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.
SI: How would you describe the style of pizza?
PH: It's a cross between Gino's and Tombstone frozen pizzas. No, I'm kidding! I'm kidding.
David Sanfield: As this artisan craft pizza thing has exploded in the last four years, 90% of the places opening are trying to do straight Neapolitan. That's their whole thing. They're using the 00 flour, the Caputo flour. They're firing their oven to around 900° supposedly. And they're failing. If you're out there eating around, every once in a while you'll have a pizza — and I say this with strong quotation marks — a “Neapolitan pie” where you go like, “Wow, this is great.” We like a lot of things about real great Neapolitan pie, but we also know that that's not the kind pizza we want to make because it's not the kind of pizza I want to eat all the time. We make the pizza I want to eat all the time. We use a lot of Neapolitan sort of tenets, but we also use a more rustic flour. We rise and ferment our dough very differently from Neapolitan. It's not a young dough like Neapolitan. We cook it at a different temperature. And we're happier with the results we get. It travels better, it's more consistent all the time and we think it's a better bite.
They're eating with a fork and knife. In Naples, it comes to the table uncut and many of them eat what you would call the filet. They don't even touch the corners. They just sort of eat out of the middle, the soft cheesy part.
PH: Like pasta.
DS: Like pasta. And that's the deal.
PH: [Pitfire pizzas are] a little bit more like a cross between Chez Panisse and Tartine. The bread sensibility of Tartine and the food combinations of what's really California. It's Mediterranean. There's no cheeseburger pizzas or Thai pizzas. Unfortunately, we did at one point have a barbecue chicken pizza. And everyone wants it, but we took it off the menu. When we did that culture change, we killed some of our darlings.
DS: If you cleverly look through the “Be An Artist” area [the custom pizza section of the menu], you can see that there's a barbecue sauce option that's nowhere else on the menu. So if you're thinking about it and want it, you can put together the barbecue sauce. The chicken, the cheese and you got the barbecue pizza. And this is a really important thing that Paul just touched on because when we made that culture change and we pulled some of our darlings, forget that some of them were some of our darlings. We pulled them because they weren't our darlings anymore, but they were other people's darlings. We were getting hate mail.
PH: “Where's my barbecue chicken salad?” That just means you're selling something because it's hot right now.
DS: And we know they'd eat it.
PH: Or like Caesar salad. Everybody had Caesar salad. If we were gonna make a Caesar salad ourselves, it'd be all about the dressing. And that dressing's meant to be fresh. But fresh Caesar dressing in our game, you can't do. It's dangerous.
PH: We don't have any gimmick ideas in our food.
SI: Can you give us the sense of scale of what you're doing and the size of the company?
PH: Yeah, it's not really a secret. It's a $10 million company now. So we average about $2.5 million per store. For 3,000 square-foot restaurants, it's completely off the charts. Which is why there's a lot of interest in it right now.
DS: So that volume means that we're doing somewhere around 400 tickets a day. This is the number one store. There's days when we have 800 people walking through a Pitfire.
DS: That's a big one, but it has happened
PH: That's a Friday night here.
DS: Friday day and the whole night.
DS: And then we have some periods of the day where we're the postmodern Chuck E Cheese.
PH: Careful there, big boy. (Both laugh)
DS: It morphs, which is what we really, really, really always wanted. Where it'd be a family restaurant up until about 7:30 or 8:00.
PH: We turn the lights down. The DJ board kicks up.
DS: And then we start selling beer and wine.
Check back later for the second part of this interview and Pitfire's recipe for heirloom tomato pizza.