community that surround you when you grow up. Who you are has a lot to do of what you expect of other folks. Its important to me that Cole grows up expecting the sort of generosity and grace in others that people in Durham have always had.
A few years ago there was a very solid, brick-oven pizzeria opened by the folks at Nanas, but for some reason the owners closed it down and in its wake now sits Nana Taco. I was sad since those pies were the closest taste to home I could find in these parts, what with the option for toppings like brie, arugula and goat cheese.
Things seemed to improve around here with the birth of Pie Pushers, our own pizza truck, but having a brick-and-mortar pizza option makes me even more optimistic about Durhams pizza future.
Tapas check. Pizza check. Now we just need some more noodle houses and a solid bagel joint! Anyone?