When Bird Pizzeria opened in Charlotte in December 2021, married co-owners Kerrel and Nkem Thompson had a serious discussion about green peppers.
“She hates them,” Kerrel said. “This is a pizza place, after all, so I don’t want to be controversial for no reason. But the truth is, she just doesn’t like them, and so they’re not on the menu.”
A lot of their personal tastes, as it happened, went into the recipes for their pizzas, but since neither Kerrel nor Nkem have formal chef training, they developed most by trial and error. Like the dough, for example, which Kerrel makes from a special blend of organic flours that he developed over two years to get a crust that, in his view, provides the right amount of crisp.
“I want to edit each pizza down to its essential elements,” he said, “with no embellishing.” Even the toppings follow this aesthetic – a succinct, curated list that includes vegetables, like Calabrian peppers and a blend of red and white onions sliced paper thin on a mandolin; hot honey, sausage, and pepperoni.
The results — cooked in Pizza Master ovens kept at a roaring 625 degrees Fahrenheit in a kitchen not much larger than a closet — fall somewhere in between the Detroit-style square pies that have taken over Charlotte thanks to recent imports like Emmy Squared, and more Neapolitan-style pizzas, such as those at local favorite Inizio.
“They’re East Coast-style,” Nkem says. “But the kind of East Coast-style we’re used to eating in Cleveland.”
When the couple moved here from Chicago, it was a deliberate choice made more for wanting to be part of a community than anything else. Six years later, after hosting a series of pizza pop-ups in their home that led to a residency at Bond Street Wine Company during the height of the pandemic, their pizza kitchen was ready for a permanent home, but they were still new enough not to have a specific neighborhood in mind when it came time to choose a location.
“I liked this place because of the pick-up window,” Kerrel says, pointing to the unassuming store front along East 15th Street that used to be a strudel shop. Other than that, the neighborhood itself was never on his radar. To be sure, Bird Pizzeria is located at the edge of Uptown Charlotte, next to a tattoo parlor on a side street near Optimist Hall that has so far escaped the luxury apartment boom to the south and the continuously expanding hipster art scene of NoDa to the north. The neighborhood hovers somewhere in between being formerly industrial and not yet quite residential, and with a long, empty stretch of train tracks nearby, even most locals could be forgiven for driving by and thinking that there is nothing there.
Crowds now regularly gather on the street in front of Bird Pizzeria, with lines forming even before the pick-up window opens. There is no dine-in space available, so customers take away or eat outside. Walk-up orders are accepted, but most days, Kerrel and Nkem walk in to 20 or more online pre-orders. And things are only going to get busier.
Bird Pizzeria will re-open this year with an expanded menu after Easter. Now with a liquor license, Kerrel and Nkem will look to partner with neighborhood breweries to expand their beverage offerings. They will sell pizza by the slice, as well as small-plate, non-pizza dishes. “But no meatballs,” Kerrel says. “For a pizza place, that’s the lowest hanging fruit.” Rather, they’ll focus on salads and dishes that are, in their words, “fun and fresh” and with lots of vegetables.
It remains to be seen whether those will include green peppers. Kerrel wouldn’t comment, and Nkem only smiled. A quote on the back of her T-shirt says, “Eventually all things that happen fall into place” — a nod to their faith, but also a hint that, at Bird Pizzeria, all good things come to those who are willing to wait.