Once upon a time there were two friends...
Truth be told, there may have been a little romance in the beginning, when they were barely out of their teenage years, but principally it has been a great friendship, fueled by the love of cooking. One was from a big Chicago Italian family, in which all the women, and some of the men, cooked with purpose and passion. This one loved not only meatballs and pecorino cheese, but sports and motorcycles and reading history. The other one, a little older and wiser, was from sturdy Kansas stock, and as the oldest child grew up cooking when Mom was at work, and in high school learned from an old Army cook, and also from her Aunt Grace, who owned a from-scratch restaurant. Both friends went to Grinnell College in Iowa, where they met, and both gravitated to San Francisco after college, where, miraculously to them, a gay culture revolution and a food revolution were happening simultaneously.
That these two would open a restaurant together many years later is a deeply satisfying synchronicity. It is a restaurant built around pizza, that irresistible combination of bread and cheese and choice toppings that is one of the most beloved foods on the planet. The first thing Liz’s 19-year old self ever made for Wiley was a pizza (along with a delicious pinto bean soup). Pizza is fun, informal, celebratory, brings people together (ya gotta share the pie), goes with wine and beer like nobody’s business, and brings a smile to everybody’s face. What better foundation for two friends to make a living, not to mention work with food and a bunch of incredible young people every day, plus have friends and neighbors from all over Dayton walk hungrily and thirstily through the door?
Wheat Penny Oven and Bar is a very personal, homemade restaurant that expresses all we’ve learned, what we like to eat and drink, what we are excited about, and what we think you’ll really like. People ask us all the time, what kind of pizza is it? For us it’s hard to pin down with a label. It is definitely American-style. Neither of us has even been to Italy. It is deliberately not wood-fired pizza. We cook it in a big, hot Baker’s Pride deck oven. The dough is allowed to develop a minimum of 48 hours before being shaped. Once baked, the crust sports a large char-pocked cornice that has big, chewy air pockets and is firmly crisp on the bottom. Italian-style pizza tends to be more sparsely topped; ours is a little more cheesy, saucy and juicy, but only a little more. Our pies are made with a strong ethic regarding balance of ingredients–no double cheese or meat lover’s overload. Our toppings don’t generally go on raw; we cook and season each ingredient for maximum texture and flavor. Each pizza’s cornice gets a swipe of extra virgin olive oil half-way through baking. Every pizza is garnished before being cut, with coarse salt or fried garlic or snipped herbs or ground cheese or a scraping of lemon zest, whatever is appropriate to the pie.
Some might call our pizza California-style. That makes sense—we were there when Alice Waters (Chez Panisse) and Judy Rodgers (Zuni Café) were getting established and paving the way for EVERY SINGLE THING that is happening culinarily nowadays. We would take the train over to Berkeley just to stand on the sidewalk and stare at Chez Panisse’s posted menu for that evening. I ate my first oyster in that restaurant and I still have the shell.
In January 2012 Liz went to Tony Gemignani’s International school of Pizza in San Francisco, which was like aiming a huge blow torch at her already-ignited passion for pizza and Italian food. Her time there served to bring us full circle, back to the city where as two young cooks thirty years before, we rode every inch of street on a motorcycle. A city where rosemary grows like a hedge, and as we walked to work over the hill from the Haight to the Castro, we would pick it as it spilled over people’s fences to cook with the evening’s roast leg of lamb. A city where Liz rode her Honda in the rain before dawn all winter long to her job as a bread baker at Joyce Goldstein’s Square One restaurant. A city where Wiley line-cooked by night and hand-sharpened knives off the back of her VW van by day, which enabled her to walk into any kitchen in the Bay Area she was curious about and get to know the chefs.
Back then we would talk into the night about what we had cooked or learned at work that day, what we were reading, what restaurant we had heard about and wanted to seek out, what dish we were going to try at home. Now that we are working together again we talk every day about the exact same things. Time definitely passes, but some things never change.