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A Pie By Any Other Name: An Eight-Act Play (cont’d)
by: Magnus Opus

Act 5: “Back in the Saddle”

In the beginning of this pizza passion play I’d mentioned secretly yearning to be a food critic all my life, and trust me, I DO love my job here at The Daze. But what has increasingly become more important to me than sampling some get down fare and writing about it is the fact I get to meet some truly unique and special people who have all made tremendous sacrifices and shown courage in the face of adversity to make their dreams real. I find myself inspired to the nth by their tales of brave Ulysses, whereupon I turn up the heat on my ambition as a result. A little quid pro quo goes a long way, eh? And of course, by virtue of these people’s bare-knuckled tenacity and my willingness to shine a light where deserving, the by-product of all this is you, the reader, are in turn the beneficiary of some damn fine vittles! Life is good (if you make it so). And in light of this, we ain’t done here by a damn skippy! As they’re saying in New Orleans right now as I type this, “Les bon ton roulier!!” Yeah…
After a few days of rest and comprehension -digestion on all fronts, really- of what had already transpired during my inaugural pizza search, the time was once again upon me to strike out in search of the tasty and groovy in the Austin world of pies.
So I did what comes natural, snagging a sheaf of paper and a pen, rousting the dog from an afternoon slumber, the both of us hopping in the ever trusty, rusty and dusty pick-up to hit the bricks in search of buried gastronomic treasure.

Act 6: “Home”

