LIFE Of SLICE
Oklahoma Today|January/February 2021
OH, PIZZA. THAT MOST BELOVED OF ENTRÉES. WHILE THERE ARE AS MANY WAYS TO ENJOY PIZZA AS THERE ARE HUMAN BEINGS, THESE OKLAHOMA RESTAURANTS KNOW HOW TO DO PIE RIGHT.
GREG ELWELL

YOU KNOW WHAT they say about pizza, right? “Even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good.” But with respect to whoever coined that saying, there is such a thing as bad pizza, and it is an insult to good pizzas everywhere to say otherwise. Even reduced to the bare minimum of what is considered pizza—crust, sauce, and cheese—there is so much that can go wrong. Even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good belies the pure hubris of the modern pizza-consuming public. Wet, underdone dough; a sickly sweet sauce that’s more grease than tomato; a layer of flavorless cheese congealed into a thick dairy tile studded with mealy toppings—pizza can go awry in so many ways.

Yet the existence of a nadir also demands the existence of an apex. By and large, most pizzas fall into a thick band of acceptable pies. But there is an upper crust, if you will, of Oklahomans dedicated to elevating the craft of pizza to delicious art.

IF YOU ASK fans of Empire Slice House about the pizza, be prepared for a deluge of superlatives. But the Oklahoma City pizzeria’s cofounder Rachel Cope knows the secret: Before opening, she and cofounder Avery Cannon’s first attempts at pizza were less than convincing to their landlords.

“We did a tasting, and it did not go as we wanted,” she says. “The appetizers and stuff were great, but the star of the show was not.”

But with her heart set on the Plaza District space, Cope, with the support of her family, in 2012 attended the International School of Pizza in California with thirteen-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani.

“It gave me a new respect for the craft,” she says. “As soon as I got home, I taught everything I had just learned to Avery so we wouldn’t forget it.”

Empire Slice House opened in September 2013 and quickly became a hit for its inventive combinations of toppings like the Ghostface Killah—a pie with pepperoni, poblano pepper, and crushed barbecue potato chips over a ghost chili marinara sauce. That sense of playfulness coupled with a focus on flavor may be what brought Empire its biggest accolade to date.

“I got a phone call from a number I didn’t know,” Cope says. “The voice on the other end said, ‘This is Pizza Today magazine. We just wanted you to know you were named Independent Pizzeria of the Year.’ I pulled over. I couldn’t believe it. It meant a lot to us that what we’re doing is unique.”

WHILE COPE AND crew went the PhD-in-pizza route, DIY is the name of the game for a pair of Tulsa-area pizzerias.

For Mike and Jim Bausch, the team of brothers behind Tulsa’s Andolini’s Pizzeria, success means putting food quality first and figuring out the rest afterwards.

“We’re not trying to be New York-style. We’re not aping anyone else. We want to make great Italian cuisine,” Mike says. “We pull our own mozzarella fresh every day, twice a day, in all our stores. People thought we were crazy to make our own sausage, but I said, ‘If we can trust eighteen-year olds to defeat the Nazis, I think we trust them to make sausage.’ Anything we can’t make ourselves, we’re not doing.”

That sounds extreme, but it’s a philosophy that has paid off. Andolini’s opened in 2005 and since has expanded into six locations—the original in Owasso, three in Tulsa, one in Jenks, one in Broken Arrow— plus a food truck.

But that’s only success in a business sense. Bausch is much more concerned with making customers the best pizza they’ve ever tasted. The Demarco of Brooklyn is a master class in cheese pizza. Sitting atop the chewy, pliant crust are a sauce of rare San Marzano tomatoes, a layer of fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, a sprinkle of nutty Pecorino Romano cheese, and a drizzle of first-pressing extra-virgin olive oil.

“I can’t imagine someone eating this pizza and not saying, ‘This is what a cheese pizza should be,’” he says. “I want people to know that when we recommend something, it’s because we’re excited about it, and we hope you are as well.”

Andolini’s isn’t trying to be New York-style, but Bixby-born Savastano’s Pizzeria and Restaurant is very clear about its inspiration. Founders Frank and Jane Savastano met at a pizzeria in Chicago. It was Frank’s lifelong dream to own his own pizza place. They moved their family to Oklahoma in 1993 so Frank could take an IT job at Amoco Oil, and when he left the job in 2002, he asked Jane, “Can I have a pizzeria now?” In 2003, with their daughter Jennifer, they opened Savastano’s in Bixby—an eighteen-table restaurant that was never big enough, Jane says. They stayed there six years before moving into a much larger storefront in Tulsa, and though Frank died in August 2020, his place still brings in eager customers.

Much like the Andolini’s piemakers, the Savastano family is dedicated to doing everything themselves, including their famous homemade Italian sausage, of which they make up to sixty-five pounds daily.

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