Who knew that when Jay Jarrier was zipping around Dallas with a trailer-mounted pizza oven in 2010, he was sowing the seeds of a mini-pizza empire? Jerrier traversed this town like the Pizza Pied Piper, plying his followers with delicious Neapolitan rounds. His trailer kept him busy until he opened Cane Rosso in Deep Ellum a year later, and the toppings haven't stopped flying since.
Jerrier was jumping on a significant trend when he hitched up that wood-fired rig. In 2007, when investor Charlie Green paired up with Naples native Salvatore Olivella to open Olivella's, Dallas went nuts for their neo-Neapolitan pies. Cavalli Pizza followed, with rounds certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, and Campania soon served up similar pizza without the pedigree. All offered a better pizza than Dallas' typical restaurants. All now have multiple locations.
Their success isn't hard to peg. In matters of food, if there is one thing we can always be sure of, it's our consistent love of pizza. Borrowed from Italian ovens, Americans have claimed pizza as their own through countless regional variations that have bubbled up across the country like perfectly charred pizza blisters.
All of it, though, is pizza, and pizza is universally loved, if only by the locals who created it. As kids we quickly learn that the best school-lunch option amongst a sea of fish sticks, Salisbury steak and pickled beets is pizza. Later, when we're taught the four food groups, we quickly deduce that a carefully topped pizza emulates nutritional perfection. (Today's food pyramid still works, and it's even shaped like a slice of pizza.) Pizza is how you celebrate a Little League victory. Pizza is how you console a Little League defeat. Pizza is the stuff of both working lunches and late nights at the office. And when you're too tired after a day of Twitter and #hashtags, pizza is the effortless meal that's just a phone call away.
With so much pizza consumption, you might think that there would be more delicious pizza available, but there really isn't, especially outside regions with deeply embedded, multi-generational pizza cultures. Here in Dallas, the most prevalent pie is an adaptation on Chicago's thin-crust style, square cut and all. It rarely delivers a memorable experience, though, and has set the stage for a pizza revolution that's been gradually unfolding since Fireside Pies first opened in 2004. The rapid growth of these new pizzerias that focus on quality ingredients and technique makes it obvious: Dallasites are tired of eating terrible pizza.
Jerrier is currently working on his third location of Cane Rosso in Fort Worth, and he recently opened a small side project in Oak Cliff. Zoli's NY Pizza opened its doors in August to a pack of pizza fans so ravenous that a computer failure caused the restaurant to buckle. Zoli's may have closed early that day, but forgiving fans returned the next. And they've kept the place reasonably busy more often than not.
If the space seems impossibly small, it is — just 1,800 square feet, kitchen, tables and all. Jerrier took over the building that used to house a choose-your-own-adventure enchilada restaurant that closed at the end of last year.
In the kitchen, he installed two Cuppone electric deck ovens from Italy and procured an arsenal of pizza pans, peels and other tools. In the small dining room, Jerrier lined the walls with cork tile, over a wainscot of glossy-white subway tile. He hung a plastic white unicorn on the wall, just because. He hung signs with quirky rules. Table sharking, whatever that is, is not allowed, according to one. And he proceeded to make what at times can be some of the best New York-style pizza in town.
Forget the massive wedge you ordered with a Coke for $1.75 somewhere near Times Square. Forget the beautifully charred and blistered pies turned out of coal-fired ovens all over the rest of New York, too. Zoli's serves a sort of Frankenpie: a mishmash of styles and qualities borrowed from several pizzerias in Brooklyn. When cooked to a crisp, the results are a revelation, and the easiest way to assure this snappy texture is to order by the slice.
Like most pizzerias, pre-made pies topped with popular combinations are available to those unable to commit to a pizza the size of a hula hoop. Pick out your slice from the counter, and a cook tosses it in the Cuppone until the cheese starts to bubble and the crust cinches up. Each bite is met with the audible crunch that marks good New York-style pizza, while the crust somehow maintains a satisfying chew. Order a slice of the white pizza, especially if you think you won't like it. You will.
Ordering a whole pie, on the other hand, entails a degree of risk. If the crust of all the pizza (not just the twice-baked slices) had a bit more char, the smoky flavor and crunchy texture would push things over the top. The pizzas often arrive blond-crusted and doughy, however, and a folded slice held horizontally droops straight down to your plate.
You can counter the limp dough by ordering your pizzas well-done, which you should, because the toppings here are much better than most. Pepperoni — the bastardized salami that's as Italian as country ham — is traded out for thinly sliced sopressata that packs real heat. Meaty olives that were recently sliced replace the canned black versions that taste like shame. (Watch out for pits!) Sliced meatballs land like slices of meatloaf, and anchovies resemble fish instead of salty silt. The toppings are all borrowed from Cane Rosso, and Zoli's pizza is all the better for it.
Want something more substantial? Pad your meal with the fried artichokes versus the fried zucchini, which quickly fall limp. And try the grandma-style pizza, cooked in a steel pan with a chunky tomato sauce, or the Sicilian pizza, which is thicker and little more savory.
There are sandwiches, too, but not as much as Jerrier would have liked. "That's my biggest disappointment," he said when asked why they'd been pulled from the menu. "Nobody buys them." Standing in line next to slices on display while other pizzas go in and out of the ovens is a big a draw. Now you can only order a rotating sandwich of the week, but nobody seems bothered by the fact.
Drop in on a Friday night, and despite the cramped quarters Zoli's feels like a cozy family restaurant. The game's on TV and everyone looks content. They're seated around tables littered with chewed-up crusts, wadded napkins stained with sauce and empty cans of beer. They're celebrating a food they've enjoyed for as long as they can remember.