For most of Dry January 2024, I kept my mouth shut.
Please do not mistake this for my jumping onto that ghastly trend of (gasp!) not drinking adult beverages for an entire month after Santa Claus comes to town and then complaining about it the entire time on social media.
New year, new me? You’ll certainly see a new me if I am denied drink, whether by myself or by TikTok. That doesn’t make me an alcoholic. That makes me a realist.
That also makes me a better person, which is what I tell myself to rationalize that decision to wait. Why start a new year with negativity? Let the temporary teetotalers take care of that. Their online whining will be loud enough to drown out even the most internal, crying and desperate need of mine to admonish.
New year, new me? Well, at least until February rolls around. And even then it’s always a coin toss at what happens next: will he or won’t he? I mean the groundhog, of course. And in case you all missed it, the furry little beast awoke from his long winter slumber this year to inform the world of an early spring, as for once he did not see his shadow.
Which works out well for me, you see, as I’ve kept my mouth shut all this time, and I am here to bring shade. Please do not mistake this relief for pleasure.
Does the oncologist take pleasure in telling a patient that they’re terminal? Does the officer on duty enjoy knocking on a door with news of a terrible crash? Does the food critic (hi, that’s me!) relish in finding just the right turn of phrase to explain why a certain food is just no good?
You have three months to live. There were no survivors.
Had Justice Samuel Alito tried the pizza at Pizza Baby in Wesley Heights, then he may have steered the court to rule differently. Information, nevertheless painful to convey, but all the more important for you to hear. The Charlotte pizza scene is a treacherous one, dear readers. For your own safety, you must read on.
The New York-style pizza
From the outside, at least, Pizza Baby makes sense.
At first glance, it is an industrial brick block of a building sunken in along Thrift Road, presenting like Wesley Heights’ version of the Parthenon, visible at all times from any of that neighborhood’s most popular haunts.
A few hours at the brewery and looking for the next stop? Had enough twee tapas from overpriced tasting menus and in need of something more substantial? So over wedding reception planning and desperately on the lookout for carbs?
Just walk outside and turn toward the light: Pizza Baby beckons.
But like most new places in Charlotte, a new restaurant can’t just simply exist; it has to have a story to go along with it.
The story at Pizza Baby, or so I’m told, has something to do with wanting to bring authentic NY-style pizza to Charlotte; marvel how the owners worked their way through countless iterations of dough recipes until they found just the one that would result in the floppy slices of NY-style pizza dreams.
In my mind, there are two problems with this.
One, Pizza Baby’s so-called concept is inherently flawed. NY-style pizza is many things to many people — both to bona fide New Yorkers and to the tourists who like to say they have lived there — but it is not, for the love of all things sacred in the world of food, floppy.
Not for nothing, I spent part of Dry January in New York with friends, and I certainly didn’t squander the chance to confirm my thesis.
At lunch one day at Stretch Pizza, legendary American chef Wylie Dufresne’s new pizza joint near Madison Square Park, I asked the staff what they thought of someone describing NY-style pizza as “floppy.” None of the answers I got are suitable for print, and it’s only with some luck that I made it out of there alive.
But, to be fair, there is always the OG-version of what something should be, and another version, that of an outsider looking in, of short-term memory, of trying to recapture something that was so perfect just a moment long ago.
Memory is a tricky thing, though. I certainly don’t remember NY-style pizza as floppy, which is why I fly to the source to ask. Pizza Baby co-owners Trey Wilson and Steven De Falco, on the other hand, apparently do, so they opened a restaurant.
This, in case it wasn’t clear, is me trying to give Pizza Baby the benefit of the doubt: “floppy,” oh yes, but have you achieved or failed at what you set out to do when the dough is so floppy that diners question whether or not it’s raw?
The other problem, which I find to be far worse and much more offensive to the good sense average diners bring to new restaurants along with wallets ready to be emptied and stomachs to be filled, is this: Charlotte diners deserve better than places that push concept over taste.
It’s bad enough that diners in this town are at the mercy of influencers and rogue PR pros who live for the easily digestible and retweetable sound bites. Throw in an “authentic” and a harrowing COVID-19 subplot and you’re guaranteed to go viral. But when did letting the food speak for itself stop being enough to create buzz in Charlotte? At around the same time, I think, as the reel took the place of everything real.
More to the point, if you’re going to use social media to trick Charlotteans into thinking that you’re serving something as sacred as NY-style pizza, then at least make it taste good.
Dissecting the menu
There’s no reason that the “Fun Guy” couldn’t have done more for the palate than just let it down. Topped with roasted mushrooms and mushroom cream as well as thin slices of mortadella, it was a pizza poised for pizzazz — had it not been so woefully under seasoned.
