Pizzeria Toro’s location, at what is rapidly becoming the hottest corner in trendy downtown Durham, is the first clue. Then there’s the minimalist urban decor, with communal seating at butcher block picnic tables. And the tubs of Maldon sea salt rubbing shoulders with cans of San Marzano tomatoes and straw-wrapped chianti bottles on shelves lining one wall.
The massive cylindrical steel pizza oven, commanding center stage in the middle of the dining room, is the clincher: Pizzeria Toro is not your father’s pizzeria.
In fact, it’s the sort of place you might expect to find in a hipster foodie mecca like Seattle – which, as it happens, is where Durham native owner/chef Gray Brooks worked for a dozen years under Tom Douglas, 2012 winner of the James Beard National Restaurateur of the Year.
Needless to say, you’ll search in vain for anything remotely resembling mozzarella sticks on Brooks’ seasonally evolving menu. Instead, under the Antipasti heading, you’ll find the likes of “Trinity Park persimmon, duck ham, pomegranate” and “lettuce soup, brown butter croutons, mascarpone” and “roasted beets, caramelized anchovy, pistachios.”
The fashionably terse descriptions leave it to your imagination as to how the ingredients come together on the plate. But they tell you a lot about the chef’s penchant for exploring novel combinations of ingredients and techniques.
The results rarely disappoint, largely thanks to Brooks’ instinct for not letting his creativity get out of hand. Buttery sweet persimmons and savory house-cured duck “ham” turn out to be well-matched pair, the vibrant snap of pomegranate seeds an inspired counterpoint.
Persimmons – especially hyperlocally sourced ones – are, of course, a fleeting thing. A week or two later, you might return to find the dish has been replaced by an equally tempting composition of salt-cured yellowfin tuna, peppercorns and ruddy-fleshed Cara Cara orange. The lettuce soup may have made way for a rustic bread soup with cannellini beans and escarole.
Kale is a less ephemeral crop, so the deservedly popular salad of Tuscan kale, pine nuts, chiles and shaved parmesan will likely endure somewhat longer. An international selection of artisanal hams is a reliable fixture, regardless of season.
Toro is first and foremost a pizzeria, though, and the pies that issue from that wood-fired beast at the back of the room are, in a word, superb. The crust rarely falls short of the thin, blistery, properly charred ideal, and is never more than a shade off the mark.
Toppings are generously applied, but are not so heavy-handed that they upstage the crust. The margherita is a textbook patchwork of crushed tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and torn basil leaves. More elaborate combinations range from spicy lamb meatballs, rapini and cacio di roma (a mild sheep’s milk cheese) to Meyer lemon and Saracena olives on a white base.
Naturally, some toppings are susceptible to seasonal variations. The combination of Jarrett Bay clams, hot peppers and grana padano cheese can only be offered when the clams are being harvested from North Carolina waters. When Brooks has to – or chooses to – change the lineup, you can rest assured that whatever is added will be as thoughtfully conceived and well-executed as what it replaces.
Indeed, miscues are infrequent across the menu, and rarely amount to more than a quibble. I found a recent antipasto presentation of salted ox tongue, Italian salsa verde and fried capers toothsome but so rich that it cried out for bread. And I could do without the square glass bowls that soups are served in. They seem a little too precious given the menu and setting, and they make getting the last drops of soup a chore.
Partner Jay Owens worked with Brooks in Seattle before moving to Durham to join forces with him in opening Pizzeria Toro. As bar manager, Owens has put together an appealing selection of classic cocktails, draft and bottled beers, and Italian wines.
Owens shares front-of-the-house duties with Cara Stacy, Brooks’ wife and the third partner in the team. Service is for the most part solid under their direction: consistently eager to please and generally attentive, with only minor lapses when the dining room is full.
Which it often is. There’s often a wait for a table, in fact (Toro doesn’t accept reservations), so it wouldn’t hurt to get there early.
Or late, though I couldn’t guarantee the crowds will have thinned out much before closing time at 11 p.m. The hipster crowd tends to keep late hours, after all, and you have to remember that Seattle time is three hours earlier.
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