As local enthusiasm for food trucks has grown, it’s been fun to see the unexpected items coming out of mobile kitchens. When the Pizza People truck started circulating in 2011, it was easy to fear the worst — maybe frozen pizzas reheated in an Easy-Bake oven. Instead, people who ordered from the pizza truck found themselves eating fresh, well-crafted individual pies with inventive topping combinations. A few years later, Pizza People not only operates its original truck but has also opened a full-service restaurant known as the Pizza People Pub.
The new pub occupies the old Cheuvront wine bar space in the ground floor of the Artisan Lofts building, right across Central Avenue from the McDowell / Central light rail station and the Burton Barr Central Library. Despite a bicycle giveaway during the restaurant’s grand opening festivities, there’s no bike rack; that’s rumored to be the decision of a misguided landlord and not the pizza people themselves. Fortunately, there’s a long railing surrounding the patio, and it’s not uncommon to see several bikes locked to it. The nearest official racks are over at the library.
The downtime between the demise of wine bar and the soft opening of the Pizza People Pub in late 2013 was fairly brief, and some furniture, especially the metallic high-top tables, looks familiar. Beyond those similarities, the new pub has a more casual, welcoming feel. That’s not surprising since the pub is a collaboration between the original pizza truck operators and the owners of nearby Switch and Fez. There are two long communal tables near the front, a wraparound bar by the kitchen, and traditional tables toward the back and outside on the patio.
Unlike other recently arrived Downtown Phoenix pizzerias, Pizza People isn’t VPN-certified, and it doesn’t claim to be. That means stone tray ovens rather than wood-fired ones resembling beehives. The result is a more even crust with less differentiation between the core and the cornichon, or edge, than one might encounter a mile to the south. It also means a broad array of toppings that combine in ways not envisioned in the heritage of Neapolitan pizza. As long as you don’t expect rigid adherence to tradition, it’s easy to enjoy Pizza People’s 10” pies on their own terms.
Closest to traditional is the margherita with red sauce, basil, tomato, and mozzarella. Variations on that include the Popeye, which adds spinach and garlic, and the Hottie, which ventures into spicier territory with Italian sausage, green chiles, jalapeños, and even serranos in a progression of continuously increasing heat. White pies without a base of tomato sauce often include toppings applied after cooking. The Fun Guy matches crimini mushrooms (cooked) with truffle oil and fresh arugula, and the Hulk mixes the same greens with roasted peppers and pesto.
Other pizzas at the pub push the limits of topping combinations with interesting and generally successful results. The Date Me pie isn’t about romance or obsolescence, but instead about the tiny fruit grown in arid regions, including Arizona. Minced dates provide a sweet note balanced by the saltiness of prosciutto and the creaminess of ricotta cheese. The Seoul Fire takes its cues from Korean cuisine, with pulled chicken, fiery kimchi, sliced scallions, fresh cilantro, and sesame seeds all blending astonishingly well with a mellowing layer of mozzarella cheese.
Speaking of cheese, Pizza People Pub has an entire section of its menu devoted to mac-and-cheese. Everything starts with a base of elbow macaroni baked in a slightly sharp sauce of melted cheese with a charred, crisp layer on top. From there, 10 different flavors add ingredients such as mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, or smoked paprika. With any of these, an protein component such as chicken or bacon can be incorporated for a few dollars more. The serving is eight ounces with a “Mac Mini” (Don’t tell Apple.) and 20 ounces with a “Biggie Mac.”
A half dozen sandwiches follow a similar approach: a thematic assortment of ingredients in a brioche bun with a choice of a hamburger, shredded chicken, or a black bean patty.The Encanto combines feta with red bell peppers and spinach. The Ro Ro relies on a pesto with mozzarella, eggplant, and arugula. These sandwiches have lot going on, but for a simpler alternative, the basic pub sandwich with just pickles, lettuce, onions, and tomato will do. All of these come with a light slaw, but try the spud fingers, roasted fingerling potatoes, as a substitute sometime.
The lightest entrees on the menu are the salads, which offer the same variety as the pizzas, mac-and-cheese, and sandwiches. The MB Chop has both Mediterranean and Southwestern influences in its mix of black beans, corn, romaine, parmesan, and ranch dressing. The Red, White, & Blue and the Willo Grove both feature fruit with as much emphasis on tart flavor as sweet. For something really sugary, the half-baked chocolate cookie with ice cream is usually available. Other desserts have included peach bread pudding and raspberry mini-cheesecakes.
Of course, any place calling itself a pub should have a good drink selection. Draft beers include a versatile house brew that is a rebranded version of O’Dell’s 5 Barrel Pale Ale, and signature cocktails include the Pizza-Pub-Tini, a dirty martini with pepperoncini juice spicing up the vodka and pizza toppings on a skewer. Those drinks have never been served out of any food truck, adding to the value added by a fixed location. The Pizza People truck is still making the rounds, but riding the train to its companion pub is now another way to bring pizza and people together.
6/26/2015 Update: Since the publication of this review, a bike rack has been added outside the entrance to Pizza People Pub. Regrettably, the Seoul Fire pizza is no longer on the menu.
1326 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
McDowell / Central Station