WILMINGTON — Though Mark Milner’s culinary career has been established as a caterer, he really got his start in pizza. It’s fitting he’s coming full circle in a few weeks, as he launches Wheelhouse Pizza in the Brooklyn Arts District by Memorial Day.
“Pizza is literally one of my favorite foods,” the restaurateur said. “I’m not going to lie: I’ve done all this fine dining and catering, but at the end of the night, I’ll literally go home and have the simplest pie.”
Milner was a partner in Milner’s Cafe and Catering for more than a decade before making the leap to pizza (his former business partner, Tara Speth, still runs Milner’s). Port City Holding Co. owner Kent Tomaselli is partnering with Milner at Wheelhouse, a name that encompasses many things to the chef, aside from its obvious circular shape indicative of pizza.
“I started thinking about what wheelhouse means in the lexicon of Americana, you know? What’s in your wheelhouse — what do you do well?” he explained. “And it came from baseball — if a pitch was being thrown into your wheelhouse, it’s where you would hit it the best. Plus, in a kind of a nautical way, the wheelhouse is the room where the steering happens in the ship.”
Milner moved from his home state and farmlands of Illinois to the southeastern North Carolina coast to be near his son in the late ‘90s. Beforehand, he traveled and worked as a caterer and in various restaurants, from the Gulf Coast to the Rockies. It’s part of the allure of being a chef: “With my skill set, you can work anywhere,” Milner said.
One of his first standings in his 20s was at Old Yellowstone Garage in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He said the owners had a home in Italy and could access top-notch recipes and ingredients.
“They had the best goat cheese-pesto pie,” Milner said. “I would just live on it. And we made our own pesto — and, you know, it was one of my favorite flavor combinations ever.”
In homage to Old Yellowstone, the goat cheese-pesto pie will make its way onto the Wheelhouse menu. The menu will be simple and to the point: eight specialty pies, create your own pizza, a few sandwiches, and salads. It has to be streamlined, Milner said, since Wheelhouse consists of only 350 square feet of space.
Though small, the bright red-roofed, white building, located beside Jervay Park off 4th Street, is far from unassuming. Travelers coming downtown from MLK Parkway can easily spot it beside the Black Lives Do Matter art installation. Milner had been eyeing the location for years.
“It’s a neat building,” he said. “It just seemed like pizza was right for it.”
He’s projecting around three people will be able to work inside at a time, one of whom is Scott Bragman out of Charlotte. The two have been perfecting the pies, which Milner anticipates being a blend of New York and California styles. He considered Italy’s neapolitan crust, but because it’s made to be eaten immediately in a restaurant and not sit in a box, it wouldn’t work for Wheelhouse.
“New York-style has a crispier half life,” Milner said.
Wheelhouse will open for only takeout and delivery at first. Individuals will be served from a walk-up window at the corner of 1215 N. Fourth St.
Specialty pizzas include a house variety, with pepperoni, sausage, salami, and a white pie, “Pot o’ Gold,” which also is topped with potatoes. The menu notes it makes a perfect half-and-half with the “Urban Cowboy” — served with brisket, blue cheese, peppers, garlic, and red sauce.
Garlic lovers will flock to the layered pungency of “Garlic Love Garlic,” topped with red sauce, mozzarella, raw, roasted and toasted garlic, caramelized onion, and pecorino cheese.
“The raw garlic will be diced,” Milner described. “But the roasted cloves will be sweet — almost sugary. The toasted garlic will be crunchy, and then the raw will be the least amount that we put on it. We’ll sprinkle the raw garlic for that intense flavor, but with the caramelized onions, it will sweeten it all up. It’s just, really, a great pizza.”
There will be nontraditional-based pizzas, too — one with black beans and another with olive oil. Milner said he may work in vegan offerings and will have a cauliflower crust option. “We want to try to do as much diverse food as we can in that regard,” he said.
First, he’s starting small in the limited space, outfitted with Bakers Pride stone ovens, to see what tracks.
Yet, Milner already has phase two planned for expansion. He envisions on-premise dining in an outdoor patio, to be fenced in behind the building.
Milner has been eyeing the Northside area for a few years, particularly the building where Wheelhouse will live. “It’s just such a cool, upcoming area,” he said, “and now it’s changing quickly.”
The Northside has a burger joint coming its way with Angus Grill, as well as a new seafood restaurant to launch in coming months and a pub opening down the street. Milner thinks pizza will fit in well, especially with established businesses, like Palate, Boombalatti’s Ice Cream and Chicken in the Box.
“It’s kind of at a tipping point as a food-destination area,” Milner said. “Chicken in the Box po’boys are probably one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time — it’s so good. But I always knew it was gonna happen down here; I think everybody did. Lately, it really started getting some momentum, and I’m just happy to be a part of it. And, you know, pizza — I mean, that’s a no-brainer.”
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