Asheville’s pizza scene, past and present

SOMETHING DIFFERENT: Strada Italiano chef Gabe Cerrato shows off his Amalfi pie, made with squid ink dough and topped with spinach, smoked clam crema, paprika, prosciutto and tomato. Photo by Laura Hackett

These days, when you’re looking for a pizza in the Asheville area, there are more than 30 spots that can be argued over as the potential ideal destination. But that’s not always been the case. Things have come a long way since pizza first arrived on the scene in Asheville, riding the wave of a nationwide craze in the 1950s.

As a pizza lover curious to find out the origin story of Asheville’s now-burgeoning selection of pies, I took a trip to the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library to dig into the archives and interviewed pizza fans and makers to learn where the beautiful blending of cheese, sauce and crust all began.

In a 1952 edition of the Asheville Citizen, one of the first documented mentions of the dish in a local context appeared as an advertisement: frozen pizza, 32 cents a pie. And before it was ever mentioned on a restaurant menu, home cooks appeared to be making the dish themselves, as ingredients like mozzarella and Duff’s Hot Roll mix were advertised frequently for the purpose of making “Italian Pizza.”

By the mid ’50s, pizza had made its way into the restaurant scene at places like La Vonne’s on Haywood Road and the famed Tingles downtown, both establishments that are now long gone. Tingles Cafe also heavily advertised a creation it dubbed the pizza burger, cooking the patty meat in red sauce, tomato paste and Italian seasoning, topping it with shredded cheese and finishing it with a toast in the oven. It was heralded by its makers as the “newest and greatest taste sensation since the hamburger.”

Thankfully, Brooklyn native Frank Palmeri saved us from this burger blasphemy when he opened Frank’s Roman Pizza, Asheville’s first authentic New York-style pizzeria in the Innsbruck Mall in 1977. His business, known for its old-school charm and community involvement, eventually relocated to Tunnel Road and was purchased by longtime employee Barry Gardner before it shuttered for good in 2016.

The cheap, commoditized pizza that’s so prolific today also hit the scene in the mid-1970s, when Pizza Hut arrived in town. Today, there are at least five locations in the area.

Other early Asheville pizza entrepreneurs include another Brooklyn native John Iannucci, who originally partnered with Palmeri at Frank’s before opening up his own pizzeria, Iannucci’s, in the old Kmart Plaza in Skyland. Today, at his Hendersonville and Asheville locations, Iannucci still serves up the traditional brick-oven pizza pie that he has been producing for over 40 years.

Greek restaurateurs, an early backbone of Asheville’s culinary scene, were also some of the original pizza makers. One of the earliest was John Poulos, who opened Apollo Flame Bistro in 1988. To this day, Apollo Flame serves pizza that is heavily influenced by the Poulos’ Greek heritage.

Legends lost

While many pizza places have come and gone over the years, there are a few legends that have remained larger than life in the hearts of locals. Margaret Dahm, a library specialist at Pack Memorial, fondly remembers Boston Pizza as a lively neighborhood spot that was frequented by students, professors and neighbors of UNC Asheville. After a 30-year run, the business closed in the early 2000s.

“It was friendly, loud and fun, and filled with all sorts of people. We used to go about once a month,” says Dahm. “We were so sad to see it go.”

Stu Helm, a local food writer, tour guide and event organizer, has a special place in his heart for Circle in the Square, which was open 2004-13. “The owner was a grumpy, traditional New Yorker. I told him I was from Boston, and he didn’t like me anymore,” Helm jokes, then says more seriously: “It was world-class, New York-style pizza — the thin kind you could really fold. It was bad for everyone when it left.”

Native Ashevillean and chef Jay Medford, owner of The Underground Cafe with DoughP Doughnuts, reminisces on a zanier pizza enterprise. “As a little kid, I used to always remember going to Showbiz Pizza before it got replaced by the Chuck E. Cheese. There was this creepy animatronic band with a gorilla and an alien drummer. The pizza was horrible, but it was so fun,” Medford says.

Pizza pillars

A few pizza pillars that remain standing to this day are Asheville Pizza and Brewing, Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria, and the 828 Pizzeria (known originally as Marco’s until a recent lawsuit forced the business to change its name). The 828 and Barley’s have both been in the area since 1994, while Asheville Pizza came along in 1998.

828 takes a traditional New York-style approach to its pizza and also offers a flavorful, sauceless pizza topped with a Greek salad. Asheville Pizza, on the other hand, has always been known for its hippie-style pizzas that focus on funky and experimental toppings, such as the sesame seed-crusted, pesto-based Shear Delight that is topped with portobello mushrooms, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts. Unique to Barley’s is a sourdough crust, which according to longtime employee Kathryn Weiglein has been made with the same starter for over 20 years.

