This column is about the experience of food in Chattanooga. I will take people out for dinner and lunch dates at various restaurants in the Chattanooga region. It is not meant to be a review per se, but an account of a one-time experience at a restaurant. Your mileage may vary depending upon your expectations.
This week, Monica and I visited the brand-new Fiamma Pizza Co. at 405 N. Market St. The restaurant offers a simple menu of Neapolitan-style pizzas cooked in a brick oven, salads, sandwiches and craft beer.
Several people have sung praises for Fiamma; others have been underwhelmed by their experience. Since the closing of Pisa Pizza-which I have recalled fondly in several articles-and Hill City Pizza (less fondly), the North Shore has had a serious pizza void going on as of late. There is a difference (in my world, at least) between a pizza chain like Domino’s or Pizza Hut, and a specialty pizza shop like Lupi’s, Community Pie or New York Pizza Dept. All of them are still offering pizza-which is better than no pizza-but expectations still exist.
It turns out that Fiamma might be in a completely different category.
Fiamma is an experiment of sorts. Owner Jim Richards owns several local Five Guys Burgers and Fries franchises. Once you know this fact, the overall design and feel of the restaurant begins to make a lot more sense. This model, if successful, could be the next exploding franchise opportunity for an investor. Richards has designed it as such.
As you walk through the door, the first thing you notice-by design, I’m sure-is the large brick oven in the center of the open kitchen. A majority of the surfaces are white, and the flaming oven immediately draws your attention. Like Five Guys and their potato sacks, a component of Fiamma’s décor is random stacks of Italian flour and tomato cans. It’s as if to say, “We make everything here from scratch and here is the proof.” I think it’s both a brilliant and utilitarian space-saving design aspect. The interior is inviting and pleasant.
We were greeted by a young host who promptly pointed out that we were about to eat “a different kind of pizza.” He then spent a minute or so explaining to us the hallmarks of a quality Neapolitan pizza: smaller slices, thin crust, a softer mouthfeel, more flavor. But, of course, anybody who has eaten at Community Pie since it opened in 2013 has most likely tried a pizza like this.
The staff was incredibly friendly, if not a little bored-seeming. We visited on a busy Riverbend night as many people were heading to the festival. Only a few tables were occupied, and I imagine other nights are far busier. We got lucky. The servers were also quick to visit us during the meal to make sure we liked everything.
If you like pizza, the aroma at Fiamma is unbelievable: melting cheese and baking dough combined with the smell of raw flour. If Tom Ford bottled this intoxicating scent and called it “Rustic Neapolitan,” I’d buy a bottle and I bet that Drake would write a song about it.
Orders are placed at the counter-just like Five Guys-and you’re given a number and cups to fill at the drink station. We weren’t going to have a beer, but we discovered Fiamma serves Asheville’s Green Man ESB, which is one of our favorites. Bottoms up!
The menu contains 10 “specialty” pizza choices, a majority of which cannot be altered. The basic pie is $15.95, and additional toppings are $2 each. This base is tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, Romano and basil. Other pies get a little more playful, with combinations such as pancetta and jalapeño, and eggplant and artichoke. Monica and I tried to order a No. 3 with added prosciutto, but we were told alterations were not a possibility. This pie was a simple cheese pizza with no sauce: olive oil, Raclette (a Swiss cheese), Brie, Parmesan, mozzarella and basil. I understand a policy about not altering specialty pizzas, but this combination would’ve been wonderful with prosciutto-and there was no possible way to build it on my own, according to the menu. We relented and ordered it as is. In retrospect, I should’ve ordered a side of prosciutto and doctored the pie myself. Next time.
Our pizza was very tasty. I have no quibbles with the flavor at all and would recommend you try it.
We also split a small arugula salad with pine nuts, Parmesan and lemon juice/olive oil dressing. Although it was very simple, the flavor was fine. And despite the prices-most pizzas are $16-$18-the dinnerware is plastic and our salad was served in a plastic bowl. The meat pizza is $20. Bring your credit cards.
The entire experience was strange until I thought about Five Guys. Fiamma is basically the same restaurant model except it’s pizzas instead of burgers. As Monica pointed out, you are asked to tip before servers bring you food, and you’re responsible for your own utensils and drink refills. The bocce court out back and tiny bar are good locations for groups to gather, but the dining experience is a bit jarring and underwhelming for the price.
Would we go back?
I’m interested to try several of the other pie combinations, but I think Community Pie’s Neapolitan pizzas are a better bang for the buck. Most of their pies are in the $12-$14 range, and I can personally attest to their flavor and quality. The convenience of Fiamma’s location is appealing for pizza lovers, and who knows, maybe the neighborhood is affluent enough to pay these pizza prices often enough. But let’s not forget that Community Pie began with much of the same concept-only offering Neapolitan-style pizzas-until customers forced them to pivot their brand and add New York-style pizza and, eventually, pasta.
Final thoughts: I’m not one to complain about costs often-good food is definitely worth paying for-but the balance seems to be a bit off at Fiamma. I encourage you to try it for yourself and let me know what you think.
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.