by Eric Ginsburg
Staring into the glowing mouth of the wood-fired oven, watching smoke curl gently inside as the temperature lingered at 1,000 degrees, I can’t help but think of Hansel and Gretel. Have I been lured into Mission Pizza Napoletana by rave reviews only to be tossed in the cauldron-esque cooker?
The thought is fleeting, but it’s difficult not to be entranced by the impressive Stefano Ferrara oven — the flames consuming short logs, the embers methodically swept aside, the pies in the center rising.
Owner Peyton Smith stands at the edge of the bar, unassuming in a pulled-down trucker hat and T-shirt, chatting with two customers. The pair — his parents, actually, in from North Myrtle Beach — couldn’t be more proud, but right now they’re being entertained by one of the chefs. He’s alternating between cooking their shrimp in quick, tall flashes of fire, stopping to dance and encourage one of the servers to smile.
The patrons enjoying the show, and as Smith makes the rounds to check on tables, he says the only real question is whether people are having a good time. That’s his main goal, he says, and the inquiry assumes other questions about the quality of the cuisine, the environment and the service.
It’s a Saturday during the peak of dinnertime a month after Mission opened. There’s a line — the hostess estimates 30-45 minutes when we walk in — but a space quickly opens up at one of the two bars. I pull up a stool, rubbing elbows with Smith’s mother, and gaze into the ominous oven.
It’s not just that the high-heat cooker is bulky and somewhat foreboding; the oven is a huge part of the reason that Mission’s pizza tastes so good.
There are two food-writing rules-of-thumb: If there’s a dish named after the place, you’re getting it, and if there’s a special, that’s a good bet, too. The Napoletana, with tomato, olives, capers, white anchovy, chilies, parmigiano, oregano and olive oil, is probably someone else’s cup of tea. Lucky for me, I could eat this night’s special every day: speck, tomatoes, red onion, fresh mozzarella and oregano.
The speck — lean strips of cured pig that are like a more refined version of bacon — is flavorful without dominating the pizza, resting on a well executed red sauce and intermingling with the onion.
The pizzas vary in price from $10 to $16, the top price reserved for two clam pizzas. Mission offers 16 regular pies, with ingredients like fried dough, sunny-side egg, honey and sopressata (though not all together). Add buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, an egg or a side sauce for a few extra bucks.
Only one pizza, the Funghi, comes with mushroom, and the crimini mushrooms and smoked mozzarella make a savory, memorable team worthy of returning to and pining over. Thanks to the oven, Mission’s pizza crusts actually have flavor compared to other venue’s more neutral dough. The crust is appropriately tough, but gentle enough that one friend compared it to naan.
There are appetizers too, including a cauliflower wedge, polenta, risotto, meatballs and pasta. And I heard the desserts are remarkable. But the generous, personal pizzas are more than enough for a meal, and I didn’t save room for anything but the main course.
Tonight, Smith’s goal is being fulfilled. Laughter and excited conversation can be heard over the soundtrack of hits from last decade including old Kanye West, Matisyahu and Queens of the Stone Age. It isn’t just tonight though — Smith says they stay busy and are looking to cautiously expand hours.
Mission is a pizza place, but this is no dive. High-quality ingredients and preparation are at its core, assisted by details including sleek décor, dancing staff and the cleanest men’s room I can remember seeing in a restaurant.
Mission Pizza Napoletana does not take reservations. Open Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. Call 336- 893-8217 or find it on Facebook. 707 N. Trade St., Winston-Salem.