Before you even taste your first slice at Pompieri Pizza, the place starts to win you over.
The restaurant opened in January in the old Fire Station No. 1 building in downtown Durham, earning bonus points right off the bat for historic preservation. While the interior of the 1924 structure has been adapted for use as a restaurant, clever touches here and there are a nod to the building’s original incarnation. Faux fireman’s poles protruding from vintage-looking pressed tin ceilings come to mind. And I can’t help but smile every time I recall men’s and women’s restroom doors labeled “Firehoses” and “Jaws of Life.” Then there’s the restaurant’s name, which is Italian for “firefighters.”
You order at the counter and are given a table flag with a firefighting-related word and its definition to help the food runner locate your table. One informs you that a Vollie is a volunteer firefighter. Another defines Hand Tub as “a type of historical fire engine where a tub had to be filled by a bucket brigade and then pumped onto the fire by hand.” More bonus points for education.
The restaurant’s commitment to using locally sourced ingredients and to making virtually everything from scratch is also commendable. It isn’t surprising, though, given that Seth Gross, the restaurant’s chef/proprietor, also owns Bull City Burger and Brewery around the corner. Pompieri’s bar reaps a liquid dividend from its relationship with its sibling restaurant in the form of a draft beer selection dominated by Bull City’s eminently quaffable house-brewed ales.
Lining the approach from the entrance to the order counter is a series of interconnected fish tanks and basil plants under multicolored grow lights (which, for all the world, look like the Lite-Brites many will recall from childhood). Manager Josh Kauffman explains that this Rube Goldberg setup is designed to take advantage of a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. The basil leaves will eventually wind up on your plate in a demonstration of sustainability that earns still more bonus points.
As admirable as all these features are, turns out they’re merely setting the stage for what really sets Pompieri apart: the pizza. We’re talking true wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza, itself a rarity in a land where New York-style is practically synonymous with the word “pizza.” It’s so uncommon, in fact, that you’ll find a tabletop card entitled “What is Neapolitan Pizza?” outlining its salient characteristics. A few highlights: “It’s about 12” in diameter ... usually one pizza per person. .... We use a combination of gas and firewood. ... They cook really fast (2-2.5 minutes) at around 800 degrees. ... Traditionally they are not pre-sliced. ... often eaten with a knife and fork but we like the scissors for getting a slice just right” – which explains why your pizza will arrive uncut with a pair of kitchen shears.
The description goes on to explain that “these pizzas definitely have a few charred spots on the edges and on the bottom from the intense heat” and that “cheese and toppings are viewed as secondary and complementary flavors to the crust.”
And what a crust it is. A few words on a tabletop sheet can’t begin to do justice to Pompieri’s thin, heat-blistered crust. At once crisp and satisfyingly chewy, it’s the foundation for a range of toppings from classic margherita to the unctuous extravagance of diced pork belly, cracklings, roasted garlic and a “porky red sauce” enriched with still more pork belly (in pureed form).
Other topping combinations include the White Florian (housemade fresh mozzarella, Pecorino, ricotta, fresh garlic and lemon oil), Mushroom Ragu with truffle oil, and the Drunken Horse (housemade spicy Italian sausage that the menu reassures you contains “no horse meat!” on a beer dough crust that’s ever-so-slightly thicker – and maybe a little yeastier – than the standard crust). You’ll also want to check the board behind the order counter for the house-cured meat topping of the day (pancetta, guanciale and pork salami have all made appearances). And for the daily changing Veggie Pie, which recently showcased local pattypan squash with a post-baking shower of tender young mustard greens.
You can create your own combination, but you’ll want to heed the advice on the back of the menu and limit yourself to three toppings and two cheeses. With Neapolitan pizza, remember, it’s all about the crust. And just in case I haven’t made myself clear, we’re talking best-in-class crust here.
Seth Gross’ philosophy of “local and scratch-made whenever possible” applies to Pompieri’s brief but varied appetizer selection as well. A cheese bar selection includes housemade fresh ricotta drizzled with honey and sea salt and a “yarn ball” of mozzarella with lime and olive oil. There’s also a pan-seared sausage of the day (also made in house); a simple salad of local greens in a smoked tomato vinaigrette; and on the current menu, a spring garlic semolina soup made with pasture-raised chicken broth and served with house-baked focaccia.
Dessert options include housemade gelato and sorbetto (check the board for flavors) and the charming Our Seasonal Dalmatian, an eclair lightly filled with honey-sweetened ricotta and decorated with dark chocolate spots on a white ganache glaze.
But don’t bother searching for pastas or entrees other than pizza. In a pinch, I suppose you could make a small plates meal of the appetizers.
Nah, who am I kidding? You gotta get the pizza.