Pie Quagmire

Wade on in to Olivella’s pizzas. It’s worth it.

Olivella's is outrunning its headlights. Its mouth can't keep pace with the speed of its mind. Or is it vice versa?

It's not hard to pick up the flavor of chaos. Step into the restaurant. Muscle a path between the people seated at tables and on plush stools at the counter and those attempting to wedge their way to the exit trundling stacks of pizza boxes. Notice the big glass sangria vases with floating apple wedges. Watch votives flicker like batting eyelashes from pocks notched out of the yellow plaster walls.

See the exasperated woman wait near the cash register while kitchen hands in stained white aprons pinch and fold, erecting ripples in sheets of dough. Through the slit in the brick oven just behind them, watch the split oak flare in short lazy bursts.

Service at Olivella's can be chaotic, but we bet the servers do all right on the tips.
Tom Jenkins
Service at Olivella's can be chaotic, but we bet the servers do all right on the tips.

It's difficult to decipher customer from staff. There are no uniforms or caps or pins or aprons to make the distinction. No one seems interested in seating you or taking your order. There is a man with a two-day beard working near the counter with the sangria vases. What will he do?

Nothing. I ask him for a menu. He hands me a drab paper takeout listing and shuffles off. So we sit at a tiny table on the patio embedded with terra-cotta leaves that looks barely big enough to hold a medium pizza and wait. Servers pass us by and pay us no heed. I return into the restaurant and ask the two-day beard if we can be seated. The exasperated woman at the cash register stomps out the door and makes her way to a BMW parked in front of the patio.

"Sorry. We're really short handed," the two-day beard says to us, delivering clean plastic-coated menus to the patio. "We've had a lot of SMU kids working for us, and they're dropping like flies now." We had a few of them: Heather, Jason, Tiffany or some such names that seem interchangeable. There were conversations about pizza toppings and internships. Olivella's did catering for a hedge fund.

Olivella's is a juicy little chunk of ambition caught up in the messy business of its own gestation. It functions like a beehive in the wake of a whack from a Louisville slugger, with all of the buzzing and chaos, albeit with none of the stabbing pain.

Still, the manic blips back and forth between dining room success and whopping failures, if frustrating, are understandable. Olivella's is the work of entrepreneur Charlie Green, a self-described culinary greenhorn who has no business dabbling in the restaurant business if you don't count his passion for Neapolitan thrown pies. Born in New York, raised in D.C., nipped and tucked in Dallas, Green took his first entrepreneurial venture in the shorts—literally. He teased out a growing fashion trend, men's boxer shorts (Women love them, he says. Still do.), and became the first to emblazon them with the monikers of college and professional sports teams. He made a killing.

Then he tried to go head to head with big-time sports garment makers like Champion Sportswear. He got squashed like a weevil. "We thought we knew what we were doing," he says. From there Green sold medical supplies and database software. He did such things not because he had a particular love for sales, but because the profession afforded him the money and lifestyle to nurture another passion: writing novels.

That passion has since been smothered by pizza. It also brought Salvatore Olivella into his orbit. A Naples native, Olivella wrestled dough in and out of New York pizza ovens. Green and Olivella partnered. The pizzeria's namesake is the culinary brains. Green, the sweat and shekels.

Pizza has smitten Green ever since his little boy days in New York, and he has forever been puzzled as to why the best pizza in the world outside of Naples is mostly confined to boroughs of New York. It isn't the water: "The thing about the water in New York City is utter bullshit." To prove it, Green took a couple of plastic jugs and filled them up with Dallas water from his garden hose and lugged them up to one of his favorite New York pizzerias. He had the chefs use it to make him a couple of pizzas. The pies were as good as those made from New York tap. The puzzle persists.

"I've had a very low opinion of the pizza in Texas," Green says. He modifies. Pizza has gone low across the entire American landscape. "Most of the country is in a Pizza Hut quagmire."

So Green has become a pizza evangelist, an unwavering partisan preaching against pathetic crusts, listless sauces and topping bombardments kilned into burbling stew.

The secret to great pizza is in the firing. Heat must somehow be harnessed in the uncontrollable inferno of a wood- or coal-fired oven with properly seasoned bricks so that the dough is petrified rapidly. Intuition must govern. Gas-firing, Green says, ruins the crust because the dough cooks too slowly. The fluffiness and moisture leach away. The crackle is compromised. You can tell when a pizza is properly made. The crust—all at once crisp and chewy with breaths of steam—has the nurturing disposition of bread: a little salt, a little yeasty champagne bouquet.

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