The name, “A Dopo” Pizzeria, is Italian with a rough translation of “see you later,” holding with it the connotation that parting is only temporary. That’s the kind of vibe owner Brian Strutz wants to establish when he opens his wood-fired pizza restaurant this August. Located at 516 Williams Street next to Paulk and Company, it will reside in an up-and-coming area between Magnolia and Fifth Avenue, just around the corner from Public House in one direction and Jeremy Wann’s Geo Hair Lab in the other. It’s an area which might not have been considered for a new business in the not-so-distant past.
Brian is originally from Florida, but moved to Knoxville when he was ten-years-old, graduating from Farragut High School and majoring in Marketing at UTK. During his stint at UTK, he spent a summer in Italy where he fell in love with Italian culture. His introduction to pizza and making it in a fire-brick oven, however, came in Knoxville. His first job was at Calamata Kitchen which is where he learned to make pizza and, more importantly, met his future wife, Jessica. They’d reconnect in college and later both study abroad in Italy. He describes her as, “the most inspiring person in my life,” and pointed out that she’s won accolades and changed lives as a musical theater teacher at Carter High School.
Brian learned to love cooking in his home. Both his mother and an uncle were passionate cooks and food was important to the family. When, as a teenager, he realized girls like a guy who cooks, his course was charted. He worked as a server at various restaurants while in college, though he’d later work in non-food positions, such as hist time with NorthSouth Productions pitching ideas for reality shows and then as an editor in post production for a couple of years. It was working this job that he spent significant time in the area around Fifth Avenue at the company’s Emory Place office.
His most interesting tie to the Old City, may be that he proposed to his future wife there. Not surprisingly, it was at an Italian restaurant, Pasta Trio (currently Oli Bea). Once married, the couple quit their jobs and went to Italy for six months working with the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program on farms around the country. They also did translations for a family who opened a beach hotel in Tuscany. While in Italy he said one pivotal experience was cooking in a big oven with an older Neapolitan woman who spoke no English. Learning from her without use of words left a lingering impression.
A real turning point came on their return when Brian went to work at Blackberry Farm as a line cook. It was there that he met many of the chefs who are now transforming the Knoxville culinary scene. He worked under chef Joseph Lenn and felt his time there was his culinary school education. During this period he also operated a small CSA and continues, today, to grow garlic and peppers.
Even then he wanted to open a restaurant and he began cooking privately for small parties. But life had another twist for him in the shorter term. When his father was diagnosed with a serious illness, Brian left Blackberry Farm to help with the family business. He continued to cook for others and never lost sight of his ultimate goal, even while working in a business he hadn’t initially chosen. He began exploring business options.
He staged (worked for free) briefly at Pizzicletta in Flagstaff, Arizona working with the wood-fired oven there, a “big Neapolitan Stefano Ferrara.” His time there was instructive for him and when it came time to buy the oven for his new business, he bought an identical model. In fact, that is largely the only equipment he will have. The new business will not include a hood or a convection oven, only a wood burning oven, a refrigerator and a prep table.
It reflects the simplicity of his business plan, as Brian believes, “restaurants should be more focused.” He feels the days of multi-page menus filled with mediocre food because the restaurant is trying to do too many things may be fading in Knoxville. He remembered being told early in his career that there were only three variables to having a successful restaurant: Good food, good service and good prices. The person told him the presence of at least two of the three will portend success.
Seeing Pizzicletta work in an urban environment in Flagstaff confirmed his desire to open his business in Knoxville’s urban area. He felt drawn to Williams Street and when he learned Dewhirst Properties had an available space which had already been rehabbed, he seized the opportunity. The two worked together to get a grease trap buried outside, removing that obstacle and his decision looked even better as he got to know the others in the building. Two of them, Forrest Kirkpatrick and Justin Paulk may actually do part of the build out.
As for the food he will deliver, his standards are lofty and he plans to deliver a high-quality product. While pizza isn’t a health food, he feels there are healthier choices to be made in its construction. He’ll make his own sourdough crust (from wet dough) and it will be naturally lower in sodium, for example. Also offered will be vegetarian items and charcuterie plates; essentially the good pizza ingredients without the crust. He’ll locally source as much as is possible, and he noted he already has talked with both Mossy Creek Mushrooms and Abby Fields Farm. He’ll get his beef from Welsummer, whose meats come from grass-fed cattle. Nothing will ever be frozen.
Noting that residual heat is great for other baking, he’ll likely make other breads when not making pizza dough. He’s also interested in exploring a range of vegetables not usually offered or paired with pizza. Salads will be available, of course and he’ll use seasonal vegetables in those. He told me he is interested in exploring uses for beets as that particular vegetable may be grown here through much of the year. He’ll also use Oak Barrel-aged wine vinegar, adding another interesting taste profile to the mix.
Calling the dough the most important part of the pizza, he says that his dough, plus the way it is cooked, will produce a charred, bubbly and soft crust. He’ll also make his own mozzarella and serve Italian wines, pairing the wines with the various pizzas. He’ll have some wine offered by the glass, perhaps wine on tap and some higher-end bottles. Beer will also be available, including, for example, the Blackberry Farm Saison which pairs well with pizza and recently won international recognition.
Following his quest for simplicity, he’ll only have seating for about fifty. To be much larger would require a second oven and, at least for now, he’s not interested in that size operation. To help avoid waits, he’ll be using the “Nowait,” app which allows people to get in line remotely and sends a text when the table is ready. He points out that signing in with the app and enjoying beverages at the nearby Public House or Crafty Bastard would be a simple and pleasant way to wait. Free parking will be provided in a lot beside the business, and is also available under I-40.
A Dopo Pizzaria will initially open for dinner only. While lunch hours may be offered later, Brian points out that daytime hours will be necessary for prep work. The steps they are taking to provide a quality product – like using naturally leavened, which takes five days and the homemade mozzarella mentioned above – take time. Everything will be made from scratch and he believes the value in the product will be clear to guests.
Guests will be greeted by around eight to twelve employees initially and most of the seating will consist of four large communal tables. He wants to encourage people to gather and be with people they don’t necessarily know and enjoy a good meal. Floors will be polished concrete with industrial elements remaining. The restaurant will provide table service and, he hopes, a good culinary and social experience. He has a landing page for a website at this time, at which you may signup for email updates, if you’d like.