A Passion for Pizza

Pi finds a home of its own

by: M.R. Stanton

photography by: Terry Pommett

Evan Marley’s face lights up when he talks about making pizza, about eating pizza, about his favorite pizza places in the world – Italy, New York and Concord, Massachusetts, his hometown.

While it may seem odd that this young man with the preppy-sounding name who hails from one of the bastions of WASP society in the Northeast would open a pizza joint on Nantucket, his passion is undeniable.

Pi Pizzeria, which opened in the waning days of 2006, is Marley’s personal tribute to the perfect pizza. Wood-fired with a thin crust and luscious toppings, his pies are unlike any other pizza you’ll find on Nantucket – or many other places in the Northeast. Marley, 39, has spent his adult life perfecting his technique. With the opening of his West Creek Road pizzeria just this winter, he is living a dream fulfilled.

“I have always had a passion for pizza. When I came here in the early nineties, I tried all the others out there and I was always unsatisfied,” Marley says. “They weren’t what I was used to.”

For many years he sold his pies out of Fahey and Fromagerie on Pleasant Street, working with Michael Fahey. When the opportunity arose last year to buy the West Creek restaurant and have his own place, he jumped at the chance.

“This has been a dream of mine, since I was a child,” Marley says. “I always wanted to be the pizza-maker, and I always wanted to be the owner.”

When he renovated West Creek and transformed it into Pi Pizzeria last winter, he installed a big glass window with a full view of the brick oven, just so kids could see the pizza-maker spinning the dough. Marley has the enthusiasm of a kid himself – a very happy kid who is thrilled to have his own place. When customers come in to pick up their orders, Marley often turns from his work and gratefully thanks those he knows by name.

The interior of the restaurant has a decidedly Mediterranean feel, with a warm décor and simple menu. A fireplace is a cozy element for cool evenings, and a bar area off to the corner is usually populated by couples and singles.

When Marley was growing up in Concord, he gravitated to restaurant work as an escape from the academic pressures of high school.

“I wasn’t a particularly good student, but I did like working in restaurants, and I found I had success there,” he says. One of his early jobs was working in an authentic Old World pizzeria.

“In high school I got into making pizza for a second-generation Neapolitan family. At first I got all the scut jobs in the pizzeria before they would let me actually make pizza. I would watch, and when they weren’t around I’d experiment with spinning pizza – then I’d get caught and get in trouble,” Marley says with a laugh, remembering his first pizza-making job as if it were only yesterday.

Eventually, the owners relented and taught him the art of pizza-making. He’s been spinning dough ever since.

“The real secret to good pizza is using the best ingredients. Good-quality flour (Pi uses organic flour with restored wheat germ), salt, yeast and water. The thing about Italian cooking is it really stresses the simplicity of the ingredients. There are very few – but they use the best.”

So does Marley.

Before starting up his own pizzeria, Marley made a pilgrimage to New York to seek out the best purveyors for his meats and cheeses to ensure he could get delivery of top products to keep the high quality of his pies consistent. His effort paid off. The sausage comes from Esposito’s in New York, legendary for its pork products.

Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet, wrote about her joy in discovering Esposito’s in her recent book “Garlic and Sapphires,” her chronicle of life as a food and restaurant critic for The New York Times.

Marley discovered Esposito’s after talking to a friend who was a pizza-maker at Lombardi’s in New York, “the first pizzeria in the country,” he says of the world-famous pizzeria that opened in 1905.

“Esposito’s products have such a sweet, fresh taste. You can taste the fennel they use. I went down to New York and visited them and saw how they rotated the spice mix for the sausage, how clean the whole operation was and I was really impressed,” says Marley. “But before they would agree to ship to me, they put me through the ringer. They wanted to know how I was going to store it, how I was going to have it shipped. They wanted to know everything!”

All the trouble was worth it, for the Esposito sausage has a sweet, spicy and fragrant taste you just don’t find in most pizzas, and that makes Pi Pizzeria’s Great Italian (sausage, pepperoni, peppers and onions) one of the top favorites of Marley’s customers.

He took as much trouble in keeping the bar high for his other ingredients as well. Pepperoni comes from Applegate Farms, an organic meat company out of New Jersey that also sells to Trader Joe’s, Bread and Circus and Whole Foods. Its meat products are nitrate-free and without dyes and fillers. The flavor is fresh and spicy and quite unlike regular commercial brands of pepperoni.

The red sauce Pi makes relies on the famed San Marzano tomatoes for the base. San Marzano tomatoes are known worldwide for their inimitable flavor, and Marley can tell you why.

“When Vesuvius exploded (79 A.D.) the wind was blowing in the direction of the San Marzano valley and as a result it filled up with volcanic ash, which enriched the soil. That’s why the tomatoes grown there are the sweetest in the world,” he says.

