Willy Theisen is the godfather of pizza. That is, Theisen turned a bar that he was the owner of - Wild Willy's - into the first of what has turned out to be the 4th largest chain of pizza restaurants in the U.S., Godfather's Pizza. Theisen became a multi-millionaire long before he sold Godfather's to Pillsbury in the early 80's. He is famous for building a huge mansion in the Regency area of Omaha, complete with its own helicopter pad - a house that I've been in before, and one that is no longer there. Theisen sold it to Terry Watanabe, then the owner of Oriental Trading Company. Watanabe, in turn, had to sell the mansion to help pay off $127 million in gambling debts and it was subsequently torn down and three or four houses were built on the lot. But that's another story for another time.
Theisen has since dabbled in real estate, owned farms that raised English jumping horses and has invested in and helped develop restaurant chains such as Famous Dave's, Fuddrucker's and Green Burrito, which was subsequently sold to and absorbed by the Carl's Jr. chain about 10 years ago. Theisen, who is 65 years of age, never really slowed down and decided to re-invent the pizza business when he opened the upscale pizza restaurant - Pitch Coal-fire Pizza - in the Dundee-Happy Hollow neighborhood of Omaha back in November of 2009.
(Update - Theisen sold his interest in Pitch to Aaron McKeever, Marcus Hebert, Jay Musil and Jason Dale in 2013. The group opened a second location in West Omaha in the summer of 2015.)
It was a cold, snowy night when I got into Omaha. I asked the girl at the front desk what would be open that late in the area. She suggested steak, and I had steak the night before. She mentioned Italian, but I wasn't in the mood for Italian. But I did mention pizza back to her and another desk clerk at the hotel said, "There's a great pizza place not too far from here called Pitch. It's relatively new and I think it's the best in Omaha." I took that recommendation, got directions and made my way to the corner of 51st and Underwood (see map).
The Dundee-Happy Hollow neighborhood in the central part of Omaha has gone through a big transformation since the days that my sister and brother-in-law lived just blocks north of the area back in the late 70's. I remember a lot of the shops were these little "mom-and-pop" establishments with a handful of blue-collar bars in the neighborhood. Today, the area has gone through a nice transformation and is home to hip little shops, restaurants and bars. But tradition still rules as the long-established Dundee Dell, a great bar/restaurant that has been in existence since 1934, still anchors the heart of the neighborhood. (I need to go get a meal at Dundee Dell. It was a fun place to go when I was a young guy in my early 20's during some of my visits to Omaha.)
Pitch is in a corner building on Underwood that was transformed into a restaurant that features a modern industrial look to the interior. It's a long, narrow restaurant with a number of booths and tables, many of the tables will sit up to a dozen people in a communal-style atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of The Publican in Chicago where total strangers are seated next to one another at a long table. I'm not big on that as I would rather focus on who I'm with and not trying to learn about people that may or may not be interesting to talk to. (Pictures above and to the right courtesy of Eat Chic Lifestyle.com)
The hostess at Pitch tried to get me to sit at one of those long tables and even though it was close to 9 p.m., there was a pretty good crowd in the place. She also offered to seat me at the bar and I took her up on that. Thankfully, there was one seat left at the bar - between a couple of 20-something girls who were waiting on a friend, and a couple in their late-50's/early 60's enjoying a pizza. Yeah, yeah - I know. I won't go sit at a communal table with a bunch of strangers, but I will go sit at a bar next to perfect strangers. I feel more comfortable at the bar as the person across from you is the bartender who is willing to bring me beer.
After getting a dinner menu from the hostess and sitting down, a bartender came up to me and wanted to know what I wanted to drink. In addition to the normal staples of American beer, Pitch also has a number of eclectic beers to choose from and a pretty extensive wine list, as well. I told the bartender that I was thirsty and I would just take a Bud Light for now as I figured out what I wanted to eat and what type of beer I wanted to step up to. He said, "We have Stella Artois on tap. $4.50 a pint."
