The other day, Jack O’Brien, owner of Bite Me Organic Pizza, cut in front of me at a four-way stop. Cool but focused in his Saab convertible, cellphone at his ear, he’s not the first restaurateur to do so, believe it or not — just the first whose restaurant I was in the midst of writing about when it happened. I cut him a break, though, because O’Brien needs all the time he can get. Or steal, in this case. The handsome, white-haired pizza purveyor is hard at work using local ingredients to create Burlington’s quirkiest pies.
The main thing to know about Bite Me — on the busy corner of St. Paul and Howard, in the residential South End — is that it’s generating big buzz. Some parents are angry about the name of the place, and refuse to expose their children to it. But hardcore pizza lovers are raving about its loaded pies, formidable ingredient lists and playful pizza names such as “The White Album” and “Absolute & Compliant BBQ Chicken.”
There’s nothing garden variety about Bite Me’s menu, though it does feature a living garden of sorts: a print of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s famous painting depicting Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman god of plants and gardens. In clever trompe l’oeil fashion, the emperor’s ears are ears of corn, his nose is fashioned from a pear, and so on. It’s a visual reminder that you are what you eat.
Vertumnus is the background for a list of 19 specialty pies, each costing between $15.75 and $21. Bite Me also encourages DIY dining with a little thought bubble that reads: “THINK ABOUT IT. We’ll make whatever you want.” The list of available ingredients, featured in a cheerful yellow sidebar, includes crawfish, roasted fingerling potatoes, fresh ripe pears and Thai basil.
The menu is also studded with saucy little symbols. A gas-mask icon means this is “not a date pie!” — the St. Gootz of Newmano, for example, a tribute to Magic Hat’s founder Alan Newman, comes with “chopped garlic, roasted garlic, arrested garlic and tickled garlic.”
A skull and crossbones means the pizza has meat. Vegetarian and vegan options are labeled, too.
Scattered in the menu are other bits of silliness. Accepted forms of payment include “cash, checks, credit cards and really nice sweaters.” Yes, O’Brien is actually willing to barter dinner for a wooly garment. Think the golden brown onions on your “3 Needs” pizza’s ale-infused crust are caramelized? At Bite Me, they’re “criminalized.”
On a recent Monday evening at 7:30, the restaurant was busy, but not hectic. It offered a trio of slices — cheese, Chickpeace hummus with chicken, and “The Vermont Intervale Ghosts,” topped with a fall garden cornucopia that included zucchini, roasted beets and peppers. The crust was so crisp in places that it seemed more like a cracker.
I went home with a “Sober Irish Person,” but my husband didn’t mind — it’s a pizza, too. The savory combination of rosemary-scented roasted potatoes, onions, bacon and cheddar made for a pie that tasted as good as it smelled in the car.
Three days later, at 6 p.m., Bite Me was packed. The outdoor picnic tables were occupied — one by a young family, the other by a pair of skater boyz. Luckily, we snagged one of two indoor tables.
Things were kind of wild in there. The place is so small that the chef, Roberto Seales, practically works in the dining room. He couldn’t hide the fact that a few ingredients, such as marinated tofu and tomatoes, were in short supply.
“They’re coming at 7,” one of the staffers piped up.
“What good does that do me now?” the chef responded grouchily. At one point, he actually put down the dough he was tossing, grabbed a stepladder, and went outside to pluck tomatoes from the window box to garnish a pie. As orders came in, the tension mounted — until it was thick enough to slice with a pizza cutter.
Our order arrived with a few mismatched plates and no forks or napkins. No biggie. With so many ingredients piled on, a few stray veggies and hunks of meat invariably fell off the pizza. It was kind of fun having to use our fingers, although the lack of a public bathroom meant we couldn’t wash off the residue.
Despite the lack of napkins, our table did boast a wide variety of condiments, such as black sesame seeds, Sriracha sauce and a good-smelling but unrecognizable herb and spice blend. The drink coolers offered sodas and juices, but no water, which necessitated a trip to the Springflower Market next door.
Luckily, the pizzas were delicious, even in the thick of things. A “Tipitina’s to Burlington” evoked New Orleans with crawfish and crab, spicy tomato sauce, okra and a smattering of other veggies; it tasted like a good seafood stew on bread.
