It’s a good thing they saved Sophia.
Born in 2005, in the test kitchen of Fondi’s former parent company Restaurants Unlimited Inc., the sourdough starter provides a noticeable tang that shows this pizzeria respects the dough.
Chef and manager Chris Olsen knew he couldn’t leave behind such a prized possession when the restaurant abruptly closed at the end of September.
Landry’s Inc. — the conglomerate behind dozens of restaurant brands including McCormick & Schmick’s and Del Frisco’s — bought RUI, which filed for bankruptcy last July, for $37 million in September. On Friday, Sept. 28, a company suit landed in Gig Harbor to deliver the news: Landry’s didn’t want Fondi.
“At 8 p.m., the rug got pulled out from underneath us,” recalled Olsen. He insisted on staying open the next day to honor reservations already on the books and to break the news to his staff.
“Everybody rose to the occasion.”
As his staff cleaned the pizzeria from top to bottom one last time, Olsen divided the 15-year-old sourdough starter, nicknamed Sophia Loren, into bubbling blobs for the cooks to take home.
“It was an emotional night,” Olsen told The News Tribune.
It turned out to be an emotional week for Olsen, who quickly wrangled his network to save the brand and its beloved Sophia.
By Monday, Sept. 30, he had a “handshake deal” with the landlord to take over the lease and sign a new contract. The wheels to retain the name, branding and recipes already were rolling.
“I’ve opened restaurants for other people for a long time,” said Olsen, who had worked for RUI since 2011. “I’ve never seen anything happen as quickly and smoothly as it did here. It was 100 miracles of 100 miracles. Things don’t happen that fast.”
Fondi exclusively uses Italy’s renowned Mulino Caputo “00” flour, more finely milled and higher in protein than standard all-purpose flour. It’s a pizzaiolo’s best friend, and it’s the best part of the pizza experience at Fondi.
It’s also the reason you should dine in. The restaurant in Uptown Gig Harbor has two entrances; you place your initial order at the counter, then servers bring your drinks, food and check to the table.
I get the convenience, but Neapolitan-style pizzas get soggy quickly and don’t deserve to waste their prime in the backseat of a car. These 12-inch pies, baked for five minutes in a 700-degree, gas-powered WoodStone oven, are best enjoyed immediately — a foregone conclusion with at least two people at the table.
The Bianco ($12.50) offers the most unadulterated vehicle to appreciate the crust, salty and scattered here with desirable shreds of crispy cheese, like the pan-fried edges of a grilled cheese sandwich. Topped with ricotta and housemade mozzarella, this white pizza and four others ($11.95 to $13.95) skip the sauce for an herb-infused olive oil.
That’s a good thing, as Fondi spreads a modest amount of crushed tomato sauce on its classic red pies. Olsen said the recipe has never called for tomato paste, which can sweeten and thicken sauces.
The Margherita ($11.95) is straightforward, but I preferred the Sausage & Mushroom ($13.50) with its bonus four-cheese blend and roasted creminis.
The Milano ($14.95) would fare better without the herb-roasted chicken, which dries out in the oven and cancels the winning combination of pepperoni and Cascioppo’s Italian sausage. The Prosciutto & Arugula ($13.95) came highly recommended by a server, but ideally the leaves would be evenly sprinkled versus piled high in the center and the sweet balsamic truly drizzled.
These shortcomings are not deal-breakers so much as personal preference. My companions liked that the balsamic was not overly acidic, nor did they seem bothered by the sliced sausage link instead of the typical crumbled version. And the white pizza was the first to go.
In pizza world, the last pie standing is also the weakest link. Sorry, Milano.
Nonetheless, I never give up on a slice — not until the very last bite of cornicione, the outer edges of the crust that double as the benchmark for memorable pizza dough. Fondi’s is excellent, and it’s worth at least one $6 toll across Narrows Bridge to taste what a difference a grandfathered starter can make.
“Our general mentality of keeping things super simple is not necessarily a way of life as much as it is a necessity,” said Olsen, noting that even the couple of pastas and paninis on the menu are cooked in the pizza oven.
For those on that side of the Sound, Fondi’s is a reliable place for a reasonably priced meal to feed a few hungry folks, and a smart choice to snap that pizza craving.
Salads, all with homemade dressings, hit the spot, too: The Caesar’s “croutons” are actually mini flatbreads made with Sophia; the Verde features a textural spring mix, pancetta and artichoke hearts; and the roasted red peppers on the Gorgonzola are a treat unto themselves. At $4.95 for a single serving, or $7.95 to $12.95 for a shareable medium or large, get yourself some roughage.
Despite its shopping plaza location, the minimalist space with high ceilings manages to feel like a neighborhood joint, bustling with takeout orders and an in-and-out weekday dinner rush.
Olsen, who now owns the restaurant with two business partners, has likewise committed to this community mentality. They rehired most of their employees and renewed their fundraising partnerships with local schools, sports teams and a few nonprofits.
Since reopening on Oct. 28, not much has changed in the atmosphere or the menu, save for an expanded drink list with more wine, craft beer (including a house amber ale brewed by Pyramid in Seattle) and cocktails.
“Right now, we’re not changing the menu because I don’t want to scare anybody,” Olsen told me in late January, adding that he plans to add more sandwiches at lunch. “I didn’t want to change a lot from what Fondi was. People still drive here from Kent and Renton, where the original Fondi started. They love it for what it is. Gig Harbor has a lot of things that draw people to the area, and we are one of those things.”
▪ 4621 Point Fostick Dr. #200, Gig Harbor, 253-851-6666
▪ Order pickup through ToastTab.com