Review: Pizza, pastrami and Pieous (pick 2)

 
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.24.13
 
If you’ve driven the 290 West corridor just past Oak Hill, you can see where suburban sprawl and rural frontier intersect in a tangled mess. An underserved and hungry one at that, where even just another pizza place would have been welcome. But Pieous brought more to the table when it opened in February. Handmade mozzarella, real sourdough pizza, craft beer, wine by the carafe and pastrami cured and smoked in the red shed that used to be Cartwright’s Bar-B-Q.
 
We could begin and end this conversation with pastrami. Imagine real Texas pit brisket with a salt-and-pepper crust and respect for its fatty edges. Now back it up 30 days for the brining and spicing and you have Deli-Q™. It’s worth the drive all by itself, and Pieous offers three ways to experience it. By the pound ($5 quarter/$10 half/$20 full), it’s a curled accordion of beef, a luscious trifecta of smoke, spice and ambered fat that can be ordered lean or juicy. Hint: Always juicy. As a sandwich, the pastrami is the pillowy center of sourdough bread like fresh linen ($9.75). And for the charcuterie-chaser, the Pieous Plate brings along pickles, marinated onions, bread and mustard for $10.75, money I’d rather have saved and put toward having ever more pastrami to eat with my bare hands.
 
 
(AT TOP: A pastrami sandwich. the old Cartwright’s Bar-B-Q building on U.S. 290 West and the Fat Queen pizza with sausage, pepperoni and soppressata. ABOVE, from left: The Bacon Bleu pizza with bacon marmalade and arugula, signs both pious and Pieous and a half-pound of pastrami.)
 

Another of the singular attractions at Pieous is mozzarella they make themselves. Mozzarella is like vodka in a way, often measured by how clean and neutral it is. Vodka draws its character from an internal fire, whereas good mozzarella relies on fresh milk and a resilient bite. At Pieous, the mozzarella is a good mixer in that respect, lending texture and richness to a broad stroke of the pizza menu without hijacking the pies on which it rides. It gets lost in a salad of mixed greens ($8), lending mainly its density beneath a tart balsamic vinaigrette. But on its own, the mozzarella is a delicate thing, at once firm and gauzy, showcased best on a six-slice plate with olive oil, arugula, tiny tomatoes and toast, a real value at $5.75.
 
A third point for Pieous is the family-friendly vibe. Not just the clientele, but the crew, which seems to be in constant hand-towel transition from one task to the next with good-natured brio. The walls are motivational chalkboards, kids line the bar counter and sound bounces from concrete floor to tiled wall to wooden table like a soccer-stadium chant.
 
There’s a thin line between family-friendly and Lord of the Flies, a line manned by hyperkinetic kinder in karate clothes and nippers flinging Pixar cars off the bar like pole-sweepers at Talladega. You start to understand the tension in that moment when you wonder if the parents are gonna say something or if you should. And before you go off on a how-would-you-know jag, I went with kids on every trip. And while there was enough table-drumming and head-bobbing to populate Burning Man, my racketeers kept their arms and legs at their own tables at all times. The only real damage they did was the typical kid thing where they left the pizza crusts to molder like whale bones in a shipyard.
 
And so it played out with the kids’ plain cheese pizza ($10), the collars orphaned on the plate, no matter that the crusts in their elastic sponginess were the same texture as the center of the pie. Crushed tomatoes certainly risked no offense, not even a whisper of sweetness or acidity to work with the mozzarella. The margherita pizza (also $10) added a few leaves of basil to the mix, but not enough to touch every slice.
 
A pizza called the Fat Queen ($12.75) livened things up with spicy nuggets of house-smoked Italian sausage, along with soppressata and pepperoni caramelized at the edges. The flavors of the Bacon Bleu ($13.75) suggested an artist’s touch, with a sweet layer of smoky bacon marmalade riding over gorgonzola cheese with a peppery green snowfall of arugula.
 
 
(ABOVE, clockwise from left: Margherita pizza, a mozzarella plate, banana cream pie and the ordering counter.)
 
In all, there are 13 pies built from a roster of 20 ingredients. Roasted eggplant, Calabrian peppers, Brussels sprouts, capers. So many that I wish I’d seen a printed menu lying around to save me from squinting at the blackboard while people waited in line behind me. And the online menu is a study in tedium, requiring you to click on each entry to see its description before backing up two pages to reacquire the menu screen.
 
But back to the crust. Every pizzeria has its own style. New York, Neapolitan, deep-dish, cracker-thin. But this one defied easy categorization. It was soft from tip to collar, as if it had been steamed rather than baked beside a surging oak fire in a pizza oven. The pliant doughiness never resolved into a crust, and coupled with blackened pockmarks of bitter ash, made the pizza seem undercooked and overcooked at the same time. The cinders made my fingers look as if I’d been working on my car. Whatever discussion the toppings might have started for this being destination pizza, the crust changed the topic and started talking about itself.
 
With apologies to margheritas and Fat Queens alike, the best pie here was banana cream ($6.50 a slice), covered with whipped cream and chocolate filings held high by a center as thick and chunky as barbecue-joint banana pudding, with a sturdy scalloped crust playing the part of vanilla wafers. It showed promise for a pastry case that includes tiramisu, cheesecake and chocolate pecan pie.
 
Whatever my reservations about the complete Pieous experience, it seems to have filled a need in this part of the county: the need to have a craft food experience without rejoining the rush-hour rat race heading back downtown.
 
Pieous
12005 U.S. 290 W. 512-394-7041, www.facebook.com/Pieous.
Hours: 11am-2pm and 4-9pm Tue-Fri. 11am-9pm Sat. 11am-8pm Sun. Closed Mon.
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)