I've begun to suspect that no one can make truly delicious arancini. Those little orbs of rice, stuffed with mozzarella, rolled in bread crumbs and fried: their descriptions always look so tempting on the menu, and when they arrive at your table they look even lovelier, all crisp and steamy and golden-brown. And then you slice into one and take a bite and, well, it's just sort of plain and mild and so much more boring than you thought it was going to be.
At Crust, a new pizza restaurant on Maybank Highway, they tuck a little prosciutto amid the cheese in their arancini ($6), but it doesn't do much to enliven this most underwhelming of appetizers. There's a little dash of flavor from the crisp breadcrumbs, but once you get through that, the rice and oozing melted cheese is so soft, white, and inoffensively mild that it blankets even the saltiness of the prosciutto.
There are a lot of arancini moments at Crust. It's a good-looking restaurant, starting with the big brown metal sign over the door with the restaurant's name stamped out in stylish lowercase. Inside, the walls are lined with rough-hewn wood, giving it a dark and rustic feel. A long bar extends along the left side, a row of booths line the right.
You can tell they're cooking in a wood-fired oven, for a heavy blast of smoke slaps you in the nostrils the moment you step through the front door. That aroma may be a bit overwhelming for some, but it does get you in the mood for some good, slightly charred, wood-fired treats.
There's plenty to choose from in that category. Crust offers nine set-piece pizzas, and even the old standards get a few twists. The margherita ($11) has some garlic tossed on top, while the pepperoni ($12) is aided and abetted by Calabrese salami. There are more complex combinations, too, like roasted butternut squash with mushrooms and goat cheese ($12) and chicken and bacon ($12), which has spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and caramelized onions. If those don't tickle your fancy, you can design your own creative pie from a choice of two dozen toppings that include artichokes, farm eggs, and arugula pesto.
The pizzas are served on thin metal pans and, being a good 12 inches in diameter, straddle that fuzzy line between single-serve and built-for-two. Fortunately, considering the restaurant's name, the pizza's crust is quite good: very thin, with just a touch of black char from the oven's flames.
But atop that crust, the flavors don't always come together. The Crustacean ($12) starts with a layer of arugula pesto instead of tomato sauce, and it's topped with spicy shrimp, prosciutto, basil, and three cheeses, plus a garden of arugula strewn across the top. It sounds delightful on paper, but for some reason the sharp bite of the prosciutto makes the shrimp seem fishier, not richer, and the pesto doesn't seem a hardy enough base for the rest of the flavors.
It may be a result of trying to get too fancy, for the more prosaic pepperoni pizza fares better. The broad, thin-sliced pepperoni has just the right zip of spice, while the melted slices of mozzarella and bright red tomato sauce are combined in the proper proportions for a chewy, tasty bite.
Few pizza joints today focus solely on pies, and Crust augments its menu with a chicken parm sandwich ($9) and a couple of panini ($9) served with handcut fries. Instead of the obvious move of tossing penne or linguini with a bunch of pizza toppings, Crust takes it in a different direction with a selection of gnocchi. The flavors are tempting, like Mepkin Abbey mushrooms and rapini spiked with ricotta and red chili ($10) or local shrimp with tomato sauce, bacon, and basil ($10).
Most tempting of all is the beef short rib gnocchi ($10), which is decked out with rapini, red wine jus, and gremolata, but it doesn't quite follow through on its promise. The gnocchi themselves — stubby cylinders without a trace of fork-tine ribbing — are too mushy. The short rib is tender but a bit dry, and the powerful flavor of the rapini overwhelms everything else, including the thin red wine jus and the undetectable gremolata.
Among the appetizers, the flatbread ($3) succeeds where the arancini do not. The half-dozen triangles of pillowy bread are pleasantly chewy and slightly charred around the edges, sprinkled with flecks of parsley and wisps of mild grated cheese, and paired with a dish of good olive oil for dipping.
My highest expectation of all was for the wood-fired s'mores ($4). I could almost picture them in my mind as I placed my order: marshmallow and chocolate layered on graham crackers and blasted in that big wood-fired oven. What gets delivered is a little different from the old campfire variety, and for the better — a white ramekin filled with a sort of chocolate mousse and a few rectangles of graham cracker tucked inside. A half-dozen marshmallows bulge from the top, toasted a deep-brown and gooey sweet in the middle. If I had to quibble (and I guess I do), the mousse itself is quite cool beneath that melted marshmallow cap, a clash of temperatures that is unexpected and a bit jarring. But it didn't prevent me from polishing off every last bite.
It has become something of a pastime over on James Island to grumble about the lack of good local restaurants. But the small stretch of Maybank Highway between Folly Road and the Stono River has developed into quite the culinary corridor in recent months. With its stylish decor and special oven, Crust has a lot of the assets it would need to fit into the Maybank mix, but for now at least, too many missteps keep it from living up to its potential.