Nine years ago, restaurateur Brad Davis was a software engineer for IBM, working from his Amarillo home and managing a team of employees who were based in China. A little disillusioned and eager for a new challenge, he dreamed of starting a wood-fired catering business on the side. Davis ordered a mobile, wood-fired pizza oven from Boulder, Colo., paid his deposit, and waited for it to be ready.
Then, the 2008 financial meltdown happened. IBM laid off 14,000 people in January of 2009, and Davis was one of them.
That sequence of events led to another kind of meltdown, one involving large amounts of tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. Though unemployed, Davis brought home the pizza oven, experimented with recipes, and started hosting pizza parties in his driveway in the Puckett neighborhood. Then he learned that Cafe Bella, an Italian restaurant tucked behind the Summit Shopping Center at 34th Avenue and Coulter Street, was for sale.
Davis purchased the business and, six months later, reopened the nearly hidden space as Fire Slice Brick Oven Pizzeria. “I had to figure out how to run a restaurant,” he says. “My only restaurant job at that point had been waiting tables at Chili’s in high school. It took a lot of YouTube, Google, and late nights on the computer.” Davis traveled to pizzerias from Denver to Dallas to New York City, inviting himself into kitchens so he could soak up the ins and outs of the craft.
“It started out with a bit of a bang. We had our challenges, and it’s been sink or swim since that moment,” he says.
In recent years, Fire Slice has definitely been swimming. A regular favorite on Best of Amarillo’s “Best Pizza Parlor” list, Fire Slice has built a dedicated, passionate clientele despite the hard-to-find location (and recently swapped Brick Oven in the name for Back Alley Pizzeria). Last month, that success led Davis to open a sister pizzeria called Hop Slice, located at 2818 Wolflin Ave. (Previously, Davis had opened Midtown Kitchen at that location, but closed the wood-fired Italian restaurant in late 2016 in order to refashion it into a wood-fired pizzeria.)
Davis describes Fire Slice as a family-style pizzeria that serves “an American East Coast deck-oven pie,” cooked in a gas-fired brick-lined deck oven. Meanwhile, Hop Slice uses a wood-fired oven, and “is a little edgier, younger, and trendier as far as ingredients,” Davis says. It boasts an open kitchen where patrons are able to watch their pizzas being made – and gives Davis the opportunity to return to the wood-fired pizzas he learned to make in his driveway. That first mobile oven may have come from Colorado, but the oven at Hop Slice was special-ordered from a multigenerational family business in Naples, Italy.
“Wood-fired pizza has a romantic quality about it,” he says. “When you get out of the car and start walking to the door, you’re smelling that wood.” Davis uses only Texas oak to feed the oven, which requires a dense, hot-burning wood. “We have a big wood block in the back and two axes and we cut the wood we need. We start a new fire every morning.” In his mind, the wood-fired oven gives the new restaurant a theatrical element that engages his customers’ senses. “You’ve got visual things to look at and you’re smelling the oven and the fire,” he says. “[Making wood-fired pizza] is an art and it’s really challenging, with a lot of factors and variables. There’s a fine line between it being perfect and being burned.”
While he hopes his loyal Fire Slice patrons will try Hop Slice, Davis promises to continue providing the dishes his regulars love at the Summit location. “Our most popular [pizza] is the Fire Slice Combo,” which features thin-sliced homemade meatballs, pepperoni, onions, and roasted red peppers. “You get that flavor of a meatball without the weight of a meatball that could slide off a pizza and cause a mess. We kept having people ask for a supreme, so that was what we came up with.”
Both pizzerias roast vegetables like mushrooms, artichokes, asparagus, and onions before placing the toppings on the pizza. “This adds flavor and caramelizes the vegetables. So when they go on top of the pizza, you’ve already started with an incredible flavor,” Davis says. “It doesn’t release moisture into the pizza or make it soggy and wet.”
He’s confident that Amarillo patrons have room in their hearts – and stomachs – for one more gourmet pizza joint. “There are definitely some pizza connoisseurs in this town. They know what they like and appreciate [different] styles and want different experiences at each place,” he says. “Amarillo is lucky because there are several good pizza places here. We are a bit of a pizza town.”
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.