In the hall of populist pleasures, pizza ranks somewhere between sleep and sex. Fundamentally delicious, the combination of bread and melted cheese appeals to a freakishly wide swath of humanity. For parents of young kids, it is fussy-eater kryptonite. (I recently heard moms discussing a child with an aversion to pizza as if they were talking about an antibiotic- resistant superbug: What do you use when things get out of control?) For vegetarians, it's among the few things that can keep one alive in those vast stretches of the US where the best vegetarian restaurant is Pizza Hut. And for Seattle's upscale restaurateurs, it's a way to try something new via the oldest trick in the book.
Tom Douglas started it, with his Serious Pie—a stylish sliver of a restaurant in downtown Seattle trafficking in ambitious artisan pizzas. Serious Pie's ingredients flirt with the outlandish—duck eggs, clams, Bing cherries—but the results strive to hit, by way of circuitous routes, that primal pizza sweet spot, with Serious Pie's attractive oblong flatbreads proving popular enough to warrant expansion into a second location on Westlake.
Now Ethan Stowell is getting in on the pizza racket, with Ballard Pizza Company, a stylish sliver-and-a-half of a restaurant abutting a bustling sidewalk on Ballard Avenue. With its retracted garage-door entrance, BPC has the wander-in feel of a neighborhood joint, with a high, open-beam ceiling and a loud-enough-to-enjoy soundtrack of '80s hits.
But Stowell's pizzeria does double duty. The southern half of the space is devoted to pizza by the slice, with a variety of pies laid out behind glass and diners welcome to enjoy their meals perched at cocktail-height counters just off the sidewalk. The rest of the restaurant is a full-on, sit-down experience, at elegant two- and four-tops lined along the northern wall, with the close, casual proximity of diners reminiscent of Stowell's upscale Italian joint Tavoláta. Nattily dressed servers stroll between tables with wine recommendations and information on the evening's specials, and by-the-slice is eschewed in favor of full pies and appetizers from BPC's single-page menu.
Arriving at 7 p.m. on Friday night—rush hour, in pizzeria terms—I'm told there's a 20-minute wait for a table and invited to hang out with a beer (there are eight on tap and another couple dozen canned and bottled) at the storefront counters. We get a couple Manny's and enjoy the scene. Behind the silver stretch of counter, a half-dozen people work: rolling out dough, pulling beers, hustling hot pies out of the ovens. With us at the front counters are everyone from couples on dates to a cluster of kiddie T-ball players and their coach. All around is spare, careful design, tricking out the warehousey space with high-drama touches: custom-made pizza racks with fully rotational inset bearings (designed by the nearby Ballard Sheet Metal Works), a neon PIZZA sign lighting up an expanse of brick wall, the mega-scale metal pizza cutter that hangs like a mascot off the front of the building.
Once seated, we're given menus, which feature a dozen specialty "house pizzas" (14 inches, $13–$15), along with the option of building your own 14- or 20-inch pie. Unlike Serious Pie's ostentatious adventurousness, Ballard keeps its pizza toppings in the world of the pizzeria, which it seeks to perfect with high-quality options. Meats come from Zoe's and Carlton Farms, and range from standards (pepperoni, salami, Italian sausage) to specialties (spicy coppa, guanciale, smoked prosciutto, pancetta). Jake orders the Staple & Fancy ($15), featuring pepperoni, pineapple, and jalapeño; I order the bluntly named Funghi ($14), featuring "mixed fresh mushroom" and sage.
The daily special salad ($8) is served in a spiffy little Le Creuset dish, and it is remarkably delicious, featuring both orange and red heirloom tomatoes, super-thinly-sliced cucumber, and bits of spicy black radish that explode with peppery flavor. The Caesar salad ($8) is good but nothing special, save the impressively assertive anchovy, which comes on stronger than in many Caesars but stays in balance.
Then comes the pizza, landing on the table on the aforementioned custom rack, which hovers the hot pie about 10 inches off the table (high enough to rest a pint under) and is impressively stylish and sturdy. The same goes for our pizzas. The Funghi is a 14-inch tour de shroom, ranging in texture from near-bouncy to meltingly tender, and ranging in flavor from "complexly earthy" to "butter sponge." The whole thing is intense and wonderful, with the mushrooms getting an ideal launching pad from the thin but substantial crust.
The Staple & Fancy, however, is a revelation, with the high-quality pepperoni, fresh pineapple, and abundant jalapeño combining to create a spicy/sweet combo my dining partner describes as "exquisite." "The rich fat of the pepperoni is soaked back up into the pineapple," says Jake. "It is my new favorite pizza."
Not everything at BPC rises to such heights. A return visit involving custom-built pies revealed perfectly good pizza on par with, say, Piecora's, but nothing worth hauling yourself to Ballard for. But in its intricately conceived house pizzas, BPC rises to the level of destination restaurant that just happens to be a pizza joint.