Photo by Stephanie Breijo
[12/1 Update: Pizza Tonight Restaurant & Bar will open for lunch at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 3]
[11/27 Update: Pizza Tonight Restaurant & Bar is set to open for lunch next week.]
Pizza Tonight’s Victoria DeRoche found an ideal space when she secured the former Aziza’s on Main building for her first brick and mortar, but she knew it would take more than location, location, location to build her perfect restaurant; she’d need the perfect chef.
DeRoche launched her popular mobile pizza truck roughly five years ago but eventually hit a wall, tired of setting up in parking lots and working out of a cooler instead of a kitchen. But when she decided to take her business to full-restaurant status, she hit another wall: “I was able to bring the concept from what we were doing in our backyard to creating a small business and a catering kind of thing, and this is the next phoenix kind of step, but you know what, this is beyond me,” she says. “So I thought, ‘let me surround myself with people who know what they’re doing and let them do that.’”
Fortunately for DeRoche, Randall Doetzer — a chef with roughly 18 years of cooking experience including more than five years at Julep’s New Southern Cuisine — had also hit a wall at both his last place of employment, and in negotiations for his own restaurant. When a friend of a friend suggested they talk, Doetzer was skeptical. Now, he says, the wood-fired menu has led to one of the most challenging jobs of his career. “As far as what I’ve done in the past, who cares,” he says. “This is one of the more interesting projects I’ve gotten into, and honestly, it’ll be some of the best food that anyone’s ever had from me.”
Pizza will, of course, play a major role in the new restaurant that's expected to open in early October at 2110 E. Main St. DeRoche is bringing in a wood-fired Pavesi oven and placing it in the kitchen up front so guests can watch the action, though I’d advise them not to blink; the floor of this dedicated pizza oven will be held at 800 degrees all day, which means that the convection will reach around 900 degrees, allowing it to pump out pizzas in 90 seconds.
The original Aziza’s oven, located in the restaurant’s back (and less visible) kitchen, is where Doetzer’s skill will really have a chance to shine. Because this older, 9-foot-long oven burns lower and with enough surface area to simultaneously cook at multiple temperatures, it makes a wide-ranging menu possible. Expect naturally-fermented table breads and flatbreads, plus sandwich breads (for a lunch menu DeRoche says will probably be peppered with panini), as well as oven-fired small plates and oven-fired entrées — the part of the menu Doetzer is especially excited about: “There’s going to be a pizza section and some pastas, but it’s going to fly off the handle from there.” Anything that can go into that oven will go into that oven, both say.
Photo courtesy of Victoria DeRoche
A mock-up of the new restaurant's exterior
Pulling from regional Italian inspiration without calling itself “authentic” (“I can’t stress enough that the interpretation is Italian as [Virginian], so that I don’t get somebody’s nonna smacking me with their purse or something,” Doetzer says), the menu will feature a rotating selection of whole fish, from the more familiar large breeds like branzino and dorade, to the smaller varieties like bluefish, baitfish and whole sardines — less utilized in America for roasted, whole-fish cooking. You’ll find pizzas ranging from $9 to $14 (with six or seven varieties at any given time) and an array of handmade pastas in house-made sauces (five or six at any time), happy hour Tuesday through Friday, small plates such as warm olives or anchovies for around $5 to $8 (four or five on the menu at once), brunch on the weekend, a to-go case with Pizza Tonight products and restaurant dishes, and about four entrées (in the $20 range) with additional sides for family-style eating if you so choose, and that’s not including the specials board. Oh right — the specials board.
Doetzer’s adept at whole-animal cooking, which is what makes the concept of Pizza Tonight Restaurant & Bar’s specials board so appealing. He’ll offer one entire animal, be it pig, goat, lamb or otherwise, writing the number of available cuts and offal on the board behind the bar. Don’t expect your standard 20-chop special; these cuts — usually countable on one hand — are what come from each animal, so “it’s not inexhaustible,” he says. “A lot of the time, the things that are going to go first are the things everyone is comfortable with but then you’re going to end up with things that people may not be too familiar with, so we’re going to try to make that accessible. But I feel this style of cooking will be very accessible across the board.” When the restaurant opens in the fall, he says, a lot of game will most likely find its way onto that board and the entrée menu.