I swung down South Congress where I entered the venerable halls of Home Slice Pizza, only open for a little over a year now but already a South Austin institution. Having graced the joint more than a few times since it’s opening -given it is in my “hood”- let me say here and now that Home Slice Pizza earned that lofty reputation with consistent, high quality food, snappin’ service from a bevy of well meaning hipster wait staff, and one of the coolest hangs in town for the geographically correct manga crowd.
Home Slice Pizza is the brain and love child of three partners, Jen and Joseph Strickland along with Terri Hannifin, and it was the very affable and spunky Terri with whom I visited this day to get some background skinny on just how Home Slice Pizza came into being, and more importantly in my book, why.
As I’ve mentioned, one thing I’m not is a Home Slice rookie, and since their opening I’d been here several times with friends and have ingested my fair share of the Margherita Pizza, which is comprised of fresh mozzarella, tomato, garlic and basil, a delicious combo that really invigorates the palette and satisfies the soul. But, one night several weeks ago I’d taken a bite of someone’s sub and was summarily blown away at the sheer perfection of it. So, wanting to go into a different direction to put the perfect capper to a day of outstanding entree’s already happily ingested, I ordered a half of an Italian Sub, the sandwich I deduced (and correctly so, might I add) was the object of my craving.
Terri wasted no time in telling me her friend Jen was responsible for all this hubbub and hullabaloo, having been raised in Upstate New York by her extended Italian family where she literally grew up eating the finest immigrant Italian food imaginable. Because of her familial culinary upbringing the die was cast for Jen at an early age. Terri recalled when she was 15 she’d worked in a grill and an 80 year old grill cook instilled in her the joys of being a restauranteur, educating her in the many ways in which you can make the customer happy. The grill cook’s enthusiasm inspired her to her core and she knew from that moment on she, too, wanted to be involved in the restaurant business. Her die was also cast.
Terri and Jen met when they were both attending NYU where over the years of budding friendship they planted their own seed to one day own and run a restaurant together. And given they were studying in NYC gave them ample chance to continue to frequent and analyze all the great mom and pop pizzerias that are rife in the city. The winds of fate were already billowing their sails…
Eventually, studies completed, time for the next chapter, Jen and Terri parted; Terri auguring Colorado way while Jen relocated to Austin.
Years passed…
Jen, now married to Joseph Strickland, was working for Texas Monthly and was also the food editor for The Austin Chronicle when the dot com boom imploded, causing her and Joseph to step back and take stock. What really happened was as one door shut, yet another opened, and both Jen and Joseph saw it and even more importantly, reacted to it.
During this transitional phase they came to the conclusion that Austin was missing something very important, especially to Jen and her well-cultivated taste buds. What was missing for this lass? New York style Italian food along with the New York style experience! Homesickness turned into a vision of sorts whereby Jen and Joseph wasted no time in seizing manifest destiny by the short and curlies, both demanding satisfaction.
Jen made her way back to NYC where she began to seriously study the classic recipes, honing her skills over time in perfecting all the nuances of great immigrant Italian cooking while Joseph boned up on the biz side of things.
Returning to Austin, determined to be the Queen of Pies, Jen, along with Joseph, laid more groundwork for what would become, Home Slice Pizza, eventually recruiting her old NYU buddy, Terri, to come join in the fun, too.
Home Slice Pizza officially opened November 16, 2K5, and South Congress hasn’t been the same since. I don’t have to say too much more about that as all you have to do is drive by and watch the continuous, overflowing crowds flocking at all hours to get a piece of pie.
By this time my Italian Sub arrived and words can’t adequately describe the perfection that is that sandwich. Funny, but in the menu there is this warning underneath the description of what constitutes the cold sub, and the warning reads thus… “Trust us-don’t mess with the recipe”, and damn, are they ever correct on that score! Someone has definitely done their homework as I wouldn’t change a thing about this sandwich; the meat -ham, dry salami, cappacola, genoa salami along with provolone cheese- and the condiments -lettuce, onions, tomato, mayo, and oil & vinegar dressing- are in absolute perfect proportion! Also, Terri recommended I try some of the sliced cherry peppers on the side, and again, she was correct on that score too, the peppers providing a hot zang for the taste buds, a perfect accompaniment to the delicious flavors and textures of the sandwich.
Having grown up in New Orleans where I was a devotee of the original Muffaletta from Central Grocery, as well as po-boys from Domilises and the like, I know the importance of the bread to these specialty sandwiches, and the same can be said for this Italian Sub. Terri told me that they go the extra mile for tradition and are currently importing the bread from Petrillos, an Upstate New York bakery. She also informed me they were working with a baker in town who was damn close to perfecting this special bread and it’s only a matter of time before they make their own based on the classic recipe. Now there’s devotion to high standards and quality for you!
The Home Slice menu is classic New York. They offer an assortment of quintessential salads, all made fresh to order, Antipasti, Calzones, Sub Sandwiches, and of course, the pizzas. Medium (14″) and large (16″) pizzas are available with a variety of toppings and special toppings too, then there are a great selection of tried and true classic pies. Each pie is made to order as well, cooked directly on 2-inch bricks in an old school deck oven. Individual slices are available daily until 6:30PM, then from 9:30PM ’til close. To complete your meal leave room for there are some titillating deserts baked right on the premises with love! Italian wine is offered as well as domestic and imported beers, fountain sodas, bottled sodas and waters, teas, and lemonade, as well as a variety of coffees. Go to www.homeslicepizza.com to see this outtasite menu, pricing available there, too.
Home Slice Pizza (for those who don’t know already) is located at 1415 South Congress Avenue. Their phone number is 512.444.7437
Hours are as follows: Closed Tues., Mon.-Thur. 11:30AM-11PM, Fri.-Sat. 11:30AM-12AM (the walk up window is open after closing for slices only until 3AM), Sun. 12PM-10PM
MasterCard, Visa, and American Express are accepted.
Jen and Joseph and Terri have created a truly magical place in Home Slice Pizza. The interior is fun, funky but chic, designed to lend itself to be a great social gathering place as all the great pizzerias were. The food is knockout, the highest of standards and quality around. And then there’s the vibe. You can tell when employees are happy, a genial, upbeat mood resides in an establishment that does all the right things for the right reasons, who truly respects the individual and encourages the individual spirit, too. That sort of vibe is evident in spades at Home Slice Pizza, where I think, as much as the great food draws the crowds in, they keep coming back because the mood is so refreshing, too.
To all of the folks who comprise the staff at Home Slice, I say to you, “Viva libertad!”

