A magnificent beast of a wood-burning oven lords it over the otherwise modest new Pizaro’s Pizza in Memorial. Domed and clad in a crisp mosaic of black and white, it glows from within with the 900-degree fire of a minor sun, ceaselessly tended by owner Bill Hutchinson and his crew.
Every 90 seconds or so, another thin-crusted pie is snatched from the furnace, its crown puffed up Neapolitan style, like a range of unruly foothills, the surface singed with dark spots of satisfying char. Made according to strict guidelines prescribed by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN), the minders of Neapolitan pizza standards, it is currently the best crust in town — a marvel of stretch and chew and softness and blistery carbon.
I can’t get enough of it. Literally. At one dinner with a pizza fanatic friend of mine, we managed to scarf our way through four of Pizaro’s pies. The toppings have such a clear, ringing simplicity that it is tempting to just keep going, ordering one combination after the next.
I usually want to begin with a basic Margherita pizza as a baseline. At Pizaro’s it’s an unfailing marvel: daubed with a bright sauce of crushed San Marzano tomatoes touched with a little sea salt and olive oil, as fresh-tasting and elemental as can be.
Blobbed over the surface are glossy patches of mozzarella that is made daily in-house, poised to unleash a world of milky stretch at each bite. A few green leaves of basil write a finish to the red-white-and-green landscape that is the Margherita’s hallmark.
Part of what makes Pizaro’s pies so effective is their very brief turn through that very hot oven. The mozzarella doesn’t have time to vulcanize, so it emerges at its melty peak. The restaurant offers a fancy (and more expensive) Italian bufala mozzarella as an option, the classic that is made with water-buffalo milk, but I’d rather eat it uncooked in Pizaro’s very nice Caprese salad, layered with tomato slices, olive oil and a bit of balsamic vinegar.
On the pizzas, this pricier cheese gets a little too blasted and tight. Stick to the mozzarella that is made in-house — or try Hutchinson’s subtle new cold-smoked mozzarella on your pie. It’s great on the Fino pizza, a white pie with a bit of goat cheese, thin slices of fennel sausage crisped to a frizzle, and a softening baste of good olive oil infused with garlic, which gives the pizza a garlic-buttered feel.
The only pie that left me on the fence here was the so-called Sweet Pea, and that was only because the name was literal: the caramelized onions involved seemed to have been sweetened with honey, so that despite a tangle of red and yellow bell peppers and an optional confetti of crumbled Italian sausage, the pizza tasted like dessert.
Caramelized onions have such a beguiling natural sweetness that I wished this version hadn’t been pumped up so much. Or that at least a vigorous scatter of sea salt or salty goat cheese had been applied for balance.
None of which kept me from devouring every last piece of the Sweet Pea, you understand.
What I particularly love about Pizaro’s is the palpable excitement of Hutchinson, his wife, Gloria, and their son Matthew as they tweak and refine their business day by day. There’s always a daily special pizza or a new ingredient to discover, like the splendidly hot red Calabrese peppers that are a new addition. Marinated in oil, they are available scattered onto your pizza or by the $2 side cup.
For a lower-keyed warmth, Hutchinson will drizzle the pepper oil over a pizza. The Polpette pizza with tender little meatballs and dabs of ricotta came fully to life served that way. I wish I had one right now.
And there’s the rub about Pizaro’s: I find myself longing for one of their pies at inconvenient moments. It’s a semi-long haul from the East End to the corner of Memorial and Kirkwood, but this is destination pizza, worth a special trip.
Some who have made that special trip have found themselves frustrated by the service setup. Pizaro’s has only 18 tables, and when they fill up, there has been confusion about whether customers can grab and hold down a table before they stand in line to order. A small sign right at the front door now politely forbids this practice. I’ve never seen a capacity crowd here, but they’re an inevitability when the word gets out, and I would counsel patience. This pizza is worth it.
The pies aren’t huge for their $12-$16 prices, but Pizaro’s seems like a very good value, at least in part because of its liberal BYOB policy. There’s no corkage fee if you bring your own wine, and there’s a lovely corner étagère set up with democratic little glass tumblers, a selection of corkscrews, and a welcoming basket into which corks can be pitched. Beer-loving acquaintances of mine who arranged a craft-brew bottle share at Pizaro’s are still talking about how much fun they had.
The environment, while pleasant enough, is rather stark and boxy. It looks like most of the budget went into that handsome pizza oven, which came all the way from Naples. And I confess to a little pang every time I pick up a plastic fork to eat one of Gloria Hutchinson’s lovely salads from a paper plate. They deserve better: particularly the fine, crisp Caesar with its judicious application of tart, anchovy-tinged dressing. I can think of far fancier restaurants that don’t make a Caesar nearly this good.
Perhaps real utensils and plates must wait for Pizaro’s next iteration. I feel hopeful that the restaurant will continue to evolve, as it has over the couple of months I’ve been visiting. Just last week, the arrival of some earthy, full Taleggio cheese from Italy threw Hutchinson into overdrive, and before long he had dreamed up a special: a white pie strewn with fine shards of excellent prosciutto, splotches of runny Taleggio, a scatter of crunchy walnuts and — added raw when the pie was pulled from the fire —skinny-cut green apple batons plus a crown of arugula leaves glossed with olive oil.
The Hutchinsons had adjusted the timing on this special, cooking it just long enough for the cheese to melt without seizing up, which produced a paler, downier crust that still retained its chew. Much as I prize char on my crusts, I found this variant delightful — gentle without a trace of wussiness.
That’s the thing about Pizaro’s. The place keeps surprising me in a good way. I’ve enjoyed watching as the family gained confidence from their earliest days, so that now they’re charring their crusts more confidently without having to be asked. They’ve done the public relations work with customers who complained that their pizza was “burned,” and they’ve put up posters outlining all the steps, traditions and rationales that go into making Neapolitan-style pies.
They’re educating a new generation of pizza consumers out here in Memorial, from which the city as a whole can only profit.
The Houston pizza scene that once seemed so dreary has perked up considerably in recent years, thanks to Marco Wiles at Dolce Vita and the coal-fired pies of Russo’s and Grimaldi’s. By seeking out training at VPN’s California facility, doing field work in Italy and doggedly pursuing his newly chosen trade, Bill Hutchinson is advancing the city’s pizza arts day by day, as he hand stretches the day’s crop of dough, stretches the fresh mozzarella and feeds his all-important blast furnace from the woodpile underneath.
He’s obsessed. And that’s a compliment.
For my money, he and his family are making the best pizza pies in town.
Start your engines. And let the arguments begin.
Ω a good restaurant that we recommend.
ΩΩ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
ΩΩΩ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
ΩΩΩΩ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.