But it’s safe to say that the largest focus of the menu isn’t pizza or pasta or even the specials; it’s sourcing. Because the concept is regional Italian cuisine made almost entirely from Virginia products, it’s of utmost importance to both DeRoche and Doetzer to rotate the menu as frequently as necessary, working entirely around seasonality. “We might have [product] that fits a perfect mold of Sicilian, or we might have something that fits a perfect mold of something from Piedmont, or we might have something that’s totally friggin’ Tuscan that just fits that style,” Doetzer shares. “It’s in an effort to not get pigeon-holed and to also have a little more room with the dynamic, quickly-changing element of the products around here.”
DeRoche says the restaurant will also host monthly, ticketed purveyor dinners, where menus are inspired by a farmer or maker’s produce, meat or dairy, and feature discussions with the purveyors about the product and how their food is made. And on that specials board, you’d better believe you’ll know exactly where that animal came from; alongside the remaining cuts, you’ll see the purveyor listed. Doetzer’s personally tackling all the restaurant’s sourcing and says he’s making a point of double-checking any claims of antibiotic-free animals.
The ghost of Aziza’s is here for now, present in the space’s layout, but Pizza Tonight Restaurant & Bar has a few renovations in store. The new spot will riff on a wood-fired motif, which means darkening the ceiling that’s currently a shining, clean silver, and adding a panel or two of wallpaper made to look like dark cedar. It also entails knocking down 18 feet of Aziza’s dividing brick wall, making the already open kitchen more visible to guests and allowing for additional seating — about 55 in the restaurant, in total — perhaps even making room for a communal table. It’ll place banquette seating along the wall next to the kitchen, and a table in the front window, plus offer 14 stools at the bar.
A nearby wall lays bare and gutted, nothing but wooden frame; DeRoche is pushing it back to accommodate an extra three feet of bar space, where Richmond newcomer Sara Matthews, moved recently from Orlando, will manage a beverage program featuring six craft beer taps; unique bottled beers (think bottled craft Italian beer); and craft cocktails that focus on Italian classics, with a twist. “In my mind, I don’t think any happy hour is complete without an Aperol spritz, so I’d really like to push some of the Italian staples when it comes to that, but see what else we can do as far as giving it a little kick,” DeRoche shares. A small, curated wine list rounds out the program, which DeRoche promises will have some surprises while still being accessible, probably including a few natural wines and Viettis.
As this space fills out, what will become of the Pizza Tonight truck that started it all? “The mobile truck at this point is booked until next year, so we have weddings and obligations and that type of stuff, but in my mind, the mobile oven will be like Naomi Campbell and only goes out for a certain amount of money,” DeRoche laughs.
Until October, she’ll be spending most of her time renovating the Shockoe restaurant space and overseeing the truck, while Doetzer continues trying to perfect the art of cooking an entire menu by way of temperamental thermodynamics.
“I was telling someone the other day that I couldn’t have done this 10 years ago,” he says. “I’ve [been cooking] about 18 years now and I’m only just getting to the point where I feel comfortable doing something like this, and doing it the way it needs to be done, but still attacking it with a strong eye for learning because this is something you could spend the rest of your career doing and still never quite have it nailed as much as you want.”
Pizza Tonight Restaurant & Bar is located at 2110 E. Main St. and is expected to open in early October, serving lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday, brunch and dinner on Saturday, brunch on Sunday, and lunch on Monday, with a happy hour available Tuesday through Friday. (Pro tip: If you’re wary of parking in Shockoe, the restaurant owns a private, 17-spot parking lot situated behind the building.)
[This article incorrectly stated that Doetzer had worked at Six Burner Restaurant and Bar, and has been updated to reflect this.]