In a city where every other new restaurant is a pizza joint, it would be easy to dismiss Pitfire Artisan Pizza as just another ersatz artisan pizzeria. In reality, owners Paul Hibler and David Sanfield have spent the last 14 years building a following, making it the grandfather of LA's pizza scene. Hibler and Sanfield have been converting locals with their Californian/Mediterranean pizza: fluffy, cheesy discs topped with heirloom tomatoes, harissa and fennel pollen, and priced low enough to attract repeat customers multiple times a week.
Years of work seem to have paid off. The American Institute of Architects recently awarded them for the design of their Culver City store, the newest of their four locations but the first designed from the ground-up in collaboration with architect Barbara Bestor. Sales only keep growing. In part one of our interview, Hibler and Sanfield discuss why their pizza is so un-Neapolitan and how Pitfire has changed over the last 14 years.
Squid Ink: Now that Pitfire has won an American Institute of Architects award and was nominated for a James Beard award for outstanding restaurant design, can you talk about your journey here?
Paul Hibler: It's gratifying. We got into the artisan pizza business way before the artisan pizza movement happened, which we're right in the middle of now. Things changed in the restaurant world to our favor. And with this counter service restaurant concept, one of the hottest restaurant concepts in the country right now is David Chang's Momofuku, which is essentially taking a high-quality artisan product and putting a counter in front for people to see.
For about two years, we've had this commitment that [the Culver City location] was the Pitfire of the future. We got with this really great architect Barbara Bestor. We changed the menu, so it's more local and forward-leaning as opposed to anything that you find at this price point. We have seasonal specials. We have our own guy going to the farmers market just like the grown-up restaurants do. Our biggest commitment has been to keep this kind of sincerely prepared, authentic food alive in people's daily lives. That's the big kicker with the counter. The counter saves lots of time for our customers and makes it more frictionless and cheaper.
This was the first store we did it in. After we saw it was working, [we have] been about going back to the other stores and reinstalling it, which is difficult because you have to change the culture inside your own restaurant. It's much easier to start from zero than to tell people who've been doing it one way that you have to do it another way now. The feedback we're getting is in our sales. Our sales are like we've never seen before. And that kinda started when the economy tanked. Our sales went up, and they've continued to go up.
SI: Pitfire has four locations. Do you consider yourselves a chain restaurant?
PH: I like to say that we're the anti-chain. I liken what we're doing more to an indie record label because no stores are the same. There's no posters in here. There's none of that stuff. So it's been a little frustrating because it's Pitfire Artisan Pizza, and I'm the pizza maker. I work on the dough, and I've been collaborating with David on this. We're both cooks. And everybody is getting all this acclaim and all this stuff, but we've been accused of being a Mozza imitation. Even though we're eight years older than they are.
SI: We saw that you have some pretty distinguished fine dining resumes on your staff. Your executive chef, Michael, spent some time at Jean Georges .
PH: That's what's at the foundation of this business. We have somebody like Michael who's our executive chef. That ethic. Our GM used to be the GM at Dominic's. I have another guy from the Patina Group. I have another guy from the Slanted Door in San Francisco. And another guy was running a $6 million café in Manhattan in SoHo. We do a lot of things we don't even talk about. Behind the scenes we're all rabid, passionate foodies.