South Exclusive: Squirrel’s Pizza to open June 21
Owner Chris Dickerson opens up about his new adventure in Savannah.
Chris Dickerson loves disruption. Classically trained as a chef, including an apprenticeship at The Cloister Hotel and stints in the kitchen alongside names like Ken Vedrinksi, Paul Bocuse, George Mahaffey and Nobu Matsuhisa, he made his mark in a decidedly more casual vein. He opened Corner Taco in 2009 after traveling the world, building the restaurant around a “mexclectic” motif that skewed decidedly different.
Corner Taco gained fame as one of the first food trucks in the Southeast, and built Dickerson’s credibility as one of the region’s great maverick chefs. With Squirrel’s Pizza, opening June 21, he’s taking that offbeat sensibility to the Hostess City.
South: Opening day is set for June 21, how’s it coming?
Chris Dickerson: I’m keeping busy. But it’s what I signed up for.
South: And this isn’t your first rodeo.
CD: It’s not, but it’s a different animal. It’s my first time designing a restaurant from scratch. My other restaurant in Florida, Corner Taco, opened up as a brick and mortar in 2014, but before that it was a food truck, and before that a tiny taco stand inside a bar on the ocean, just 100 square feet.
South: How did the relaxed vibe at Corner Taco inform the vibe at Squirrel’s?
CD: Corner Taco was one of the first food trucks in the South, it was a 1965 Airstream. My training is in five-star hotels, I spent three years at the Cloister. I loved the technique I learned from that – it was a great experience, but ultimately, I got tired of the formality and pretense of cooking fancy food. I just wanted to cook food that tasted delicious, with the aesthetics being secondary and not primary.
After 2008, I was living in Washington D.C. One of the net results of the economy crashing in 2008 was that people became sick of living a lie. The pretense changed to be more palatable. I just wanted to do food that was delicious. I moved to South America for a bit and spent a lot of time in Oaxaca, Mexico and fell in love with the tacos there. The food truck, we were the only place in Jacksonville doing fresh corn tortillas. When we opened brick and mortar, it felt very much like a food truck. I just wanted to do something that was not pretentious.
Originally I was going do another Corner Taco here, but then Bull Street Taco opened, El Coyote opened and I think they do a good job. It just felt like the area south of Forsythe Park was somewhat saturated with taco places and there isn’t a place that does wood-fired pizza. I love live fire cooking, so it sort of made sense.
I hired a designer, Liz Demos which was a big investment but it’s totally paid dividends. She’s been amazing to work with and she’s become a good friend of mine. She’s done a lot beyond the design – the branding, etc. It’s just a natural evolution, really, from the food truck days. What’s important to me is to always evolve and never do things they way they were done in the past just for the sake of comfort. I want to be disruptive.
South: Speaking of wood-fire, how did you arrive at pecan wood?
CD: That’s part of the point. What’s important to me in terms of authenticity is authenticity to one’s self. I think there are a lot of people talking about things that are authentic - authentic Mexican, authentic Italian… But what’s authentic to you? For example, tomato sauce. What your grandmother might have cooked is completely different from what my grandmother would have cooked. Which one’s authentic? Even if they’re Italian, what if one’s from Northern Italy and one’s from Southern Italy? The word authenticity in a lot of ways has come to mean something it doesn’t mean. Authenticity should be to one’s self.
Mot wood-fired pizza places in the United States try to feel like a slice of Italy. They only buy Italian ingredients which are shipped for thousands of miles, they follow the Neopolitan rulebook for making pizza which mandates the pizza be cooked at a very high temperature for no more than 90 seconds, so it’s very hydrated. The result is very soft and, I think, soggy. I like the taste, I like the spirit, but I prefer texture. I prefer a crispier pizza, so this isn’t a copy of anyone’s pizza. This is completely my own recipe I’ve come up with over many trial and tribulations.
I want it to feel like Savannah. I want it to feel like the South. Oak is the typical wood used in a wood-fired oven. The reason I wanted to use pecan wood is because it’s a very southern wood and I like the flavor more. It’s more subtle. We’re going to be doing a lot of vegetables, too and it goes well with vegetables. I started experimenting with different woods back when Corner Taco was that little taco stand. We had a wood burning grill at Corner Taco so I played around with a lot of different wood - oak, cherry, apple, peach - and pecan was my favorite. I’m not aware of any other pizza place using pecan wood.
In another way, it’s a nod to the irreverence. I only wanted to be authentic to my own experiences, my own travels, and the fact we’re in Savannah, I wanted to be true to that.
South: That irreverence starts with the name. That was a college nickname, right? How did you wind up being called Squirrel?
