Down in the Upper Valley, the restaurant scene is a little sleepier than up near Burlington, and any new opening is broadly noted. So when Pi Brick Oven Pizzeria opened in Woodstock a few weeks ago, it caused a few ripples in the UV pond. It was also a brave move in a town where the streets tends to be ghostly by 6:30 p.m., and on a block where, a few steps away, chef Caleb Barber turns out sublime pizza at osteria pane e salute.
It can be hard to get a seat at pane e salute, though, unless you reserve in advance. Not so at Pi, at least thus far; during a recent weekday evening, the restaurant was hushed inside — not exactly because it was empty but because the tables are pushed to the edges of a spacious interior whose center is curiously empty, almost like a dance floor or event space in waiting.
The rest of the plush vibe is sort of a Vermont-Tuscany mashup: terracotta-colored walls, comfy banquettes, low pendant lamps, and stone arches across the back wall. A massive farm table fills one front window.
Even with the clever name, the ambience didn't fill me with confidence; I wondered if the eatery was still finding its footing. The menu is minimalist, too, and focused on the basics: Eight pies, four salads, and an antipasto plate. Limited choice can be a good thing, though, especially in Italian restaurants — it's somehow cheering to know the kitchen is trying to do fewer things, and with focus. (By contast, the wine list is lengthy — Italian wines of every persuasion are offered by the glass, and the pours are generous).
Escarole is underpresented on menus, but for me this slightly bitter green is much more compelling than romaine, arugula or, certainly, baby greens. Pi wins points for putting an escarole salad on its menu, and it’s almost a meal in itself: a pile of buoyant greens drizzled in a creamy, smackingly citrus dressing. A tiny pot of minced tomatoes, peppers and herbs comes alongside, perhaps to spoon on the tiny garlic toasts that adorn the salad (I ate it on its own). My friend's Caesar salad was similar in size and approach, but more liberally smothered in a slightly briny, pepper-studded dressing, then showered in Parmagiano shavings — a wee bit on the heavy side.
My taste for pizza developed in step with the oily, sloppy slices of Long Island and Queens, where I grew up. So both I and my New Jersey-born companion were thrilled with the arrival of pies that resembled those of our youth — burbling and almost overly cheesy, with only the slightest hint of tangy, acidic tomato sauce and peppery oregano.
Sure, we had a hard time locating the the snow-white mozzarella on the Buffalo Margherita Pizza ($25) — but then we realized that was because the sheer volume of olive oil had stained it golden yellow. The crust was rife with pull and grease, and floppy basil leaves and huge Parmagiano shavings added even more zest and texture.
Even better (and less oily) was a fennel and sausage pizza ($16) dotted with tangy crumbles of local sausage, dusted with lacy fennel fronds and just enough crushed red pepper to make each bite simmer in the mouth. Each pizza was big enough that we ended up bringing home half of each.
The pie at Pi was an earthy, filling surprise, and one worth return trips.