For some University of Arkansas football fans in town for the Sugar Bowl, there was no question about where to go for pizza before the game. Word had spread quickly that the owners of Theo's Neighborhood Pizza were Arkansas grads, so an excited herd of some 175 Razorback boosters made its way to the restaurant's Mid-City location and an impromptu alumni celebration was soon underway.
For the everyday diner in search of pizza, however, the choices in Mid-City are not always so clear-cut. The high-traffic intersection of Canal Street and Carrollton Avenue has emerged as a robust hub for pizza, with some 10 places to pick up a pie within a single mile.
Style and quality vary widely, from the 1950s-vintage Venezia (134 N. Carrollton Ave.), to the new, hip Crescent Pie & Sausage Co. (4400 Banks St.), with its house-made meats, to the national chains serving little more than convenience calories (see my notes on all of them at blogofneworleans.com). But none is quite like Theo's, which has a style unlike any other pizza in town.
The key here is the crust. Thin, rigid and structured as if it was built from paper-thin layers, it goes beyond crisp and approaches crackling. Even when loaded with toppings, the slim but formidable foundation can crunch audibly beneath the teeth. Ask to have your pizza cooked a little longer than normal and you'll get a well-done crust that shatters like the surface of proper New Orleans po-boy bread.
Sauce is prepared simply and applied sparingly, serving as a quick go-between for the crust and the toppings. One of those toppings, however, is an atomized blend of seasonings that Theo's kitchen calls "dust." It looks like ultra-fine ground pepper, but it contributes a full bouquet of flavor the sauce doesn't.
Aside from a few unusual entries like yellow squash and mild Anaheim peppers, the toppings list plays it straight, though some of the specialty pies combine them in interesting ways. Try the "Expert," which is practically paved with crumbled, smoky bacon over spinach, garlic, red onions and olive oil.
College friends and native Arkansans Greg Dietz, Ted Neikirk and Jammer Orintas introduced their pizza style to New Orleans when they opened the original Theo's Uptown in 2004. It reopened just weeks after Hurricane Katrina and new business skyrocketed as returning residents beat a path to any restaurant then in operation. In 2009, they opened the much-larger second shop in Mid-City, just as the pizza competition around Canal and Carrollton began to intensify. It's a colorful, modern-looking place with counter service and an admirable selection of craft beers.
A few changes are on the way, however. The Theo's crew will soon roll out a gluten-free version of their crust, and the owners also have struck a deal with friends at the Joint to serve pulled pork from the revered Bywater barbecue restaurant atop pizzas. That recipe is still in development, but some Razorback fans got to sample test versions before the Sugar Bowl. If the "sooie" hog hollers they let fly at their party are any indication, it seems like one promising pie.