Just in case you needed another reason to get riled up about the presidential campaign, here’s one: You can’t have one of the city’s best pizzas while watching the returns.
Pizza is the little black dress of American cuisine, appropriate for occasions from preschool graduations to funeral wakes. But pizza flat out owns Election Night in war rooms, living rooms and newsrooms (“Not every election becomes a pizza necessity,” an editor in Binghamton, N.Y., recently reassured readers. “We did not order pizza for the Vestal library vote.”)
When votes are being cast, it even counts as currency: My first political job involved shuttling pizza boxes up and down long lines at the polls so college students would stay put.
To honor the quadrennial tradition, it seemed appropriate to check in with Charleston’s newest ambitious pizza projects. Unfortunately, Luke’s Craft Pizza is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and La Morra Pizzeria doesn’t have a dedicated space, so there’s no telling where and when it will pop up next. Aggravating in the context of Nov. 8, I know. But the good news is that no matter which way the election goes, there is a satisfying slice in your future.
La Morra Pizzeria
Charleston looms large in New York chefs’ imaginations: Depending on which kitchens they’ve worked in, they may have heard that shrimp leap out of the Wando River as soon as they intuit a cast net rustle, or that the streets are paved with Anson Mills grits.
But nobody in the Big Apple is spinning tales about Charleston pizza. In that department, the Northeast has the preponderance of advantages, including manageable humidity, in-state mozzarella manufacturers and a sizable population of Italian-American eaters who won’t stand for subpar pies. A few local restaurants, including EVO, Monza, The Wich Doctor and DeSano Pizza Bakery (which produces pizzas according to strict Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana specifications), have largely overcome their region’s natural obstacles. Yet at least some New York pizza specialists still think of Charleston as a charity case.
“Many locals are unfamiliar with Neapolitan pizza in general, so for us, it's about who we can inform of (this) style of cooking,” Marlee Blodgett wrote in an e-mail introducing La Morra, the wood-fired mobile oven built by her boyfriend, Zach Swemle.
Swemle moved to New York City as a teenager, and except for four years spent in San Francisco – a period that included a stint as sous chef of Pizzeria Delfina – cooked there professionally until relocating to Charleston earlier this year.
The New York influences on Swemle’s output are evident. With their puffed-up perimeters, the Frisbee-sized pies strongly resemble the pizzas that spelled fame for Brooklyn’s Pizza Moto. And although La Morra’s topping selection changes by the week to incorporate seasonal ingredients, a Roberta’s homage dappled with hot soppressata, mozzarella, honey and chili flakes has made at least one menu appearance.
Beyond looks and legacy, though, the overlaps aren’t quite so obvious. The pizzas I sampled at Stems & Skins and Elliottborough Mini Bar suffered from what tasted like an overabundance of excitement. Where the spongy crust should have been charred, it was unappealingly pitchy: A few of the burnt patches surrounding the Roberta’s tribute were even bigger than the salami slices atop it. La Morra’s dough has a beguiling tang, but it’s hard to get past the crust’s flop and ash.
La Morra’s full-throttle approach doesn’t do the toppings any favors either. Meaty clams couldn’t compete with a massive helping of garlic, which also figures prominently in the tomato sauce applied to other pies, lending it a bitter edge.
Still, those are all problems of modulation. What’s most important about La Morra is it’s a fun operation, and it’s bringing pizza to places with bread-and-cheese-friendly wine lists. My inclination is to roll with it.
Luke’s Craft Pizza
50: That’s the number of pizzas that Luke’s Craft Pizza, nestled in the box-shaped building that fills up the tiny wedge of Ashley Avenue acreage between Kennedy Street and the Crosstown, makes each night. Which means the eight-month-old restaurant’s opening hours are rough guidelines at best: According to Luke’s social media feed, the sell-out point usually occurs around 8 p.m.
1: That’s how many people staff Luke’s other than Luke. Luke Davis’ wife, Brittany, mans the marble-topped counter at the take-out joint, handsomely appointed with white walls and fog gray molding. It’s a mom-and-pop in the truest sense of the phrase (or will be within weeks, when Brittany Davis gives birth to the couple’s first child.)
14: As Henry Ford might have put it, you can get a pizza at Luke’s in any size, so long as it’s 14 inches. There is no wheedling your way into a small or extra-large pie, just as no amount of asking nicely will result in a pizza with four slices decorated with olives, and four slices embellished with speck. As the push-letter menu board clearly states, the only possible order is eight identical slices, or some multiple thereof. In case you want something other than pizza, Luke’s offers La Croix and bread made from the previous night’s leftover dough. In other words, you’re leaving with a 14-inch pizza.
11: Mozzarella and asiago come standard at Luke’s, but it’s up to customers to mix-and-match the 11 available toppings, ranging from salami to spinach. The base also is buyer’s choice: In addition to tomato sauce, Luke’s offers ricotta and olive oil-and-garlic. If it all seems too complicated, there’s almost always a predesigned pie on special: This summer, the pizzeria did brilliant things with peaches.
800: And that’s the temperature of Luke’s oven in degrees Fahrenheit. There’s no precise formula for how many more ways things can go wrong with each additional degree of heat, but it takes significant skill to work a contained inferno without incident. Davis, an EVO alum, has got it.
Luke’s most basic pizza – tomato base, basil on top – is stock photo pretty. Its crust, punctuated by fully browned bubbles and milder heat scars, has just the right amount of stretch: In a delicious instance of difference-splitting, the edges register aurally as crispy and tactilely as chewy. Because the cheese is laid on relatively thickly, there’s a comingling of sweetish tomatoes and dairy that approximates a vodka sauce, creating a rich setting for the fresh herbs.
Even better is the ricotta base, which provides a cool counterbalance to Luke’s own peppery ground sausage, shot through with fennel, and dainty ribbons of pickled banana peppers. While the crust isn’t the crackly kind, it’s sufficiently sturdy to support all of those heaped flavors. Maybe the local pizza scene isn’t so vexed after all.
3.5: Stars for Luke’s.