A Slice of Heaven
A Harbor East pizza shop offers more to love than just its pies
"We don't have spoons," said the young guy behind the counter at Bagby Pizza Co. responding to a request for something with which to dish out our large bowls of pasta and salad. But spoons may be the one amenity Bagby is missing (something sure to change when the restaurant starts serving soup in the near future). After nine weeks, this Harbor East BYOB spot already offers spot-on counter and table service, real china, and good quality beer and wine glasses (the pints bear the company name stenciled in red), not to mention the generous sandwiches and crispy cracker-thin crusted pizzas which require no cutlery at all, and will most likely leave you licking your fingers.
Like Grano in Hampden, Bagby Pizza Co. charms by offering a limited, affordable, and well-executed menu in a comfortable, neighborhood-friendly space. Judging from the crowd present one evening, everyone feels welcome, from the parents of small toddlers at the corner table to young hipsters treating their parents to a night out to dating couples, girls'-night-outers, and the guys in hoodies and beards that chat with the counter staff. There's only one television, perched high on an exposed-brick wall that also accommodates works from local artists, and classic rock spills from the soundsystem. Window boxes sprout (silk?) orchids. It's surprisingly cozy, a small slice of calm in the bustle of Harbor East.
The routine is simple here. You choose a table, peruse the compact menu (three salads, four pastas, six sandwiches, six pizzas) scrawled on the chalkboard or printed on a takeaway menu, then order at the counter. While you wait, a staff member comes around bearing plates and glasses, offering to open bottles. Soon after, he's back with food, a sizeable square bowl of Caesar salad ($6.99), dressed with a creamy, not overly salty dressing, and ample enough for several folks to share. It's one of three the restaurant serves (spinach and mixed green round out the trio), eschewing familiar dressings like ranch or Italian for fresh herb vinaigrette or roasted shallot and sherry.
An equally large bowl of pasta, baked penne tumbled together with bright green peas and crispy nuggets of fennel sausage all bound together with a silky tomato cream sauce, arrives next ($11.99). Forget the white-tablecloth restaurants north of Eastern Avenue; this was the best pasta I've had in a long time, the sauce tartly tomato-y and softened by the cream, rather than overwhelmed by its richness. Happily, this portion, too, is more than enough for one (unless the one who ordered it plays for the Ravens). I'm eying the fettuccine with meat sauce for my next visit. Or maybe the penne with wild mushrooms and asparagus.
But if your name is Bagby Pizza Co., the proof of the pudding should be in the pizza. Bagby's menu claims the use of flour "of the finest quality that the Italian peninsula has to offer" and of fresh ingredients whenever possible, and the result is very fine, very thin crust pizza. This means if deep-dish pizza is your thing, you won't like Bagby's pizza (you still may like their pasta, though), but if you dig the kind of crust that snaps like a cracker when you bite into it, Bagby's pizza is for you.
Bagby's employs the too-rare practice of changing up the cheeses as well as the toppings on their specialty pizzas, so that each pie tastes a little different from the other. The gourmet meat pizza (small $10.99; regular $16.99) boasted mozzarella and asiago, as well as caramelized onions, sweet fennel sausage, and sopressata that gave it a salty, lusty heartiness, while the gourmet vegetable (small, $10.99; regular, $16.99) substitutes Grana Padano for the mozzarella as a cheesy bed for wild mushrooms, spinach, asparagus, and roasted artichokes. All those components held their own on the pizza, giving it a sort of green freshness and verve, something that was lacking in the day's special, spicy shrimp pizza (regular, $14.99) which was simply bland. And although the shrimp pizza may have been one of the restaurant's best sellers, according to the staff, I wished instead that we had ordered one of the sandwiches, especially as I watched a towering Italian pass by the table and read the description of the Bagby Burger on the menu: "Tell us how you want it and we'll make it."
In fact, the staff here is so sweet and so eager to please, I imagine that if you wanted something they didn't have, they'd run across to Whole Foods and get it for you (though I'm not suggesting you challenge them in this way). And though service was prompt, the staff made it clear that we could linger. "I don't want to rush you," said one fellow as he brought over boxes for leftover pizza. "Stay and chat for as long as you want." I did, and I will again.