Neopapalis: The Habitual
Pizza. That’s usually all you have to say to get someone’s attention. Hot, chewy, covered in cheese, what could be better? On the corner of Thompson and William sits the unassuming pizza joint Neopapalis. From the outside it looks like a modernized sports bar with lightweight aluminum chairs, flat-screen TVs and a small bar around the corner. On the inside it looks like a Chipotle. You choose your base and then select toppings as your pizza goes down the line. Large menu boards advertising four choices of 12’ pizza bases ($6-7) - classica, margharita, white, or red marinara - and a long counter filled with various toppings, most priced at an extra dollar. Which means most of the time you’re getting a meal and a half for under ten dollars. Deal!
One of the owners of Neopapalis, Joe Sheena, agreed to answer a few questions about this new restaurant, which first opened its doors in October. The idea for Neopapalis’ assembly line pizza was based on a combination of Joe’s other two restaurants, Pizzapapalis and Rio Wraps. The idea for the pizza came straight from Italy. After a trip to Naples in 2003, Joe fell in love with Neapolitan-style pizza, stoned-baked with a crisp crust and chewy interior.
It is very rare that I write about the owners or chefs beyond a basic back story, but Joe is a truly unique character. He’s not loud or smiley or particularly jovial, but seems to genuinely care about people, customers or not. Though the restaurant does take phone orders, Joe explained that “[the focus] should be with the customer coming in the door.” He’s a little like the stereotypical 1950’s father figure, intelligent and slightly intimidating, but always ready to welcome you in, offer advice, and smile just when you want him to. If food wasn’t motivation enough, I’d probably stop by Neopapalis just to say hi.
But just in case you really are hungry, let’s talk about the food. All the ingredients at Neopapalis are fresh and the dough is hand-stretched right in front of you. The menu also includes salads, sides like sweet potato fries and cinnamon sticks, and sandwiches made from pizza dough puffed up in the oven, slit open, and stuffed like a pita pocket. They also serve 12 different microbrewed beers, as well as wine. Beer and pizza. Apparently that’s a big deal. That being said, the pizza is the thing to get. Although it was only 4 o’clock, the place was filled with people and Joe had to cover the front counter. For a while it seemed like the end of the interview, yet Joe in his ever-amiable way continued to answer questions. While he floured, kneaded, threw, and shaped the dough for the crust, Joe shared proudly that the dough was made with Antico Molino Caputo 00 flour, which is apparently the Leonardo Dicaprio of pizza flour. “It’s the authentic way of doing it.”
Though I am a crust person myself, most people’s focus is on the toppings. The menu currently offers four specialty pizzas that may be rotated out this May, but the set up really encourages you to create your own. Because the base is already so flavorful, Joe says he usually suggests no more than three or four toppings. “You want to be able to taste everything,” he reasoned. I always appreciate this kind of simplicity.
Now before we get any further, I have a small confession to make. I don’t really like pizza. I’m one of those crazy people that has to take off the cheese first. It’s a shortcoming of mine, but I am trying to work on it.
So with Neopapalis’s “make your own” pizza, I got to actually enjoy pizza for once. I got just enough cheese to hold the toppings on and my favorite part, the crust, was slightly charred and marvelously chewy. I had been to Neopapalis a few times before and had always ordered my favorite – the classica base with rosemary chicken, caramelized onions, extra basil, and light cheese- but there was one combination that had always caught my eye. The Curry Bianca pizza is one of the specials: the white base topped with curry chicken and funghi mushrooms, the crust brushed with garlic butter. There was something about the combination of curry and pizza that I found strangely captivating.
Our Curry Bianca pizza came out hot, crisp, and slightly sweet-smelling. Joe told me mid-pizza toss that the white base crust was spread with honey before the asiago and mozzarella cheeses were added. As was suggested by a sign on the menu board, my photographer, Shawn, and I ate the pizza knife and fork style. Although I neglected to have them reduce the amount of cheese and was therefore slightly overwhelmed with melted mozzarella, the pizza was delicious. The curry sauce on the chicken caramelized slightly in the oven, bringing out the sweetness of the honey. The mushrooms provided a nice texture and earthiness while the garlic butter crust was perfect for tearing apart and eating piece by piece. It was as if Indian food had suddenly turned into a pizza, the curried chicken, the paneer-textured cheeses, and of course the garlic naan crust. With maybe a little more curry sauce, and for me a little less cheese and some caramelized onions, the Curry Bianca would be an addicting combination.
Final Recommendation: I read a reviewer’s online comment that explains the Neopapalis experience perfectly. She wrote, “I didn’t mean to become a regular here, but it’s hard to resist” (Ashley J. Ann Arbor). Ashley, I feel your pain. I don’t like pizza, I never think about pizza or crave pizza, and yet Neopapalis has me hooked. Whether it’s the freedom of creativity, the authentic Italian crust, the fresh ingredients, or Joe, the father-figure of it all, Neopapalis can quickly become your go-to pizza place. With so many ingredients and the seemingly infinite number of combinations, you could go to Neopapalis every day for a month and never get bored. It’s a comfortable, down-to-earth kind of place, a place where the staff recognizes their regulars and the food is consistently good, no matter what you getting. Not to mention that at $8 a pizza, I can actually afford to eat here. Who can resist that?
If you would like to learn more about Neopapalis, here is some basic contact information:
500 E. Williams St
Ann Arbor, MI 48104