A new Neapolitan-style pizza place opened in the Quad Cities earlier this year - Crust Stone Oven Pizza over in Bettendorf. They had a soft opening in May with a grand opening in early July. My wife and I were both very intrigued by this place as it sounded like it was an upscale, gourmet pizza place - something that probably won't go over well with the vast majority of Quad Citians whose pizza preferences are 180 degrees out of kilter as to what real pizza is all about. On a recent Monday evening - our weekly date night - we decided to take a trip to Bettendorf and try a pizza at Crust.
Crust is the brain child of Quad City developer Mark Roemer and chef/managing partner Brian Olsen. Roemer is no stranger to the restaurant business in the Quad Cities. He once owned the Startling Line in downtown Davenport - now Brady Street Pub - then he opened and co-owned Harrington's Pub in Bettendorf. He also owned the Jimmy John's sandwich shop located next to Harrington's, as well as a Jimmy John's location over in Moline. In 2008, he opened the popular Pints bar on Utica Ridge Road in Northeast Davenport. He subsequently sold his interest in Harrington's Pub and opened Pints locations in Iowa City and Elmhurst, IL.
Roemer recruited Olsen to work with him at Crust. Olsen is the former chef at the upscale Red Crow Grille, just across the street from Crust's location on 53rd Street in Bettendorf (see map). Roemer bought what was the old Country Style ice cream/Hawaiian Style coffee shop on 53rd Street, then eventually it turned into a restaurant called Seeds that didn't last long. The place has ample parking to the west of the building.
It was about 7 p.m. when we got into Crust. We were greeted by a young hostess who took us into the main dining room to the right. (It had rained heavily about an hour before and even though it had cleared off and was a pleasant evening, they had the outdoor seating area closed.) The combination of the tin ceiling, wooden floors, and wooden walls adorned with old time pictures of Italy made for a rather echo-y and loud sound environment. A number of flat screen televisions sort of dressed down the dining area. The room was about half full when we were there and we were having trouble hearing one another from across the table. I can almost imagine how loud the place is when it's packed - and I understand that it has been packed many times during its first few months of business.
The bar area is to the left as you come in. It features a nice dark walnut bar that seats about a dozen people, along with a number of high tables and booths. The decor is similar to the dining room with the same tin-tiled ceiling, wooden floor and walls, with pictures and flat screen televisions on the walls. But the focal point of this area is the large oven in the corner.
The stainless-steel clad oven is part of the pizza prep area at Crust. They had two prep chefs and a pizza chef working the area the night we were in. The oven has a domed temperature of 900 degrees (F) with a hearth temperature of 625 to 720 degrees (F). Even though it is gas-fired, the stone oven design mimics the heating qualities of a wood-fired oven. They hand form the thin-crust pizzas at Crust - no rolling pins or pizza presses. And in order to be considered Neapolitan-style, the pizza must cook in no more than 90 seconds. I could really feel the heat of the oven just 15 feet away from it when I took this picture.
We were seated at a table in the middle of the dining room. Our server for the evening, Ryan, greeted us. OK, I have a disclosure I need to make on this one. Ryan was the son of the late wife of my good friend Randy Adams who owns Creekside Bar and Grill. Ryan was one of the cooks at Creekside who came up with some pretty good sandwich combinations while he was there. (Click here to read about his delicious "Two-Tone Sandwich".) Before his mom passed away earlier this year, Ryan decided he wanted to get out from behind the bar and away from the grill and became one of the first waiters hired by Roemer and Olsen at Crust. I had seen Ryan on a handful of occasions since he had been hired at Crust and we talked about the pizza there. He had filled me in on the style of pizza and what the restaurant was like before we went. He did a good job of selling us as we were eager to give the place a try.
Ryan playfully played it up as if we were just other customers that he didn't know coming in off the street. He asked if it was our first time to Crust. Why, yes, young man! It certainly is! He then pointed out a card that was on the table that explained what Crust Stone Oven Pizza was all about. And it was in deep detail because this was definitely not Quad Cities-style pizza and it needed to be explained.
