DeSano tweaks decor

DeSanos pizza located at 94 Stuart Street.Leroy Burnell/staff 12/19/2013

When Charleston eaters first learned that DeSano Pizza Bakery was planning to open a restaurant near Taco Boy, all of the chatter about the Neopolitan pizza chainlet centered on oven temperatures and imported cheese. But since its opening in September, the windowless restaurant has become locally infamous for its seemingly inexplicable spare decor and utilitarian shared tables.

"I'll be the first to tell you we haven't done a good job of say(ing) this is why this is this way," owner Scott DeSano says. "We just haven't."

Although the DeSano stores in Nashville and Los Angeles share the same industrial design, DeSano says no market has criticized the set-up as forcefully as Charleston.

"When you have this unbelievably historic town, with all this character, they're not accustomed to it," DeSano theorizes. The restaurant is now adding a television and wooden accents to its dining room in hopes of pacifying the many patrons who've complained about the dearth of style.

"We'll have tweaks suggested by customers that stay within what we're trying to create," DeSano says. "I'm not trying to overcomplicate it, because it's just pizza. I'm not going to give them the prettiest place on the planet, but I want to give them a comfortable place. I know people need visual stimulation."

All three DeSano locations are modeled after Atlanta's enormously successful Antico Pizza Napoletana, for which DeSano purchased the franchising rights in 2011. The counter-service system, concrete floor, unadorned walls and exposed kitchen are supposed to reference Antico's roots as a wholesale bakery. Atlantans fondly remember sneaking into Antico before it was a full-fledged pizzeria and eating off prep tables arranged at odd angles, DeSano says.

The problem is eaters nationwide don't share that reference point, says architect David Thompson, whose local portfolio includes The Ordinary, The Grocery, The Belmont and Butcher & Bee. Thompson served as the architect of record on the DeSano project, but he stresses that he functioned more like a contractor than a conceptualizer.

"It was funny, because the ideas were so specific," Thompson recalls. "They literally told me to forget everything I've done on 50 restaurants. Mr. DeSano was very, very specific in how he wanted customers to experience the restaurant. He was very specific about the entry sequence, how they go through the queue and the big reveal idea he has about three ovens.

"It was very particular," Thompson continues. "They never wavered from Day One."

Although Thompson hints he might have made allowances for a new building, which didn't "inherit the character" of the Atlanta bakery, DeSano insisted on replicating the elements that worked at Antico. Still, DeSano concedes that his logic isn't apparent to guests who aren't familiar with the company's story. He acknowledges most customers don't instinctively understand the decor is supposed to encourage a casualness compatible with dropping a pizza slice on the floor and sharing a bottle of wine with strangers at a nearby table.

"I need to get some descriptions up," says DeSano, who's working with a Los Angeles photographer to capture gently abstracted black-and-white images of the pizza-making process. He hopes the pictures will eventually help correct the current conversational imbalance between interior design and pies.

"It just gives people more to look at," he says. "But when all is said and done, it's really about the pizza."

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.