Cory Pastor’s pizza dreams have been years in the making.
In 2018, the chef was working at a restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut. On the same street as his apartment were Sally’s Apizza and Frank Pepe Pizzeria, staples for people who, like Pastor, believe “New Haven has the best pizza in the world.” A treasured culinary gem of the region, New Haven-style pizza, or “apizza” as it’s commonly called, is considered a descendant of traditional Neapolitan, but is “super thin — light and crispy,” says Pastor.
In 2019, Pastor returned to his hometown of Baltimore, taking the reins at Hampden’s Birroteca, known for its own brand of New York-style pie. He later worked at Bond Street Social and Sally O’s, making pizza at home on his days off.
Then, earlier this year, Pastor’s friend Andrew Wheeler approached him with a new project.
Wheeler, who also co-owns The Charles in Federal Hill and previously ran Bond Street Social before it closed, had just purchased PALM, a music bar that closed in May after a less-than-one-year run in Federal Hill.
Though PALM didn’t serve pizza on its regular menu, the space, previously home to Social Pub & Pie, happened to have what Pastor called a “giant wood-burning oven” perfect for the task. Did Pastor want in?
Pastor, 36, got to work, poring over pizza cookbooks and devouring documentaries like the Netflix series “Chef’s Table: Pizza.” Meanwhile, he was honing his own style of pizza, “trying to nail the perfect dough.”
He eventually came up with a recipe that he considers a hybrid of Neapolitan and the New Haven-style he learned to love in Connecticut. The dough, for example, is made from a blend of bread flour and the ultra fine “00″ version used in true Neapolitan pizzas.
Customers can get a taste of Pastor’s pizza when Locals Only opens later this month at 25 E. Cross St., offering what the chef and Wheeler describe as “pizza and vibes.”
In addition will be what Pastor calls elevated versions of the kind of sides sold at every “shitty pizza place on the corner,” from Caesar salads to wings. Prices on pies will range from $10 for a 10-12 inch cheese pizza to $20 for the restaurant’s crab version.
The restaurant is targeted at Fed Hill’s weekend 20-something crowd. A promotional video posted to the restaurant’s Instagram account shows close-ups of a disco ball edited together with shots of comely young women clinking cocktail glasses and feeding each other. The caption: “GOOD VIBES ONLY or f--- off.”
The younger demographic, Wheeler said, goes out as often as two or three times a week, more often, he says, than many residents in the area. The new concept, he says, was partly inspired by Chicago restaurants like Parlor Pizza that cater primarily to 21- to 28-year-olds. “I think you have cater to that [younger] crowd a little bit more to stay in business.”
Wheeler says the new concept will recapture the area’s lively, entertainment-driven ethos from the past. Today, things have gotten sleepier, with fewer visitors funneling into an ever-increasing number of bars and restaurants. “I think the big thing should be thinking about how to draw people,” he said. “If there’s more people down here, everyone wins.”
The neighborhood in general, and this block of Cross Street in particular, have seen multiple eateries shut down in recent months, including No Way Rosé and Velleggia’s, which both closed this summer. “Fed Hill’s a tough beast,” acknowledged Pastor. But, having lived in the area for years, he’s confident he and Wheeler have a winning recipe.
After all, “pizza brings everyone together,” Wheeler said.
Want to make pizza at home? Keep Pastor’s advice in mind:
- “It’s going to sound nerdy but it’s a lot to do with the hydration of your dough,” cautions the chef. “The higher your oven can go [in terms of temperature], the more water you can put in the dough.” If you’re using a standard oven, “keep [the dough] a little more stiff.”
- Try use a baking stone, which can simulate a pizza oven in your home oven and gets the crust nice and crispy.
- Remember that crust is everything. “At the end of the day,” Pastor says, pizza “is bread with some toppings on it. If you don’t have the good bread, everything else is going to be lacking.”
- For toppings, Pastor says “nothing beats” tomato sauce with cheese, pepperoni and basil. Use the best canned tomatoes you can find, add salt and seasoning to taste.