Only at Pizza Baby have I found it impossible to tell the difference between mortadella and a mushroom.
“Mother,” in an unfortunate Hitchcockian way, is worse. It’s wearing its ingredients as a costume: mozzarella with tomatoes and parmesan that might resemble the real thing but taste like papier-mâché.
Worse yet, the globs of cheese just sitting there in the sauce have the uncanny resemblance of faces sliced off and thrown on the ground as the good Christian kids in the ’80s horror movies of yore were wont to do after losing their virginities in a log cabin. This is a costume, yes, from the worst B movie imagined.
And it’s not just the pizzas. But it’s mostly the cheese. Fonduta is a ghastly creation, one that I’ve suffered through thrice just to make sure I wasn’t being a dick. It presents as a fondue might be expected to, but then again so does, to some extent, wallpaper paste.
In fact, as tasteless and oddly textured as it was (squishy, and when is melted cheese ever described with that adjective?) it would better be used as wallpaper paste in the dining room should the owners ever decide to cover up those cold concrete walls.
If that weren’t bad enough, then there is also burrata. Again, if Charlotte social media were to be believed, the burrata at Pizza Baby is the dish du jour omg #hashtag. Instead it is a rather puzzling thing indeed.
It looks like something someone might be inclined to eat, adorned on the plate as it is with pistachio pesto and tomatoes, but I defy you to tell me that you can taste any of those ingredients.
Day-old chewing gum has more complexity and certainly more flavor. But worse than day-old chewing gum, the burrata here feels curdled, nay gritty, in the mouth. It is altogether unpleasant to eat.
Even the stronger pizzas on the menu are no match for cheese with textures that shouldn’t be found in cheese.
Newer to the menu is “Smokin’ Kale,” the rare pizza here that lives up to social media hype. The kale, mind you, was an afterthought, but one I could ignore because of that wonderful calabrian cream. It was so smoky that it was almost metallic, giving off heat in all the right ways, but damned if it wasn’t let down by cheese that had melted down into a bubbly, unctuous and most unfortunate texture.
Which is to say nothing of the floppy crust – I was lucky to get a single bite before everything flopped off onto the table and into oblivion.
To an even greater degree, I loved the “Rosemary” because the flavors were so alive and even ravishing. The pure taste of rosemary here hits instantly, in a shock, like amphetamine, though like a good bottle of poppers, it lingers long and hot.
This is thanks to hot honey and pecorino, which knock about rosemary into sweet, spicy, and then savory and earthy directions. It is multidimensional, and yet concentrated. Under the right light or mobile phone flash, red onion and pistachio pesto make the entire pizza appear like the height of couture from the House of Gucci.
But then you have to eat it, which by that point, you’ve learned to forgo the crust and just scrape off the toppings, but have you noticed how truly difficult it is to scrape things off cheese?
Worst case scenario, I’d suggest downing a few cocktails from the list to wash away the memories you had of the time right before entering Pizza Baby, when you were still hopeful that NY-style pizza could at last be enjoyed here in the QC, but not because they’re impeccably made.
No, because between the margarita and the classic “Last Word,” there is so much lime juice in both that the acidity works like an industrial solvent to strip the pain away.
They made my tongue hurt. The pizzas, well, they made my soul hurt.
Don’t we get to expect more from a restaurant serving pizza that can cost $30 after tax?
There used to be a time when the answer was yes. Hell, there used to be a time when the question was unthinkable.
Something is rotten in the city of Charlotte, that it’s come to this — pizza that is an affront to common sense. Maybe we’re growing way too fast for our own good and the resulting economic turmoil is making us all collectively forget that $30 pizza should also be edible.
My rent just increased 20%, so I’m in the unfortunate position of no longer being able to take food gambles. And perhaps this is the weakness that influencers in this town exploit — follow me for more awesome food recs, I have 30,000 followers, how could I be wrong? Start with requiring them to attest that they’ve actually eaten the food, and just like that, the influencer population is cut in half.
Because how else to describe the mere existence of a place like Pizza Baby? A social media star whose food no one in social media has apparently ever tasted.
It’s a disservice both to Charlotte and to her diners, so much so that I’m left questioning everything new on the restaurant scene. What’s your motive? What are you tricking me into buying now? Hashtag sus.
This is a far gentler way of saying, “Burn it all down,” or better yet, and certainly more apropos,
“Throw this baby out with the bathwater.”
Then again, bathwater might be exactly what the dough at Pizza Baby really needs.
SUPPORT OUR WORK: Get better connected and become a member of Queen City Nerve to support local journalism for as little as $5 per month. Our community journalism helps inform you through a range of diverse voices.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.