1) It’s funny that you said toward the end what struck me (silently) the minute we walked in: Pompieri took one of downtown Durham’s most beautiful available spaces and made the interior look really ugly, cheap and ahistoric. It reminded me of those crappy little delis all over lower Manhattan, like around Chambers Street, that have been squatting in nice 19th-century buildings for so long that everyone forgets to kick them out and do something better with them.
Anyway, if there’s a less inviting restaurant than Pompieri in the city center, I haven’t seen it. It was depressing to see that they did such aesthetic violence to the building. Once I looked around a bit, I appreciated that the basil plants were feeding the fish in the tanks, but why are there fish tanks at all? If they were anchovies, I could understand… (Wait: are they anchovies?) As it stands, it sort of looks like Pompieri took over a space that had a crummy Chinese restaurant in it previously and found it easier and cheaper to keep the tanks running (with an ingenious feeding system) than to get rid of them. The little bar shunted off into the corner looks like an afterthought, a way to add more seats to an otherwise unusable space off the kitchen.
2) I was amazed at the number of staff in there. Did we count nine people in that (open) kitchen, basically just making pizzas, three appetizers (one a salad) and some gelato? At [redacted], we have a kitchen staff of seven making far more food, in much greater variety, for more people. Can Pompieri possibly be making any money this way? Will they eliminate some staff once the ball gets rolling? There were four or five more floor staffers, one of whose job it apparently was to hand you the menu and explain it. This seemed like an awkward position, for us as much as for her, and a waste of an hourly wage. A good menu doesn’t need a preface–actually, she also just repeated out loud some specials that were easily spotted on the board–and this menu is just fine. It’s very simple. You don’t need a hand-holder. I got the feeling that the restaurant didn’t trust its clientele, or itself to relate to them.
3) The pizza was good, but not in Pizzeria Toro’s league. It’s not trying to be, and it’s cheaper, and I don’t want to judge the place based on one experience (and only of the Margherita–although, as you pointed out, a pizza place should be able to stake its entire reputation on its Margherita). The tomato sauce was really good. You could put it on pasta and I would be happy. The crust was tasty, although mushy in the middle: that problem that almost no one seems to solve. Each slice of mozzarella slid whole off the pizza when you bit it, a result of too much moisture underneath. That was unpleasant and bit unsatisfying, as you had to slurp down your entire mozz slice in one bite, so you felt kind of cheated.
4) About the cheaper prices: I appreciate them, but I do note that the size of the pie (12″) is awkward. For people our size and of our modest appetite, it’s too much food for one person and not quite enough for two. The best approach is to go there with three people and order two pies, but I’m damned if I’m going to organize my party size around Pompieri’s pie diameter. You could order two pies for two people, but then you’re either taking home a disappointingly small remainder or (more likely) eating two whole pies and regretting it.
5) About that basil that was feeding the fish: nice to have fresh basil like that! However: they just laid three leaves on top of pie after it came out of the oven, as though the basil was a garnish, not an integrated part of the pizza itself. I like the basil to be baked in, so it gets that little bit of char on it.
6) Did the reviewer from the Weakly really have a problem with the scissors? (I’m not going to go back and check.) I found them quite easy to use, and that they enabled me to cut whatever size slice I wanted. People complaining about the scissors are making a prima facie judgment about perceived “pretentiousness,” not bothering to actually try the utensil and see that it works pretty well and is even kind of fun to use. I can see kids getting into it, too.
7) I admired the size of the wine list, but it was far too large for what the place needs, given its limited menu. Part of plate discipline: matching the parts of the menu. If you sell a) pizza, b) salad, and c) gelato, you need about four whites and four reds. Maybe even three. This is largely because there’s no need for a large price range. If all of the wine is going to be glass-pour price, basically, you don’t need 15 of them. Cheap wine is generally indistinct, and this is just pizza.
8) We were still hungry, so we went to [redacted] as usual and supplemented our pizza-snack with a $2.69 second course. Cochinita pibil!