WILMINGTON — A classic Italian-American dish, well-known up North, has diners flocking to a new restaurant on Oleander Drive.
“We have noticed there’s a lot of upstate New Yorkers from the Utica area and Rome that have been coming in and specifically targeting our chicken riggies since opening Friday,” owner Brad Heaton told Port City Daily.
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Heaton opened Pie’s On July 29, four months after renovating the space from what was formally the much-adored Pizzetta’s Pizza.
Pizzetta’s opened in Anderson Square over a decade ago from Sal Lucido and Vito Lucchese before closing in March; the team is concentrating its efforts in Leland. Heaton had become a fan of the Wilmington establishment.
“Sal’s pizza is phenomenal,” he praised. “I’m not gonna say my pizza is better than anybody else’s, but it is good, Italian down-home cooking — we are more than pizza.”
Founded in Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania, Pie’s On is a family-operated establishment that Heaton and his father, Ken, started in 2005. Originally from upstate New York, Ken added to its menu a popular pasta dish from Utica: chicken riggies — made with grilled chicken, rigatoni and hot or sweet peppers, served in a spicy cream and tomato sauce.
Pie’s On version is made with banana peppers, the juice from the peppers added to an a la vodka sauce. “It’s not like a jalapeño heat or any type of cayenne spice,” Heaton clarified, rather it gives the dish more of a tangy zest.
Another item that’s been a hit in the restaurant’s infancy: Upside Down Pie. A square pizza, the dough’s thickness is between a hand-tossed and Sicilian crust. The cheese is topped first, then the sauce, then Parmesan. Added toppings go between the cheese and sauce.
“It’s another Northern thing, almost like tomato pie,” Heaton described.
And it’s not to be confused with a Chicago deep dish.
“We’re not from Chicago; we don’t claim to be,” Heaton said. “It’s not about where you’re from, it’s where you’re at right now.”
In that vein, he has named his version of the Midwest pizza the “Wilmington Deep Dish.” The 18-inch pie will be created in a 2-inch thick round pan — once the pans arrive, which Heaton expects this week.
“You know, supply and demand,” he said.
The restaurateur has been waiting on quite a few items during the process of opening Pie’s On at 4107 Oleander Drive. Heaton hoped to be up and running in time for his father’s 76 birthday in June, but inventory on smaller necessities, like salt and pepper shakers, for instance, are scant. He also had to upfit portions of the 40-seat restaurant, including the addition of more refrigeration, which delayed the process.
Heaton is staying true to the restaurant’s roots; it’s family-run, with his father, daughters, niece and sister helping. His wife, a dental hygienist, also pitches in when available.
The Pennsylvanian establishment — double the size of the Wilmington setup — is still operated by family up North as well. Heaton said he and his father drive up and check in when they can: “We kind of take turns tag-teaming.”
Heaton has always helped his father run Pie’s On flagship, located over an hour outside New York City, even while holding down other jobs. A former member of the Air Force, Heaton took part in the Helmets to Hardhats program to transition into a trade from the military, which landed him in the Local #3 IBEW union, building elevators in New York.
The career transferred Heaton to Wilmington five years ago; his father also moved down to live with Heaton’s family. Heaton said he loved being an elevator mechanic, but when he was promoted to supervisor, overseeing a team of people shifted his workload. It also took up more of his time, especially when it came to trouble-shooting and problem-solving.
“It was a 24/7 job,” he said. “I was starting to miss some important stuff — and realized recently, with everything that was going on in society with Covid, I wanted more time with my family.”
He made the career shift six months ago after selling a home they owned up North to help fund the second restaurant (they also are in the Airbnb business, he added).
Pie’s On is open six days a week and closed Sunday.
“That’s our family day — our boat day, our wind-down day,” Heaton said.
Family is a big part of the restaurant’s foundation and values. It offers family packs to serve larger quantities of people, mixing and matching pizza, pasta salads and appetizers.
Not only did the Heatons cull recipes from their Northern American roots but honed in on their Southern Italian heritage. One dish stands out in heart and soul among the 100 items on the menu.
“My mother was Mary; she passed away in 2013,” Heaton said. “So I took her recipe for ‘Mama Mary’s Lasagna’ and ran with it.”
Italian sausage is added to the beef mixture and herbed ricotta adds more creamy flavor to the layered noodle and homemade red sauce dish.
Appetizers, wraps, subs, burgers and paninis, salads and desserts all make an appearance. Heaton said the calamari, for instance, is fresh, not frozen, and he gets in fresh clams and mussels — the latter include both New Zealand green and black shell.
A lengthy offering of calzones and pizzas, by the slice and as a whole pie, round out the menu. Specialties exist, such as a taco or Rio Rancho pizza, as well as traditional offerings like margherita and white pies.
“We also do a 28-inch monster pizza,” he said. “That’s our party pizza we cut into squares.”
In fact, hearty portions and reasonable prices are the goal of Pie’s On, Heaton noted: “I thrive on giving people their money’s worth.”
“I’m also a people-pleaser,” he said, a beneficial quality to have in the hospitality industry.
So far he has served over 200 people in the first four days and is noticing lunches have been busiest. “Likely because of being surrounded by so many great businesses,” he said. The shopping plaza also houses Tanglez, Panacea, and Cape Fear Jewelry, among others.
Pie’s On menu prices range from $9 appetizers, sandwiches and salads to $24 pies, with entrees starting at $14. The menu is likely to change after the first 60 days, Heaton confirmed. He has basically copied the Pennsylvania restaurant’s offerings but will pare it down according to what Wilmington diners are most attracted to.
The chicken riggies, he assured, are proving to be a mainstay: “We have been bombarded with orders.”
The restaurant offers in-house delivery — not through a third-party app — and Heaton said his staff will travel anywhere in the county that doesn’t require crossing a bridge, Snow’s Cut or Wrightsville Beach. The restaurant is open for takeout and dine-in Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (the dining room closes at 8:30 p.m.). Beer and wine permits are coming soon, but for now it’s BYOB.
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