Clay oven makes a better pizza

by Brian Clarey

I’ve been waiting for Sticks and Stones, Neil Reitzel’s pizza joint on the corner of Walker Avenue and Elam Street, for years, it seems. And every time I would try to corner Reitzel about the opening date, he would shrug his shoulders and say, “We’re not really in a big hurry,” or words to that effect.

It’s been open since the spring, but I have taken a page from the owner’s playbook and taken my own sweet time to get in there and give it a shot. Take that, Reitzel!

But, as it turns out, I should have been eating there from the day it opened because it is a great little restaurant.

My reasons for this assessment are myriad.

The place looks great, of course. The somewhat dingy interior of the building’s previous occupant, Wild Magnolias, has been opened up to the light of day. The walls have been scrubbed and painted in neutral tones, the hardwood floors refurbished, the windows de-tinted. And a brick oven has been built back in the kitchen, which has also undergone something of a transformation.

And the restaurant has a philosophy that is tied in with environmental responsibility and the Slow Food Movement. The ingredients are fresh, local, seasonal and sustainable: meat from Cane Creek Farm in Snow Camp and Giacomo’s in Greensboro; milk, butter and cream from Homeland Creamery in Julian; produce from the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market; flour from Lindley Mills in Eli Whitney; cheese from the Goat Lady in Climax. The beers come in cans, which are recycled and the proceeds donated to charity. They recycle paper products, and the ink on their pizza boxes is made from vegetables.

There is a hipster quotient, as well, with many of the menu items named after Ryan Adams songs and a quote from Dave Grohl on the menu.

But really, it’s mostly about the food. Fine ingredients and fire roasting make for exceptional pizzas. Ugly, oblong, fire-toasted pizzas, yes, but exceptional nonetheless.

“We don’t have perfect-looking pizzas,” says pizza maker Sandy Blocker, who might be better known to Triad residents as a scholar and practitioner of West African hand drums.

I sampled two: the Firecracker and another called A Kiss Before I Go.

The Kiss featured slices of fried eggplant, wild mushrooms, carmelized garlic and fresh basil under a layer of mozzarella. A bit garlicky but with magnificent texture and chemistry, the vegetarian pie stands as a fixture on the menu and one of the most popular items. And it begs the question: Why are these fried eggplant rounds not on the appetizer menu?

The Firecracker pairs bacon and anchovies (genius!) with roasted chilis, parmesan cheese and parsley oil. And while the heat generated by the chilis didn’t exactly live up to the name, it, too provided some good eating.

A word on anchovies: Not everybody likes the smoky, oily little things. And if you don’t like them, you won’t like the Firecracker. And ordering them on half the pie won’t do – their essence will corrupt the entire pizza. But you should know that they are small, silver fish native to the Mediterranean, that they are part of the herring family and that you probably do like them even if you think you don’t. A bit of anchovy paste provides a strong degree of umami – that savory fifth taste – to everything from Ceasar salad dressing to Worcestershire sauce.


I will be back to Sticks and Stones to try more of the pizza – I already have my eye on the Cherry Lane, with country ham, red onion and pistachios, and the Mockingbirdrising, with chicken, fennel and spinach.

There are salads as well, and if I can stay away from the pizzas I will try the Damn, Sam, a potato salad with gorgonzola, bacon and walnuts.

I also want to try the wood-oven baked peach cobbler, though on my trip I did sample the cookie du jour, peanut butter, baked in that wonderful brick oven.

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