Hiding behind a busy crossroads, there are pizzas emerging from a huge brick oven, crusts puffy and dusty with flour and splotches of melting mozzarella. The smell of garlic and basil wafts throughout the bar. These pies are authentic, rich and better than those from most local brick ovens.
Shockoe Valley Pizza & Bar has the dark, utilitarian feel of a burned-out club, and the atmosphere doesn’t exactly make you want to sit and stay a while. But the new tenants are trying to warm it up again. A corridor of exposed brick offers several booths and a beautiful marble bar, suitable for dining. Framed canvases by local artists line the walls. There’s a huge chalkboard with specials, including a large, scrawled announcement: Gluten-free pizza is now available.
The staff is accommodating and optimistic, making suggestions and returning to the table in exactly the right amount of time. The wine list is thoughtful — there’s my favorite sauvignon blanc, and several local beers are offered on tap. The flat screens behind the bar are visible from most tables, and all of these things, at the very least, make Shockoe Valley Pizza a viable neighborhood bar.
But it’s the pizza that makes it a viable neighborhood restaurant. For those arriving too hungry to wait, snag a plate of crabby portobellos ($7). The warm and tender mushrooms are stuffed with crabmeat baked to a light crisp and topped with a sensational spicy mayonnaise. The starter menu also has your usual artisanal bar food — a trend, I’ve noticed, to seem more innovative and artsy than warranted — including honey-sriracha chicken wings ($9), soft pretzels with beer cheese dip ($6) and nachos with spicy chorizo ($7).
Of the six wood-fired specialty pizzas (all $9), the capricciose has something for everyone. It’s a traditional red pizza with generous heaps of roasted artichoke, sliced portobello mushrooms and folds of ham sprinkled with kalamata olives and basil leaves. My white pizza pick, the Gypsy, is spread with coarsely chopped garlic and olive oil and topped with mozzarella, florets of broccoli and Italian sausage.
The hallmark — no, the foundation — of a good pizza is a great crust. And this crust isn’t cracker-thin or a Domino’s Pizza deep dish. Instead, it’s chewy and relatively light, never blackened on the bottom. But what are impressive about the pies are the ingredients. They’re fresh and plentiful — you don’t bite through dollops of sauce and cheese looking for your olives. Instead, they’re piled high.
The Garden — a white pizza with zucchini slices, mushrooms, red onions and red pepper — is solid for vegetarians, although this carnivore loved it. But it needs a few shakes of salt. The Piggy is packed with bacon and salami, and then completely draped with strips of prosciutto. I savor every bite. The original red pizza ($7) is best for picky eaters — it’s admittedly delicious, although plain.
If you aren’t feeling the pizza vibe, you can go for the shrimp cilantro wrap ($9), which is as thick as a burrito and filled with large pieces of fajita-style shrimp, along with spring greens and pico de gallo — the lemon-cilantro dressing is what makes it something I’d order again. And the accompanying potato wedges are crispy on the outside and as soft as mashed potatoes on the inside. The California chicken ($9) combines a grilled chicken breast, melted mozzarella, tomato and avocado. The chicken could use more seasoning, but avocado is a no-brainer, elevating any sandwich experience, and this is no different. The Caesar salad ($7 for a starter portion) is just fine, but it pales in comparison to the sandwiches.
The desserts are unremarkable. A wedge of limoncello cake ($5) arrives in a martini glass, spongy and topped with buttercream. The crème brûlée cheesecake ($5) is better: rich, thick and filling.
There’s a dedication to authenticity at Shockoe Valley Pizza, and this ultimately will earn it repeat business. That’s great news for neighbors who live upstairs and across the street: You have some truly excellent takeout only steps away. S
Shockoe Valley Pizza & Bar
423 N. 18th St.
Tuesday-Thursdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fridays 11 a.m.-midnight; Saturday noon-midnight; Sundays noon-9 p.m.