There’s also the award-winning Favilla’s, which has been one of the top local spots for New York-style pizza since 2010. Owner Andy Favilla says he has been making pizza since he was 8 years old. He grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he learned and developed a passion for the craft from old-timers. In addition to the traditional thin crust pizza, Favilla’s specialties include (but are not limited to) a pizza primavera pie and a lasagna pizza that involves two layers of ground beef, ricotta, mozzarella and homemade dinner sauce. (Note: While there has been some public uncertainty as to Favilla’s future since it closed its Patton Avenue location, management has confirmed that it will reopen on the same road, across from Sam’s Club, in about three months.)

Additionally, Favilla’s does a Sicilian pie that’s also known as a “grandma pizza.” “The grandma pizza is what everybody’s grandma truly made — fresh crushed tomato, olive oil, sugar, no onions, no garlic, fresh mozzarella with basil and olive oil,” says Favilla. “It’s been around, and people perfect it in their own way. I season the grandma crust and bake that and then add sauce and cheese, so I get a healthy crust. Just enough to give a little flavor to the bread.”

A pleasant new addition to Asheville has been another New York-style joint, Manicomio’s, owned by Mike Napelitano and Jonathan Leibowitz. Before Manicomio’s (which translates to “madhouse” in Italian) arrived on Biltmore Avenue, there was no easy place downtown to grab pizza by the slice, a service Napelitano prides himself on providing. Like Favilla, Napelitano also sees the quality of his ingredients as essential to creating a proper pie, especially the Grande brand cheese, which he swears by. He also adds that nothing makes him as furious as pizzerias that use jarred, minced garlic.

As far as Chicago-style goes, the options are scarce. But Del Vecchio’s on Merrimon Avenue does do a rich and saucy deep-dish pie, along with its menu of New York-style pizzas. The fact that Del Vecchio’s sells both Chicago and New York pizza may seem surprising, but owner Rob Clark explains it like this: “I don’t have any dog in that rivalry, so to speak. I’ve had experience making both in the past and knew no one around here was really doing it. It uses the same ingredients, just different techniques. And people seem to really enjoy it.”

Outside the box

As more and more pizzerias have arrived on the scene along with the rise of breweries, makers have continued to push the boundaries of the dish, experimenting with everything from the toppings to the sauce to the crust.

“It was very limited when I first got here about 14 years ago, and it’s burgeoning now,” says Helm, who produced the inaugural Asheville Pizza Fight competition in February. “People have many more choices than they did. Neighborhoods are more properly serviced by the pizza industry than they were. The quality of pizza has grown as the number of pizza places has grown.”

He continues, “I don’t think even two years ago I would’ve had a contest. We had one because it’s developed so much.”

White Labs Kitchen & Taps takes the creation of crust to a new level, using its own liquid yeast cultures and fermenting the dough for a 72-hour period before wood-firing to produce a thin-crusted pizza with a crispy, chewy tang.

All Souls, an artisanal pizzeria in the River Arts District, uses a custom stone mill to process heirloom varieties of wheat and corn, creating fresh dough from the resulting flour. It then bakes pizzas topped with seasonal ingredients in a wood-fired oven to attain the perfect char. The restaurant also offers several specialty gluten-free pizzas made with a polenta-based crust.

Strada’s Amalfi pizza, created by chef Gabe Cerrato, has arguably the most unique crust in town: Charcoal-colored, it’s made with squid ink. The restaurant also gets experimental with its sauce bases, including a breakfast pizza with a sausage gravy base.

Some of the most off-the-wall pizza developments can be found at Galactic Pizza, a new spot in West Asheville that offers everything from a Space Cowboy pizza of beef, bacon and jalapeno drizzled in ranch dressing to a Vietnamese banh mi-inspired pie that’s topped with sweet chili chicken, pineapple, pickled red onion and cilantro among other items.

When asked about the range of pies now available, Favilla says: “I think it’s great. Pizza is a great food and it’s great that there are better people coming aboard. The competition makes it a little harder, but I’m good with it all.”

Napelitano is a bit more critical but equally unfazed. “It’s just not what I consider pizza. I mean it’s not bad, but I’m just set in my ways,” he says. “I don’t think food should be complicated.”

Whatever your opinions of these newfangled pies, I’m sure we can agree — they’re a heck of a lot better than the frozen stuff.

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3 thoughts on “Asheville’s pizza scene, past and present

  1. Mike

    Fresh has a location in Asheville- FreshWest, River Arts District. Pretty good…although I’m an 828 fan all day long.

  2. Lulz

    Boston Pizza in the 80’s was great. Even Dominos was good pizza when I first had it in the early 80’s. Ingredients back then were much different than they are today. Fast food pizza especially has changed. They were actually decent back then whereas today they border on inedible. Their sauce recipes have a lot to do with it.

    Standard Pizza is pretty good.

  3. Sam

    I’d like to hear about the Frank’s Pizza split, there’s the Tunnel Road one, but what about the Woodfin one? I heard the family had a falling out?

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