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Paulie Gee's Hampden showcases passion for pizza

Kelly Beckham comes by his pizza obsession honestly. The former financial planner baked bread and pizza at home, had a pizza stand at the Baltimore Farmers' Market and blogged about pies around town for a couple of years.

"It was probably time to pursue it as a career," said Beckham, who lives in Bolton Hill. "I wanted a brick-and-mortar location."

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In July, he opened Paulie Gee's Hampden, a franchise of the original Paulie Gee's in Brooklyn, N.Y., specializing in wood-fired, Neapolitan-influenced pizzas. There are other franchises in Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, with a Miami location to open soon.

Beckham's connection to now-friend and Paulie Gee's owner Paul Giannone started in 2009, a year before Giannone opened his pizzeria. Beckham learned Giannone had a wood-fired pizza oven in his New Jersey backyard and offered tastings.

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Beckham was hooked after sampling Giannone's pies. "We shared a passion for pizza," Beckham said. "We were like-minded."

Paulie Gee's Hampden seemed to take forever to open its doors — plans for the restaurant were first announced in 2012 — but Beckham said municipal and structural issues were responsible for the delayed opening.

When it finally did welcome diners, we were as eager as everyone else to see what all the fuss was about. It was worth the wait.

The place smells of fresh wood, like a lumberyard or a forest. It's a primal, nostalgic aroma.

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The pizzas are chewy, wonderfully charred palettes for all sorts of toppings, and have names like Stinger Bell, Arugula Shmoogula and Brian DeParma. Some are similar to pizzas offered at the Brooklyn store; others are local creations. The restaurant makes vegan pizzas, too.

Beckham plans to expand the pizza offerings after Labor Day, he said.

Besides the family-friendly front room, dominated by two giant wood-burning ovens, there is a spacious bar in the back with its own identity.

Baltimore has become a hotbed of pizza places in recent months. But with a devoted pizza lover in charge, we think Paulie Gee's will heat up the competition.

Scene & Decor: The dining room is a cavernous, open space in the former Hampden Republican Club building, with two white-tiled, wood-burning pizza ovens that look like igloos dominating the center of the room. Behind the ovens is a mammoth stack of floor-to-ceiling wood. The mood is lively in the front area, which seats 96. Our only complaint was the uncomfortable wooden chairs. There's a separate bar in the back that seats 50. Tables are available outdoors.

Appetizers: The two fancifully named salads on the menu are great starters. "Salad #1 Is Not an Eff You Song" ($9) resounded with baby spinach, strawberry slices, gobs of goat cheese and toasted pecans shining with a honey-white balsamic vinaigrette. The "Grape to Meetcha" ($9) featured peppery baby arugula, grape tomatoes and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, coated with a velvety lemon vinaigrette for a stellar greens mix.

Entrees: The pizzas are also creatively labeled. The "Hellboy" ($17) was a terrific pie with a slightly blackened crust scattered with Italian tomatoes, Berkshire soppressata, Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh mozzarella. The ingredient that put it over the top was Mike's Hot Honey, a product that is sweet at first before a pleasurable zing hits your taste buds. The "Red, White and Greenberg" ($16) was also flavorful, with fresh mozzarella, Berkshire guanciale (an Italian cured meat), baby arugula and house-pickled red onions. But we were disappointed in the skimpy amount of guanciale, and while the red onions were plentiful, they needed more pickling time.

Drinks: Offerings include cans of beer (draft coming soon, the menu said), cider and mostly European wines. Also available are classic and house cocktails, including the Beehive ($9), made with mezcal, elderflower liqueur, wildflower mead, gentian liqueur and simple syrup.

Service: Our waitress was excellent and knowledgeable about the menu.

Dessert: No desserts were available on our visit, but Beckham said he is working with The Charmery to develop a special ice cream flavor for the pizzeria.

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