[Images by Andrea Hubbell and Sarah Cramer Shields. Words by Megan Headley.]
It’s hard to contain our excitement on the drive to Michael McCarthy’s home in Afton, a half mile from the Nelson County line. We imagine that the man who’s owned Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie for just over five years might have some dough up his sleeve; because there’s something eminently craveable about pizza (even at 10 o’clock in the morning), especially when it comes from Dr. Ho’s. We squeal like high schoolers over the Bellissima, the special-turned-menu staple that tops a margherita pie with ribbons of salty Turner’s ham and peppery arugula dressed in lemon juice, olive oil, and shavings of parmigiano. We try not to get our hopes up.
“Across the street are rolling pastures where Charolais cows usually roam, though today, the fields are bare.”
Michael told us we’d know the house by its double porch. He and his wife Nancy bought the 1822 residence that was once the Craigs Store soon after they bought the pizza place and now have a nine mile, two stop sign, 15 minute commute that winds them through quintessential central Virginian terrain. Across the street are rolling pastures where Charolais cows usually roam, though today, the fields are bare and an irresistible draw to Blue, the McCarthy’s mutt hound who seizes the moment and bolts out the front door on a vole hunt. Coltrane, the basset/beagle mix, stays behind, his short legs better suited for hiding out under the table to intercept the little ones’ investigations of gravity.
Two-and-a-half year old Gideon is ready for company while his 9-month-old baby brother, Reid, naps. Though the home has all the old-fashioned charm one would expect from a 190-year-old building, nothing inside–not even the brightly colored toys in the playroom that had originally housed the town’s post office–feels anachronistic. China cabinets hold various patterns that Nancy acquired from some time managing a china shop and there’s a mirror made from a saddle. The ceiling is formed from wooden planks, yet a modern drum light and an enamel-painted Dine sign hang over the open kitchen. The red door is locked from the inside with a massive metal bar and the huge front-facing windows offer dreamy views. We picture lazy summer days rocking on the porch, listening to the zen-like grazing of cows with a cold drink close by.
Michael’s shucking oysters–a food he learned to love by age 10 when his father, a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman, would bring them home to Baltimore after trips to the Eastern Shore. When Michael uses the term persillade to describe the breadcrumb topping that he’s adding to the mushroom, roasted red pepper, cream, and andouille sausage mixture on the oysters, we realize that this 37-year-old burly, pizza demigod comes from a world of finer dining. He plates the baked half shells on a platter covered with coarse sea salt and pops the cork on a bottle of Thibaut-Janisson.
At 15, Michael began washing dishes and bussing tables at an Irish pub. He attended culinary school in Baltimore and then, taking the lead of some friends, moved to Charlottesville in the mid-90s, working at The Ivy Inn for a year before heading out west. There, he worked at Boulevard in San Francisco and for hotel restaurateur Alessandro Stratta in Las Vegas. In 2000, when Angelo was busy opening Wild Greens (where Peter Chang’s is now), he called Michael and persuaded him to come back to run the Ivy Inn kitchen. Michael worked hard and happy, though knew one day he’d want his own place.
Meanwhile, Nancy, who’d grown up in Manassas (where her first job waiting tables at a Sicilian pizza place ignited what Michael refers to as her “love affair with pizza”) and received her degree in modern dance and choreography at VCU, was living in Charlottesville, working at Moondance (Zocalo’s predecessor), then Palladio, then Metropolitan. The pair met through restaurant circles and would get their dogs together, until they realized that they liked one another more than their dogs did. Nancy left restaurants for real estate, she and Michael married in 2005, and they honeymooned in Italy (further fanning Nancy’s pizza flame).
Serendipity struck during a real estate meeting when Nancy overheard an old Moondance colleague (who’d also turned to real estate) ask a man whether he’d had any luck selling Dr. Ho’s yet. That man was Ian Wren who, with Jerry Danner (the restaurant’s namesake–his first name was Horace and he had a brainy reputation), opened the restaurant back in 1998. Michael and Nancy had eaten at Dr. Ho’s before and though they’d never had that “this is our future” instinct about it, they did envision owning a place where their children could grow up.
They closed on the deal the day before Nancy’s birthday–a mighty fine gift for a lady crazy about pizza. There was one glitch though: Michael had never made a pizza before. Cutting himself a big slice of humble pie, he kept the same team and told them that he would wash dishes if they’d show him everything they know.
Watching Michael knead and toss the dough, you’d never guess that it was a somewhat recently acquired skill. He grabs a wooden pizza peel from the front of the pantry where it hangs and sets it over the counter, laying the stretched round atop a fine dusting of flour. Gideon assumes his post on a Pellegrino box that moves with the action. Whatever slices of Caromont Bloomsbury, Turner’s ham, and mozzarella that don’t make it into Gideon’s hand and then mouth, go onto the pizza.
Using fresh, local product is a practice that Jerry and Ian began (they were Double H Farms very first restaurant account) and that Michael earnestly supports. Wheatberries from neighbor Steadfast Farms are ground into flour for use in the whole wheat crusts and Virginia ham stands in for imported Italian prosciutto. In the summer, Michael and Nancy depend heavily on their home tomato patch. Farmers and foragers come by with freshly laid eggs and bags of mushrooms and walk away with pizza in a barter exchange that harkens back to a bygone era when we traded goods instead of currency.
Michael’s making a breakfast pizza and cracks several eggs onto the pie. Gideon pokes some of the yolks with his fingers. Then he wants to see what will happen when he bashes two eggs together.
The oven is set for 550 degrees (Michael says “you can’t go too hot”), and he slides the pizza from the peel onto the baking stone without a snag. He rarely makes pizza at home (Nancy still regularly requests it, of course, but it usually comes from the restaurant), yet says it can easily be done and sells balls of ready-to-stretch dough everyday.
In the 15 minutes that the pizza cooks, Michael makes a jewel box of a salad with radish, apple, pomegranate, endive, greens, and spiced pecans. The assembly of a second pizza–caramelized onions, crispy bacon, potatoes, dollops of ricotta, and rosemary–happens quickly while Gideon is occupied with a squishy ball of dough.
When the breakfast pizza emerges–eggs set and cheese browned–a scattering of freshly torn arugula squeezed with lemon goes on top and we have a morning rendition of our beloved Bellissima. The second pie receives a finishing drizzle of truffle oil and flurry of aged gouda.
Gideon gets the first slice, which he eats on his Pellegrino perch with Coltrane hopefully looking on. Reid’s having an appetizer of Cheerios while he awaits his main course of mashed pasta bolognese. The boys appetites are already voracious, so Nancy reckons owning a pizzeria will come in mighty handy during the teenage years. Our town’s own appetite for their pizza is insatiable too though. The restaurant’s devoted following has outgrown its 38 seats and Michael and Nancy have broken ground on an expansion project that will make room for 85 diners by early summer.
We drink Italian wine and eat pizza that would make the Neapolitans proud. The original town’s name where the house stands was Farina, the Italian word for flour. Perhaps another sign that pizza-making is their calling. Michael and Nancy tell us how they used to dream of retiring to Italy: “Then we realized that we have all of that here.”
Heading out the front door clutching foil-wrapped leftovers, we see Blue frolicking over hills warmed with late autumn sunshine and sense that the family is here to stay.
[View all images in slideshow above.]