Nobody would blame Scott Howell if he decided to rest on his laurels. After all, he's the chef/proprietor of Nana's, one of the area's most highly acclaimed and enduringly popular restaurants.
But that isn't Howell's style. Even as he's working to maintain the high culinary standards of Nana's, the enterprising chef is continually cooking up ideas for new restaurants. The fact that some of those ideas (Pop's and Q-Shack) have proven more successful than others (Nana's Chophouse) hasn't dampened his creativity.
Howell's latest inspiration is Rockwood Filling Station, a pizzeria that he opened next door to Nana's in July with partner John Riggs.
Not just any pizzeria, mind you. This is Scott Howell, after all. For starters, the restaurant's unusual name is a tribute to the gas station that once anchored the location. The industrial chic decor, which includes a poured concrete bar, brushed aluminum chairs and two garage bay doors that open onto a patio in fair weather, follows suit.
Even more extraordinary are the pizzas which come out of Rockwood's wood-burning oven. Or "pizze," as the menu calls them, the Italian plural connoting that these are not to be confused with New York-style pies. Not that you'd confuse them once you've set your teeth into one of these individual Neapolitan style pizzas, their crusts gloriously thin and crisp, their edges blistered and their bottoms charred in places from the properly furious heat of the oven.
Topping options, on the other hand, are not so constrained by tradition. At one end of the spectrum, there's a textbook rendering of the classic Margherita, a colorful patchwork of fresh buffalo mozzarella, house-made pizza sauce and a post-baking shower of basil leaves. At the other, there's Scott's Chicken Liver, a riot of rustic flavors in the form of caramelized onions, chewy-crisp pancetta, parmigiano-reggiano and oregano on a base of tomato sauce and molten mozzarella. And, of course, chicken livers -- half a dozen of them, fried to a delicately crisp turn, their centers barely blushed with pink. If you're a fan of chicken livers and you can resist plucking these babies off the pizza and snacking on them by themselves, you've got more willpower than I do.
Regardless of your choice of toppings, you can be sure that they will be applied in generous but judicious amounts that respect the primacy of the crust and the integrity of the pizza as a whole. If that sounds more like I'm critiquing a work of art than a pizza, then allow me to offer a few more brush strokes of evidence. Prosciutto is draped onto the pizza after baking, so that it's barely warmed without getting dried out. Artichokes are roasted in the wood-fired oven. Order the ham and egg pizza, and you'll get French jambon and a perfect sunny-side up egg, the pie carefully cut so as not to disturb the yolk.
Though pizzas are clearly the star attraction, a handful of antipasti, salads and sandwiches are also available. Chicken wings, marinated in lemon, rosemary and pesto, are a convincing alternative to Buffalo wings. Fried calamari is another winning starter option, and house-made meatballs, flecked with fresh oregano and sage and baked in marinara, are superb.
Ice creams and sorbets, churned next door in the Nana's kitchen, provide a suitable conclusion to the meal: as unpretentious as the pizzas, and at the same time as supremely satisfying.
Riggs, a longtime bar manager at Nana's, is responsible for Rockwood's knowledgeable and enthusiastic wait staff, as well as its well-stocked bar. A dozen intelligently chosen wines are offered by the glass -- all for a budget-friendly $6 -- and eight beers are on tap.
Howell manned the pizza oven himself initially but has since turned the baking over to a well-trained staff. The chef divides his time between Rockwood Filling Station and Nana's now, though he's spending more time at his flagship restaurant now that the pizzeria is running smoothly in the hands of his partner. I wouldn't be surprised if he's already cooking up more new ideas.