With the announcement of Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que opening in the space formerly occupied by Chick’s Fry House, we will have eight barbecue restaurants on the peninsula alone. Smoked meat is everywhere. Craft beer is everywhere. Pizza is also, as you may have guessed, everywhere. But while some places get it so, so right (looking at you, Indaco) there are still many venues serving a product that’s so sub-par that on occasion I’ve chosen to forego fresh pizza in lieu of frozen because it’s just not worth the unreasonably hefty price tag.
At least the takeout options are moving in the right direction. Such is the case at Luke’s Craft Pizza. There the market for high-quality takeout pizza has effectively been cornered in their cute neighborhood joint at the Crosstown and Ashley Avenue. There is only one two-top and a bench within the restaurant’s impeccably clean space. Taking into account that their food is meant to be enjoyed at one’s own dinner table, there are multiple things that Luke’s needs to get right before you even take your first bite of their unreasonably delicious pie. One is sufficient packaging for the ride home. The boxes into which the pizzas are packed are simple and clean, a crisp unblemished white adorned with a lone black sticker denoting that your dinner hails from owner Luke Davis’ kitchen. From oven to table, the box provides an elegant vessel by which to protect your supper investment.
The second, and arguably the most important factor to take into consideration, is that during the trip home the pies need to maintain their crunchy texture without falling limp. This happens so often in take-home or delivery pizza because the heat of the food trapped within the container inevitably causes steam, thereby rendering a crispy crust to get chewy and soggy. The vast knowledge of chemistry a chef must possess in order to create a dough that can withstand high oven temperatures, become crispy without burning, and maintain the desired structural integrity during its steamy trip home is no simple formula.
Then there’s the essential utilization of fresh local ingredients. Luke’s co-owner Brittany Davis proudly informed me that they don’t even have a freezer in the building. “If it’s available locally, we try to source it whenever we can,” she said. This was evident in every bite of the four pies I tried, all of which Brittany herself designed for my group. The most difficult part of my experience with Luke’s was trying to decide which pizza was the best.
My least favorite of the bunch — an olive oil base topped with crispy speck, castelvetrano olives, and arugula ($21) — was still better than almost any other pizza I have had in Charleston. The olives added the necessary briny bite that cut through the decadent speck and mildly bitter arugula. While the flavors paired together surprisingly well, this was an above average pizza that had the misfortune of competing against some of the best that I’ve had in the Holy City.
Next was the crushed tomato base with salami and mushrooms ($19). The salami was more akin to a juicy piece of cured sausage and made for a perfectly greasy bite. The classic pairing of meat and fungi didn’t need any extra flourish, it was delicious and robust; one cannot help but appreciate a simple combination executed as well as it was here.
But I have to say, my two overwhelming favorites were in a dead heat and I still can’t decide which one was the victor. The nightly special pizza ($19) featured a ricotta base topped with sausage and blistered shishito peppers. Everything about this pizza was delicious. Because it didn’t have any sauce, the crust held up beautifully to the heavy crumbled sausage and the just-slightly-spicy peppers. The ricotta cheese was mild and creamy, a perfect foil to the piquant toppings. Had we not gotten just one more pie this would have been the winner.
Now, I was reluctant to get a simple white pizza with basil ($15) because all the topping options sounded so alluring. My inner monologue told me to trust that the owners know what they’re talking about when they offer something so pared-down. A pizza this simple is meant to show off the mastery of the craft that the chef possesses. No fancy sauces, no weird ingredients you’ve never heard of that are designed to impress even the snobbiest of foodies — just crust, cheese, and basil. And it was gorgeous. The basil leaves were so fresh they tasted as though they were picked only hours earlier. The same ricotta cheese base on the sausage and shishito pizza proved to work just as well on its own without toppings. The biggest surprise of the night was that the simplest pizza was anything but.
Although the debate rolled on for about half an hour as to which pizza was the best, I realized that it didn’t matter. When the biggest problem with a restaurant is that you can’t decide which dish is your favorite you know you’ve found a gem. When a table full of harsh critics (yes, they were my family in case you were wondering) can’t decide, it’s a revelation. Luke’s has raised the bar of downtown takeout pizza so significantly that it’s going to be very difficult for similar places to keep up. I have a hard time seeing how anyone downtown will be able to compete with them. Luke’s Craft Pizza is in a class all its own.