When Maximillians reopened in a new location in 2002, four years after a kitchen fire closed the original restaurant, longtime fans rejoiced. But for many, the joy was tempered by a bittersweet note: While owner/chef Michael Schiffer clearly hadn't lost his magic touch for fusion fireworks on a plate, his pizzas -- which had been among the best in the Triangle -- were no longer on the menu.
Schiffer removed all lingering traces of bitterness in February, when he and his wife, Gayle, opened Maximillians Pizza Kitchen around the corner from their flagship restaurant in the same shopping center. In a word, the pies at the new restaurant are even better than they were at the old one.
Those who recall the pizzas from the original Maximillians might find this hard to believe. I was skeptical myself until I had tasted ... well, let's just say, I've sampled more pies at Maximillians Pizza Kitchen than I could justify as strictly in the line of duty. But Schiffer has an explanation for the improvement: two 30-year-old pizza ovens from Brooklyn with well-seasoned three-inch thick stone slabs.
I'll buy that explanation, judging by the crusts that come out of those ovens. Whether you opt for the thin Neapolitan style or the slightly thicker, breadier "classic stone-baked," you'll be rewarded with an impeccably crisp, slightly charred bottom and a picture-perfect blistery edge.
Schiffer's famously exuberant palate is still evident in the topping combinations, too. So is his penchant for clever names, in combinations such as El Kabong (grilled spice-crusted steak, smoked jalapeño pesto, yellow corn, poblanos, mozzarella and jack cheeses, sprinkled with crushed tortilla chips and cilantro) and Big Jeff (baby shrimp, prosciutto, arugula and lemon zest on a base of mozzarella, goat cheese and spicy "green demon" pesto). For the Libido, carpaccio is scattered immediately after baking atop a molten foundation of fontina, wild mushroom-white truffle oil sauce and shiitakes, so that the raw beef is barely, lasciviously warmed.
More traditional tastes are amply rewarded, too, with combinations ranging from the Basilico (grilled chicken, roasted peppers, red onion, mozzarella and fresh basil pesto) to the Melanzana (baked eggplant, mushrooms, roasted red peppers, prosciutto and garlic on mozzarella and marinara). You can also create your own combinations from a list of some three dozen toppings.
A handful of pasta options and a couple of nightly entree specials are also offered. At first, I was inclined to harrumph that these were unnecessary, that they overlapped the excellent offering at the original Maximillians just around the corner.
Then I tried a few dishes and quickly saw the error of my thinking. For one thing, while Maximillians' global fusion menu draws heavily on Asian flavors, the focus at the Pizza Kitchen is on the Mediterranean (although, given Schiffer's track record, it isn't surprising to see the occasional Thai bouillabaisse turn up on the specials board). What's more, entree prices are $5 to $10 lower at the newer, more casual restaurant.
More to the point is the food itself, which -- from slow-braised beef ribs in delicate house-made tortellini to a rustic presentation of sausage-stuffed chicken breast in a lemon Parmesan sauce -- convinced me that you can't have too much of a good thing.
The entrees and pasta dishes are such a good thing, in fact, that they present a quandary: Do I order one of them or a pizza? The only solution, I've decided, is both. Share an individual pizza (the only size that's offered in the dining room, though a large 16-inch pie is available for takeout) for the first course. Then order an entree.
Or maybe, come to think of it, I'll invite a few people for a tapas-style dinner of pizzas and appetizers. Mussels with chorizo in a smoky garlic-tomato broth are a must. So are the crab cakes, if they're available. And you can't go wrong with Max's signature grilled Caesar.
Whether I'm with a group or dining alone, though, the one constant will be the pizza. After four years, I've got a lot of catching up to do.