224 Seven Farms Drive
Entrée Prices: Moderate ($7-$14)
Serving: Lunch & Dinner, daily
Slowly but surely, the dining scene on Daniel Island is evolving, with each transition bringing better and more diverse options. The latest newcomer is Vespa Pizzeria, and it continues the trend, adding not only artisanal wood-fired pizza and Neapolitan-style meals but also a big splash of post-industrial design.
Vespa is the creation of owners Tammy and Gerry Haight, and the small kitchen is led by Executive Chef Jonathan Banta, formerly of 39 Rue de Jean downtown. It's in the spot formerly occupied by the Soda Water Grill, which recently moved to a new location over in Mt. Pleasant.
It's hard not to talk about the restaurant's design first, because it's so visually striking.
The old Soda Water interior got a total overhaul, and the result is a postmodern blend of industrial and European styles. It's the work of Dan Stumphouse — who also created the sleek designs for Mercato, Oak, and Vespa's Daniel Island neighbor Ali Baba Mediterranean Deli. It takes a minute for one to fully get it (especially if one is a bit dense and distracted by the prospect of a bowl of white bean soup), but suddenly everything starts to come together: the Vespa tires lined up on the rack over the entry to the open kitchen, the bar footrail that's just an unpainted metal pipe with plain fittings, and the big red drum next to the door that looks like it would contain motor oil but actually holds the restaurant's stock of olive oil. You're dining in a pizza factory, with much of the back-of-the-house restaurant stuff moved right out front.
The walls are carefully painted to look like aged concrete, and the wait staff wears tan mechanics' shirts as if they're there to fix Vespa motorcycles. Perhaps the most arresting feature is the big wall that faces you as you enter: it's composed solely of firewood stacked floor to ceiling, a clever combination of style and function, since the heart of the restaurant is the massive wood-fired oven that dominates the open kitchen. That oven is a handcrafted Italian number made not from clay or terra-cotta bricks but rather from space-age-sounding "high alumina refractory materials" that can sustain temperatures of 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
The setting may look like a factory, but the focus is on high-quality, handcrafted food. Banta and his crew make their pizza dough from imported Italian flour, and a few minutes in the super-hot oven transforms it into a superb thin crust that manages to be crispy at the edges but still have that good bread chewiness in the middle. At dinner time, the pizzas are 10 inches in diameter, while at lunch they are eight inches wide and cost two dollars less (so, by my math, you're paying a buck an inch).
Vespa serves Neapolitan-style pizza, so you won't find pies piled high with mounds of cheese or slathered with a gallon of tomato sauce. There's a clear focus on authenticity, which means San Marzano tomatoes and real buffalo mozzarella. The shrimp pizza ($11) is almost green from the layer of arugula and pecan pesto that serves as its base, and it's topped with mozzarella, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, and a half dozen fat, tasty shrimp. The Margherita ($9) could use a little bit more of the buffalo mozzarella, but what's on there blends nicely with the basil, tomatoes, and that great crispy/chewy crust.
Vespa's menu is small. While the permutations and combinations of toppings would allow for thousands of options, the menu lists just seven different pizzas. Beyond that, there are just three appetizers, one soup, and two salads, all of which are far from your typical pizza parlor fare.
The white bean soup ($5), once some salt is added, makes for a luxurious, comforting starter with its thick beans and drizzle of truffle oil and cream. The arugula and local beet salad ($7) mixes some splendidly sweet golden beets with candied walnuts and goat cheese along with a citrus thyme vinaigrette.
Rue de Jean is famous for its mussels, and Banta brings that expertise to Vespa. The fat mussels ($7) are served in a delightful white wine, garlic, and basil sauce (there's a tomato, white wine, and oregano version, too). The accompanying triangles of flat bread — essentially pizza dough brushed with olive oil and cooked in the big wood-fired oven — are excellent just by themselves, and, when dunked in the white wine broth after all the mussels are gone, are even better.
In addition to the pizzas and appetizers, there is a regular rotating set of daily specials — usually three a day — that typically feature some sort of pasta, steak, or seafood. On one of my recent visits, the specials included chicken in gorgonzola cream sauce over fresh housemade spaghetti ($14). While the gorgonzola cream was a little too sweet and rich (if that's possible), the spaghetti itself was absolutely wonderful — with that chewy, satisfying texture you get from good fresh pasta.
There's a kid's menu, too, with little pizzas, pasta, and chicken fingers, which are served with sauteed zucchini instead of fries (this is Daniel Island, after all). There's Peroni and Moretti beer on tap, and an intriguing wine list populated with all-Italian varieties. The gelato and cookies on the dessert menu are made in-house, as is their limoncello.
There was a time when there was little to choose from when dining on Daniel Island. Vespa is the latest in a series of new restaurants that are helping to change that. With both the style of the restaurant and the substance of its ambitious menu, Vespa is a welcome addition.