The stink of wet smoke may never entirely clear from Gray Brooks' head. But inside Pizzeria Toro, which closed for repairs last November after a second fire, the air is dusted with the promising scent of rebuilding.
"The biggest change was right here," says the chef and co-owner of the artisan pizzeria. He is pointing to a large, gleaming pipe that will vent smoke and heat out of the restaurant—straight up 32 feet to the roof of the building he's loved since he was a child. "This is why we were closed for so long."
Pizzeria Toro is tentatively scheduled to reopen by July 21. It might be a few days earlier, if Brooks is satisfied with test batches of dough. He promises it will not be more than a few days later if he is not.
Brooks still has not seen a final report from his insurance company, but he suspects the design of the original vent at least contributed to the fire. Building codes are vague about wood-fired ovens, he says, and the original vent zigzagged seven times before it reached the open air. Each bend created cozy pockets for creosote and ash.
Seven months after opening to popular and critical acclaim, the first fire sparked overnight in April 2013. A second, smaller fire started during dinner service in November. It was quickly controlled but forced Pizzeria Toro to close.
The Durham native started crafting upscale pizza in 1988 at Pepper's in Chapel Hill. He later moved to the Outer Banks and ran Pepper's sister operation, Pie in the Sky, in Ocracoke.
Eventually, he needed a change. A friend who lived in Seattle was looking for help with a few carpentry projects at his house. Brooks figured he would visit for a few weeks and take a look around. He wound up staying 15 years.
He planned to spend much of his time writing but soon discovered he didn't like spending hours on end by himself. "There's a connection to people that I was really addicted to," he says. "For me, being in the kitchen feeds that need."
Brooks quickly found a favorite restaurant, Dahlia Lounge, the flagship of Chef Tom Douglas' culinary empire. Before long, he talked his way into a kitchen job. He worked his way up through various positions and eventually was asked to take over Serious Pie, Douglas' then-new artisan pizza place.
"I was planning to open a similar thing in Seattle myself," Brooks recalls. "I had a building. I had investors. But I thought to myself, I could buy a basic car and maybe wreck it, or I could learn how to drive his really nice car. It made sense to me to stay with him."
Brooks rediscovered his passion for making great, slow-rising dough. "It's all about using your brain and the best ingredients," he says. "I was really happy there."
Still, Brooks longed for home. He imagined himself opening a pizzeria in Five Points, a part of town he always loved as a kid. His family used to eat at the Plaza Restaurant, a space now occupied by the Cupcake Bar. On either side, he recalls, was a tailor and a teacher's supply store.
He told his mother that if she ever saw a sign on the building to let him know. She did better than that. At a cocktail party, she overheard Durham architect Scott Harmon talk about updating the property. She jumped right in and staked her son's claim.
"She told him I always wanted to be part of this building," he recalls. "She asked him to wait until I could call him."
The timing could not have been better. Durham's downtown dining scene was on an upswing and artisan pizza was a new concept for the area. Brooks' reputation as a perfectionist was evident from the bottom of his thin, charred crust to the array of seasonal, locally grown ingredients that lightly topped his pizzas. The impressive antipasti and selection of Italian wines and cocktails helped, too. The buzz grew quickly, drawing lines of patrons willing to wait for a seat at the long community table.
At the height of it all, the second fire brought things to a sudden, depressing halt. Still, Brooks says insurance has enabled him and his partners to come back, and the generosity of other restaurateurs gave many of his employees a place to work in the interim.
"We had an amazing team, and nearly everyone is coming back—including Emily Barnard, who made the desserts everyone fell in love with," he says. "We'll open with what we know then get back up to speed quickly."
Several of the red- or white-sauced mainstays from the old menu will be available, including his personal favorite, anchovy with no cheese. They'll also have plenty of the popular Tuscan kale salad.
Brooks is gratified by the excitement that has been building over Pizzeria Toro's return.
"Honestly, the support from people on the street, the kind words is what kept us from falling into a dark place. It was incredible before, and it's even more meaningful to me now," he adds, pausing to shake hands with workers as they walk by. "I really believe it's going to be better than before."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Blaze of glory"