224 East 7th Street, Charlotte, NC 28202 (map); 980-207-0037; www.purepizzaclt.com
Pizza Style: Artisinal
Pizza Oven: Electric Impingement
The Skinny: Good mix of healthy and traditional doughs with excellent toppings and local ingredients
Price: small Margherita, $9.95; large T-Rex, $19.95
When the word "wholegrain" is used in conjunction with "pizza," I am usually "out." But when I learned that renowned baker Peter Reinhart, author of American Pie and founder of Pizza Quest, came up with a new sprouted grain dough for Charlotte's Pure Pizza, it immediately became detour-worthy on a recent trip to North Carolina. You can read up on the process of making sprouted grain bread for yourself (read: my feeble mind does not completely understand it), but the party line is, "all the nutrition of whole wheat flour with the taste of white." So is there truth in advertising? Sort of.
Pure Pizza is nestled inside the 7th St. Market, an upscale farmer's market/food court in Charlotte's uptown, and many of their toppings can be sourced to their neighbors. They're big on organic, so even the ingredients that aren't local, like the excellent Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, are top shelf (though I'm not a fan of the BelGioioso fresh mozzarella). For those less invested in nutrition, they also serve a "Classic Neapolitan" pie (though I think they forgot to stick a neo- in front of Neapolitan), and for people vastly more concerned with their health, they even dish up a sprouted grain gluten-free crust.
That's all wonderful but how does sprouted grain, "the next frontier of baking," taste, you ask? Well, to say it's the best wholegrain pie I've ever had isn't a stretch...but since I've only had about four of them in my lifetime, it's not exactly high praise. The flavor is definitely lighter, sweeter, and altogether more satisfying than whole wheat for me, but I don't think anyone's going to mistake it for something made from bread flour.
I ordered a Margherita to get a baseline on the sprouted grain, and the heartier flavor ended up overwhelming the sauce and cheese. There wasn't a hint of the balance you'd hope for. However, considering that many "regular" shops fail the same test, I think the choice of toppings was a little unfair.
The dealbreaker for me ended up being texture. The ends are soft and spongey inside and out, like the slightly dense crumb of a loaf of wheat bread. It looks right on the outside, but there isn't a hint of crisp to be found. Everyone has a different threshold for what they'll compromise for their health, and mine appears to be the consistency of pizza crust.
I know for a fact that a specialty pie would have worked much better on the sprouted grain for me because the toppings on the next pie were killer. The "T. Rex" is aged Grande mozzarella with this redonkulous local bacon and ground beef, and it is simple and awesome and it would taste good on any pie...but it tasted particularly good on a "regular" pizza crust (if you can call a Reinhart recipe that). Delicate and airy with just a hint of crisp, it has enough flavor to set the palette for the goodness piled on top. And if you're bummed that you can't tell your friends about this crazy new sprouted grain pizza you had, you can at least mention that the organic bread flour was locally grown and milled. Whether you can taste the difference is a question for another day, but I respect Pure Pizza keepin' it in the community.
Probably the most surprising part of the visit was seeing a very solid pie roll out of a somewhat compact electric impingement conveyor oven—a necessity given their limited storefront space. It's definitely the best pizza I've ever had that came off a belt (pizzas actually cook directly on it) and I've had plenty of those. Further proof that one does not require a wood-burning oven for a quality artisan pizza.
I didn't get to go through the rest of the menu, but it looks fun. They've got pulled pork and wild salmon from Charlotte's "barbecue provocateur" Dan The Pig Man, local chorizo, and whatever veggies are in season at the time. This is in addition to exotic daily specials like a recent Thanksgiving pie that featured fried turkey, spinach, smoked mozz, bacon, onion, and housemade cranberry sauce.
I would be remiss not to mention the pure (and yes, local) honey that managing partner Juli Ghazi sends out with every pie. A dipping sauce usually signifies a lack of confidence in the crust, but the honey, especially the one I had that was infused with cinnamon, pairs outrageously well with the sprouted grain. What really solidified it was dipping the regular crust—not a match. I could honestly see myself going sprouted grain sometimes just to soak it in goodness.
Given the pedigree of the ingredients, you can probably figure out the one major drawback here. Local doesn't mean cheap, and organic usually means the opposite...but given the quality I could taste, the prices seemed reasonable enough to me. The only other pizza I've ever had in Charlotte was at Reinhart's recently deceased Pie Town (where some of the Pure Pizza crew came from), so I'm not sure exactly where Pure Pizza is in the pantheon, but the good people of North Carolina are welcome to educate me in the comments.
In a perfect world I probably would have tried Pure Pizza a couple more times before writing it up, but since Charlotte is 2,400 miles away and going back would mean seeing my in-laws again, we're kind of stuck. Will the health benefits of sprouted grain eventually take precedence over our love of traditional pizza? Speaking for myself, I pray to all that is holy that this is not the case. However, as baking science develops and the taste improves, is there a possibility that sprouted grain will one day overtake refined flour? Perhaps. The nice thing about Pure Pizza is that no one has to make any rash decisions quite yet.
About the author: Lance Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles.