James Beard Award winner, community leader, chef. At some point next year we’ll know Ashley Christensen by yet another title: pizza maker.
The acclaimed chef of Poole’s Diner and other downtown Raleigh hot spots is at work on a pizzeria. Pooleside Pie, named because it will open in the space next to Poole’s Diner on South McDowell Street, is already the most anticipated restaurant coming in 2018, especially since it was first announced in 2015.
“Honestly, we decided to slow down the process of opening a new restaurant in order to catch up on the other restaurants we’d opened,” Christensen said in an email. “We grew very quickly as a company, my job as a chef and owner changed and grew very quickly, and we needed some time to catch up and do right by our teams before jumping in to something new.
“We were tremendously fortunate to be afforded the time to do that while still having secured the Pooleside building,” she added. “And I’m very grateful for that.”
Last month, Christensen and Kaitlyn Goalen, the brand director of AC Restaurants, set off on a research journey through Naples and Rome, seeking inspiration and, most of all, pizza.
Christensen’s announcement of the trip on her Instagram page and the subsequent launch of the Pooleside Pie Instagram account set off a social media frenzy. The Instagram account, filled with photos of pizza, has racked up nearly 3,000 followers.
Christensen plans to build Pooleside Pie around Neapolitan pizza, which is cooked quickly in a super hot oven. She used the trip to search for secrets from the spot that originated the style.
In an email interview, we asked Christensen about her travels and discoveries and, of course, when Pooleside might be ready. As for the last one, that pizza’s still in the oven. She wouldn’t confirm when in 2018 Pooleside might open.
“We’re not ready to share that quite yet,” she said. “But we’re excited to get open and share something new with the community.”
Q: What is pizza research exactly?
A: For me, pizza research started the moment that we decided to work on a pizza concept (about four years ago). I’ve always loved pizza, but now, anytime I order it, I’m thinking about it analytically, structurally. Pizza feels like a challenge for me as a chef, so I’ve been thinking about it more technically than I usually think about recipes and menus.
We’ve made a point to seek out restaurants known for pizza on our travels lately (in New York, etc.), but this was the first trip we’ve taken with the single, specific goal of studying pizza, and we went to Naples and Rome. Beyond trips and meals, I’ve been reading as much as I can, and making a lot of pizza at home. We teamed up with a great company that makes residential pizza ovens called Fontana Forni – they shipped us an oven to experiment on, so we’ll be doing a lot of recipe testing with that this fall.
Q: What discoveries did you make on this trip, and how do you think any of these discoveries will shape what you do with Pooleside Pie?
A: I’ve known for a while the style of pizza that I want to do at Pooleside. It’s based on personal preference and celebrates the things that I love about pizza and cooking. That style is what is known as Neapolitan here in the States, but I felt like it was important to go to Naples to see what true Neapolitan pizza is, and how much that concept has been altered or translated as it’s spread throughout restaurants here.
This trip confirmed my ideas about that style of pizza and helped refine them significantly.
Q: How many pizzas did you all eat? At how many pizzerias?
A: I think somewhere between 25 and 30, at about 15 places.
Q: What’s the best pizza you had on the trip?
A: Favorites ... I’m never very good at this question, as there are just so many factors that play into a great meal of any kind. I loved most all of what we ate in Naples (especially the more delicate, slightly soup-ier stuff with the awesome tender “gum line”). In Rome, I preferred the bakery-style pizza (over their version of Naples-style pizza). This is one they sell in squares, where they snip off your portion with scissors.
Q: What is different about Neapolitan pizza in Italy, even from the versions here in the United States? Why is this the style you’re interested in making here in Raleigh?
A: The core characteristics that we observed from pizzeria to pizzeria in Naples were: thin crust (but not necessarily crispy) and very minimal toppings (not so much number of different toppings but the actual volume of them). It sounds so simple, but simplicity can be the hardest thing to do well in cooking, and pizza is a great example of that. In Naples, the pizzas were so much lighter than they are here.
In fact, we were sort of astonished to realize that it’s totally normal and expected in Italy that you’re going to go out for pizza and order a whole pizza to yourself. We saw so many couples at pizzerias who each had their own pizza and would each finish off the entire thing. At first, I couldn’t believe it, but because pizza is so much lighter, so much simpler, it makes more sense to me now.
Q: Why did you want to open a pizzeria? Do you know at this point what the menu might look like or what kinds of pizzas you’d like to make?
A: Historically, my process for opening a new restaurant starts with the location first, concept second. When the building (428 S. McDowell St.) became available, I was so excited. It’s such a cool building and part of the same history as Poole’s, and I felt it was very important to protect it. Once we were able to secure it, pizza popped into my head as a great fit almost immediately. I also love that pizza is a very approachable, comfortable style of food, and it felt fitting to have that next to Poole’s, which is our take on another approachable, comfortable style of food (diner food).
Additionally, I’m always eager to create restaurants that fill a void in our community, and a few years ago there wasn’t much pizza around downtown. That’s already changing, and there are some great new pizza-focused restaurants in Raleigh, which is so exciting. I think our city has room (and desire) for all of it, and we’re excited to be part of the growing pizza community here.
We are in the creative process as far as menu goes and have lots of fun ideas, but it’s still too early to share them.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson