For as long as I can remember I’ve clamored for pizza by the slice. I’m a man of simple taste and grievance, so it’s perhaps with more passion than is ever warranted that I’ve publicly criticized Lafayette’s lack of the most ubiquitous college-town portable in America. If folks in New York City can get it for less than $3 a slice, surely the ad hoc wizards that gave us the Cajun microwave could sort out a reasonable business slinging the humble slice of pie. Enter Stephen Verret’s Olympic Grove, what you could perhaps call the Cajun-engineered solution to our pizza-by-the-slice problem.
Let’s get one thing out the way real quick: Olympic Grove is not a restaurant; it’s a pop up. For those of you completely alien to the notion, think of a food truck that unloads its facilities onto a vacant lawn about once a month and serves pizza and beer. Really, that’s all there is to it.
Located in a vacant lot at the corner of St. Mary Boulevard and St. Landry Street, Olympic Grove is, for now, a once-a-month pleasure garden. From a distance, it looks like a great party you’re not invited to, with wooden beams holding up crossing strands of exposed bulbs, lighting an outdoor arcade that combines all of the leisure sports you think about but seldom play. There are horse-shoe lanes, corn hole boxes, giant Jenga and washer board, uh, courts? Verret’s tented bar serves enough craft brews and mixed drinks to make you think such low-impact, turn-based games are actually a good time. Try watching sober people play horseshoes. It’s confusing.
Just when you start to work up a hunger, perhaps between your third and fourth Canebrake, and after your low blood sugar tanks your third game of horse shoes, you can mosey over to the carbonized fragrance emanating from Chef Jeremy Conner’s pair of miniature, outdoor pizza ovens. Here Conner — the pop-up chef master behind Humble Fish dinners, and the only man to monetize Gulf Water via his Cellar Salt Company — ladles homemade sauce and fresh mozzarella onto tufts of freshly made dough. You’ll be surprised to learn that the gas-powered baby ovens blaze at upwards of 700 degrees, the temperature at which pizza crusts achieve the right balance of crisp and unctuousness. Lack of hellfire is the reason your homemade pies are generally disappointing. Unless you have a brick oven, in which case you email your address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
At Verret’s first pop up event Dec. 5, Conner kept the menu mercifully simple with cheese, pepperoni, margherita and smoked chicken and mushroom in deep supply. I managed to hang around long enough to win a game of cornhole against my then fiancée — now wife, my gloating had no repercussions — and try every flavor. Conner worked out the kinks in his execution, a characterization I use hesitantly given each variation was some of the best pizza I’ve had in town. The crusts fluctuated from hand-tossed thick to New York thin, but the flavor stayed balanced and neutral to allow the simple execution of his ingredients to shine. Conner’s recent trip to New York to cook at the James Beard House no doubt will have an influence on upcoming pie menus.
A native of Lafayette, Verret’s an affable guy, perfectly suited to play host to such a festival of lounging. He’s bearded and v-necked in the way you’d expect someone who conceives a pizza pop up with lawn games to be. As an itinerant web designer, Verret’s residential travels have taken him to Houston and Los Angeles, places where these kinds of businesses are more the norm than novelty. To that extent, Verret is introducing a front-yard concept to a backyard town in a way that celebrates Lafayette’s gathering culture. He admits that, at times, the pop-up concept has been a tough sell to folks not accustomed to the idea of a business that operates only once a month. Those who showed up anyway were clearly delighted by the opportunity to relax among handsome wooden furniture, built by Verret and his pals, and take in a sunny day.
Verret is essentially testing a market for his product idea. He’s open to the notion of a brick-and-mortar shop, but the pop-up model provides flexibility and requires low investment. He can thus test his service concept without taking the dangerous financial and labor plunges generally associated with opening restaurants cemented to a physical address.
Given Olympic Grove’s success at soft open, you can fully expect to see more events popping up in the next year. Pop-up culture is slowly moving into Lafayette city limits, primarily through food ventures like Robert Guercio’s Downtown pop-up The Wurst Biergarten and the relatively recent prominence of food trucks. No doubt folks will come around quickly to the idea of a bar and pizza shop that comes and goes like a thief in the night. Really, the only thing stopping Olympic Grove’s success is Louisiana’s punishing weather.
Olympic Grove and its delightful pie will pop up once again on Jan. 9 from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Check out www.olympicgrove.com for more information.