“The Deep Woods,” a concoction of thickly sliced portabello, shiitake and crimini mushrooms over mozzarella and ricotta, came with a touch of earthy truffle oil on the crust and basil chiffonade on top. My only objection: Crimini mushrooms are just baby portabellos. Why not experiment with another fungus?
“The White Album,” an improbably good blend of seven cheeses on a roasted-garlic-rubbed crust, was a group favorite. In one bite, chèvre was the prominent flavor. In another, the bleu stood out.
That inconsistency is one of the pleasures — or problems — of Bite Me, depending on your viewpoint. Because there are so many toppings on each pizza — the “Red Barn, White Silos” has 14 — no two slices are the same. One may have several broccoli “trees,” while another has none. Instead, you might discover a juicy chunk of pineapple hiding beneath a spinach leaf. These are the opposite of corporate pies that strive for uniformity, with the same number of pepperoni slices on every order.
It certainly keeps customers guessing. I don’t know who “Erik” is, but sunflower sprouts were among the dozen or so ingredients on the pie that bears his name. But there was no sign of them that night. Instead Seales piled on yellow tomatoes, red and yellow bell peppers and herbs, along with a scattering of kim-chee. Plus small chunks of marinated tofu that arrived just in time. Although it was labeled “caliente,” the pie turned out tangier than spicy. And, with so much going on, the thick layer of mozzarella almost seemed unnecessary.
Despite the rush, all of pies we tried had impeccable crusts: thin and crisp on the bottom, and perfectly puffy around the edges. Many are brushed with flavored oils or local sweeteners, such as honey and maple syrup, for extra oomph. “Erik’s” was scented with sesame oil.
How does Bite Me compare with other area pizzerias? If I want to sit down with a group of friends and relax over dinner and a beer, I’ll still go to American Flatbread. But for take-out, I’d choose the St. Paul eatery over all its competitors, thanks to the sheer number of options, the quality of the ingredients and the worthy localvore mission. Anybody who disagrees can bite me.
SEVEN DAYS: The controversy over your restaurant’s name seems to have died down, but now folks are up in arms about the poster of Dubya installed on the floor. Tell me about that.
JACK O’BRIEN: I got threatened by the Republican Party today. This woman said that I was unpatriotic.
If you’re going to put your party above your country, your community and your family, you should really assess where you are as a human being.
SD: Because Bite Me is so small, customers can see and hear everything that’s happening in the kitchen, including the inevitable stress when things get busy. When I was there the other evening, for example, there were no more tomatoes. Do you think it’s weird for your patrons to see that side of things?
JO: The people who are making your food for you are real people, and it’s hard. They do want to do it right, and that creates the stress, which is a good thing: They actually give a shit that things are right and get wigged out if they don’t have the right stuff. There are no secrets, there’s no façade: You see everything.
When you’re dealing with gardeners and farmers — real people — you get into “Where the hell were you?” You don’t get that comedy of errors when you go to Chili’s, ‘cause they have big boxes of shit . . . and they just ooze it onto your food.
It’s easy to run down to Price Chopper and get a bunch of tomatoes, but that’s not what we want to do.
SD: How did you decide to focus on sourcing local ingredients?
JO: It’s not in our best interest as human beings to allow corporations to feed us: They’re not doing things in our best interest. Wake the fuck up. You can buy food from people you know, cleanly, for less money than you can buy it in the grocery store.
In Vermont, nobody should be buying food from the grocery stores in the summer and fall.
SD: What are your other goals for Bite Me?
JO: I wanted to try to use a business as a real experiment in local food, clean energy and paying people a real livable wage. We’re all concerned about those things, and we’re not just going to talk about them: We’re gonna reduce our energy consumption, we’re gonna grow food on the roof, we’re gonna conserve water.
I’m taking sweaters [as payment] from people: You don’t need $21.75 to eat this food.
SD: You’ve said you plan to expand your offerings. What’s happening with that?
JO: We’re gonna start delivering, maybe tonight, I hope. Salads will maybe be next week, very simple salads, some with cheese and some without. We have arugula, baby arugula, spinach, beets; we have all this stuff that we can just pull and make these really fresh, great salads. It’s crazy not to make them!
We’re adding a new vegan menu. We’re gonna start bringing pizzas to Nectar’s on Thursday nights for that Trivia thing, and I think it will do really well.