Oakwood’s instant-classic neighborhood pizza spot
by Laura White
photography by Jillian Clark
It all started with Anthony Guerra’s family, and a floor: battered, black-and-white checkered linoleum in an old office building.
He passed it every day on his walk down to Crawford and Son, where he was general manager at the time. He had been searching for more than three years for a location in Raleigh where he could open a pizza joint, and he was determined to do it close to his own home, close to his family. He had a daughter on the way, and the burgeoning Person Street corridor felt more small-town than downtown, which was an energy he appreciated.
One day, there was a sign in the window; peering through the dirt and grime on the glass, he caught sight of that floor. A couple of months later, he had the keys in hand, and Oakwood Pizza Box was officially under construction.
Now, not long after opening in September 2017, the proof is in the pie. With a hyper-focused menu – choose between a classic cheese or white pizza, and add your favorite toppings – and simple, playful cocktails, this slice of nostalgia feels like it’s been a neighborhood favorite for ages.
No stranger to pizza, Guerra, his father, Rick, and his brother, Louis, opened the much-beloved Bella Mia Coal Fired Pizza in Cary in 2010. At the time, none of the family had direct experience in food service. His father worked in wholesale produce. His brother had a background in economics and was working with a bank. Guerra was a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying history.
“We did not have any clue what we were about to do; we just knew that we wanted to do it,” Guerra says. “It was a big advantage to not have that experience. We never saw the limits of what you should be doing in a pizza place.”
While gearing up for the launch, Guerra and his family did two years of extensive research, though he jokes that he’s really been doing pizza research his whole life. Italian American, he was born and raised on Long Island, with easy access to some of the best pizza spots in the U.S. His neighborhood pizza joint was Umberto’s, and looking back, he says that shaped everything. Umberto was even making his own cheese. “But that was just, like, neighborhood pizza for us,” he says.
His more formal research included a stint working at Kesté under acclaimed pizza-maker Roberto Caporuscio, U.S. President of the Association of Neapolitan Pizzaiuoli. While at Kesté, Guerra learned the traditional Neapolitan style of pizza making: long-fermentation dough fired for 90 seconds in a 900-plus degree oven. He was instantly enthralled. “We have this thing where we fixate (in my family). Pizza is one thing, but there’s everything around it, which is what made that restaurant: our fixations on things,” Guerra says. “A lot of the way that we’re wired is about challenges.”
They sold Bella Mia in 2012, moving on to the next round of challenges: His brother wanted to join the military (he’s a Green Beret now), and Guerra was ready to open his own place in Raleigh.
Slice of life
For a long time, the plan was to open another wood-fired place. With this in mind, he decided it was time to finally visit Naples, the birthplace of pizza, and mecca of wood-fired pies. That trip changed everything – but not in the way he was expecting.
“It helped me out in a really weird way because I was miserable,” Guerra says, “I felt like I didn’t belong.” As an Italian American, he felt like an imposter pizza- maker in Italy. This led him to reconsider his approach to what made “good” pizza.
The sentiment compounded after a visit to Pizzeria Beddia in Philadelphia in June 2016. Beddia, which just closed in March (a larger location is slated to open in Fishtown later this year), was a concept revolving around a tiny spot, roughly 800 square feet, cash only, with a gas oven, no phone, no public restrooms, and one guy, John, taking pizza orders, while another guy, Joe Beddia, cooked them. Beddia personally made every single pizza, and he had since day one. They only made 40 a night, and by the end, Beddia was selling out all 40 pizzas as soon as they had opened the doors, with lines forming as early as 2 p.m.
Guerra and his wife waited in line for an hour to place an order, and then were told to come back in another hour-and-a-half. He doubted anything could be worth that wait. Then he had the pizza.
And because it was the end of the night and things were winding down, he ended up talking to Joe Beddia himself for a while. As he walked out, he turned to his wife, Brett Guerra: “Something’s different now … At the end of the day, do we really want to eat wood-fired pizza?”
For Guerra, that answer is no. He saw his own spot in a new light: He wanted to make pizza he wanted to eat every day. He wanted to make the pizza that had made him, the pizza he had eaten as a child, so he could share it with their child. They had just found out a month prior that they were expecting. “What if we made something as American as me as I possibly could?” Guerra says. “What if I stopped trying to be a Neapolitan version of me and just be myself?”
Flash-forward about eight months to that black-and-white linoleum floor. The sight of it stirred something in Guerra, took him back to his roots, back to Umberto’s, back to diner booths and his grandmother’s mid-century modern kitchen with its formica countertops and walnut wood furnishings and brass accents. The ideas for the place went running wild after that, flowing naturally, he says. Really good neighborhood pizza, American pizza, would be the focus.
‘I’m here to make pizzas’
Oakwood Pizza Box is low-frills, unless you pay attention to the oven. Guerra bought a Montague 1857 Hearth Bake oven, the hottest and heaviest on the market, which cooks at around 650 degrees. He took some of the things he had learned about wood-fired ovens and applied them to this gas oven with custom tweaks, such as additional stone on the ceiling of the oven, and thicker stone than you would find in general. He calls it a “tricked-out version” of what you might see everywhere else.
The tricks work, because the pizza is good – the pizza is really, really good. But most importantly, at least to Guerra, the pizza hearkens back to his childhood, and he’s sharing it with his family, and with the adopted family of his neighborhood.
As the primary caregiver (Brett Guerra works full-time in software sales), Guerra brought daughter “Viv” to every single meeting prior to opening Oakwood Pizza Box, and she remains a familiar face to regulars. Her toys are in the back, and he just ordered a “scoot car” for her to ride around the restaurant. “Look at this runway!” he says, gesturing to the long hallway running along the diner booths.
According to Guerra, before Vivian, his restaurant would have been more ego-driven, but having a child shaped him. “Having a kid now, for me, balances it out. OK, what’s important, and what’s not? What’s important is that I’m here to make pizzas, and people come and enjoy it.”
And they do. Get there early; with only a handful of booths and bar seats, the place fills up quickly, and you’ll likely be vying with the familiar faces of neighbors for a seat.
For Guerra, good pizza starts with strong foundations: housemade sauce, long-fermentation dough that’s never refrigerated, quality ingredients. And family is a bit like a good pizza; with a second child on the way now, due in September, that strong foundation is paramount.
“I am a father first and I have a pizza place second. If anything ever were to happen where I needed to be with the baby, this place is gone. It’s the baby – babies, now – first. That’s it,” he says. “The rest of this stuff, I love it, it’s personal goals, but I have a responsibility. The childhood that I had let me achieve what I have achieved. If I don’t provide that for Vivian then I let everybody down.”