- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
When Joshua Kaner and his wife, Paige, moved to the Austin area from California in 2005, they brought with them all of the things you might expect — clothes, furniture, keepsakes — and something you might not: a sourdough yeast starter.
After settling near the Hill Country, they continued to feed the concoction of flour, water, and sugar (from cabernet grapes) that is the foundation of Pieous, a pizza joint on Highway 290 West. The family-owned business, which opened in February, is housed in the red and white wooden building that used to be home to Cartwright’s Famous Bar-B-Q.
The restaurant, located between Fitzhugh Road and Nutty Brown Café, looks like a general store from the outside, but the inside has been renovated with a modern minimalism: concrete floors, chalkboard walls and white subway tiling that somehow stays relatively stain-free, quite an accomplishment given the raging fire that serves as the restaurant’s centerpiece. The fire, fueled by post oak that resembles the massive tree shading the restaurant’s front door, burns at 1,000 degrees.
Because of the short amount of time the dough spends in the extreme heat of the oven — a couple hundred degrees hotter than many other places — the sourdough doesn’t cook through or acquire a nice crispiness around the edges. The airy, mildly tart dough bubbles and chars in places, but you won’t find much crunch in the pizzas at Pieous. The intention at Pieous is to create classic Neapolitan pizza but the dough and cooking temperature lead to something more akin to good, experimental homemade pizza.
Once you reconcile that bit of cognitive dissonance, you can more fully enjoy some of the solid creations coming out of the oven. The margherita ($10) is a study in elegant simplicity with mildly acidic crushed tomatoes, fresh house-made mozzarella and large verdant leaves of basil. Despite its doughy slag, it’s one of the better margherita pizzas I’ve had in town, reminding me of the one at House Pizzeria on Airport Boulevard. The pizzas are about 12 inches in circumference, and one hungry person will likely finish a pie on his own depending on the number of toppings.
The Fat Queen ($12.75), its name a nod to Queen Margherita of Savoy (namesake of the margherita pizza) delivers a mass of fatty Italian meats – hot sopresatta, savory Italian sausage and crispy pepperoni comingling for a spicy, salty and oily chorus. The Italian sausage gets a solo on the smoky Italian ($12.50), which should be called the spicy Italian because of a piquant sauce that gives an edge to the pizza pooled with gooey mozzarella.
On one visit to the restaurant that splits its seating between indoor and outdoor tables, we noticed bacon sizzling in a pan just inches from the wood-fired flame. The caramelized bacon gives firm chewiness to the signature bacon marmalade of the Bacon Bleu ($13.75), a pizza that features bleu cheese and an unwieldy toupee of fresh arugula. The flavors blend for a mix of sweet, tangy and bitter, but I think they could use a slightly more funky and pungent bleu cheese to cut some of the syrupy bacon marmalade.
In addition to the 16 pizzas designed by Pieous, you can choose from 20 toppings to create your own. On one visit, we opted for a white pie (no marinara) with Brussels sprouts, bacon marmalade, bleu cheese and arugula. The pizza offered a nice variation of textures and flavors, but the firm and slightly undercooked sprouts had simply been pan-sautéed before going in the oven. I would have liked to see the sprouts fried to give the leaves some crunchy caramelization or roasted to a smoky tenderness.
The puffy, undercooked dough can lead to some limp pizza, but the sliced sourdough finds a wonderful balance of fluff and chew, making for the perfect bed for a pastrami sandwich ($9.75). As a nod to Cartwright’s, Kaner smokes his own pastrami. The meat has an alluring crust of the medley of spices that make pastrami glow, but the pastrami lacks the fat needed to give it a nice unctuous ripple. You also can order the sandwich deconstructed as the Pieous Plate ($10.75), a pastrami board with pickles and mustard, and purchase pastrami by the pound ($20).
Pieous bakes massive buttery chocolate chip cookies and brownies, but the highlights of the dessert menu are the pies. A chocolate-pecan slice ($5.50) fresh from the oven on a recent visit hadn’t had time to settle, making for a moist interior that reminded me of semi-sweet chocolate cake buried beneath mounds of crumbled pecans. The filling of the banana cream pie ($6.50/slice) was stuffed with tender bananas and covered with a mound of delicate, unsweetened homemade whipped cream. The pie crust was flaky on the outer edges but undercooked and too stiff.
We enjoyed the pies in the relative peace of a weekday afternoon lunch, but evenings are a different story: boisterous, fun and a bit chaotic, the sound caroms off the slick concrete floor. After one post-dinner rush the space felt like the hurricane force of a daycare center had swept through. Parents of three children, the Kaners have committed to a family-friendly space, where kids can write on a section of the chalkboard walls and play in a corner of the dining room while mom and dad sip on wine or one of several tap beers such as Sculpin IPA, Brooklyn Lager or South Austin Brewing’s Belgian Golden Ale. Pieous definitely takes the family-business to the next level. The Kaner’s children are a regular fixture at the restaurant, and one night their 5-year-old swiped my credit card while Paige tended to the baby in the stroller behind the register. The effect can be equally confounding and charming.
The Kaners, who lived previous lives working in the music industry in California, have the enthusiasm of those who converted their lives to follow a passion. They announce their love and dedication to food on their chalkboard walls, and while they deliver a somewhat unorthodox product and still seem to be wrapping their heads around the day-to-day operations of running a restaurant, that passion, combined with fresh, quality ingredients, should make Pieous a favorite among deep South Austin families and those living near or passing through the gateway to the Hill Country.