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Project Pie: The Art of Topping

by David Vera
Sunday Mar 31, 2013

Sidewalk culture seems to be the key in order for a fledgling business to become successful in these trying times. That, and a refreshingly simple concept to tantalize patrons' appetites. Hillcrest's newest thin-crust pizza shop takes command of both factors and presents us with a breezy, playfully open space where freshness is evident-and it tastes better than ever. The restaurant's motto invites us to "design, build and eat." We didn't want to be rude, so we gladly accepted!

Founder James Markham knows there's no reason for great-quality hunger-killing pizza to leave a great chasm in our checking accounts. With a location already booming at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the Hillcrest location is this particular restaurant's first bold foray into the lucrative California market.

Plans are allegedly forming to open a Chula Vista store as well. But by no means is this Markham's first time riding San Diego's proverbial rodeo. His personal blog reveals that he helmed the New York-style pizza chain, Knockout Pizzeria, in our very town. Then, after opening a chain of shops called New York Style Pizza in Shanghai, Markham returned to the U.S. in 2008 and originated his first "custom-built pizza restaurant concept" as MOD Pizza in Seattle-an acronym for "made on demand."

Continuing that same philosophy, Pieology opened in Fullerton in 2011. Finally, aiming to widen his vision's scope to international status in early 2012, Markham launched Project Pie. Brand new Project Pie locations are opening all over the country: Washington, D.C.; Boulder, CO; Manhattan, NY; Atlanta, GA; Indianapolis, IN.

Even the Philippines will be enjoying Markham's culinary concept this year. Markham's blog also mentioned talks with Simon Malls, indicating that we might soon see Project Pie shops popping up in upscale locations owned by Simon. Think Fashion Valley Mall.

It's quite apparent that this chain is well on its way to becoming "the next Chipotle."

Our initial visits to Project Pie were exactly what we were looking for on our rushed, much-needed lunch-break: fast, filling and easy on the wallet. Cute little messages printed on everything from the doors to the light fixtures immediately caught our eye, all pointing us in the proper direction to get our slice on.

The road to crispy-crusted nirvana is simple as pie: you can either build the dish of your epicurean dreams from multitude of fresh-cut ingredients in plain view, or you can entrust your satiation to the expertise of the menu's speciality selections.

Seven luscious crowd-pleasers range from obvious classics-done-right to eclectic, upscale celebrations of flavor. Don't worry, gluten-phobes. A gluten-free crust is made readily available for you too!

We couldn't pass up the meat-loving #2: petite pepperoni, fragrant Italian sausage and meatball crumbles with red sauce. It was beautiful. The purist in me was moved to tears. But seriously, the flavors matched the thin-crust textures perfectly. Stock up on napkins and let go of all social composure because if you order it, you're going to finish it-and it's going to get messy.

Our second selection was the #6: grilled chicken, red onion slivers, chopped cilantro, punchy gorgonzola and rich barbecue sauce fused by mozzarella. As a "white" pizza it had no tomato sauce. To be honest, it looked subtly elegant somehow, so we expected a correspondingly "vanilla" pie. Instead, the bright tartness of Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce immediately awakened our tongues as the creamy warmth of the gorgonzola and mozarella soothed our palates. This selection refines pungency to an art with powerful little jabs of flavor and proves that a little of the right stuff goes a long way.

Salads, the historically underrated accompaniment to pizza, are also proven to be much better here than our misconceptions allow. The Mixed Green Salad is hearty and packed with sweet/savory action. The Caesar is served smaller but it's tasty as well. But the Pizza Salad steals the show, combining mixed greens, grilled chicken, feta cheese, mozzarella, tomatoes and balsamic dressing on warm pizza dough. With a few adjustments, this could make for a very interesting raw vegetarian pizza!

On our trip to the free-refill soda fountain, we noticed that quotes, both famous and lesser-known, embellish the walls and offer heady insight for diners with attention deficit to chew on.

Ever full of personality, even the soda company showcased by Project Pie does it right.

Boylan Bottleworks uses pure cane sugar in its sodas and prides itself in catering to "true birch/root beer enthusiasts." Diet varieties are also available for those of us pretending that makes a caloric difference during a pizza-run.

Speaking of caloric difference, two delightfully fun dessert selections are made to order: Cinnamon Sugar Strips (more of a snack, really) and the Nutella & Banana. Not much needs to be said to express how obviously decadent this one can be. Don't think. Just order. You can thank me later.

The best part of all: the prices that we loved during lunchtime are exactly the same for dinner. Open seven days a week, doors open at 11 a.m. every day. Dinner hours are extended from 10 p.m. (Sunday through Wednesday) to midnight (Thursday through Saturday). With the retractable "window doors" and a prime location near the heart of Hillcrest, we can't wait for the summer crowds to discover this sanctuary of simple pleasures.

Project Pie is located at 3888 Fourth Ave. Call 619.241.2881 or visit for more information.

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