[fa:p:a=72157594576639275,id=414706592,j=r,s=s,l=p]Act 7: “Mellow on Drag”

You know, it’s a funny thing when you meet someone you’ve never met, and the instant you meet this person you like them -a lot- and then the more you get to know them and their surrounding clan, the more you like all of them! One of life’s unexpected pleasures, it is. Such was the case when I met Sharon Strickland, who, along with her husband, Todd, and Tracy Hansom, is one of the co-owners of Mellow Mushroom. Call the woman earthy and effervescent and you wouldn’t be too far from the mark here… heck, all of whom I met that day were just out and out good people, to be fair. My job was made easy. All I had to do was request a Diet Coke when asked, manhandle some paper and pencil, then turn Sharon loose whereupon she was more than happy to shovel me an earful! And a fun earful it was, might I add…
You know me by now and I like to investigate the background of the people who are crazy enough to enter this business. What eventually was unveiled was rather surprising, but the more I got to know Sharon and Todd the more I understood perfectly why Mellow Mushroom Austin has come into being.
Right off the bat Sharon informed me that she and Todd are from Birmingham, Alabama. As soon as she told me this I naturally parlayed the conversation into a bit of Birmingham history of which only a true gastronomitist can, asking her -due to my inability to remember the second half- the complete name of a marvelous place there in Birmingham which was a well known barbecue house (so-so bbq), but was most famous for its homemade pies (my fave rave being the fabulous coconut cream concoction-BIG yum!). “Oh, you mean Johnny Ray’s?” Sharon said, not missing a beat. I told her that was exactly the place of which I spoke. “You want to hear something funny?” she said. By this time I was all ears. “Todd proposed to me right there in Johnny Ray’s!” Damn, these people are down, no doubts abouts it!
From there the conversation flowed like soda while her two adorable children scampered about, her amiable, likable husband stopping by to visit with us occasionally, giving me more fodder, history, and more good cheer, too; a swell afternoon, all in all. And then Sharon served me the steak and cheese calzone… jeez apeez! But wait… getting a bit ahead of myself here…
While attending Auburn University, both Todd and Sharon discovered a pizza franchise during their travels which managed to rivet their attention. So much so they began to actively seek out Mellow Mushrooms during their excursions back East. With a big, Cheshire cat grin on her face Sharon imparted that besides pizza nuts these two are, at their hearts, honest-to-God beer connoisseurs. During our conversation Sharon made no bones about that fact, and was very proud their Mellow Mushroom, located on 2426 Guadalupe (or The Drag, as most Austinites know it), serves 25 different drafts on tap. You’re not gonna go thirsty at this joint, oh no…
Now here is the part I find most interesting about these two. Neither one of them has any history in cooking up groceries, or have families that were into cooking either. None! Zippity! They, along with their partner Tracy, do have over 40 years of restaurant experience though having plied the trade in various positions since teenagers. And it was this collective experience that led them to a turning point in each of their lives.
After graduating Auburn University with varying degrees that had nothing to do with owning a restaurant (film for Sharon, for instance), both Todd and Sharon knew in their gut they wanted their own business and after much thought decided to dance with the one that brung ’em, the restaurant biz. The next choice wasn’t as difficult as by this time they both were a-deep in love with the Mellow Mushroom franchise.
During a visit to Homegrown Industries (gatekeeper of the franchise in Atlanta, Georgia) the two met with Richard Brasch, the corporate attorney, where they were told Mellow Mushroom does well in college towns, but so far most of the towns they’d targeted were very saturated. Not ones to give up hope, Todd and Sharon scoured the list for possibilities stretching more west, away from the normal franchise demographic. They looked at Baton Rouge for a second, home to L.S.U., but something about that didn’t feel right, and then they saw that Austin was available. Hearing someone was sniffing around, considering the Austin location as a possibility, both Todd and Sharon decided then and there to immediately nab this prime UT location, having never ever visited Austin, to boot! … Boy, were the gods smiling on these guys, or what?!
After moving their families here over three years ago it took them almost a year and a half to find their current location. Another six to eight months went into the design and in April of ’05 construction began, officially opening their doors September 25th, ’06.
