Bull City Burger and Brewery in downtown Durham now has a sister restaurant, Pompieri Pizza, just around the corner in the quaint shell of a 1924 firehouse. This crossover venture did not seem obviously promising. A rocking burger joint is built on decent ingredients and a sense of fun, while a serious pizza restaurant is an enterprise of alchemical transformations.
Defying the odds, Pompieri turns out to be a major arrival masquerading as a mere brand extension. While retaining many of the elements that make Bull City a favorite—Puck's soda machine, mason-jar glassware, pie-tin plates, house beer, efficient and enthusiastic staff—Pompieri far surpasses its sibling in culinary interest, serving reverently correct Neapolitan-style pizzas that vie as the area's best. Neighborhood rival Pizzeria Toro must be feeling the breeze of this shot across its bow, while Italophiles must be wondering if they can afford a condo in the area.
Let me state a first principle: Pizza should arrive as if by dumbwaiter from the pits of hell. It should be charred, blistered, gnarled and smoky. It should not merely be hot, but seem racked—tortured—by heat. Made with the traditional Caputo brand "00" flour and fired in a pair of wood-burning ovens that reach 850 degrees, Pompieri's pizza approximates this ideal more closely than any pizza in the Triangle. The crust has an initial crunch that resolves into light chewiness; the cornice and underside have the classic black mottle; and the occasional domed blister lends the villainous charm of a battle scar. My only qualm is that the cornice is sometimes pinched instead of rounded and puffed, implying that the dough was stretched and shaped by fingers that might have been more delicate.
Having produced a crust of classical rigor, Pompieri has the wisdom to resist the follies of the post-Spago pizza culture, which panders to trend- and glitz-prone urbanites with toppings like smoked salmon and chicken satay. Trusting in its crust, Pompieri maintains a noble minimalism, topping its 12-inch pies with smatterings of mozzarella and pecorino, house-cured meat and a few culturally appropriate vegetables.
Pompieri serves 10 pizzas, all destined to have their acolytes. The margherita and "cured meat of the day" (marinara, mozzarella, artisanal protein, arugula) are bright, vivid expositions of Neapolitan pizza craft. These pizzas have my vote as the best in the Triangle. The Pork Belly ("porky red sauce," cubed belly, cracklings, garlic, parmesan), White Florian (mozzarella, pecorino, ricotta, garlic, lemon oil) and BC (goat cheese, Portobello mushroom, caramelized onion, rosemary) are more adventurous, though far from outré.
Bolder still is the "Drunken Horse," a spicy, meat-heavy concoction featuring marinara, mozzarella and house-made sausage on a "beer crust dough" that doesn't seem to differ much from the standard crust. Management explains that the pizza is named in memory of a legendary prank in which firemen somehow inebriated one of their horses and led it upstairs. The horse was too sloshed to climb down and had to spend the night in the living quarters.
Every pizza arrives unsliced with kitchen shears tucked under the crust. Those who don't play center for Division I basketball teams will struggle to achieve the optimum cutting angle while remaining seated. You must either slightly rise from your chair or cut from rib height, throwing off the ergonomics of the scissors. The arugula that blanketed the pizza now blankets the table. "Rethink" is the operative word.
The pizza, beer and retro-whimsical emanations of the soda machine get the job done. Starters and desserts add little to the experience while larding the bill. Antipasti include house-made sausage in "porky marinara," variously dressed cheeses and a bacon and caramelized onion soup. Sweets are two-fold: the "signature dalmatian" (a ricotta-stuffed long john topped with what seems to be sweetened condensed milk) and a range of gelatos. Indistinctly flavored and crystal prone, these gelatos—in effect, ice creams—frankly need work. Score one for Pizzeria Toro, which brings the artistry of a fine trattoria to its entire menu.
Bull City's yard-long quaffs of beer proclaim that it wants to please; the mood of rowdy good humor testifies that it does. Pompieri can afford to strike a cooler note. It's already a busy, buzzy restaurant, but its pizza is worth pondering in silence.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A perfect 10."