I said, "Stella on tap? Well, sure!"
As I looked through the menu, I found that in addition to pizza, Pitch has a number of interesting appetizers including calamari, spicy rosemary chicken wings, Calabrese meatballs with a homemade tomato sauce and an olive bowl sampler with three different types of Spanish, French and Greek olives. They also featured three different types of pasta dishes including butternut squash ravioli in a sage butter sauce with candied walnuts; macaroni pasta with Comte cheese from France, served with pancetta, spinach and truffle oil; and a homemade version of their spaghetti and meatballs.
But pizza is what brings the people in to Pitch with their hot, coal fired ovens cooking up thin crust pizzas that can be topped with homemade fennel sausage, house-cured pancetta, white anchovies, roasted chicken and arugula. There's only one size to them - about 12" - so two people can enjoy one pizza.
They have a number of specialty pizzas on the menu including a margherita with fresh mozzarella and basil, the "Shrooms" pizza with fresh roasted mushrooms, thyme cream, truffle cheese and oven dried tomatoes, and something called the "Leonardo" - slow roasted pork loin joined with toppings such as sporessata salami, peporanata (roasted tomatoes, onions and peppers) and fontana cheese.
But the one that caught my eye was the "Mia", also known as "Willy's Favorite" - fennel sausage and pepperoni with fresh mozzarella cheese. Now, at that point, I had no idea who "Willy" was as I didn't know this was Willy Theisen's restaurant, but I had a good idea as that you mention the name Willy anywhere in Omaha, you're probably talking about Mr. Theisen. I asked the bartender if I could get the Mia and then also have some of the fresh roasted mushrooms tossed on with the other toppings. He said that would be no problem. By that time, I was ready for another Stella Artois.
As the bartender sat another Stella in front of me, the lady next to me who was finishing up a pizza with her husband leaned over and asked, "Is that good beer?"
I said, "Stella Artois? Yeah, it's a pretty good beer. I'm not big on Belgian beers, but this is more of a lager. It's similar to some German lagers I like, but it has more of a bite than most American lagers."
She said, "Oh, that's a Belgian beer? I always thought it was French! I may have to try it next time."
When my pizza was brought out about 10 minutes after I'd ordered it (the coal-fired ovens cook at about 800 degrees), the waiter placed it on an old coffee can that they use as a stand for their pizzas at Pitch. It was loaded with fresh toppings - big chunks of fennel sausage, large pepperoni slices and the biggest chunks of chopped fresh mushrooms I think I've ever had on a pizza. And from the first bite, I was hooked. It was an OUTSTANDING pizza. My only complaint is that the crust may have been a little too thin as it was pretty limp and the toppings and cheese would fall off the crust. But it was more of a fork-style pizza where you really needed a fork to eat the pieces.
Usually, thin crust pizzas don't fill me up that much. But with all the toppings - and it was LOADED with toppings and cheese - it was a very rich and filling pizza. I was able to eat three pieces and asked the bartender to box up the remaining pieces. I had an early morning meeting the next day, but I had a fridge in my room along with a microwave. I did my early morning meeting and after I was done at 10 a.m., I went back to the hotel and heated up the three pieces for a late morning breakfast. And it was pretty good reheated the next day.
The pizza at Pitch was exquisite. And it should have been. The price of the pizza alone was $19 bucks. With three Stellas and a nice tip for my bartender who told me that Willy Theisen was, indeed, the guy behind Pitch, my bill came to just under $40 bucks. It's not a cheap place, by any means, but it was one of the best pizzas I've ever had in my life.
I've had a few people tell me since I came out with my most recent "Best Burgers" list about four weeks ago that I needed to come up with a "Best Pizza" list. I would have to say that Pitch may not be the best I've ever had, but it would be worthy of a Top Five mention. Other than the crust being a little limp, it was still a top-notch pizza and I look forward to enjoying another one at Pitch on subsequent visits to Omaha.