And speaking of design, there is a unique Austin feel to this Mellow Mushroom. As it turns out, Homegrown Industries gives each franchise owner a lot of leeway into the look and feel of the place. And this is where the partners all rolled up their sleeves and got involved in all things that constitute interior reconstruction and design, quite literally a family affair, a labor of love. And their efforts show it! Going as far as hand staining each table, decorating them with coins, Todd installing roof insulation during July (ouch!), even hiring a couple of UT students to do murals, too; a real personal, groovy vibe exists. Go check it out; you’ll see what I mean.
Oh yeah… the groceries…
Mellow Mushroom has high standards and offers the healthiest pizza you can find. Each pie is made with Springwater Wheat Flour dough (considered vegan-no eggs). They don’t use any refined sugars in their sauces or dough and their choice of cheeses are all low fat. They drain all fats from their meats during preparation and when put together (all pizzas are made to order) they are baked on a stone slab, remaining crispy on the outside and chewy inside. Shoot, even the soups are vegan! Healthy cooking is always damn good in my book, ranks high.
The most requested pie is the Gourmet White, an olive oil sauce with minced garlic, sun dried tomatoes, provolone, mozzarella, feta, fresh tomatoes and onions. They offer some specialty pies, which range from $9.25 for a small, to $21.90 for a large, as well as a design your own pizza menu where the 10″ ranges from $6.50 to $10.90, the 14″ from $9.50 to $14.70, and then the 16″ ranges from $11.50 to $17.90, all available with a plethora of toppings.
There is a generous selection of calzone (steak and cheese was scrumpdillyicious! the baked dough very tasty and lite, the huge turnover fare you well stuffed with grilled round steak, onions, mushrooms and green peppers) soups, hoagies, salads and deserts, too, all very reasonably priced. You can go to wwwlmellowmushroom.com to see the complete menu.
Like I mentioned there is a fabulous selection of beers, both domestic and imported, wine is available, too, and a liquor license is being applied for as I type.
One thing I detected during the interview was these guys want people to come to Mellow Mushroom to have FUN! They are sponsoring special open mic nights, live acoustic music on Saturday nights, and several nightly games with prizes are up and running, too, many others being planned. There is also an outdoor patio out back for those who wish to bask in all of mother nature’s splendor. You can see more of what this specific Mellow Mushroom offers in the entertainment realm, as well as weekly lunch specials and many other delights and highlights at www.myspace.com/mellowmushroomaustin.
Hours of operation are Mon-Thurs. 11AM-11PM, Fri.-Sat. 11AM -2AM? (depends on the bar crowd), and Sun. is 12 noon-10PM. Takeout is also available and delivery is possible thru LonghornDelivery.com. All major credit cards are accepted and cash is always king, natch.
The Stricklands are good folk, and if Tracy is partners with them -even though he and I didn’t officially hang- my bet is that he must be an all right feller, too.
Go welcome these folks to their new home and jump in the middle of their creation, Mellow Mushroom Austin. Have you some FUN! Good eats and drinks abound, too… Not such a bad deal in the big scheme of things, way I see it.
Why? ‘Cause Magnus says so, and Magnus always, abolusively, desitively, knoweth best.
Ticonderoga.
Y tan va…

Act 8: “Back It Up and Chill”

Well, lil’ chillens, another hair raising adventure cometh to a close. I’m home now. Dogs are snoring contentedly. If I had a fireplace I’d be stoking it. The winds are blowing, chimes are chiming. Belly is full. Head is fuzzy wuzzy. Pleased, all in all, and am a better person for the experience. As it should be.
I highly recommend that you, dear reader, try each of the parlors I’ve documented in this piece, be it Southside Flying Pizza, Eastside Pies, Home Slice, or Mellow Mushroom. These folks are all gifted, talented, and brave as hell. They’ve taken the great leap of faith to bring you something you’d not ordinarily have access to in our fair city. And for those efforts they should be rewarded. So dive in. Get you some! Tell ’em Magnus sent you.
Until next time, lil’ chillens, be humble, don’t stumble. Walk steadfastly with conviction. Be kind to strangers
Come Cheetah. Come Jane. Ooga booga!
So long and thanks for all the fish…

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    Strangely my browser doesn’t display this page correctly…Anyway, it was a very interesting article, keep up the good work and I’ll be back for more