pi artisan pizzeria: not your typical pizza joint

lineThe first thing you notice when you walk into Pi Artisan Pizzeria in Lahaina is the heavenly aroma of burning kiawe wood. I don’t know about you, but it only takes one whiff of smoke from Hawaiian mesquite before my mouth starts watering.

After opening in August, Pi has taken the Lahaina dining scene by storm. In the spot formerly occupied by David Paul’s, it sits smack dab across the street from the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean, and serves as an anchor at the newly revamped shopping center that’s now The Outlets of Maui.

Pi’s centerpiece is its 8,000-pound pizza oven, made with Italian stone by EarthStone Ovens in Southern California. “Our pizza oven is a massive reservoir of heat, and it’s the only one of its kind in Hawai‘i,” says Pi’s managing partner Bert Noury. The oven’s dual openings allow two people to use it at the same time. “The dome height and oven curvatures allow the heat to flow evenly, and the bottom is a little porous to wick away moisture from the dough, which results in a crisp pizza.”

Kitchen Manager Mitch Respicio says the optimal oven temperature is 650 degrees, which enables her staff to fire a pizza in just under three minutes. “We get our wood from Upcountry, and we go through about a half cord every two days,” she says. “That’s a lot of wood and a lot of pizza.” And the oven never goes cold. “Every night we spread the leftover coals evenly on the bottom of the oven. When we come to work in the morning, it’s still about 450 degrees, and it only takes about two hours to bring it up to temperature.”

But what about the process of prepping the ingredients and assembling the pizzas before they brave the oven’s inferno? It starts with the dough. Pi uses Caputo flour, which is milled in Naples, Italy, and is said to be the world’s best pizza flour. In the 65-degree dough room, Mitch’s right-hand man Moises prepares the dough, which is then kneaded in a spiral dough mixer manufactured by Mecnosud in Italy. “We had a four-day training class just on dough-making,” says Mitch. “We learned how to make it, form it into balls, stretch it by hand, and cook it properly. You have to have the right dough for the oven you have, and a representative from EarthStone Ovens actually conducted the training using their secret recipe.” Pizza dough at Pi isn’t tossed, however. “Our trainer taught us that for artisan pizza, it’s best to manipulate it with your hands,” Mitch says.

Just outside the dough room, at the first point in Pi’s pizza assembly line, is Duke, who’s doing just that: he removes a dough ball from a white bin and works it by hand on the flour-dusted counter, until it’s 10 inches in diameter. Since the pizzas are handcrafted, they’re all slightly different in shape. “We make ‘personal pizzas,’” says Mitch. “It’s all for you…you don’t need to share with anyone else.”

Behind Duke is Brian, who’s tapping out a lively staccato with his knife as he preps a variety of mushrooms. Pi’s pizza assembly line resembles Subway Restaurant’s: customers can choose from a signature “Pi,” or “build their own” from the selection of freshly prepped ingredients in front of them, and watch as it’s assembled. “Your pizza will be ready five minutes after your order is placed,” Mitch says. Impressive.

According to Mitch, the most popular “Pi” is the Pi 808 ($13.50)—house-made chorizo, Pi red sauce, fresh mozzarella, Maui onions, charred island pineapple, and wood-roasted chilies. Also popular is the Porchetta, which you can order as a sandwich ($12) or as a Porchetta Pi ($14). Earlier, I’d spotted four gorgeous Italian-style stuffed boneless pork roasts that had just come out of the oven, and the aroma wafting from them had made me swoon.

The ambiance at Pi is chic industrial with bold Maui accents like the wide slabs of wood that face the kitchen counter and bar (they were harvested from an Upcountry cypress log), and the colorful murals by local artist Desmond Kaleolani Alexander that adorn the walls. Some depict West Maui landmarks such as Pioneer Mill and the Sugar Cane Train, while the mural in the open-air, oceanfront dining room on the Front Street side of the restaurant features a vibrant sunset scene emblazoned with the word “Aloha” through the middle. “You wouldn’t believe how many people stop and take a picture of that mural,” Bert says.

Speaking of open-air dining, there are Mist360 systems in both of Pi’s al fresco areas, which lower the ambient temperature by some 10 degrees. I’m wary of my hair turning into a frizz ball from the mist, but Bert assuages my fear: “The mist is so fine you won’t even feel it.” And, he’s right…my hairdo stays perfectly intact while I sample Pi’s offerings.

Having spent many years as a bar manager, Bert unleashed his creativity with Pi’s craft cocktail menu. He says the hands-down customer favorite is the Blue Lavender Fizz (lemonade with blueberry vodka, house-made lavender syrup, and fresh blueberries). Served in a whimsical mason jar, it’s a refreshing combination of sweet and savory. Bert’s namesake cocktail, the Lilikoitini a.k.a. The Bertini, is a three-layered drink composed of vodka, Maui lilikoi, “sinking grenadine,” and Pi’s “famous blend.”

Besides pizza and panini, Pi’s menu contains some tempting salads. I eagerly dig into the Pi Chop (wild arugula and spinach, roasted red bell peppers, oven roasted tomatoes, red onions, Italian black olives, classic pepperoni, pepperoncinis, and grated Pecorino-Romano cheese, dressed with Pi vinaigrette—$9). While most chopped salads are heavy, fatty affairs, Pi’s version is light and nicely balanced. Two slices of rustic house-baked Italian bread complement the salad’s acidity. Soup of the day ($4.50) is carrot-ginger. Served playfully in a stainless steel mug with a curved handle, the creamy goldenrod-hued concoction is tasty and satisfying.

But what about the pizza, you ask? Pi’s “House Signature” offering is the Seared ‘Ahi Tataki (grade A local tuna, Pi blanca sauce, coarse ground peppercorns, buffalo mozzarella, wild arugula, and balsamic drizzle—$14.50). Gorgeous strips of rosy ‘ahi sit atop a perfectly crisped crust; the “pi’s” accoutrements bring it all together for a sophisticated explosion of flavors.

After having seen the finished porchetta, it’s practically mandatory I sample it in one form or another. I’ve opted for the sandwich version (another “House Signature” item): shaved Italian slow-roasted pork is piled high onto filone bread, and topped with house-made bacon, wood-roasted chilies, wild arugula, chili aioli, and salsa verde. The crusty bread holds up well to the assertive flavors and textures, and the sandwich performs a quick disappearing act.

Although a pizza at Pi goes from start to finish in lightning-fast speed, take-out diners on a limited time budget will want to take advantage of the newly introduced free mobile app for iPhone and Android users. Named “Pi 808”), the app enables you to conveniently and easily place orders online from your hand-held device.

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Pi Artisan Pizzeria, serving made-to-order 10-inch personal pizzas on the double. Your pizza is ready in five minutes from start to finish. Also offering paninis, salads, and craft cocktails.

WHERE •

Oceanfront in The Outlets of Maui, 900 Front Street, in Lahaina.

WHEN •

11am-10pm Sunday-Thursday; 11am to midnight Friday & Saturday. Happy Hour specials are offered Mon-Fri from 3 to 5pm; late-night specials Friday & Saturday from 9pm to midnight.

HOW •

For more information: call 661-0791; visit http://www.pi808.com.

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