alfway up the back wall of Pelican Grill’s kitchen, a narrow strip of cream-colored tiles is interrupted by a half-moon opening. Peer inside, and discover almond wood logs roughly stacked and smoking hot. Seven hundred degrees hot. Pizza hot.
In our ad-influenced world of insta-food, it’s easy to satisfy cravings with takeout or delivery. When it comes to pizza, we often will settle for doughy, lukewarm pepperoni pies. Who knew that, while we were making do, Pelican Grill was cranking out the most delicate, succulent pizza in Southern California?
“I’ve not met one person who doesn’t like pizza,” said Marc Johnson, the young chef behind the casual, comfortable Pelican Grill. “It’s basically the perfect dish. It’s easy to eat. You’ve got crispiness from the crust, fattiness from the cheese, acidity from the tomato sauce. It’s like hotdogs and baseball— a winning combination.”
At Pelican Grill, dinner plate-size disks of decorated dough slide in and then out of those 700 degrees in four minutes flat. Margherita, vegetarian, fennel sausage and other versions are made to order and materialize before diners piping hot, cleanly sliced and begging to be inhaled.
The whole shebang starts first thing in the morning, when the pizza cook pushes a good dozen logs to the back of the oven. They are left to burn undisturbed for about two hours. Meanwhile, the cook mixes the dough, lets it rise for three hours, then kneads and portions it into 4-ounce balls that will be stretched at the last minute. The sauce? Made in-house from vine-ripened tomatoes. The toppings? Seasonal, popping-fresh and chef-approved.
Unlike conventional ovens that cook from the bottom up, wood-fired ovens employ convection heat, with the smoke swirling throughout the space. We have this circular pattern to thank for the imperfections, burnt spots and tiny crust bubbles that give Pelican Grill’s pizzas their unique blend of flavors and textures.
I taste-tested the vegetarian and fennel sausage pizzas and was struck by the subtlety of each. The veggie version was topped with delicate shavings of zucchini and Brussels sprouts that were sprinkled atop fine layers of caramelized onion and tomato sauce. A pinch of red pepper flakes, and I’d found my nirvana. Well, half of it, anyway. The fennel sausage was the veggie’s alter ego: a bolder, dare I say manlier, set of toppings. Colorful piquillo pepper strips and red onions co-exist with soft clumps of ricotta and awaken the senses with a charge, but not a jolt.
I wondered whether Chef Marc, with his Culinary Institute credentials and passionate embrace of the foodie life, would choose wine or beer to go with his pizza. “Beer,” he answered without hesitation. “The yeast in beer plays off the crust,” he explained, “and the hops you find in most craft beers adds a touch of bitterness.” Add that to the sweetness of the pizza, and harmony ensues. Since day one, Chef Marc noted, pizza and beer have “just gone together.” That may be true in the U.S., but back in the old country, my money is on red wine.
For reservations, call 877.624.6035, or visit pelicangrillnb.com