Located in downtown Little Rock’s SoMa district, PIRO Brick Oven and Barroom is quickly becoming a popular haunt for locals and visitors alike. Equal parts easygoing and edgy, the restaurant’s décor is as pleasing to the eye as the fare is to the palate. Read on to learn more about the new eatery and pub.
>>THE RESTAURANT CONCEPT
Jason Neidhardt is no stranger to the Arkansas restaurant scene. After having worked at, been part-owner of, or helped to launch more than a dozen central Arkansas eateries, he had a yearning for a place all his own. Enter his brother, Eric Nelson and business partner Bart Barlogie Jr.—who, together, own The Fold, in Little Rock’s Riverdale district. Nelson and Barlogie had secured a building on South Main Street in Little Rock and were waiting for the right concept and team before launching their next venture. After deciding to center the restaurant on brick-oven pizzas, they turned to central-Arkansas advertising agency Eric, Rob & Isaac, and the name PIRO—as well as the emblematic logo—were born. As the storyline of the eatery unfolded, Neidhardt took the reins as head chef and operations partner, positions from which he currently oversees the day-to-day portion of the business.
Although he has been a part of numerous restaurant openings, Neidhardt admits he had “never done pizza before.” Rising to the challenge, he spent time at DeLuca’s Pizzeria Napoletana in Hot Springs and with Georges Launet, the mastermind behind Little Rock’s Pizzeria Santa Lucia. From there, he carefully developed a menu that gives the feel of a fine dining establishment (echoing his prior experience) with the offerings of a true Italian comfort-food restaurant. “We have a small menu that isn’t meant to overwhelm the customer,”
Neidhardt says. “It’s the kind of place where you can come to grab lunch and know you’ll have plenty of time to get your food and enjoy it before you head back to the office,” he adds.
For example, you’ll find locally sourced, fresh-ingredient salads, including the “Date Night,” which features shaved fennel, pistachios, dates, and Gorgonzola dressing and the more traditionally Italian “Caprese,” which consists of mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and local mixed greens topped with a balsamic vinaigrette. Alongside the salads, guests can also enjoy hearty appetizers such as meatballs, beef Carpaccio, and bone marrow, which Neidhardt says he feels gives the pizzeria distinction. “With my background in fine dining, I wanted to raise the bar with the starters. [Customers] can look at our starters and trust that we know what we’re doing.”
As for the main attraction, the menu’s eight pizzas include everything from the “Funghi,” which delights veggie lovers with a mix of wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, sautéed spinach, mozzarella, and olive oil, to the popular “Salsiccia,” featuring PIRO’s house-made fennel sausage, peppadews, mozzarella, andpomodoro sauce. What’s more, if you’ve managed to save room for dessert, Neidhardt recommends the Gelato Floatato—a scoop of Loblolly gelato (which is made just across the street) covered with root beer, which is served on tap, alongside 19 other craft beer options.
>>THE DESIGN SCHEME
After nailing down the food concept, the partners brought in Little Rock-based designer Shelby Cotton to give shape to the formerly empty SoMa location. “When I first saw the space, in my mind the layout was a given,” Cotton says of the restaurant’s three main areas—the floating bar, the cozy waiting and lounge area, and the dining tables and banquette seating. Because the building is narrow, Cotton notes that “the banquette was a must to maximize seating and allow people to move freely around the bar area.”
As for the overall look of the space, Cotton desired to keep with the authenticity of the old city-block building by using materials that would have been found in the space originally. These include the existing ceiling tiles, vintage exposed brick walls, and a marble counter at the bar. As for the palette, Cotton notes, “People think of red as a pizzeria color, so I wanted to incorporate it but not make it the sole color of the space.” Rather than splashing the hue across the walls, she introduces it in accents, including the dining chairs, and it mixes beautifully with the room’s rich gray for a fresh, contemporary appeal.
A bevy of features tailored specifically to the restaurant’s brand add to the impact of the décor. For example, what appear to be rough-hewn wooden floor planks were actually harvested from the back of tractor-trailer trucks. “They have lots of character and are very durable,” Neidhardt notes. In keeping with Cotton’s desire to enhance the original presence of the building, she chose industrial pendant lights with an antiquated look and hung them at varying heights for visual interest. The pendants are juxtaposed with modern-style light fixtures in the bar and common areas. These more contemporary pieces blend with the space’s trendsetting palette and also work well with the artwork, which includes a mix of large and small abstract pieces by two Little Rock artists—Ray Wittenberg and Dan Thornhill. “I think the art really pops and solidifies the spaces,” Cotton says of their eye-catching appeal. Finally, she brought in a vintage red trunk and had small seating cubes reupholstered with Kilim pillow covers to give the space depth. “This is my solution to not being able to have rugs and throw pillows as you would in your home,” she concludes of the inviting effect.
Contractor Central Construction Group, Little Rock, (501) 244-9085, centralconstructiongroup.net
Interior design Shelby Wittenberg Cotton, Shelby Cotton Design, Little Rock, (501) 690-0963
Logo design Eric, Rob & Isaac, Little Rock, (501) 978-6329, ericrobisaac.com
Accessories, furniture, and lighting Shelby Cotton Design, Little Rock, (501) 690-0963
Brick Antique Brick and Block, Little Rock, (501) 375-0060, antiquebrickinc.com
PIRO Brick Oven and Barroom, 1318 South Main Street, Little Rock, (501) 374-7476, pirolr.com