Restaurant Reviews

Pie in the Sky

Water. Maybe it's a myth that the secret to great pizza is water. Dallas has notoriously bad water. It's so hard you could break your nose splashing handfuls of it into your face in the morning, which means it's better at waking you up than making your pizza rock.

There was this idea: take a test. Sitting across from Fireside Pies chef Nick Badovinus were two glasses of water, one from the latrine tap, the other from the cutting-edge water filtration system that bleeds H2O into the kitchen and feeds the pizza dough. What would the differences be in taste? From these disparities, what inferences could be drawn from the dough? How could we extrapolate this new information to predict crust behavior? And finally, what theories could we put forth to explain Dallas' acute pizza envy, a condition in which one obsesses over the dream of tasty sausage and a crust that doesn't droop and drip like a basset hound tongue?

The experiment never took place. Here's why: "I think the water thing is bullshit," Badovinus says. "I don't even think we use that filter anymore." Huh? If it's not the water, what could possibly be making Dallas' pizza so mentally unstable? "I think it's the humidity," Badovinus quips. Water, humidity, what's the difference? Well, for one thing, while it's common to get hard water, it's all but impossible to get hard humidity. Study the dew that collects on your ice-cold Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle. Observe it collect and trickle down the brown glass and pool at the base. Watch it dry. When you lift your head from the table the next morning, how much powdery white lime sediment do you see around the bottle? Answer: none. (Note: Be careful not to confuse your dried drool for dried bottle dew.)

But humidity affects pizza dough, Badovinus says. How it does this is not clear. (Do you smell a federal grant in there somewhere?) But he says that inconsistent humidity (atrocious in Dallas) disrupts the resting phase of the dough-making process, when the yeast fully hydrates. So dough chef David Brawley slips the dough into the refrigerator, where humidity can be controlled. Yet Badovinus says humidity is only a minor pizza player when stacked against this towering variable: an expert baking artisan, the one who manhandles the humidity along with the dough.

"Neapolitan pizza is extraordinarily simple, almost minimalistic, food," says Maggie Glezer in her book Artisan Baking Across America. "While it differs from American pizza in many ways, the most important deviation is that Neapolitans consider the toppings as mere embellishment to the crust, while Americans think of the crust as simply the vehicle for the topping. To the Neapolitan way of thinking, crust is supreme..."

Fireside is ruled by crust. The structure of the kitchen, the shape of the wood-burning oven, the layout of the counters--virtually all of it is dedicated to dough. What other pizza joint in Dallas understands this principle of pizza primacy?

A crust should not be a doughy sponge or cracker crisp or a pliable chew that demands the jaws toil excessively. Crust should rest dead center among each of these possible outcomes, cherry-picking pieces of textural bounty from each without getting trounced by any single dynamic.

A luscious tear. This is how Badovinus describes the pizza mother lode.

So how does Fireside's rip? The crust is tender, but with spine and complex flavors. It isn't crisp in a crackly sense. Instead, it's delicately brittle where it should be, along the edges, breaking into flakes that crumble easily between the teeth. The effect is bread-like. This is fine pastry, moist yet stern. In the hand it flexes but doesn't sag. It crumbles, but it doesn't corrupt with the harsh bitterness of careless firing.

How many times have you blown a massive hole in your pie? Chewed out the center with its extruded processed meat substance and battered fungi to the edges of the crust curves, only to discard them to the box to mummify and be worshiped by remote tribes of pharaoh ants? Not likely to happen here.

There's the sauce, too. Sauce is the second pizza fundamental, the blood red waves where the ingredients surf. Fireside's sauce isn't the sludge typically smeared across bubbled crusts. In Italy, pizza sauce is made simply with crushed tomatoes, basil, a little garlic, olive oil, salt and oregano. Here it's a bit more pestered; perhaps on account of the difficulty of obtaining tomatoes that don't taste like powdered laxative.

Badovinus pumps up his sauce with fresh herbs--basil, savory, thyme and oregano--that he personally cultivates on the roof of the restaurant. He cooks the paste down with balsamic vinegar to add sweetish fringe, but it mostly seems to charge it with a solid bite. But here's the remarkable thing: All of these flavors seep into the background and balance out while retaining a basic vibe--an extracted tomato surge. The herbs blaze in a muffled sizzle, like a brushed high hat next to that thumping tomato bass note. The balsamic is invisible in this chorus. The sweet is there, but only as a barely detectable hum.

So there you have it: crust and sauce, both resounding notes of precision and grace. Whatever you toss on top is superfluous, unless the toppings insult these notes with incompetence. Let's begin with cheese: It's rich and gooey, a little salty (always good), and it doesn't pool in those movie-popcorn-oil-yellow reservoirs of fat that typically bleed from creepy pizza meat substances. That's because the meat is so lean. Jimmy's spicy Italian sausage is delicious, though the custom Kuby's chicken pesto sausage with fennel is dry. It's good to get squirts of juices when you pierce that casing. Prosciutto, curled and rippled from a brick oven sauna, is rich but remarkably clean with a little murmur of sweetness peeking around its muscular cured flavors.

With all of the bunches of peppers, bulbs of garlic and wire baskets of tomatoes dangling from kitchen hooks like so much field-dressed booty, Fireside comes off like a village grub hut, one buffed with modernity and an expansive patio that feels like a ranch picnic. Banquettes are made of polished wood panels with vinyl cushions. Table and counter surfaces are stained and mottled copper sheeting. Wine bottles are everywhere: lined up behind the bar, clustered in alcoves in the dining room, incarcerated in a chicken wire cage next to the television, stacked under the television platform like artillery shells in a weapons depot. The wine list is an icon for the genius of thoughtful brevity. Out of 22 bottles I count two chardonnays and one merlot--God is rooting for America, American pizza anyway. Let's see--among the reds there is a delicately crisp Montinore Willamette Valley pinot noir and red juice from Macedonia. Soak your Napa cork with that and smoke it. Whites include a Dr. Pauly Riesling from Germany. Bet that would work with Jimmy's spicy sausage.

Weakness shows in the salads: limp and void of raciness. The Caesar is a chopped heap of listless leaves, many with browning and blemished edges and surfaces. The dressing is lackluster; only lemon is pronounced, and the salad looks and tastes like it was dressed and then tossed into a cooler for aging. Baby arugula salad was better, but not by much--punch up those dressings with Fireside verve. Grinders (roasted pie sandwiches) are superb, but they're made from diverted pizza ingredients, so this is to be expected.

What isn't to be expected is a pizza parlor with magnificent desserts. Blueberry pie--a cobbler/fruit crisp mutant--has crisp pieces of crust soaked in clean juices sluiced from firm berries. It was among the best desserts we've ever tasted. Blackberry cheesecake resting on a wafer crust is astoundingly light, elegantly fluffy--almost custard-like. This is the cheesecake to end all cheesecake disputes, New York or otherwise. What water myths explain this?

2820 N. Henderson Ave., 214-370-3916.

Open daily 5 p.m.-1 a.m. $$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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