Park Pizza co-owners Leigh-Ann Gobel and Adam Pavao met at A.C.’s over a decade ago. And how they got from a downtown bar to a Park Circle pizza shop is actually pretty simple. “I had planned on opening a restaurant and he lived in Park Circle,” says Gobel. “I knew I wanted to keep it small, in case we messed up.” Nine years later, Park Pizza (1028 E. Montague Ave.) hasn’t messed up — not really, at least.
“We were almost a bakery,” says Pavao of one of the shop’s first missteps. “We dodged a bullet on that,” laughs Gobel. Fortunately the bakery idea fizzled (although you can still get your sweet tooth on with the WildFlour cheesecakes and pies Park Pizza carries) and Gobel and Pavao started thinking about what kind of pizza they’d be serving.
First, they had to consider the neighborhood. “EVO was here, and they’re the best,” says Gobel, acknowledging Park Circle’s pizza hierarchy. EVO has been doing their own thing since 2007, and in ’09 Gobel and Pavao realized there was still room for one more. “EVO is date night, sit-down, artisan, and we’re takeout football spunky wild child,” says Gobel. “They’re able to do more food and small plates, and we’re more of a pizza, sandwich, salad, place. I don’t think anyone is stepping on toes.”
And “wild child” is not a misnomer when it comes to the pies on Park Pizza’s menu. For example, the Eggscape from New York is made with baked eggs, American cheese, mozzarella, maple pork sausage, bacon, green onions, and an everything bagel seasoned crust. “We mess around a lot,” says Gobel. Pavao says that often he’ll be eating a meal and wonder, “Can this be a pizza?” If you’re a Park Pizza loyalist, you know that often the answer is “yes.”
“If you’re craving Mexican or Thai food, you could say, ‘I can make a pizza.’ What did we do the other day?” says Gobel. “Chicken Satay. He [Pavao] starts talking about peanut sauce and looking at the food processor; you could see the wheels turning.”
Sometimes pizza ideas are born simply from a catchy name. August’s pizza of the month, the Sasquash (lemon herb goat cheese, sundried tomato pesto, mozzarella, squash, zucchini, basil, and Parmesan) first popped into Pavao’s brain because he simply thought the name was funny. The same goes for the Kurt Brussell: “The name came first,” says Pavao. Bacon, Brussels sprouts, bleu cheese, and honey balsamic soon followed.
“I think it comes from liking to cook and loving to eat,” says Gobel. And while Pavao and Gobel both say they love pizza, they try not to eat it as often as they’re in the kitchen — a.k.a almost every day. “We save it for when it’s worth it,” says Gobel. “I had a bad week not long ago, and we have a McPark pizza, made with special sauce, ground beef, American cheese, mozzarella, pickles, sesame seeds, diced onions — it tastes exactly like a Big Mac. It will make you happy if you’re having a bad day, or it will make a good day better.”
Park Pizza has been making people’s days better for almost a decade now, serving what Pavao and Gobel estimate to be over 100 pizzas on busy Friday and Saturday nights. “We base it on if the dough trays are stacked up higher than we are,” says Gobel of determining what makes a night “busy.” “We definitely do high volume for a smaller place. We’ve got some great high volume people who love the rush even in the summer in front of the oven.” And no, Gobel can’t tell you if what you’re ordering is the same size as a medium pie from Domino’s. “I don’t eat chain pizza,” she says. Why should she? “We have about 40 specialty pizzas and everything’s made in small batches. It’s a lot of work, but it pays off.”
Despite a city-wide staffing crisis — which Gobel and Pavao say they have felt some of the effects of — Park Pizza boasts a solid team that doubles as the restaurant’s taste testers. “We make a pizza bigger than we need and we taste it then put it up on the shelf and by the end of the shift if it’s sitting there it wasn’t a hit,” says Gobel. “But an hour later if it’s all gone and somebody else is going into the box, then you’ve got something.”
Gobel and Pavao have tried their darndest to make certain pizzas happen — “We’ve given up on brat, beer mustard, and peppers. It doesn’t taste like anything.” Sometimes it’s simply the classics that people come back to again and again. “Our best-selling pizza, arguably, is the Classic (marinara, mozzarella, pepperoni, pork sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, white onions, and black olives), which is like a Supreme,” says Gobel. “And we do all these great other things, why would you get the one you can get anywhere? Then I’m like, this is the biggest compliment — you can get this pizza at all the chains, yet they’re coming back to us. They’re driving all the way from West Ashley or Mt. Pleasant or waiting for two hours for a delivery when we’re super backed up for the thing they can get anywhere. There’s a difference in doing fresh dough, prepping veggies all day — I think you can taste the difference. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes for something that seems pretty simple.”