Aldo's Pizza Pies is filling a gaping hole in the south Downtown dining scene, and that's not just a reference to the vast ground floor space the restaurant occupies on South Main.
People needed a place to get serious pizza — along with serious beer — after a game at FedExForum or a concert at the Orpheum. A place with pizza by the slice, boutique pizzas, build-your-own pizzas.
Aldo Dean, who runs Bardog Tavern Downtown and the Slider Inn in Midtown, has made over the industrial-sized Aldo's space with a 24-foot ceiling, using rustic reclaimed wood on the lower walls and papering the upper reaches with pages from The New York Times. It's a clean look, but with character. A bar anchors the south wall and a window in the east wall opens onto a view of the dough-maker creating pizza crust in a room stacked with sacks of Italian Antimo Caputo flour and All Trumps flour from the USA.
To appreciate what Aldo's does with pizza, try the vodka pie at the top of the menu. Its description — "vodka cream, mozzarella" — and appearance are simple, but it's an elegant simplicity. The pie looks almost boring, as if a thin cap of creamy yellow cheese has melted evenly over a thin layer of pizza dough. But the sauce, typically a purée of cream, tomatoes and vodka, gets a subtle buzz from hot peppers. Order it plain; we added pepperoni at one meal and the oily runoff from the cured meat left a sheen on the surface.
We tried four of Aldo's 12 specialty pizzas and each was artfully composed and generously topped. If you like to conduct an inventory of your pizza ingredients — as in, 'Wait, that withered leaf is the spinach I paid 50 cents extra for?!' — you can relax at Aldo's. The Mezza Luna had sizable chunks of eggplant, roasted pepper, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes, all of which were smoothly integrated with each other and the sauce of roasted poblano peppers and Italian fontina and trugole cheeses.
The same was true of the Willie Cheech & Bob, with jerk chicken and slivers of red onion, tomato sauce and mozzarella and, as the menu advises, "very hot" jalapeño. (We did do some accounting when ours arrived and noticed it was missing the mango chutney, which had to be delivered separately and drizzled over the pizza at the table.) The Mr. T Rex is lip-tingling with chili pepper diced into the tomato sauce and mozzarella along with the spicy pepperoni, sausage and meatballs.
Aldo's has made a study of pizza crust — in fact a manager pointed out that the "dough-master" who created the formula for the crust, John Pearson, trained at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan., and has paid homage to both New York and Neapolitan traditions in the thin, gluten-y bread style.
The sandwiches at Aldo's come on soft hoagie rolls, and the ingredients — and names — play with the Italian-NewYork-New Jersey influences on the menu. The Trenton Makes was loaded, spilling over with cured meats — capicola, salami, prosciutto – along with peppers and provolone, shredded lettuce and tomato and the best touch, oil and vinegar. The Uncle Carmen with sweet Italian sausage, provolone and green and red pepper is low-key by comparison, but easier to handle.
Starters include the garlic bread knots with marinara, which were promoted by our server but seemed fairly unremarkable. Asparagus stalks, cooked but still crunchy, were tucked into a blanket of tasty grilled prosciutto. The most intriguing of the appetizers we tried was the "Italian shrimp and grits," clever, bite-sized polenta cakes with grilled shrimp that had a pleasing touch of oregano.
A Caesar salad and Greek salad were well worth the $7 and $8.50 they cost. Both relied on supremely crisp romaine lettuce with freshly shaved Parmesan on the Caesar and crumbly feta on the Greek. A lemony vinaigrette was perfect with the Greek salad, but the dressing for the Caesar was gelatinous.
And do not leave without having a slice of the straightforward, excellent New York cheesecake.
Aldo's is a beer lover's paradise. Among the 30 or so drafts offered at the bar, in addition to the expected Ghost River and Yazoo products from Memphis and Nashville, you'll find a Shiner Wild Hare from Texas, Goose Island from Chicago, Moretti from Italy and Angry Orchard Cider from Sam Adams in Boston. There's also a list of Italian cocktails, many with Campari as an ingredient.
The restaurant has a fun and easy vibe, suitable both for kids and nighttime revelry, but the sound system needs fine tuning. We heard music we liked — Booker T. & the M.G.'s; some Bobby Darin, some Frank Sinatra — but the reverberation is so tinny it discourages conversation.
Aldo's Pizza Pies
Food: 3 Stars
Service: 2 1/2 Stars
Atmosphere: 3 Stars
Address: 100 S. Main
Hours: Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m., kitchen closes at 10 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight, kitchen closes at 11 p.m.
Reviewer's choice: Italian shrimp and grits, $11; Vodka pie, $15 for 12-inch; Mezza Luna pizza, $17 for 12-inch; Uncle Carmen sandwich, $9; New York cheesecake, $6
Alcohol: Full bar