Pi Pizzeria uses cases of the tomatoes and Marley can show you how to spot the real deal.

“Look here. You’ll see the blue and gold seal that shows these are authentic,” he says, warning that other locations, even on-island, may sell San Marzano brand tomatoes, but they are not necessarily the same as those boasting the seal and the blessing of authenticity, the words Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, commonly referred to as DOP, which the Italian government uses to guarantee that the tomatoes are from where they say they are. It’s the concept of terroir, but this time for tomatoes.

Ingredients are of prime importance, but one can’t ignore method and technique.

Marley traveled across the country to Bellingham, Washington to check out what he considers the best wood-fired pizza ovens in the country. Pi Pizzeria has the only wood-fired commercial oven on the island.

What Marley likes about wood-fired pizzas is the authenticity of flavor they produce. Wood-fired pizzas cook quickly: in just three minutes. Temperatures in the dome of the oven reach 900 degrees.

“Some charring of the crust is typical,” says Marley as he stokes the fire. The Wood Stone Corporation had, not surprisingly, heard of Evan Marley and Pi Pizzeria even before he opened his new restaurant, so when he called to talk to them about buying one of their ovens, they offered to fly him out to Washington, where he had the distinct pleasure of making pizzas for the Wood Stone staff.

“They are always doing events, so I made pizzas at one of them, and did tricks for the kids with pizza dough,” Marley says with a smile. His laptop is full of pictures of the trip – and trips to Italy as well – and he’s more than happy to click through them as he tells you about his trip. Again, his face lights up.

“When I tell you I love it, I really, really love it,” Marley says excitedly of his pizza-making life.

Before this last year, when Marley was involved in the process of acquiring, redesigning and opening his new restaurant, he often spent the winter traveling. Not surprisingly, Italy has been his top destination.

“I’ve been to Italy seven or eight times. My favorite pizza place in the world is in old Naples. L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele,” says Marley, a fond smile of remembrance softening his face. “It’s in a little bit of a sketchy area, but I love that place. They make the best pizza. The men – women don’t make pizza, pizza-making is a very masculine thing – stand up high above the pizza and drizzle olive oil in the shape of a six over each pizza.”

In this country, Marley likes New York pizza. Grimaldi’s Pizza (aka Patsy’s), by the Brooklyn Bridge is a favorite.

At his own restaurant, Marley likes the Rustica pizza, an unusual combination of stracchino cheese, pancetta (Molinari) and garlic, which is topped when it comes out of the oven with a crown of fresh arugula. The contrast in textures, between the creamy, farmy-tasting stracchino and the crisp greens which have a bite to them, results in an intense, fragrant flavor combination that becomes addictive. It is by far the number-one seller at Pi Pizzeria.

Pi’s other specialties include the Great Italian, described earlier, and the Margherita pizza: San Marzano sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil. The colors represent the red, white and green in the Italian flag. This classic, named after Queen Margherita of Italy, who ruled from 1878-1900, is best eaten immediately out of the oven while the cheese is still warm and the flavors fresh.

The Gambella, which features shrimp, garlic, tomato, basil and mozzarella, is a light and flavorful pie, again best eaten right from the oven.

It’s easy to custom-make your own pizza from the list of toppings available, but be warned that thin-crust pizza does not make a sturdy enough crust for multiple add-ons.

Pizza isn’t the only food on the menu at Pi. When Marley presented his business plan to the bank, he pointed out that Nantucket had lost all its traditional Italian-American restaurants. Vincent’s was gone, as was Caffe Bella Vita. There was nowhere on-island to get a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, manicotti or chicken parmesan.

Happily, those dishes and more are all available at Pi.

Dishes are priced accordingly. All the pasta and meat dishes are under $20. A plate of five antipasto selections will cost you $14. Salads range from $6-$8 and appetizers are generally under $10. The crispy calamari with marinara sauce was a hit, as were the arancini, tender rice balls of leftover risotto stuffed with creamy cubes of mozzarella that melt when the arancini are deep-fried.

The wine list features more than two dozen Italian wines ranging in price from $21-$70. Wines by the glass start at $7.

The dining room is open at 5:30 p.m. six nights a week. The restaurant is closed Tuesday. Take-out only is available for lunch. Hot sub sandwiches such as meatball, chicken parmesan, sausage and peppers and steak and cheese are available, as are pizzas and Italian soups.

In addition to the restaurant and takeout, Pi Pizzeria offers a deli case with meats and cheeses and Italian grocery specialty products. v

Pi Pizzeria, 11 West Creek Road. 508 228-1130

Marianne R. Stanton is editor and publisher of Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror. She writes often about food, wine and travel.

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