A new restaurant in Durham, North Carolina, is turning up the heat on pizza pies by taking a fine-dining approach to this oft-believed-to-be-anything-but cuisine. Pompieri Pizza, under the guidance of Chef-Owner Seth Gross, make everything they use on their pizzas in-house, using locally sourced ingredients from farmers, ranchers, food purveyors and mills as close to home as possible.
“It’s labour-intensive, but the flavours are worth it in the end. We’re pulling our own mozzarella all day, we’re growing our own mushrooms and basil, and we’re making our own pizza sauce. All of it, fresh, every day. We’re doing it right,” says Seth.
At Pompieri’s sister restaurant (at the other end of the block), Bull City Burger and Brewery, they house-make everything except the ketchup. There, a microbrewery supplies all the beer (many of which are available at Pompieri Pizza), Gross serves a number of North Carolina spirits, and the crowds stand (in line or sit and eat) in testament to the quality of his food and process.
As part of Durham’s booming downtown dining scene, Gross recognizes his responsibilities to his diners and the community at large. That’s one of several reasons he selected the historic Durham Fire Station #1 building as the site for Pompieri Pizza.
“I loved the thought of being in a historic space and when I saw the fire station was available, I knew that it was the right spot, especially for a pizza place. In fact, the word pompieri is Italian for firefighters, so it’s fitting that we’re here,” said Gross.
But just being in a fire station and naming his restaurant in honour of firefighters worldwide wasn’t enough. In both Bull City and Pompieri, Gross honours the history of Durham.
At Pompieri, you don’t get a table number, but instead a placard with the names of Fire and Police Captains, trucks, horses and other interesting things and people you’d find here on one side, their story on the other. It’s a way to inject a little fun, trivia and history into dinner. Maybe get a conversation or two started.”
Several drinks and pizzas on Pompeiri’s menu take their name from other notable fire and police personalities, like the Red Devil and Blackjack – drinks named in honour of two Durham fire trucks. The dining room is situated in the bay that once held fire trucks, and in the tin ceiling, you can see the holes and fire poles once used here; on the walls hang dozens of black and white photos – many historic, many more donated by the families of firefighters from the station – of firemen, fires, fire wagons and fire trucks.
But the centrepiece of Pompieri is the pizza. The mozzarella pullers greet guests, as does an interior aquaponic system where Gross grows a veritable hedgerow of basil. Beside the twin ovens – dual fuelled wood- and gas-fired behemoths – are pizza tossers kneading and spinning dough. Pizzas at Pompieri aren’t the build-your-own type, but are chef-created to take advantage of the best house-cured pepperoni (they cure all of their charcuterie, actually), farm fresh vegetables and herbs, and the top flavours of the season.
“What makes Pompieri great? Two things. One, our approach to food. Handmade with love and care put into everything delivers so much more flavour. Two, our relationships with local farmers. We get almost everything from within 75 or 100 miles of here. We know the farmers. We support them and they, in turn, give us their best products; it’s our job to make the best pizza with what we get.”
Written by Jason Frye
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About the author: JFryeJason Frye
Driven by his need to know what's around the next turn, Jason Frye became a travel and food writer. He is the author of two travel guides - Moon North Carolina Handbook (2014) and Moon North Carolina Coast Handbook (2014) - and is a food blogger, columnist, and frequent contributor to publications across the Southeastern United States. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, Lauren.