I’m not sure when was the last time that anybody cared whether the food at Pizza D’s, the longtime Stifft Station dive bar of choice, was any good. If you were going to Pizza D’s, it almost certainly wasn’t because of the food, and you probably had another reason to be there anyway. Whether it was the late hours, or pool, or darts, or smoking, or reasonably priced beer, you likely weren’t there for the grub. And that’s probably a good thing. Several years ago I walked back into the Pizza D’s kitchen and witnessed – and I’m being extremely kind here – a kitchen that should have been shut down on the spot. For years, Pizza D’s was the punchline for the food scene’s jokes. Fine if you want to smoke and have a beer; go somewhere else if you’re hungry.
Why am I bringing up such nasty memories? Only because they serve as a shocking contrast to what might be the greatest kitchen turnaround I’ve seen in Arkansas. This week when I stepped back into Pizza D’s kitchen, I found griddle tops scrubbed clean, fresh oil in the fryer, a line with everything in its place, a floor gleaming to the point of being unrecognizable. There was no grease, no dirt, no grime. It’s still a nearly 50-year-old kitchen, but the cleanliness! It was like I had previously seen the “before” scene on Kitchen Nightmares and Gordon Ramsay had beat it into shape between visits.
But of course, I found no angry British chef in the galley. Instead, this transformation came at the hands of Lawrence Pickard, a former Navy man, and veteran of Little Rock dive bar restaurants. Having earned his stripes in the kitchens at Midtown Billiards, Rev Room and Town Pump, Pickard came into Pizza D’s a little more than a month ago and started cleaning.
“My number one priority was getting us up to standards, meeting all the requirements of the health department and safety,” said Pickard. “We had a lot of work to do. We had to replace part of the floor, it had gotten so bad. The second thing I did was take inventory of what we could get in here that was fresh.”
And that leads me to the food, which again was a complete turnaround from anything I’d ever had or seen from Pizza D’s. Nearly every dish is new or changed. Of course, we have to talk about the pizzas, which are now made on a hand-built herbed crust that Pickard adapted from the former owner’s recipe. It’s pleasantly soft with a firm enough crust on the bottom to support the slice. I tried Pickard’s version of a Margherita, which featured Roma tomatoes, basil cooked with the pie, garlic, and fresh-grated Parmesan. And it was delightful, with robust, clean flavors and a crispy crust. And given Pickard’s history at Midtown, I had to try the cheeseburger pizza. I’ll come back again for this one. Where most cheeseburger pizzas taste like way too much pickle, this one was balanced and mustard-forward, with freshly griddled burger punching through each bite.
“Everything I can, it’s all hand-done, in house,” said Pickard. “The dough is done every day, it’s fresh made. My big priority is freshness. I want people to come in here and think, ‘I can come in here and get a cheap beer and maybe some pizza,’ and then give them a pizza that they were not expecting.”
The other dish that I’m currently craving as I write this is the new D’alzones that Pickard describes as a combination of fried ravioli and a calzone. It’s essentially a pizza empanada, and it’s hand-made and stuffed with cheese and sausage or pepperoni. Pickard served it with his new “spicy nonbinary pink sauce,” which was instantly addictive. I can’t believe I’m typing this: this is a freaking fantastic appetizer that I will be recommending everyone try. And it’s at Pizza D’s!
This complete overhaul just shows that the number one ingredient in running a restaurant is caring about it. The work I saw that has gone into Pizza D’s only comes from passionate, determined leaders who won’t stop until the job is done to their own high standards. Kudos to Pickard and everyone at Pizza D’s who is giving this tired old haunt brand new life. I’m completely impressed. The restaurant is still a smoking establishment during the evening and night (no smoking during lunch), and that may turn some people off. But if you can handle that, I encourage you to go back to Pizza D’s and see the changes for yourself.