Pizza changed Richard Williams' life, and he plans to transform Greenville's restaurant scene with Luna Pizza Cafe, which will open in the reinvigorated Dickinson Avenue corridor Jan. 2.
Luna will serve Neapolitan-style pizza, sophisticated appetizers and Italian desserts, all made on site, along with craft beer, draft wine and cocktails.
The restaurant is at 632 S. Pitt Street, beside Pitt Street Brewing Company. The restaurant is in the bottom floor of the renovated former Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
Don't expect the typical pizza joint when you pay a visit to Luna.
"We're a fine dining restaurant that happens to feature pizza," Richard said.
An ECU professor for 17 years, Richard has been sharing his journey from teacher to restaurateur through a series of emailed LunaLetters.
His "rebirth, of sorts" began in 2016 with two trips to the Renaissance city of Florence, Italy, where he studied at the Bivero Pizza Academy and trained in the academy's kitchen at Pizzeria ZeroZero.
"Before I arrived in Florence, I calculated that I had eaten at least a thousand pizzas in my life," Richard stated in his first LunaLetter this April. "I can say with certainty that no pizza I had ever eaten came close to the product they're making in ZeroZero."
After several intense weeks of training, Richard earned the title of Pizzaiolo -- a master pizza maker.
Richard's transformation continued on a climb to the top of Florence's Il Duomo di Firenze cathedral with its gorgeous Renaissance dome. There, on the narrow staircase, he noticed a bit of graffiti that stated, "Give more than you get and be blessed."
Later, on a slow train trip through the Swiss Alps for his return home, Richard decided to make a big change in his life. "It was on this beautiful journey that I committed to making a big jump and start Luna," he wrote.
He's been working toward that goal for more than a year, overseeing renovations of the restaurant space, testing products, refining recipes, ordering equipment, and putting together a staff.
He brought on John Jefferson as Luna's general manager and director of development and sent him to Florence to receive the same pizza-making training at Bivero Pizza Academy and Pizzeria ZeroZero.
And now Luna Pizza is poised to open at the beginning of the new year.
The heart of the restaurant is a 4,500-pound helmet-shaped Marra Forni brick pizza oven that was handcrafted for Luna in Maryland. It heats to 800 degrees and can cook a pizza in 2 minutes.
Luna's 12-inch pizzas will be hand-crafted and cooked to order, using dough that takes three days to create. The artisanal pizzas will be made with crushed organic tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.
Pizza selections include Margherita with fresh basil ($12); Shiitake Mushroom & Sausage ($15); Mediterranean with basil, capers, Kalamata olives and white anchovies ($16); Bacon & Jalapeno ($16); and Prosciutto & Arugula ($16).
Or you can build your own pizza, beginning with a $10 base of crushed tomatoes and cheese and adding toppings including red onions, fried local organic egg, meatballs, artichoke hearts, sweet or hot sopressata, or ground beef.
Appetizers include Fire Roasted Meatballs & Pomodoro ($8); Fire Roasted Chicken Drumsticks finished with Aleppo pepper and served in an iron skillet ($8); Pizza Bones, baked pizza dough cut into strips and served with a side of Pomodoro ($8); Fire Roasted Mushrooms in an iron skillet with garlic and truffle oil ($8); Cheese Plate with a variety of craft cheeses and house-made sesame and black pepper crackers ($10); and Spiedini Alla Romana, skewered and pan-fried cubes of house-made Luna bread and mozzarella cheese ($8).
For the salad course, there are two options: mixed local organic greens tossed with house vinaigrette; and Panzanella, a mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, green onions, house croutons, mozzarella, salami, white balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Both are available in a single serving or for the table.
In a nod to the location's original purpose, Luna will serve bottled Coca-Cola products.
Desserts include Tiramisu featuring cookies, marscarpone, whipped cream, Lavazza espresso, chocolate, Marsala wine and rum served in a Mason jar; and a scoop of local Simply Natural vanilla ice cream with a Nutella shell.
What goes into the Luna fare is as important to Richard and John as the process of making the food. They've conducted extensive product testing for months to select the cheeses, olive oil and other ingredients they'll use.
Luna is sourcing much of its ingredients locally, from greens grown in a hydroponic greenhouse at Little G Farm in Faison to Lady Edison's cured sausages made from North Carolina heritage Duroc pigs that are dirt raised and humanely processed.
"When you visit Luna, you'll be able to taste the quality and purity of the ingredients," Richard said.
The same attention to detail has been given to everything about Luna -- from the vintage Italian aluminum chairs on the patio to the glasses etched with the Luna logo.
The renovated space retains the brick and green tile from the Coca-Cola plant, with butcher block tables and seating for 44 guests. Silver pendant lights hang over the tables.
The bar, which will seat a dozen people, was handcrafted by local woodworker Kirk Copeland. The top is maple and the bar front is faced with cherry wood slats salvaged from the courthouse in Pulaski, Va.
As Luna prepares to open, Richard continues to embrace the mantra "give more than you get and be blessed."
"Luna's motto was inspired by graffiti scrawled by a kid with a Sharpie and a grand vision of the universe," Richard wrote on the Luna Facebook page in May.
"I found this phrase written on the stairwell wall of the Duomo last summer, and this weekend, I had it tattooed on my arm.
"I went to Florence to learn to make pizza from a master pizzaiolo. You can't learn to make great pizza any other way than to learn from other people who know what they're doing, and making great pizza is more involved than I ever imagined ...
"Like all those who make a journey, I returned home as a different person. Luna is lucky to be where it is, and we're lucky to bring great authentic things to eastern NC."
Jane Welborn Hudson, a native of Greenville, wrote The Daily Reflector's Hot Dish restaurant column for 12 years and the Greensboro News & Record's Short Orders restaurant column for 8 years. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Luna Pizza Cafe
Address: 632 S. Pitt St., just off Dickinson Avenue beside Pitt Street Brewing Company
Hours: 5-10 p.m. daily
Prices: Appetizers, $8-10; Pizzas, $10-$16