In pizza we trust; all others pay cash
I’ve always had a pretty good taste memory. It’s been years, but with a little concentration, I can still recall the flavors of the Teen Twist, the barbecue sandwich, and the Orange Freeze at Hot Shoppes. Or the moist and oniony buy-‘em-by-the-bag sliders from Little Tavern. But alas, they are no more.
Last year, friends from Lewes insisted I try the wood-oven pizza at Mr. P’s on Kings Highway. The aroma of smoldering oak seemed familiar, but when I took a bite, the mid-‘90s came flooding back: It’s a slow night at my restaurant in Bethesda, Md. I love my own food, but sometimes enough is enough. So I’m slinking out the back door to snag a slice at the nearby Il Forno Pizzeria. Lo and behold, it tasted just like this.
Never one to have an unexpressed thought, I shared my trip on the taste bud time machine with Mr. P’s friendly owner, Rick Thomas. Well, wouldn’t you know it - he had been the manager of that very same Il Forno. In all probability, it was he who wielded the pizza cutter for that barbecue sauce-stained guy (me). Small world, huh?
Long before he mastered the intricacies of the pizza cutter, Rick attended Frostburg State College. He majored in wildlife management (this alone qualified him to run a restaurant at the beach). In his own words, Rick was “enjoying college a little too much,” so he took a break. His fraternity buddy’s dad, John Perrin, gave him a job at Il Forno Pizzeria in Gaithersburg, Md. Rick washed dishes, ran the register and bused tables.
He finished college, but the bug had bitten. “I loved the restaurant lifestyle, and I preferred talking to people rather than animals.” Rick became manager of the Bethesda Il Forno, and eventually purchased the Gaithersburg location. Restaurant ownership is punishment enough for anybody, and in 1998 he sold his share to the fraternity brother whose dad had given him his first job.
Rick bounced around for a while, even managing an Outback Steakhouse in Maui. In the meantime, John Perrin sold the restaurants, moved to Lewes, and in 2000 opened Mr. P’s. Health problems arose, and Perrin asked Rick to take over, and perhaps eventually buy the place.
Fast-forward a bit, and on Jan. 1 of this year, Rick became the sole owner of the restaurant. And he’s still good friends with the original Mr. P.
Rick Thomas makes no bones about the fact that the fire is all-important. The massive Ambrogi wood-burning oven is handcrafted in Milan, Italy. It works its magic by concentrating up to 900 degrees from the oak logs directly onto the lava-stone cooking surface. The top of the chamber curves downward so the hot rock radiates directly onto the pies. The exhaust is at the front of the oven door, so cold air doesn’t interfere with the cooking process.
Baking wood-fired pizza is both an art and a science. Ozmar, the cook at Mr. P’s, knows exactly how to coax perfect pies out of the beast every time. He makes allowances for the behavior of the yeast, dough and cheese as humidity and outside temperatures vary. His 12 years of experience keep the Ambrogi burning at full efficiency.
Another thing Rick makes no bones about is that plastic money is not welcome at Mr. P’s. He provides an ATM in the restaurant to accommodate those with credit cards, and he’ll happily refund the machine fee if the check is at least $13 (about the price of a plain pizza). The profit margin for a mom-and-pop eatery is miniscule at best, and the 3-5 percent total cost of accepting credit cards can make a big difference.
Rick channels the savings into the local Lewes community. So far he has donated 83 pizzas to organizations such as churches, schools and fire departments. “You have to give to get a little, and my goal is 100 pies a year,” he said.
So treat your taste memory to a crunchy slice at Mr. P’s. But you can forget your credit card. Rick’s worthy causes will thank you for it.