Brooks Reitz doesn’t open restaurants; he creates little worlds. The Charleston, South Carolina, entrepreneur is the man behind Jack Rudy Cocktail Company, plus a growing group of restaurants within steps of each other on the upper reaches of King Street. First came Leon’s Oyster Shop, an eclectic ode to oysters and fried chicken, then Little Jack’s Tavern, a throwback with steaks and martinis. And slated to open this summer is Italian outpost Melfi’s. Each eatery is a crafted concept that requires months of research and planning: For Melfi’s, that meant nailing the perfect pizza. Reitz tasted pies at home and abroad to get it right. He fills us in on the standouts.
How’d you get into restaurants?
I moved to town about ten years ago. I was the general manager at FIG and helped open the Ordinary as the GM as well. At that same time, I was growing a company of my own: Jack Rudy Cocktail Company. That allowed me to break away and open Leon’s.
We’ve heard you were once an aspiring playwright.
I studied English and drama in college; I acted and wrote plays and scripts and all sorts of things. I still write—I consider myself a closeted writer. And I’ve always enjoyed the theater around hospitality.
How does that influence your restaurants?
[My business partner] Tim Mink and I design the restaurants ourselves. We pick out everything from the light fixtures to the uniforms to the playlist. Literally. It’s all in an effort to tell a story and create a little world in each restaurant. And that’s really fun—it’s one of the things I love most about what I do.
Each of your restaurants is so distinctive. What inspires all these ideas?
First and foremost, it’s about what we feel the city wants or needs. For example, with Melfi’s, it wasn’t that we thought “there’s nowhere to eat pizza in town,” because there are some great places. But there’s nowhere doing pizza and pasta with the service and environment we want to provide. It’s about thinking of what our customers want and what we’re excited about. And if the two things meet, we feel like we have something.
And what ideas are exciting for the two of you?
Tim and I love to travel. We’re often inspired by somewhere we went, whether it’s Rome or Mexico or London or New York. We’re just trying to bring the places we like back to Charleston. But it’s ironic because once I open restaurants, I’m not comfortable eating in them—I’m too aware of everything that’s going on, to a fault. So I’m constantly opening these places where I want to eat and then not eating in them.
Tell us about Melfi’s. What type of pizza can we expect?
Melfi’s is more than just a pizzeria. It’s an Italian restaurant, with a focus on pizza. We’re calling it “Roman-ish” pizza, because it’s not totally traditional; we’re taking some liberties with the toppings. (For example, we’ll have one on the menu with bacon and iceberg lettuce and buttermilk ranch called the Iceberg Slim.)
What’s the vibe going to be like?
We’re going for that classic club feel from the ’50s, with lamps on the tables and those oldschool, nostalgic touches. We have a beautiful old bar from Philadelphia and a long banquette upholstered in green leather. We’ve also got some illustrations we purchased from an artist we met in Rome. It’ll feel nicer than your average pizza joint, but cozier than an upscale Italian restaurant. It’s a place you’d feel comfortable on Tuesday for lunch, but also on a date Saturday night. We’re trying to make it feel approachable for any time of the day or week.
Reitz’s Pizza Picks
BAFFETO | Rome
The pizzeria that inspired Melfi’s, this Roman joint is low on the frills, with one oven and two cooks working side by side, cranking out paper-thin pizzas with just the right amount ofchar. “They were so good we went back three times,” Reitz says. “I fell in love with that thin style of pizza, and we’ve been trying to recreate it ever since.”
MARTA | New York City
Marta is located inside the Redbury Hotel in Manhattan’s burgeoning NoMad district. In addition to its rustic, thin crust pizzas, Reitz is a big fan of the wine list and individual bottle-aged negronis (he also recommends checking out the hotel’s Roman-style aperitif bar, Vini e Fritti).
ROCA BAR | Evansville, IN
“This is the pizzeria of my childhood, and they are still slinging one of my favorite pies in the country,” says Reitz, who grew up across the Ohio River in Henderson, Kentucky. His order? Around the World (beef, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, and tomatoes). “I don’t think I’ve ever had anything else. And I don’t need to.”
BABETTE | Stockholm
In this postage stamp of a pizza joint, a seat at the bar affords diners a view of the compact kitchen with a wood-burning oven that churns out Neapolitan-style pizzas. It’s also home to a killer wine list and small plates that “are better than they need to be,” Reitz says. (He loves the veal tartare.)
LA MORRA | Los Angeles
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Reitz laments the day this former Charleston popup decamped for Los Angeles. From their roving pizza oven, they craft Neapolitan pies with droopy, at times even soupy, middles. “Their toppings weren’t bound by tradition,” Reitz says. “They looked to what was seasonal, what was local, and what was just downright good.”
BÆST | Copenhagen
Christian Puglisi’s pizzeria is positioned on a lively alleyway near a brewery, local cinema, and—inevitably—a ton of bicycles. Reitz and his wife, Erin, gravitate there in the evenings for wood-fired pies, small bites, and aperitifs. “She’s partial to the homemade burrata, and I favor the roasted peppers with olive and ricotta.”
SCARR’S | New York City
Scarr’s classic New York pies crafted with high-quality ingredients earn it the distinction of Reitz’ favorite “slice joint.” Plus, he digs the decor. “It’s heavy on nostalgia for a kid of the ’80s or ’90s, with Formica booths and wood-paneled walls,” he says. “And they have a painting of Gucci Mane. And a vegan Caesar salad that will rip your face off. What’s not to love?”
CART DRIVER | Denver, CO
This pizzeria housed in an old shipping container has the best clam pizza Reitz has ever eaten. The secret? “Tons of tarragon.”
PIZZA EAST | London
“This bustling pizza joint is now a mini-chain owned by the Soho House group, but I first fell in love with their freshman effort in a massive space in Shoreditch,” Reitz says. “What struck me was the design and the incredible bar—a peninsula surrounded by seats on three sides.”
TACCONELLI’S | Philadelphia
Open since 1946, Tacconelli’s is a particular kind of place: It’s cash only, there’s no booze, and it’s recommended you call ahead to reserve your dough. But it’s all worth it, says Reitz. “This was my favorite pizza of 2017.”