2012 February: Il Pizzaiolo: Dante Pizzeria

Nick Strawhecker made plenty of stops on his way back home to Omaha, where he opened the city’s first certified Neapolitan pizzera in 2008. Born in Nebraska, Strawhecker moved around a lot beginning in his teens, when his family relocated to England for three years. During that time, and since, Strawhecker traveled extenisvely throughout Europe. This not only shaped his worldview, it also exposed him to a variety of foods that people simply do not encounter in the American Midwest. Strawhecker said these foreign excusrions tempted his palate and planted in his mind the desire to one day run his own restaurant.

A graduate of Johnson & Wales culinary school in Providence, Rhode Island, Strawhecker has also studied at The Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners. He lived briefly in the Piedmont region as well as Tuscany.

“In particular, Tuscany really shaped me,” he says. Strawhecker says he found Tuscany to be an enchanting place, as much for its natural beauty as for its food and culture.

After leaving Italy, the enterprising chef worked at restaurants in Chicago and Philadelphia before finally circling back to Omaha. And, despite the various cooking techniques and styles of cuisine he’d worked with during his career, the authentic, time-honored and simple creation known as Neapolitan pizza wouldn’t release its grip on Strawhecker’s mind.

“Pizza’s our main event,” he says. “That’s what we feature — our pizza and our wood oven.”

Still, the menu, which changes daily, extends well beyond pizza. As a result, the menu mix is evenly split.

“Right now we’re running about 50/50,” says Strawhecker. “When we first opened we were doing about 80-percent pizza. But people have discovered that we’re not just pizza. The original plan from the very beginning was to offer much more. People have begun to try our pastas and other items. We’ve been doing this for two years now, so people are starting to understand that we have a menu that offers more.”

That balance, along with the daily menu change, fuels Strawhecker’s creativity and challenges his staff.

“Even though we print our menu daily and change it, there are core items, of course, that always stay on,” Strawhecker says when asked about the difficulty of changing the menu each day. “Really, though, we love it. We’re always adjusting things to keep it fresh and interesting. We’re constantly adding more stuff based on what’s in season and fresh.”

To accommoate Strawhecker’s desire to experiment, the 3,900-square-foot restaurant, which seats 85, has a large kitchen broken down into separate stations. While it all revolves around the wood-burning oven, the kitchen is complete with grills, fryers and everything else an ambitious chef would need.

“It’s a really big kitchen,” Strawhecker concedes. “What makes it difficult is that it is broken into two levels. To deal with that, we’ve divided it into three main stations.”

While most foodservice workers have to deal with cramped quarters, we had to ask if there is such a thing as ‘too big’ for a commercial kitchen.

“Well, before we opened my biggest concern was the timing between the various stations,” Strawhecker says. “But it has been working out well without any major issues.”

At Dante, everything but the bread is made in-house based on what’s available. That can be challenging in the winter, but, again, Strawhecker likes to test himself.

“Right now, with the cold weather (Pizza Today visited Dante at the onset of winter), I have carrots, beets and squash to work with,” says Strawhecker. “It can get difficult.”

Strawhecker calls himself a proponent of the slow food movement, which he says originated in Italy. Putting his money where his mouth is, he works with local suppliers for poultry, milk to make fresh mozzarella, pork, eggs, basil, greens and seasonal vegetables. He takes it a step further by making his own fresh mozz, ricotta and pasta.

A typical lunch menu will take advantage of these ingredients for salads, sandwiches, soup and pizza. At dinner, items like oven-roasted pork belly; pan-fried chicken livers; orecchiette with potato, taleggio and sage; and mushroom risotto star alongside the pizza.

Dante Pizzeria Napoletana also features a full bar and a lineup of espresso drinks.

“I couldn’t even imagine working in a restaurant with espresso,” Strawhecker quips, “particularly when it’s a Neapolitan theme.”

As one might imagine, Strawhecker took his restaurant’s name from the Divine Comedy, an epic poem by 14th-century Italian writer Dante Alighieri. One of the world’s most influential works of literature, the Divine Comedy is best known for its interpretation of an afterlife that includes hell, purgatory and heaven. Strawhecker even named his mobile wood-burning oven, which he takes to events throughout the year, The Inferno.

It’s a fun play on something distinctly Italian, and it provides Strawhecker with many branding advantages.

“We have a great agency, and they’ve been able to have a lot of fun with the theme,” Strawhecker says. “I like what they’ve helped us do with it.”

Jeremy White is editor-in-chief at Pizza Today.