Eater Award 2018 winner Melfi’s is now a fixture on Upper King Street, as guests file into the elegant eatery for handmade pastas and Roman-style pizzas that pair with a classic cocktail or a carefully selected bottle of wine. But what led Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink to go from running a casual oyster and fried chicken restaurant to opening a white tablecloth establishment specializing in Roman-style pizzas? And what went into developing the recipe for a type of pizza that seldom shows up on the menus of restaurants in the South? Eater sat down with Reitz to discuss the research behind instant hits like the Stretch Armstrong and Prosciutto Party that stand out in a dining scene that has no shortage of pizza.
After leading the charge to establish Upper King Street as a dining hub with Leon’s and Little Jack’s, Reitz and Mink decided that the area was ready for a higher end restaurant with a little more pizazz. They had owned the space that now houses Melfi’s for a number of years and felt that its corner location made it the most deluxe space. The two knew there was good Italian in Charleston, but they decided they could set themselves apart by offering a style of pizza that just wasn’t available in the area. With the help of culinary director and part owner John Amato, who is the creator of the famous Little Jack’s Tavern burger, they set off to find the type of pizza that would fit the Melfi’s concept.
The “aha moment” occurred at an old-school, cash-only pizzeria in Rome called Baffetto. Reitz explained that the super-thin and crispy pie was unlike anything he had ever had in the United States. “We thought that style would appeal to those that wanted the sinfulness of pizza but not the breadiness of a Neapolitan pie,” said Reitz. The group brought this concept back to Charleston and now make the dough daily in a conditioned room before sending it through a sheeter twice to achieve the desired thinness.
With the dough recipe in place, the group then developed a house red sauce through a trial and error process that involved testing about ten different tomato products. They prefer to keep the exact recipe off the record, but Reitz thinks they have found a fresh, balanced base sauce that helps enhance the rest of the pizza. And then there’s the toppings, which the restaurateur admitted was a difficult part of the research and development phase. They wanted guests to feel like they were getting value for pizzas that are in the $20 range but didn’t want to overpower the thin and crispy dough with too many toppings. They landed on six staple combinations, and the most popular, the Stretch Armstrong, is the most simplistic.
According to Reitz, the idea for the Stretch Armstrong came from an amplified margherita pizza the group had at Marta in New York City. Reitz pointed to director Quenton Tarantino’s obvious nods to classic films in his movies and explained that they sometimes work in a similar way at Melfi’s. “What we try to do is seek out interesting, delicious food across the world, put it in our little filter, and do our version of it. That’s where a lot of the biggest hits on our menu have come from.” Once the idea was in place, Reitz explained that Amato learned how to make homemade stracciatella cheese, setting his version apart with the use of super high quality olive oil. The red sauce pie is finished simply with some fresh basil and a little more extra virgin olive oil, allowing the stretchy cheese to be the star. In many ways, the Stretch Armstrong embodies the paired down offering that Reitz envisioned when he tasted that first slice of Baffetto pizza in Rome.
It’s no wonder that a step inside Melfi’s in many ways feels like an exit from Charleston considering the restaurant’s origins extend far beyond the Lowcountry. Through an extensive research and development process, these successful restaurateurs seem to have found the recipe to win over this pizza obsessed city. Sure, the pizza is $20, but Reitz feels that “it’s the kind of pizza you could eat in a tuxedo.”