It seems like a lifetime ago that I first wandered into Burke Street Pizza right around closing time and sat with the owner, a dude from Long Island named Dave Hillman, drinking Budweisers and talking about the old homestead.
And in a lot of ways, it was. This was back in 2003. Hillman had just opened the place, what I considered at the time to be one of the only outposts of true New York-style pizza in the Triad. I was working for a different paper, in a very different role.
Now it’s 10 years later, and Hillman’s vision has grown into three separate stores, all under the Burke Street name — he’s even got one in Greensboro.
So it seems fitting, on the anniversary of Hillman’s dream, to return to the place on Burke Street where it all began.
Hillman’s not here today — he has much bigger fish to fry than the weekday lunch rush at the flagship restaurant. But I brought another expatriate New Yorker with me, a friend of mine from way, way back who has recently relocated to Winston-Salem.
If, like a lot of native Southerners, you feel like there’s nothing worse than a Yankee with a U-Haul, you must find this very disturbing. A lot of us live down here, and more are coming every day.
But along with our perceived arrogance and desire to turn the entire state of North Carolina into the New York suburbs, we also demand quality pizza. We want good bagels, too, but the marketplace hasn’t quite caught up with that yet.
In terms of pizza, though, my New York brethren and I have raised the standards of excellence. And Hillman’s pizza joint maintains those standards.
It looks like just about every mom-and-pop pizza place in New York: a long counter, a tall stand of ovens, some guy flipping dough. About the only difference is that there’s not an elderly couple arguing in Italian by the cheese bin.
The menu has everything you would expect: salads and appetizers, wings and heroes (Heroes, not subs. Subs are from — gasp! — New Jersey. And never hoagies. We are not Philadelphians.)
But the anchor product is a slate of classic pizzas that have withstood the test of time. Sausage and pepperoni. Ricotta and spinach. Chicken and pesto. Bacon and beef. Any combination you like.
But I’m from New York; I’m old-school. I ordered a slice of plain cheese pizza. And just for kicks one of the daily special slices, margherita pizza, and an order of garlic knots because what the hell.
The margherita slice, with fresh tomatoes and basil, was wonderful, as were the garlic knots, made with fresh garlic and not some strange, yellow powder.
But for me, the transcendent moment came when I tore into the cheese slice: a generous layer of mozzarella cheese, sauce that carried just the right acidity and spice, and the crust… oh the crust.
Real New Yorkers know that the secret to all good pizza is the crust. It’s got to be thin, but not so thin that it falls apart. It’s got to be a little bit chewy and a little bit crispy, and you know its really good when you want to eat the whole thing instead of leaving the ends there on the plate like discarded bones.
You don’t get to stay in business for 10 years by pushing crappy pizza, not with this many ex-New Yorkers around. And with pies like this, it’s a good bet that Dave Hillman will be making pizza in the Triad for 10 more years.
Burke Street Pizza; burkestreetpizza.com 1140 Burke St., Winston-Salem; 336.721.0011 3352 Robinhood Road, Winston-Salem; 336.760.4888 2223 Fleming Road, Greensboro; 336.500.8781