The so-called Pizza Wars have been waging in Atlanta for about 10 years now. Although it’s entirely true that pizzerias like Varasano’s, Fritti, and Antico changed the game in town by bringing our city thin, tomato- and bufala-based Neapolitan pies baked in 1000-degree ovens Satan would envy, we also saw a great improvement in thicker New York- and Chicago-style pizzas. The wars got nasty when two pizzaioli (pizza makers) met on a street corner in Midtown and suffocated one another to death in a pizza-dough showdown that rocked the city for about seven minutes before critics led us to the next 34-minute favorite. (That’s a slight exaggeration.)
One of most recent pizzerias to join the combat is Firepit Pizza Tavern in Grant Park, in the new Larkin development (519 Memorial Drive). This is at least the third pizza joint within barely a mile. There’s old-timer Grant Central Pizza & Pasta on Cherokee Avenue, where I’ve eaten for years. There’s also the new Your Pie, a cafeteria-like newbie in the George apartment building on Memorial. Rumor is that a fourth pizzeria is opening, along with a zillion other restaurants in the exploding Memorial corridor. Firepit, whose main decorative feature is windows, is definitely targeting the area’s influx of younger residents with adventurous tastes. Prices may look higher than usual at first, but everything is portioned for two or more.
What makes the restaurant unique? You can start with the celebrity owner, Leslie Cohen, a protégé of Richard Blais and winner of the Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen.” Further, the talented executive chef is Shaun Whitmer from the defunct Ammazza (forced to close when two cars separately slammed through the front of its building). I loved Ammazza.
Firepit is also unique in that it doesn’t adhere to traditional starters. My favorite so far has been the cheapest ($6) — a take on Mexican-style street corn. Two cobs are halved, skewered, and rolled in a pesto mayo followed by another layer of parmesan and basil. It’s a great education in the natural pairing of sweet and funkishly savory. I also loved the most expensive app ($12) — juicy slices of pork belly atop four oblongs of toast with goat cheese, basil, and a tomato jam that was, I admit, maybe a bit too sweet or heavily portioned. Nostalgia also rules. There are huge, curlicued pretzels to tear apart and plunge into melted cheese and beer. You can choose from four styles of chicken wings but I couldn’t resist the “unicorns” which turned out to be dry-rubbed after bathing in a Calabrian oil.
On to the pizzas. Cohen describes her pies as “Detroit-style.” This was a first for me. Wiki tells me they are normally cooked in rectangular pans, but Cohen uses round ones. The 12-inch specialty pies (about $20 each) are sliced into squares, although the outer pieces are of course small triangles. The peripheral crust is well browned; the bottom is slightly crisp. It’s all delicately chewy. I’ve tried two. My fave was topped with spicy capicola, caramelized onions, Calabria peppers, fresh basil, and honey-tinged ricotta. I’ve also ordered a pie with goat cheese, prosciutto, lemon, arugula, and parmesan. For some reason, this pie came to the table much thicker than the other and the ingredients were somewhat lost in each bite. The arugula was lightly anointed — with the lemon, I presume — but I prefer mine dry and starkly peppery.
You can build your own pizzas, so don’t be scared of the fancier ingredients. There are also sandwiches. I tried one, a classic grinder, but it’s already off the menu. It deserved its fate; the squishy hoagie roll was no match for the ingredients. There’s a patio and a bar with an extensive beer and wine list. That helps, because you’re likely to wait awhile.