CD: I was having fun, as college students do, and I’d imbibed quite a bit of alcohol. I was in a barn and something ran across me - I think it was a kitten, but at the time I thought it was a squirrel. And I thought it was talking to me. So I jumped into a second story hayloft and told my friends a squirrel was talking to me. To this day they call me squirrel and their kids call me Uncle Squirrel.
But it’s another nod to the irreverence. It’s not what you’d expect - It’s not Giovanni’s Pizza. I’m an American cooking pizza, so I don’t want it to sound like it’s Italian. Who’s going to think it’s a traditional Italian restaurant with the name Squirrel?
South: Once you saw that tacos were oversaturated what led you to pizza?
CD: I had been thinking about doing pizza for many years. There were probably 30-50 domains that I registered just with different names or concepts that I wanted to do. I just didn’t think I could afford the risk doing something other than what I knew, which was Corner Taco. I don’t have investors, and I don’t want investors. That’s been a very big challenge because I’m not made of money. I’ve put everything on the line to do this, but it’s something I believe.
I want to be proud of what I’m doing and I want to play a role in helping Savannah to evolve as a food city. I think it’s come a long way and I think there’s some real talent here. It’s continuing to evolve, and I want to be a part of that.
Ultimately a restaurateur has to not dictate what their constituents want, they have to dance with what constituents want. A lot of my friends in Savannah were saying I wish there was a wood-fired pizza place. It’s a lower startup cost because you don’t need a hood, you can direct vent to the outside. And when people come to a wood-fired pizza place they don’t necessarily expect pasta, they’re here for wood fired pizza. We have some supporting actors that will add some diversity, but it’s pretty easy to keep it simple with wood-fired pizza.
And again, I think it’s become homogenized. Too any people try to follow the Neapolitan playbook. I think there’s a lot of room for disruption and for me that’s fun and exciting. It speaks to the rebel in me, I guess. I like to do things differently and not follow the dogma.
We’re going to have a pretty good, tight menu to start, but based on what people want and buy we’re going to evolve. I’m open to anything. We’re going to do some thing that are familiar but with a little twist. We’re making our own mozzarella in house, and we’re going to do a caprese salad but instead of basil we’re going to do a puree. It’s basically olive oil, basil and salt pureed. It has a nice green color, it’s delicious, and it doesn’t oxidize the way basil does. And we’re going to serve the caprese warm. That’s a fun thing that most people probably aren’t familiar with. We’ve figured out a way to do it practically and quickly. It’s an extra level of detail that people will be excited about.
South: What do you have lined up in terms of the pizza?
CD: I want pizzas that are delicious. I don’t care about winning any awards, I’m not trying to impress other chefs. My favorite pizza is pepperoni and sausage. We use Ezzos, which is a really cool artisan maker of pepperoni and sausage out of Ohio. And we use cupping pepperoni, so when they cook it, it cups and traps the olive oil and seasoning. We have that and their sausage, which is amazing. We have that and we have American tomatoes from Chris Bianco, a legendary pizza maker and very disruptive. He was sort of the first fusion pizza guy; he’s out of Arizona. These are the tomatoes he’s using; they’re called Bianco DiNapoli. They’re organic California tomatoes, they’re absolutely delicious and I think they’re better than San Marzano.
We’re going to have The Margaret instead of a margarita. My sister’s name is Margaret. It’s a riff on a margarita and it’s basically what people are used to. Fresh tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil puree. It’s just a simple pizza. We don’t have any weird ingredients you’re never heard of, no cheese you’ve never heard of... One of my other favorites is called The Benny Blanco – that’s a white pizza with fresh mozzarella, parmesan, lemon agomatto, and rosemary. It’s absolutely delicious and you can get that one as the Benny Blanco Royale with either beef tenderloin or lamb shoulder.
There’s nothing that’s going to be really odd. We have a seasonal vegetable pizza using squash from Canewater Farms, we’re going to have Gottlieb’s doing our desserts. It’s just straightforward pizzas. We’re going offer vegan cheese options, but there’s not going to be anything on there you haven’t heard of. And if you haven’t it’s easy to understand.
Some pizzas are just over the top. I’ve seen pizzas with tuna fish. I don’t want that.
South: One ingredient we won’t see is mayonnaise. You’ve gone on record as not being a fan, how is that possible in the South?
CD: (laughs) It’s funny. When I did my stretch at the Cloister, we made our own mayonnaise in 60-gallon buckets. I made it one time and I had to beg my co-workers to make it for me in the future. I just can’t stand it, so there will be no mayonnaise in the house.
South: Fortunately, there won’t be much call for it on pizza.
CD: Well that was another part of the equation. I can get away with not having it in house. If I were doing burgers I’d have to figure something out.
Squirrel's Pizza is located at 2218 Bull St, Savannah, GA 31401.