By Frank Sabatini Jr
Farewell Project Pie. Hello Patxi’s.
The replacement pizzeria is just getting off the ground since opening a Hillcrest location, which marks the San Diego debut of what is pronounced “Pah-cheez.” But articulating the eatery’s brand name is only the first head-scratching puzzle you might encounter when dropping in for a meal.
The company has nearly 20 locations along the West Coast, with a few in Colorado. It was founded 15 years ago in the Bay Area by Francisco “Patxi” Azpiroz and his friend, Bill Freeman, both passionate pizza guys.
Some years later, the slow-growing chain came under the ownership of KarpReilly LLC until it was purchased last year by Los Angeles-based Elite Restaurant Group. That company also owns Slater’s 50/50 and Daphne’s Greek restaurants.
Elite soon absorbed the three remaining locations of Project Pie — in Hillcrest, East Lake and Chula Vista with the intention of converting them into Patxi’s. The latter two are still in transition.
On this exploratory visit, I found Patxi’s service concept and pizza options to be as confusing as its evolution. For starters, it doesn’t aspire to be Project Pie, where customers queued up along an assembly-line counter of pizza makers while pointing to the toppings they wanted.
And that’s just fine, except the counter displaying various ingredients is still in place. It’s just no longer approachable as staffers politely ask you to grab a table and order from a server — provided they’re not plating food, fulfilling takeout orders, processing payments, etc.
Then there’s the issue of pizza styles, which might seem unclear to some.
The deep-dish options are obvious. They’re built like old-fashion fruit pies, with high-sided bottom crusts and sheaths of dough on top, thus capturing a host of savory ingredients in the middle, including cheese. We ordered a couple of slices with pepperoni, mushrooms and black olives.
In keeping with tradition, the red sauce goes on top, although Chicago transplants might take issue with the breadiness of the dough, which lacked that coveted flaky texture essential to classic deep-dish pizzas. For this New York State native, I didn’t care so much.
The dine-in menus list “pan pizzas” without description. On the to-go and website menus, the pan-crust option isn’t even mentioned.
We were told those pizzas employ the same dough as the deep-dish pies, but that the dough is used only on the bottom and given a cornmeal dusting for added texture.
Then, depending again what menu you read, one shows an intermingled category for “thin crust” and “Neapolitan” pizzas. Technically speaking, Patxi’s makes neither — at least not at this location.
We ordered a 10-inch “thin-crust/Neapolitan” pie flaunting excellent fennel-garlic sausage, herbed ricotta, mozzarella and bright-tasting red sauce made supposedly in-house.
We loved the crust, but it wasn’t classically thin. Nor was the overall pizza Neapolitan-style, which requires specific criteria such as sauce made from hand-crushed tomatoes (preferably the San Marzano variety); the use of fresh buffalo mozzarella; and a bake time of 90 seconds or less in ovens kept at a minimum of 800 degrees.
We were informed the ovens used expressly for the thin/Neapolitan pizzas at Patxi’s operate at 600 degrees. As for the ingredient rules, my taste buds told me they’re not fully followed.
But a fine pizza it was, much like I remember how standard-crust pizzas tasted before they got hoity-toity and wildly creative. The pie took about 12 minutes to cook, whereby a whole deep-dish pizza bakes for nearly 40 minutes inside a slightly lower-temperature oven.
Appetizers, salads and sandwiches are also available. A butter lettuce salad with cherished Point Reyes bleu cheese, bacon crumbles, and scant buttermilk-ranch dressing was delightful. Ditto for the well-endowed chicken pesto melt with its show-stealing light and herby focaccia bread.
Service was friendly, but clumsy and disjointed. At this early stage in the game since opening last month, a concrete system is lacking. Servers wandered across all sections of the bright, spacious dining room and into the open kitchen unsure at times of who was doing what. And incoming customers sensed that confusion when figuring out how and where to place their orders.
But if you can muster up an extra dose of patience until such improvements are made, your reward will be flavorful Italian-inspired food that sticks to your ribs and offers a decent bang for the buck.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.