Piro Brick Oven & Barroom is the latest restaurant to open its doors in SoMa, and it’s likely to become a favored haunt for those who reside within walking distance and beyond.
Photography by Janet Warlick
[dropcap]The[/dropcap] revitalization of downtown Little Rock, Ark., isn’t limited to the River Market District. South of I630, the area affectionately referred to as SoMa, retained its residents and is now experiencing an influx of new businesses. Piro Brick Oven & Barroom is the latest to open its doors, and it’s being welcomed with open arms.
Our first impression of Piro? It’s haute and cool. The interior, which is decidedly rectangular, is lent an industrial feel with walls and exposed ductwork in a matte grey color. The dining room is bright; sunlight floods in through the front windows. Exposed bulbs have been hung at varying heights, and the light from both is reflected by a number of mirrored panels set along the top of the continuous banquette seating. Opposite the plaid, fabric-backed seating, crimson chairs add energy and a pop of color. The floors are fashioned of wood that originally made up the floors of semitrailers. The wood has been further distressed and stained.
Together, these elements create a lovely backdrop for Piro Brick Oven & Barroom’s cuisine. The menu features appetizers, salads, pizza of course, sandwiches and a handful of desserts.
Piro is the brainchild of Eric Nelson, Bart Bartlogie — who is also a partner in one of my favorite eateries, The Fold — and Jason Neidhardt. Neidhardt brings 15 years experience as a chef to the table, pun intended.
Neidhardt said the restaurant’s concept began with the space. “We thought this area needed a pizza place. I was co-owner of Boulevard Bread [Co., in Little Rock], so I know SoMa really well,” he said.
Next, they decided to serve Neapolitan-style pizza versus New York-style pizza. Neapolitan pizza, Neidhardt explained, is made with a simple dough that has less gluten than the crusts most Americans are familiar with, and traditionally they are a little soupy in the center. While New York-style pizza is often sandwiched in the hand, Neapolitan-style pizza is eaten with a knife and fork.
The trio also called on the talent of friend Shelby Cotton for the interior design. “We basically gave her ‘the keys to the kingdom.’ We trusted her, and she came through and delivered,” Neidhardt said.
Naming their venture proved more difficult; for guidance they sought out Isaac Alexander, principal with the advertising agency Eric Rob and Isaac.
“Piro is actually a play on words,” Neidhardt said. It’s a derivative of the Italian version of the name Peter, which is derived from the Greek word for stone or rock. “Once we saw the flaming P, we knew that was it.”
We began our Piro dining experience with one of the half-dozen or so appetizers, the beef carpaccio: beef tenderloin sliced-to-order and served on a bed of arugula with parmesan and capers, finished with fresh lemon, salt, pepper and truffle oil. As carpaccio is popping up on menus in Arkansas, we’ve tried a few, and Piro’s was definitely one of the best.
Next up, the farmer salad. Local mixed greens, pancetta and pecorino, along with a red wine vinaigrette, create a well-balanced and tasty bed for the poached farm egg. While the salad would be tasty without the egg, it adds richness that enhances the other flavors and elevates the salad to another mouthwatering level.
We devoured two pizzas on our visit, the gorgonzola and the salsiccia. The unexpected ingredient in the delicious gorgonzola pizza is shaved radicchio, which adds just a hint of bitterness to the rosemary potatoes resting on olive oil — versus a tomato base — and topped with gorgonzola dolce and mozzarella cheeses.
The salsiccia is a showcase for house-made fennel sausage, which is well suited for its peppadew peppers, pomodoro tomatoes and mozzarella. It’s distinctive and delectable, sure to become a favorite for those who love a bit of heat.
Neidhardt, a purist at heart, worked to create the pizzas as close to true Neapolitan-style pies as possible. He said, “I wanted to present [entrees] that I’m proud of, and Bart and Eric cannot be more pleased. We opened in February, and already we have a good number of repeat customers.”
The use of fresh ingredients grown locally and prepared with attention and care are one reason. Great and timely service is another.
“Our pizzas cook quickly. The advantage to this is that a party of two, for instance, can order salads, share a pizza and be in and out in 30 minutes. Once people realize they can ‘do’ lunch in 45 minutes, I think we’ll get more office groups,” Neidhardt said.
Great idea. We also suggest you patronize Piro outside of business hours so you may enjoy one of their craft beers. Neidhardt is a beer enthusiast, thus their beer menu was built thoughtfully and even includes a root beer on tap. If you’re like me and prefer a glass of wine or a cocktail, you won’t be disappointed. The wine list was also well planned. Bar manager Malissa Calaway is bubbly and charismatic, and she’s lent her charm to the cocktail menu, creating drinks with names like Apple Angel, Lady Davina and the intriguing Trigger Mortis. “The cocktails are named after burlesque dancers. I used their stage names and personalities to inspire the drinks. For instance, Trigger is a derby girl and a drag impersonator. She’s beautiful yet tough as nails, a mixture of sweet and strong,” Calaway said.
Trigger Mortis is a described as “beauty meets brutality” and is a mixture of whiskey and Argentine red wine … “strong, yet sweet,” and it’s a potent and pleasing combination.
Calaway and other Piro staff have a great place in which to mix and serve libations. The generously proportioned bar — 18 people can belly up to it at once — has a brick foundation and granite top, which is lit from beneath.
While you could eat and run, you’ll want to stay awhile. Piro has a lounge area up front and pub-style tables in the back, and both are great spaces to gather with friends. We clearly understand why Piro is quickly becoming a favorite.
Piro Brick Oven & Barroom
1318 S. Main St. • Little Rock, AR 72202
(501) 374-7476 • pirolr.com
Tue. through Thu., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Fri. and Sat., 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.