San Diego: Project Pie Opens in Hillcrest, With Many More to Come
3888 4th Ave, San Diego CA 92101 (map); projectpie.com Pizza Style: Thin-crust The Skinny: Fast-casual, made-to-order thin crust pies that are ready in a jiffy Price: Ready-made pizzas (#2 and #7), $7.50; banana and Nutella "strips" $4.50
Good news for people who want a pizza on the cheap and in a jiffy: Project Pie is primed to expand in a major way. With two sites now up and running—the flagship in Vegas, and the latest in San Diego—it looks like NYC, Boulder, Atlanta, Washington D.C., and multiple cities in Texas are slated to follow close on their heels...not to mention an additional 25 stores in the Philippines. The fast-casual concept comes from pizza maven James Markham, who also launched Pie-ology and MOD Pizza. Markham joins a host of other competitors in the burgeoning field of Chipotle-style pizza chains (subject of some heated discussion), including Top That! Pizza, Pie Five, and 800 Degrees.
The premise is simple: order a pre-designed pie ($7.50 before any additional items or tweaks) or create your own, wholly from scratch. That, by itself, is nothing new. So what sets Project Pie apart from your average chain pizzeria? The kitchen is open, the pies come out quick, and, most significantly, the technology is a bit different than what you'll find at your typical neighborhood pizzeria. Namely, dough is squished into a perfect circle by a modified tortilla press and par-baked to hold its shape.
The press doesn't just speed up the process, it changes the pizza in a fundamental way, making it thinner and more dense than hand-stretching would. The end result is less chewy than a New York style crust and more like a flatbread. A crisp, charred, and very delicious flatbread.
I took two pies for a test-drive: the #7, a Margherita-inspired white pie with mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, and garlic, and a #2 meat-lover's pie, with tomato sauce, pepperoni, mild Italian sausage, and meatballs. Both were surprisingly delicious.
The combo of milky mozz, sweet, juicy slices of tomato, and fresh basil is an established winner, particularly when the ingredients are this fresh and tasty. It's no Neapolitan-style margherita pizza, nor does it claim to be. If you can set aside your expectations for a soft, chewy crust, I think you'll be satisfied, because that 800-degree oven delivers a good amount of nice, smoky char.
As much as I liked the white pie, the pepperoni, sausage, and meatball-topped #2 had the edge. Salty, savory, and slicked with oil, this pie was undeniably tasty. What texture the crust may lack (depending on your pie preferences), the toppings made up for, especially the signature red sauce, which brightened up all of the fatty pork products.
Pizza's the main attraction, and even bleeds over into other segments of the menu, like the Pizza Salad (mixed greens, cheese, tomatoes, chicken, and olive oil served up on a round of baked pizza dough), and dessert pizzas ($4.50), referred to as "strips" on the menu. I tried the banana and Nutella version. Pizza dough gets a good coat of butter, a sprinkling of sugar, and is dotted with caramelized bananas before being baked. Afterwards, it gets a generous drizzle of Nutella. Before taking a bite, I thought the chocolate-hazelnut spread was a bit on the skimpy side, but it turned out to be plenty. Split between two, it may be too much of a good thing; with a larger group, it would be a great finale.
The pizza marketplace is a crowded one, with so many different variations on the theme, let alone operators competing for your buck. And while Project Pie won't supplant my favorite pizzeria, I did like it enough to put it in my regular rotation.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best eats in San Diego. You can find all of her discoveries on her San Diego food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax