For nearly 30 years, Al’s Pizza founder Al Mansur has built a First Coast culinary empire on a foundation of flour, shredded mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce.
Now he’s tinkering with his original recipe, crafting modern Italian flavors in a new sandbox — fittingly, in Neptune Beach — with the first outlet of an upmarket concept, Craft Pizza Co.
In March, Craft Pizza replaced the longtime Al’s location in the Atlantic Beach Town Center, which is being remade into another new Al’s concept (we’ll save those details for a future review once it opens). The location moved a block south on A1A to the former site of another pizzeria, Mario’s.
As with craft beer and craft cocktails, the craft pizza idea here follows a similar path: more exotic ingredients and unique menu offerings with a slightly higher-than-normal check. You won’t find table-eating pies here – all come personal-sized at 10 or 12 inches. Only five dinner entrees, or plates, share menu space with the pizzas.
From a decor standpoint, Craft Pizza cuts an industrial profile with rustic metallic accents, bygone light fixtures and lots of reclaimed wood, including some from last year’s Hurricane Matthew. Inside you’ll find a handsome corner bar, standard and high-top tables and a broad community table for large parties. Because it’s at the beach, you’ll also find a front patio with a music stage. It’s a snazzy, beach-chic casual spot.
I invited two friends to help me dissect the Craft Pizza menu last week. We began with two starters. Think of the Fried Burrata Cheese ($10) as a dressed-up, richer and creamier rendition of mozzarella sticks. This version comes in one round piece, surrounded by diced, marinated tomatoes and extra-virgin olive oil with basil pesto on top. Our dueling knives and forks made quick work of this tasty number.
If you’re a spice lover, give the Chorizo Meatballs ($8) a chance. You get two savory, oversized pieces that our table described as “chili in a ball” with tangy sofrito and chimichurri sauces for dipping and baby arugula and shaved Pecorino Romano cheese.
Our table shared a large Spinach Salad ($8; also available in small for $5), a delicious, creamy arrangement teeming with sliced roasted red peppers, Portobello mushrooms, candied walnuts and Gorgonzola crumbles. While this is an ample entree salad, the three of us had our fill of it as an appetizer.
Craft Pizza offers 11 signature pies, along with a do-it-yourself option, in small and large sizes with a thin-and-airy California-style crust. Dough is aged a minimum of two days and is made from reverse-osmosis filtered water, “00” Caputo Italian flour, sea salt and premium Italian extra-virgin olive oil, and a gluten-free option is available. All pizzas are baked in a traditional wood-stone oven with an infrared sensor to keep temperatures constant.
We tried out two configurations, a small fennel sausage and a small Portobello mushroom (both $9, or go large for $13). For our taste buds, we gave the latter a slight nod for its creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture with thin-sliced portobellos, caramelized onions, fontina cheese and truffled mushroom cream.
The fennel sausage pie was a performer in the flavor department, too. Studded with seasoned sausage slices, balls of ricotta cheese, piquillo peppers, mozzarella and oregano, this came across more like your traditional meat-and-cheese combination pie.
The Craft Pizza menu boasts a half-dozen sandwich options. I opted for a classic, the chicken parmigiana ($9), which gives you a thick, lightly breaded chicken breast, provolone cheese and finely chopped romaine lettuce on a grilled ciabatta roll. Craft Pizza opts not for a classic red sauce to accompany its chicken but instead a brighter, thick Tuscan tomato soup called pappa al pomodoro. Its light flavor was hard to pick up against the large-and-in-charge, juicy breast of chicken. Be sure to upgrade your standard side of fries to white truffle fries ($1.50 upcharge), an addictive, appetizer-size portion of middle-thick crispies.
Craft Pizza offers a trio of desserts. The most intriguing of the bunch — by name, at least — is the S’mores Mugcake Sundae ($9). This melty, creamy conglomeration of vanilla ice cream, Nutella, marshmallow cream and graham crackers was served in an oversized mug. It’s perfect for small-group dunking and an appropriate option for devoted sweet tooths.
The Craft Pizza Co. happy hour, Monday through Friday from 2-7 p.m., offers a dollar off all bottled, canned and draft beers and $5 select wine glasses. Wednesdays also feature half-off wine glasses, and beer is a dollar off all day on Thursdays. The front patio welcomes live music acts both of these days from 6:30-9 p.m.
All things considered, in terms of menu options, price and ambiance, Craft Pizza Co. is a step above your standard Al’s Pizza and most traditional pizza places. While still casual at heart, it’s a destination with sights and sounds that will make you want to linger.
For more of Jay’s dining experiences, visit his blog at www.jaymagee.com.