Blink, and you'll miss the little renovated building on Rutledge Avenue that serves the best Sicilian squares in town. It's just a little pizza shack in a Southern college town full of little pizza shacks. In a city that's seen a disproportionate share of pizza pie popping up lately, one better be distinctive, but what these guys lack in size, chic, and advertising budget, they make up for with flavor, authenticity, and care.
In some ways, Mia Pomodori reminds me of EVO, the little pizzeria that could up in the Park Circle area of North Charleston. Not because they serve particularly creative stuff, or even that they opened a small, fledgling business in a marginal, up-and-coming part of town, but due to the attention foisted on each pie, each slithering slice of cheese-topped goodness. When considering a food category as disfigured and maligned by American mass culture as the Italian pizza, you rarely find places that "put the love in it," places like Mia and EVO, which take the seemingly mundane and return it to its cultural roots where quality, freshness, and technique matter.
To this end, Mia serves two main types of pie, along with super-sized calzones, a smattering of salads, focaccia breadsticks, and a handful of microbrews. If you want much more than that, you'll have to find another spot to eat. But what they do, they concentrate on and do well, and you'll leave with the feeling that you just discovered a hidden secret in the heart of Charleston.
The size of the place probably dictates the small selection. A single shotgun-style aisle runs the length of the room, with a counter jutting from the kitchen up front and an oven blasting away in the back. Small coolers of beer, soda, and wine stand ready against the wall, and the rear door leads out to a rather impromptu patio shaded under large oaks — not a bad place for a pleasant al fresco lunch, but I'd bet a good portion of Pomodori's business comes from the free delivery and take-out options.
And that's a shame, because I've eaten their pies both ways, and on-site is the only way to go.
Take the basic "round pizza," for example: 16 inches for $12.99, with cheese (pepperoni will cost you $.25 more). In house, it's a revelation. I'm not sure why (which means I'll be returning regularly until I figure it out), but I suspect it's the dough, the texture of it, and the yeasty aroma as it comes straight from the oven door. Something about the crispness of the bottom playing against the soft, supple interior makes magic with a 1/8-inch thick piece of bread. That same pie 30 minutes later in a cardboard box is still excellent, to be sure, but the magic is gone.
Personal care in creating food makes for such culinary enchantment, and owners Tiffany and Paul DeSantis have figured out what it takes to produce a quality product. For that reason alone, every foodie in town should peel out of their driveway tonight with a single thought in mind: "Saucy Sicilian Squares" ($2.99/slice). Hard to find, and usually awful stuff when you do, Sicilian-style pie might be considered the soul food version of the genre — thick, doughy, sloppy, and with enough heft to leave you groaning on the sofa with unbuttoned pants. The sauce is on top of the cheese, which buries itself in the bready crust, and the saucy top can easily become an incendiary mustache and burn off your top lip if you dive in too eagerly.
The problem with Sicilian pizza is the same property that often leads to its dismal failure — the sheer bulk of the doughy crust. These things are a good two inches thick, and that leaves the pizza man in a relative conundrum: too much time in the oven and you get a burnt crust; too little, and the raw middle drives away all customers. Mia Pomodori gets it just right, every time. Crispy crust, perfect interior, hot out of the oven, and they travel pretty well, so the 24 slice full-sheet pan ($42) can easily handle your kid's next birthday party.
I plan to return to that patio out back often, with a cold beer and a slice, a Margherita ($16.99) splayed with torn basil and perfectly fresh mozzarella that dribbles in my lap, or a Carne ($18.99) topped with pepperoni, sausage, ham, and meatballs. One day I'll summon the courage to try the fresh salad pizza ($24.99/16 inch), prosciutto-roasted garlic and toasted pecans buttressing a pile of fresh baby lettuces, tomato slices, drizzled with house dressing. For now I'm content to sip a beer and ponder a plain pepperoni, or at least marvel at what a little attention can do to a quality piece of dough.