It’s 8:30 p.m. outside Catbirds bar near the Westheimer curve, and Anthony Calleo is coated with a light dusting of King Arthur high-gluten flour, as if he’s been snowed on.
The visor on his baseball cap is turned straight up toward the ceiling of his Pi Pizza truck, which gives the wiry, bespectacled Calleo a perpetually startled look as he tosses the dough for a pie, stretches it into a 16-inch circle and smooths on a base coat of his secret-recipe tomato sauce.
He strews on a curly bed of grated cheese, 50 percent mozzarella (“for the melt”) and 50 percent provolone (“for the browning”). So far, so normal, except for the narrow, hot quarters inside the truck — an unlikely setting in which to ply the pizza arts, an undertaking of famously low tolerances, where a drop in oven temperature or a hike in the lowboy cooler where the dough is proofing can wreak havoc.
Things turn eccentric as the ingredients for Calleo’s specialty pies go on. Forget about ordering a pepperoni pizza when you step up to the truck window to speak with the angelic Hannah McDill, Calleo’s “front of the house.”
The meat involved is more likely to be crumbles of spicy wild boar sausage Calleo has concocted himself, using boar from Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram. If there are slices of Broken Arrow venison sausage on the pie, sweet/tart cherries soaked in port might pop in to contrast with all the savory ingredients. Corn chips and hot wings sauce go onto the celebrated 420 slice, a curiously winning ode to stoner food.
The results can be unexpectedly grabby, so that once you’ve toted your pizza in to the Catbirds counter, ordered up a Wittekirke Belgian beer on tap and dug in, you end up devouring way more of a 16-inch pie than you meant to.
I was skeptical enough about the potential for serious pizza from a truck that Calleo’s madcap work has caught me by surprise. He has his eye on an eventual brick-and-mortar operation, and I’m taken enough with his oeuvre that I’m hoping he succeeds.
Frankly, I need Pi’s Saucy Balls pizza in my life. This remarkable pie, littered with big, tender meatballs and zapped with a pickled cherry pepper spread that lights up the landscape, is one of my favorite pizzas in Houston.
Calleo’s lively tomato sauce, vibrating with thyme and warmed with red pepper, is just one of the reasons; I think it tastes so immediate because he prepares it uncooked in his commercial kitchen, so it’s only subjected to heat once the pizza goes into the oven. Those spectacular meatballs figure into the equation, too, but all would come to naught were it not for the fact that Calleo and his pizza lieutenant, Andy Hargett, are able to coax a very good crust into being inside these constricted quarters.
The pies turn out thin and crisp-bottomed with a chewy crown that achieves some nice loft in places. You’re not going to get the blistery scorch of a ferociously hot, wood-burning Italian pizza oven, but the four-pie capacity Baker’s Pride oven here can hit almost 700 propane-fueled degrees, which can produce a bit of nice blackening here and there.
The crusts aren’t quite the equal of the Neapolitan-style versions at Dolce Vita and Pizaro, and they are not wholly consistent. (On one of my visits, the crust was notably chewier than the others.) But they’re well done, and they carry Calleo’s more outrageous creations along on their shoulders.
Take his Drunken Peach pizza, a dessert-sounding pie that is particularly close to his heart. With its sliced peaches and blueberries soaked in whiskey syrup (made from Old Crow, no less), the pie sounded sort of ghastly. But blobs of goat cheese and just the right amount of sunny habanero chile burn — backed up by that herbal tomato sauce — made the whole thing click mightily. I loved it in spite of my initial misgivings.
Occasionally, Calleo’s mad pizza scientist tendencies jump the tracks. His Tre Porcellini pie, a nod to the “three little pigs,” has a surface paved over with Genoa salami, soppressata and thin-sliced pancetta, and the results are so salty I couldn’t eat more than a few bites. Less would have been more. The same thing happened another evening with an Italian sandwich layered high with mixed salumi. It was well put together, but salt romped and stomped.
An “American” pie dotted with hunks of highly seasoned ground beef pushed my salt threshold, too, yet a welcome tangle of sweetly caramelized onion strips balanced things out — just. At $27 per pie, it’s painful when things don’t work. So if you’re in doubt, opt for an $8 “slice,” which is really a quarter of a pie, and a good way to get a feel for Pi’s frisky repertoire, which changes weekly and never seems to stop evolving. (You can scope out the week’s menu beforehand on the truck’s website, pipizzatruck.com.)
A big part of Pi Pizza’s appeal is the fast-talking Calleo, a bundle of nervous energy who smokes an electric cigarette or flips a towel back and forth when he’s not flipping dough. He’s a former philosophy student who got through college working at Papa John’s Pizza and went on to such venues as the late Late Night Pie. Although he seldom (and rather tragically) eats pizza anymore, he obsesses about it constantly, experiments ceaselessly on the days when he’s in his commercial kitchen, and admits it’s in his blood. “I can run a pizza restaurant in my sleep, “ he says, “but the truck was a real learning curve.”
Another factor in Pi’s charm is its current four-night-a-week, Thursday-through-Sunday location outside Catbirds, a low-key operation that’s like a dive bar crossed with a backstreet French Quarter local. There are pre-cocktail-boom mixed drinks and a smallish slate of bottled and draft beers that include some excellent microbrews. Washed in blue light, the place feels like a comfortable piece of Houston past.
Pi Pizza sweetens the deal, its boldness and quirks adding a flavor of Houston present.
★ a good restaurant that we recommend.
★ ★ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
★ ★ ★ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
★ ★ ★ ★ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.