As anyone who’s been following along on social media knows, Pi Pizza is very close to opening. The food truck-turned-restaurant has removed all traces of the former Funky Chicken from its Heights-adjacent home — replaced by a checkerboard floor, custom-painted skateboard decks on the walls, and, of course, a massive pizza oven in the kitchen.
After spending this week training, chef Anthony Calleo and his crew will open for lunch and dinner on Monday (delivery will follow after a week or two). Opening represents the fulfillment of a dream Calleo has been chasing almost since he started the truck five years ago: a dream that got a boost when Calleo joined up with restaurateur Lee Ellis and his recently launched company Cherry Pie Hospitality earlier this year.
(Update 8/26: Pi Pizza's opening has been temporarily pushed back by delayed equipment, but it will open sometime in the week of August 29.)
“For me, part of my worry is with the truck I caught lightning in a bottle. What happens when you move into a bigger bottle? How do you keep it from escaping,” Calleo says. “Getting to work with Lee, Jim (Mills, Cherry Pie partner), Laurie (Harvey, Cherry Pie beverage director), Rob (Harvey, Cherry Pie operations director), and Jason (Richburg, Cherry Pie culinary director) and all these other people who are fucking amazing, they’re just monsters, really good at what they do, who are so invested in seeing me succeed, has eased a lot of those concerns.”
Getting off the streets has meant some compromises from the truck’s "my way or the highway" ethos. The menu of 20 pies now offers mainstream fare like pepperoni, as well as classic American combinations like veggie, supreme, and meat lovers. Diners are even invited to build their own, which was unthinkable in the truck days.
Still, Pi fans shouldn’t worry that the restaurant has gone too mainstream. Calleo says he identified 62 pizzas that could have made the menu; those that didn’t make the cut will rotate on as specials.
Truck favorites like the Grizzly Hawaiian (chicken, bacon, pineapple, honey), the Southern Heritage (bacon-braised collard greens and pancetta), and the Sorority Girl Surprise (chicken, jalapeno ranch, bacon) are all accounted for. Six vegetarian options include the Sgt Pepper Redux (blackberries, black pepper chevre from Pure Luck farms, mint pesto), the Funk & Circumstane (lemon-roasted cauliflower, garlic confit, taleggio), and the Herbivoracious (arugula, roasted garlic oil, toasted almonds, fennel pollen).
Calleo thinks even the truck classics will taste better thanks to having access to higher-quality ingredients that come from being part of a restaurant group. For example, Calleo has sourced his pepperoni, sopressata, and pancetta from legendary San Francisco-based purveyor Mollinari & Sons and the baguettes for his cheesesteak stromboli and grinder subs from a bakery in New Jersey.
“The soppressata I was using on the truck was good. This stuff, it’s more expensive, but the difference is like throwing a bullet and shooting a bullet. It’s exponentially better,” Calleo says. “I couldn’t have gotten this stuff on the truck before, because I didn’t have the buying power to source it. Being able to do the food I was doing before that I really believed in with even better stuff makes me super happy.”
While the toppings will be better, Calleo thinks the biggest benefits of being in a restaurant will come from not having to drive the pizza dough all over town. For the truck, he made the dough at Grand Prize and wrapped individual crust-sized balls in plastic that came out during service. Now, the dough only travels a few feet from the restaurant’s mixer to its walk-in refrigerator where it proofs at a steady 37 degrees.
“That retards the proofing and improves the flavor. It’s a more actual representation of the hydration ratio in the dough,” Calleo explains. “The crust browns better, it rises better, the yeast is happier in the dough. It gets you better flavor and performance.”
In addition to pizza, the restaurant will serve starters like breadsticks, pizza rolls, and deep-fried mac and cheese balls. Showbiz Queso — named for the predecessor to Chuck E. Cheese that served as the home of birthday parties for Houstonians who are now in their late 30s and early 40s — attempts to capture in taste form what Calleo remembers the restaurant’s pizza smelled like.
Four sandwiches, including the meatball and chicken parmesan from the Sandy Witch days, and four salads, including an innovative presentation of the classic Caesar that’s designed to be picked up and eaten like a lettuce wrap, round out the savory menu. For dessert, choose from four boozy flavors of Lee’s Creamery ice cream or chocolate chip cookies from Petite Sweets.
On the beverage side, Harvey has developed four frozen cocktails such as a Negroni and the “pineapple express” (tequila, mezcal, cinnamon, pineapple and cayenne) that will be joined by bottled cocktails, two wines on tap, a rotating selection of craft beer, and non-alcoholic options including a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine.
As he’s discussing the salads, Calleo drops the philosophy that guides his cooking and should help diners anticipate what to expect when they dine at Pi Pizza.
“I’m not Grant Achatz, I’m never going to cook like that. It’s not what I do,” Calleo says. “What my goal is to serve you food that you read and you go ‘ok,’ then you eat it and go ‘wow, that is better than I thought it was going to be. How did you do that?’ That to me is what I want to achieve.”
Beginning Monday, diners will get to decide whether he’s succeeded.