Hard Knox Pizzeria
4437 Kingston Pike Knoxville, TN (map); 865-602-2114; hardknoxpizza.com
Pizza style: Neo-Neapolitan
Oven type: Earthstone True Wood Fired Oven
The skinny: The world would be a better place if all pizza chains were doing it like this fledgling franchise
Price: 12-inch specialty pizzas from $7.95-$12.95
My view of the pizza landscape in Knoxville is dated. Growing up, it was the closest big city to home and I made plenty of trips there, but that was before the new standards set forth by the mid 2000s pizza renaissance. It remained, in my mind, a swath of the country populated by pizza buffets and the big chains. So it was with genuine surprise (and a touch of skepticism) that when passing through this holiday season, I saw all sorts of new-era pizza joints popping up on the restaurant maps. And one of the strongest contenders looked to be Hard Knox Pizzeria (recommend in the comments of this post by
Located in a more upscale shopping plaza off the main drag of Kingston Pike, Hard Knox is just a postage stamp of a pizzeria. A wall of double split oak flanks the entrance, with the Earthstone Oven centrally situated just behind the counter. A row of low laying four tops line run down the oven facing wall, affording diners a good view of the pizza acrobatics.
The menu here is largely pizza-focused, extending into calzones, salads, a few apps, and lunchtime flatbread sandwiches. Specialty pies are divided pretty evenly between red and white pies—where the white are not sauceless, but topped with a white sauce of whole milk mozzarella and cream or a pesto cream sauce. Topping combinations range from the classics to some more contemporary combinations of the pulled pork barbecue or pistachio and onion variety. On the night I visited the specialty pie was about as wacky as they get with a siracha base and strawberry slices (there were other components but I was so fixated on that combo that the rest was lost on me.)
Traveling through town with my very classically minded pizza-eating parents, we took on a pair of Rockys—the Marciano ($7.95) and the Rocky Balboa ($12.50)—from the boxer-themed specialty pies. True to a pizza named for the Italian Stallion, the Rocky Balboa was old school Italian-American to the core with provolone, sweet Italian sausage, red onions, and diced green and red bell peppers. The sausage was a total knockout, packed with fennel and plenty of seasoning. Torn in irregular hunks and just fatty enough, it definitely dominated the pie, which in a way was this pies blessing and curse. As good as the sausage was it highlighted the over all problem of balance all out of whack. The tomato sauce was applied too sparingly to stand up to the toppings. The abundance and under-doneness of the peppers and onions made them seem like a total after-thought. A lighter hand, and more melded flavors from a longer cook on the vegetables could have made this pie more of the champ it was meant to be.
And the Marciano, by contrast, evidenced just how much stronger the Balboa could be. In Hard Knox's version of a Margherita, the individual components were really able to shine and come into better harmony with one another. The crust was sturdy and crisp with a well-developed flavor from the two day rise, and a touch of sweetness from what I assume to be a little sugar in the dough. The pan pies here also keep the crust elevated on these cool little plastic nubbins and prevent any sogging out:
Based on the cans lined up behind the register, Valoroso pear style tomatoes are the variety that go into the bright sauce. The fresh mozzarella is incredibly milky and creates a great molten puddle across the entire face of the pie. The sprig of basil that topped the pie felt a little clumsy and necessitated a DIY dispersal of the herb that might have been better suited to an individual pie rather than a communal one. Despite that nitpicky caveat, the Marciano was the main event.
Advertised around the restaurant were franchise opportunities with the pizzeria. Currently the Kingston Pike location is the only one of its kind, but if Hard Knox represents the direction of chain pizza to come, that's some chain pizza I could get behind. There remain a few kinks to iron out, but it's definitely got more than a fighting chance to rise to the top and it served to put my good-pizza-in-Knoxville skepticism to rest.