The art - and science - of the perfectly puffy pizza pie
I’m pretty excited about the Ava’s Pizzeria and Wine Bar that will soon debut in the old Jakes Seafood space in downtown Rehoboth Beach. Owner Chris Agharabi shares that excitement, but for an entirely different reason: His pizza joints are named after his daughter. So he can’t help but pay special attention to his soon-to-be-three Ava’s restaurants.
Let’s face it: When it comes to beach resorts, pizza is one of the four basic food groups. It’s everywhere! Deck ovens. Conveyor ovens. Wood-fired ovens, gas-assist ovens - or a combination of both. Out of all the various cooking methods, the wood-fired oven (with or without gas-assist) is the most cantankerous. Expert pizzaioli know that controlling the behavior of the devices is both an art and a science if they’re going to coax consistently puffy pies out of the beast. As humidity and outside temperatures vary, they have to make allowances for the behavior of the yeast, the dough and even the cheese.
The huge oven at Ava’s is no different. That spot at the corner of N. First St. and Baltimore Avenue is one of the largest downtown restaurant spaces. So, Chris travelled to Washington state to personally oversee the construction of an oven that could produce upwards of 75 pies every half hour. It is so big that they had to knock a hole in the side of the building to crane the behemoth inside. Leave it to Chris to turn adversity into opportunity: That opening will become a semi-outdoor dining area.
Obviously, open-flame pizza-making has become a thing around here. Touch of Italy. Crust & Craft. DiFebo’s Market in Bethany. DaNizza Wood Fired Pizza (in a truck, yet!) at Revelation Craft Brewery in Rehoboth. Mancini’s in Fenwick. Dogfish Head in Rehoboth. Mr. P’s Pizzeria in Lewes. They all are distinguished by the light, crispy crust and the delightfully charred bubbles that rise up in response to the open flames.
Shortly after I started writing about food and restaurants here at the beach, Lewes friends insisted I try the wood-oven pizza at an unassuming little storefront on Kings Highway. Turns out that Mr. P’s owner Rick Thomas had managed Il Forno Pizzeria in Bethesda, Md. for the late founder, John Perrin. It was waddling distance from my most recent eatery, and I would occasionally escape for a slice. Or two. In all probability, it was he who wielded the pizza cutter for that barbecue sauce-splattered guy (me). Small world, huh?
Rick attended Frostburg State College. He majored in wildlife management (this alone qualifies him to run a restaurant at the beach). 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 bussed tables. 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. In 1998 he sold his share to the fraternity brother whose dad had given him his first job.
In 2000, Mr. Perrin sold the restaurants and moved to Lewes to open Mr. P’s. Health problems arose, and he asked Rick to take over. Fast-forward a bit, and in January 2011, Rick became the sole owner. Sadly, in November 2012, the venerable Mr. Perrin moved on to that great pizzeria in the sky.
Rick’s hulking Ambrogi oven is handcrafted in Milan, Italy. It works its magic by concentrating up to 1,000 degrees from the oak logs directly onto the lava-stone cooking surface. The top of the chamber is domed 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.
Rick and his consistently friendly crew at Mr. P’s are still turning out great pies and happy guests. Rick responds by funneling some of his profits into the local Lewes community. He donates pizzas to churches, schools, kids’ sports teams, fire departments … “You have to give to get a little,” smiles Thomas.
Like barbecue and many ethnic foods, pizza is a regional phenomenon that varies in shape, size and even construction. All of our pizza joints around here have their own militant followers. John Perrin’s legacy is still the great-granddaddy of open-flame pies here in the Cape Region, and lines of loyal customers still pay tribute to that addictive crunch.
Slice sightings at the beach are at an all-time high this year, so whether it’s Ava’s, Touch of Italy, Mr. P’s or one of our many other purveyors of pie, get out there and enjoy your preferred pizza.