Dining Review

Pizzas are the star attraction at Radius

CorrespondentOctober 3, 2013 

  • Radius Pizzeria & Pub

    112 N. Churton St., Hillsborough



    Cuisine: pizzeria

    Rating:* * *  1/2

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: casual, vibrant

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: generally solid with occasional glitches

    Recommended: calamari, sweet potato fries, pizzas, desserts

    Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Saturday-Sunday

    Reservations: not accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: * * * * *  Extraordinary * * * *  Excellent. * * *  Above average. * * Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined:$ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Warning: If you have to go to the bathroom at Radius Pizzeria & Pub, brace yourself for a serious challenge to your willpower. You’ll have to walk past the open kitchen, where owner/chef Mick Carroll and his crew are pulling pies from a stunning copper-clad, wood-fired Italian pizza oven. It’s all too easy to get hypnotized.

Ooh, there’s the Pizza del Mar, topped with achiote-marinated shrimp, black beans, mozzarella and cilantro on an olive oil base. Now he’s scattering diced avocado across the top, the final touch before setting it in the pickup window.

Here comes the Gardener, a vegetarian cornucopia of house-roasted red peppers, organic spinach, artichokes, kalamata olives, tomatoes, red onions and feta on a foundation of smoked eggplant puree. And the Old Reliable S&P (sausage and pepperoni) – must have been ordered by a traditionalist. And that one must be tonight’s pizza special: duck and sage sausage, roasted red peppers, mushrooms and fontina cheese.

And – wait a sec – is that the Paddy’s Pie you ordered? And The Cyclist? Uh-oh, better get a move on, or they may be cold by the time you get back to the table.

Once you do get back, you’ll discover that the pizzas at Radius are every bit as good as they look. Paddy’s Pie is a kaleidoscope of petal-thin slices of rosemary-roasted Yukon gold potatoes, thick crunchy house-cured bacon, cheddar cheese and chopped scallions. The Cyclist – onion marmalade, chicken, mushrooms, scallions, mozzarella and parmesan – is likewise a champ. Toppings on both are generous, but not so heavy-handed that they overburden a thin, blistery crust made with a naturally fermented dough of Italian 00 flour that is the pizza aficionado’s gold standard.

Consistency of execution has improved markedly since Carroll opened Radius in late March with his wife, Kate (she runs the front of the house). In the first few weeks, underdone crusts were evidence that the kitchen was still learning the ropes of the notoriously temperamental wood oven. But Carroll, an Irish-born chef who cut his culinary teeth on the West Coast (including the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons in San Francisco), has clearly gotten a handle on things.

That’s not to say that there isn’t still the occasional off-night – like the time it took forever to get an appetizer order of roasted garlic mussels, which were overdone and too heavily breaded when they did finally arrive. Turns out we shouldn’t even have gotten them. The chef had eighty-sixed the mussels earlier in the evening as not being up to snuff, but our server hadn’t gotten the word.

That’s an anomaly, though, based on my recent experience. On another night, fried calamari – commendably tender in a fragile, crisp breading – were served with a well-matched truffle marinara sauce. And sweet potato fries were as good as I’ve had anywhere.

Those looking for an alternative to pizza (though, for the life of me, I can’t imagine why) are offered an assortment of panini, with options ranging from Heavenly Mushroom (marinated portobellos, garlic pesto hummus, spinach and mozzarella) to The Cowboy (grilled hanger steak, arugula, roasted red bell pepper, onion marmalade and horseradish cheddar). My only quibble is that the sandwiches could be grill-pressed with a little more authority to ensure that they’re cooked through.

A nightly entree special tempts with the likes of Cuban marinated pulled pork tacos, or house-made smoked kielbasa on a potato pancake. The featured dessert – peanut butter and banana cream pie, say, or flourless chocolate cake with Nutella cream cheese – is worth yielding to temptation.

Make no mistake, though: Pizzas are the star attraction.

And the bar plays a solid supporting role with a well-chosen selection of draft beers and cocktails such as the Honeysuckle (rum, lime and wildflower honey) and Paloma (tequila, grapefruit, lime and hibiscus syrup) crafted with fresh-squeezed juices and house-made syrups.

The atmosphere is suitably casual and warmly inviting, with colorful local art adding vibrancy to the brick walls of a space that was formerly home to a bank. Bicycle wheels and chainrings, set into a partition wall, are a clever play on the restaurant’s name, echoing the image of Radius’ specialty wood-fired pizzas.

When the weather is fair, a courtyard patio nestled between the restaurant and a neighboring building beckons, offering a charming view of historic downtown Hillsborough. If you time your meal right, you’ll get to see the sunset over those historic buildings, and watch as swifts by the hundred return to their chimney roosts for the night.

It’s almost as bewitching as watching those pizzas come out of the oven.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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