Crisscrossed logs fire a pizza oven at the end of a long granite bar. I imagine the flame-licked pit is the furnace of buried Locomotive 231, entombed beneath Jefferson Park, giving an eerie double-meaning to the Richmond Cold Storage Building, which holds Flames 231, a Shockoe Bottom pizzeria, in its base.
Danny Taormina cooks, and he waits to start his orders until he sees signs that the customers are ready to eat or to go. That means that I've finished my first Hardywood Singel ($3, draft at happy hour) before he spins the crust. There are no to-go orders cooked and queued on the bar in advance of pickup.
The dough has a lovely push and pull to it that I remember the next day. Like an evolving romance, the Siciliana ($10 lunch, $12 dinner) — punchy with sausage, mozzarella and basil — offers satisfaction in its restraint. Cheese and toppings are applied lightly, as is the blister from the wood oven.
Prosciutto stuffed calzone ($8) is thin-pulled dough at its yeasty, wood-charred finest. No circus topping such as pineapple is offered, just the basics: fresh mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, sausage and anchovies. Stoners seeking a Wolfgang Puck fix don't have much to work with, but pizza purists have all they need.
Flames 231 runs the same menu for lunch and dinner. The price and circumference of the pizzas ratchets up a couple of notches at dinner, but the appetizers, sandwiches, salad and pastas stay the same, with prices of $10 or less.
The place isn't fancy. It's elegant and urban. Tables are close together. Music is ho-hum, most of it sounding like indie songs that have gone on to advertise cell phones or computers. A patio and walls of windows offer city gazing. Viewing the dining room at lunch is like checking out Anna Kournikova's legs on the tennis court — streaming sunlight makes the roam up and down extra enjoyable. But the best seats are at the bar, in front of the pizza oven and seven taps of beer, including Italian and craft American.
One thing I notice when I order a glass of lambrusco is that wine bottles are labeled with dates and that the servers double-check the wine's freshness with a taste before serving. Wine changes after exposure to air, so knowing how long the bottle has been open is important. Testing a wine on day two or three before serving is imperative, but isn't done as frequently as you'd think. I appreciate the attentiveness, and the well-thought-out list of Italian bistro wines.
It's difficult for me to get worked up about the rest of the menu. Not because the food isn't good — it is. It's just that the pizza is great. Lasagna della nonna ($9) is tasty but looks like it should be served with a trowel, not a fork. Instead of layers of gooey cheese and a thick crust of mozzarella, the Flames 231 version consists of a pile of meat sauce on flat noodles with thinly sliced fresh mozzarella, rubbery from heat.
The salmon salad ($9), dressed with tangy balsamic and a fairy dusting of pungent, creamy Gorgonzola, is a tasty bargain. Appetizers of mozzarella fritta ($7) are seen on more than one table of ladies meeting after work. The fried cheese triangles are house-made, sending fat cells screaming in delight. I don't order the mozzarella caprese because it's winter in this hemisphere.
For dessert, the tiramisu ($5) is just tipsy. I like that it's left fluffy textured, not sodden with booze. Finished with a snowstorm of cocoa powder, each ladyfinger keeps its figure from a delicate soaking. The tiramisu, like the pizza, is simple, traditional and worth unearthing. Unlike its namesake, Train 231, which has been buried for nearly a hundred years, this restaurant is easy to get to. Go for pizza. S
423 N. 18th St.
Monday-Tuesday: 5-10 p.m.
Wednesday: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-10 p.m.
Thursday: 5-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.