The card talked about how they prepare and serve a traditional Neapolitan-style pizza at Crust. They adhere to strict guidelines set out by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (they had it wrongly spelled as "Vera" on the info card), a world-wide organization that trains and certifies chefs and restaurants for Neapolitan-style pizza. The flour they use for their homemade pizza dough is a "00" quality - superfine, that is - wheat flour from the Antimo Caputo flour mill in Naples, Italy, one of the most highly regarded flour mills in the world for pizza dough. They don't use any blends with the dough, and use only fresh yeast, water and salt when they make it daily.
The high heat of the oven gives the crust a light and airy texture, with a slightly charred top and bottom to the crust. The description card also said that Neapolitan-style pizza is also designed to be somewhat "soupy" in the middle. That's caused from the moisture of the fresh sliced (not grated, shredded or processed) mozzarella, the thin pizza sauce, and the 90 second baking time.
Speaking of the pizza sauce, Crust uses San Marzano plum tomatoes that are imported from the Mount Vesuvius region above Naples in Italy. I've bought San Marzano canned plum tomatoes in the past for my homemade marinara sauce and they are very good. A little bit of tomato paste is added to the San Marzano tomatoes to give the pizza sauce at Crust a little sweeter taste. But other than that, you get the fresh taste of the tomatoes in the sauce.
After looking through the information card, we picked up the menu to look it over. In addition to Neapolitan-style pizzas, Crust also featured a number of unique appetizers such as grilled asparagus, house marinated olives and something called 312 Beer Battered White Cheese Curds - cheese curds covered in a beer batter made from Goose Island Brewery's 312 Urban Wheat Beer. For people who were just looking for sandwiches, they also had a black angus burger, as well as a grilled chicken homemade pita.
They had a number of specialty pizzas on the menu and the first thing that caught our eye was that they were not cheap. We've had Neapolitan-style pizzas before, and we know that because of how thin the crust is usually one person can easily eat a 10 to 12 inch pizza. While we weren't surprised on the cost of the pizza - $10 to $16 dollars depending on the toppings - it surprised one family who came in with their two children. Almost as soon as they sat down behind us, they got up and left. Cindy told me, "The lady took a look at the menu and said to her husband, 'We can't afford this place!' " I'm sure they've had more than one episode like this at Crust since they've opened.
Ryan came back to take our drink order. They have a nice wine list - both by the glass and by the bottle - and a nice eclectic beer list, as well. Cindy ordered a glass of the Kenwood Jack London cabernet ($11 bucks a glass - ouch!), and I ordered a Bell's Two-Hearted Ale. Ryan came back moments later and said, "I was afraid of this. We sold out of that over the weekend and we haven't gotten any more back in." He suggested a Founder's Ale Dirty Bastard beer and I told him I'd give it a try. "For two bucks more, I can put it in a big mug." I signed up for that.
When Ryan came back with the drinks, Cindy had already made up her mind that she was getting the margherita pizza - fresh mozzarella and basil with the San Marzano tomato sauce. I saw that they made their own Italian sausage in house. Ryan said, "They grind up the pork butt in the back, add seasonings and make it in house. It's good."
I asked him if I could add anything to the Italian sausage pizza, like pepperoni and some of their wild mushrooms. He said, "Absolutely! In fact, the mushrooms we use are three different types of mushrooms." Interesting. Ryan told me that any pizza can have added toppings and that the Spinach calzone on the menu "is more or less a suggestion." He told me that you can build your own calzones with any of the toppings they offer on the menu. The only problem is that the menu A) doesn't have a list of toppings other than what is offered on the pizzas; and B) they don't tell you how much extra in price each topping will be.
Ryan then entered the orders on an iPod Touch embedded in a folder he was carrying. I'd seen this before at restaurants in the Chicago area and up in the Twin Cities, but never at a place in the Quad Cities. They were definitely high-tech at Crust. (The iPod Touch could also scan credit cards, as well.)
