Pigzza, the enticing barbecue-Italian mashup in Mills 50, leans on the wisdom of crowds

The kitchen could still stand some improvement, but the place is packed

click to enlarge Pigzza on Mills Avenue - photo by Rob Bartlett
photo by Rob Bartlett
Pigzza on Mills Avenue

After three separate visits to Pigzza, the self-described "Italian-ish" joint by Pig Floyd's Thomas Ward, I was more than ready to write about my experiences. But then Ward took to Instagram in late June to address negative criticism he read online (Yelp reviews appear to be an obsession for him) and promised to make changes to Pigzza's mashup menu of barbecue and Italian flavors. While the damage control didn't seem to bother the throngs flocking to the Mills 50 sup spot, Pigzza was clearly suffering.

Al Palo, owner of the venerable Stasio's Italian Deli, was initially involved in the venture. Then he dropped out, leaving Ward to go it alone. But with Pig Floyd's, Ward had taught himself the ways of a pitmaster, so how hard could learning to be a pizzaiolo or pastaio be?

Harder than a pitmaster, it seems. On my fourth and most recent visit, the pizzas, which I'd describe as a cross between "Neapolitan-ish" and "New York-ish," were the same as before — the dough simply wasn't allowed to rise enough. I've had crusts here with thin, raw corniciones and then I've had overly doughy, bubble-free ones that, pardon the pun, hogged up a third of the pizza.

What did work were the toppings, particularly the barbecue-leaning flavors on 12-inch pies like the Meet Me at Floyd's ($22), with its sweet and meaty mix of braised brisket, grape jelly BBQ sauce, smoked mozzarella and cheddar pecked with pickled onions, cilantro and green onions.

In the Shrimpin' Ain't Easy ($22), blackened shrimp, hot Italian sausage and alfredo sauce weighed down the round, but the ingredients, including more of that smoked mozz and pecorino, make it go down easy. And they bring a little fun to the pie-eating experience, which regulars here seem to appreciate.

click to enlarge Calamari and sausage tortiglioni - photo by Rob Bartlett
photo by Rob Bartlett
Calamari and sausage tortiglioni

I'd hoped the pastas would be made in-house, given only three are offered, but alas: no. The vinegary astringency and lemony pucker of a pulled-pork pappardelle we had on one visit would've marred any hand-fashioned noodle, anyway.

It's since been scrapped and replaced by "Floyd's Carbonara" ($18 half portion, $22 full portion), a dish of creamy pecorino and smoked pork belly that, for us, was hardly an improvement — not with its undercooked clumps of fettucine.

There is a noodle of hope on the crinkled paper menus that have been wet and left to dry, and it's somewhere in the spicy sausage tortiglioni ($15/$21). The hearty dish remains popular — and unchanged, apart from a $1 price increase.

Just as popular is the calamari ($18), and with good reason. The cornmeal-crusted buggers come crisp and spiked with cherry-bomb peppers and fried capers that negate the need to dip them in the provided red sauce or garlic aioli. Double-cooked chicken wings ($15) tossed in Calabrian chili, orange and honey are also worth ordering.

If there is a misuse of chili, it's in the Calabrian chili paloma ($14), which has to be in the running for the city's most unfortunate cocktail. When I saw droplets of chili oil suspended in the tequila, grapefruit soda and lemon juice, I just shook my head. Did they not have time to do a proper chili infusion? The kicker was a garnish of two banana pepper rings straight out of the jar. "Oh yeah, I'm pretty sure I had this cocktail at the Courtesy," my companion joked.

But to Pigzza's credit, it doesn't appear desperate for attention. The space is bright, welcoming and consistently packed. The enticing patio area is a tough seat to snag during the temperate months; you'll be lucky to score an alfresco table any time soon. Ward evidently poured a seven-figure sum into designing the space, and everything from the fixtures to the bar to the seating to the artwork looks carefully curated.

But it's still just lipstick on a pig.

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