A row of fire-tending rakes and shovels hangs on the white tiled wall behind the large-domed oven, the breathing, pulsating heart of the restaurant. The pizzaiolo grabs a prepped pie from the low counter behind him, sliding it into the mouth of the oven. Two and a half minutes later, the puffy crown is blistered and singed, tiles of mozzarella gently melted along the thin midsection of the pie, its thin bottom lovely and leopard-spotted. A gentle crackle to the char-dappled “pizza bones,” a bit of tug and chew underneath. A handful of carefully chosen and sparingly applied toppings provide accent. When the pies at Bollo Woodfired Pizza are in top form, they’re swell.
Of course, two and a half minutes is a long time for a Neapolitan-style pie, and that long trip sometimes shows. So, too, does the lack of attendance by the man with the peel. Across several visits, he seemed content to slide the pies in, slide the pies out, send them on their way. There was no careful checking and turning, moving this quadrant of crust closer to those crackling flames, tilting an edge up or away to control that all-important char.
A Salsiccia, for example, pulled from the Bianco section of the dozen or so pies on offer, came with a blond undercarriage and an alarmingly pale crown with some few spots outright burned. Not charred. Burned. Yes, there is a difference. Its combination of buffalo mozzarella, sausage, roasted peppers, red onions and fresh oregano (a repeat touch, surprisingly effective in its large, largely uncooked clumps) hit the right flavor notes (it was, perhaps, just a bit busy), but failed to deliver the textural contrasts that may be the hallmark of truly excellent Neapolitan pies.
Contrast that with the Margherita pie from an earlier visit, which told a different story. Though a more pronounced lattice of yeasty bubbles would have been nice, the crown, or cornicione, came nicely peaked. Mottled around its circumference with a nice distribution of char — and graced with a simple spread of zippy tomato sauce, tiles of good quality milky-sweet cheese and fragrant basil — it was exactly what I’d hoped to find after several trusted associates had pointed to Bollo as a contender for Houston’s own pizza cornicione.
I’d heard, also, that Bollo set itself apart through its broader menu, offering a selection of small plates and entrées uncommon among specialists in the Neapolitan game. Unfortunately, virtually none of those offerings stood up to the best pies coming out of the oven, nor do they serve as draws in their own right.
A plate of meatballs came nestled on a puddle of simple, punchy marinara, but lacked flavor. Simmered without any sign of browning, they could have used some meaty punch and even something so basic as a pinch of salt to wake them up. So, too, could they do with some texture. As is, they’re tender enough to be considered mushy. That would work better if the slices of bread served alongside were toasted or grilled, rather than coming to the table warmed and brushed with a bit of garlic butter, but they were instead sadly soft-on-soft.
That same soft bread comes with a plate of pleasantly creamy burrata accented with obvious but pleasant counterpoints of tomato and basil and a restrained hand with black truffle oil. A few flakes of salt and a bit of toasty crunch on the bread would greatly improve one of the few passable small plates.
While the burrata could be salvaged with a bit of toast, the dish of local kale and garbanzos needs significantly more work. While the menu doesn’t advertise a cooking method, most diners won’t expect a water-logged heap of haphazardly cut greens, liquid pooling in the bowl. Shavings of parmesan do nothing to bring the mess together. Salt, acid and heat might. Why not run the kale through that blistering oven? A bit of char would go a long way in adding interest to what feels like a complete afterthought.
Not all of the non-pizza options falter, fortunately. The pork chop fares surprisingly well, for example. Nicely juicy in the center with good smoky char outside, it’s a gratifying piece of meat on its own. Then, the nutty, slightly high notes of marsala sing in the sauce glazing the chops and forming little tributaries along the plate. More of the advertised mushrooms would be a nice touch, but well-seasoned, rough-hewn mashed potatoes make a nice landing pad for the stray juices as you swipe each bite of pork across the dish. It’s simple but well thought out, each component working together toward a harmonious whole.
That simplicity, often a hallmark of Neapolitan pies, would be well applied to those at Bollo. Some of the pizzas here try to stand out by shuffling off the constraints of restraint, peppering the menu with buzzwords like “pork belly” or “Wagyu.” The latter shows up on a Texas-ified number, but it’s rendered in ignorable crumbles. If the point of Wagyu is marbling, that point is blunted by grinding and scattering the beef like so much unseasoned hamburger. That pie also suffered from a uniformly overcooked crown, colored an even shade of dark brown occasionally punctuated by overly aggressive char. Nearly three minutes at 800 degrees, without the care and attention taken to move the pie around the oven’s inevitable hot and cool spots, and the crust almost inevitably loses its luster. That said, the fresh chilies scattered on top proved a nice surprise, offering crunch and freshness and a different kind of heat than you might be expecting if you’re expecting the more common pickled version, both more insistent and more ethereal. All in all, though, the whole thing feels like a broken promise, the allure of premium beef fizzling into reality in front of you.
Stick to the simpler pies, and you’ll find greater pleasure, in terms of both execution and price. Aside from the 50/50 shot at a pretty good pizza, it’s worth noting that Bollo offers that little luxury at a somewhat lower price point than nearby favorite Pizaro’s. Across the menu, the selections at Bollo will save you an average of a few bucks a pie.
Service can underline that value proposition, or erase it, depending on which face you get. Where one evening’s server was warm and accommodating, offering suggestions and checking in with the right balance of attention and restraint, an early-evening visit found our party rushed to the point of feeling chased out. On that occasion, we hadn’t had our pies 15 minutes before our waiter asked to box everything up. We said no. He was back less than three minutes later. We told him he could bring the boxes (he seemed so eager), and before I knew it, the pies were whisked away. A few seconds later, he returned for the baby’s plate, pulling it out from under the kid while he reached for a bite of meatball, like the Grinch reaching back through the chimney for that last festive bauble. We had had a few moments of disarray, when the baby sent his kid-cup of water skittering across the floor, spilling its contents along the way. Still, we were in a semi-enclosed alcove, a barrier insulating us from the rest of the dining room, itself scantily filled. Besides, Bollo feels otherwise like a family-friendly option; this experience was jarring and off-putting and a real damper on a meal that had already had more downs than ups.
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All in all, Bollo seems like it’s a few steps away from being consistently good. The idea of a few simple plates to round out a couple of pies is appealing, but the plates themselves underwhelm too often. The idea of a neighborhood place turning out top-notch Neapolitan pies is appealing, but the pies only peak on occasion, disappointing by way of ill-conceived toppings or an ill-tended oven, and the service isn’t always neighborly. The idea of a cheaper option than the sticker shock that sometimes accompanies the best of Houston’s beautifully spartan Neapolitan pizzas is appealing, but you have to weigh the lowered prices with the lowered standards.
If the kitchen put as much thought and care into the other dishes as it sometimes does into the pizza; if that thought and care were more consistently applied to the pies; if the toppings found a more capable editor; if the charming service offered by some of the staff were offered by more of it…Unfortunately for Bollo, and for Houston’s pizza lovers, that’s a lot of ifs.
Bollo Woodfired Pizza
2202-A West Alabama, 713-677-0391, bollohouston.com. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Beef meatballs $7
Local kale and garbanzo $6
Black truffle burrata $8
Pork chop marsala $18
Salsiccia bianca pizza $14
Margherita pizza $12
Texas Wagyu beef pizza $15