Because of the high cooking temperature, we knew it wouldn't take long to get our pizzas to the table. In fact, it was well less than 10 minutes from the time we ordered to the time a young lady brought our pizzas placed on large ceramic plates to the table.
Cindy's margherita pizza (above left) had a pretty dark-edging around her crust. Large leaves of fresh basil were laying on the top of the slices of melted fresh mozzarella with the pizza sauce swirled in. It really was a good looking presentation for a pizza.
My pizza (above right) had an OK amount of toppings. There could have been more pepperoni and mushrooms on the pizza, but I was OK with it. The sausage was sort of chunky and ground at the same time - no doubt pleasing those who prefer the ground sausage style of Quad Cities-style pizza.
The pizza was certainly Neapolitan in style. The outer crust was light and had air pockets with a slightly charred taste to it. The inner crust was thin and a little limp - not soggy, but rather a sort of moist texture with a charred flour taste. Once again, I thought they skimped a little on the toppings, but I liked what I was eating.
One thing that I thought they needed to do at Crust was provide a little dish of the pizza/marinara sauce to dip the outer edges of the crust into. When Ryan came around to check on us, I suggested that to him. He said, "That really sounds like a great idea!" He left and soon came back with a small bowl of the sauce. Ryan said, "Here, try this. No charge." The crust in the sauce was a nice little touch. The fresh tomato taste with a hint of the tomato paste was wonderful. It was about as fresh of a tomato pizza sauce I've had on a pizza.
Ryan also said, "You know, real Naples style pizza isn't cut into pieces. People in Italy usually just pull off the bites like you would with a loaf of bread. Or some people just sort of fold it over like a calzone. But we decided that people around here wouldn't understand, so that's why we cut it into pieces." No, I'm sure they probably wouldn't. Just having this style of pizza in the Quad Cities was probably enough to make some people's head explode.
Cindy thought her pizza was a little overcooked. She wasn't certain she liked the stone-charred taste of her pizza. She looked at the bottom of one of her pieces of pizza, then folded one of mine over to see if was the same. When she saw they were similar, she sort of shrugged her shoulders and said, "I'll eat it." It wasn't like it was completely burnt on the bottom. It did have dime to quarter-sized char spots on the bottom, but it was far from being totally burnt.
We traded pieces of pizza, even though Cindy doesn't care for mushrooms. Her margherita pizza was pretty good as far as a margherita pizza goes. I asked her if the wood-fired margherita pizza over at Pagalo's Pizza in Milan, IL was better. She thought for a moment and said, "Yeah, I think I like that one better." The crust is thicker over at Pagalo's and I think she didn't like the charred taste at Crust.
Thanks to the thinness of the crust, we both easily polished off our two pizzas, but we'd clearly had enough. When Ryan came around to try to entice us into either a caramelized marshmellow pie with white chocolate and fresh raspberries, or a root beer float made with real vanilla bean ice cream, we had to pass. "Hey, I have to give it a shot," he explained. Suggestive selling at its best.
The bill at Crust was a little bit of a shocker - $48 bucks before tip. Cindy's wine was the same price as her pizza. And my beer - at 8 bucks for a 20 oz. mug - was a little on the high end of my scale. The other thing was the hidden cost of the extra toppings - $2.50 each. My $12 Italian sausage pizza suddenly became $17 dollars. Now, I'm not saying that is all bad. The pizza was very, very good. Ryan's service was great, but I'm sure it's not just because we were there. We watched Ryan operate his other tables and his interaction with the other customers was just as smooth and friendly as if he knew all of them as well as he knew us. It's just that we know a lot of people in and around the Quad's are going to bad-mouth this place, primarily because of the style of the pizza and the price. We decided that Crust Stone Oven Pizza is one of those "special occasion" types of places where you only go there for birthdays, to impress a date, or for a business dinner. It's not a family restaurant, nor is it a neighborhood pizza joint. I'm just hoping the concept goes over well and they're able to get people in the Quad Cities realize this is about as authentic of a Neapolitan-style pizza you can get without having to go to Italy. (Note - Crust is open six days a week - closed Sunday's - and is now serving lunch.)