When gourmet = pizza

Oregon District’s Wheat Penny: a solid pizza destination

By Avery King

Photo: Wheat Penny’s Hawaii 4-0 pizza

 

When Wheat Penny opened in December of 2012, it did so to instant rave reviews. Dayton’s food community knows a good thing coming. So, when Elizabeth Wiley, owner of Meadowlark, announced plans for this new project, which moved into the building formerly occupied by Coco’s in the Oregon District and featured as head chef Liz Valenti, former chef at Meadowlark, foodies knew they were in for a treat.

Wheat Penny is an upscale, but casual, dining experience. The restaurant specializes in high-end pizzas, but is as much a testament to the locavore and farm-to-fork ethos as it is a pizzeria. Wheat Penny selectively sources meats, cheeses and vegetables, combining them in engaging and interesting ways to create new and different pizzas, appetizers and cocktails.

My girlfriend and I visited Wheat Penny on a sultry summer Friday night. The restaurant was packed (with a 45-minute wait), but rather than get drinks at the bar, we opted to sit on the newly renovated patio. Despite the heat, the patio was fantastic. The patio houses about 10 to 12 tables, plus a small bar. We chose one of the two-tops in the shade.

One of our favorite things about Wheat Penny is the cocktail list. The drinks are always interesting, highlighting seasonal flavors. Traditional cocktails get a “Wheat Penny” twist, such as the Wheat Penny Manhattan, made with rye whiskey, beer jam and bitters, or the Kate’s Whiskey Sour, prepared with Bulleit rye, fresh lemon, lime and orange, simple syrup, “all shaken into a mad froth with Egg Whites.” We opted for two summer concoctions ($9 each). I had the Ginger Lily, made with Irish Whiskey, ginger, pineapple, mint, lemon and ginger beer. The ginger/pineapple/mint combination was refreshing in the late summer heat. My date had the Belmont Mama, which is made with pineapple and jalapeno-infused vodka, orange juice and Grand Marnier garnished with a sprig of cilantro. Sweet upfront with the perfect amount of bite, it too was refreshing from the heat (although my girlfriend drank all of her water and most of mine to offset the peppers).

We ordered both the eggplant fries and the oven-warmed antipasti ($6.95 each) as appetizers. The eggplant fries are coated in rice flour, and then deep-fried. Eggplant can be tricky to cook, but Wheat Penny nailed it. The coating was crispy and crunchy, but the insides were delicate without being unctuous. I struggled to wrestle the antipasti to my side of the table. It was a mélange of olives, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, chickpeas, mushrooms and herbs. The best part? According to my vegetarian girlfriend, “It didn’t include any of those icky meats” that antipasti sometimes includes (Wheat Penny is extremely vegan and vegetarian friendly). The dish is served with bread for mopping up the oil. The combination worked well, with each component contributing a delicate Mediterranean flavor.

While Wheat Penny is most known for the pizzas, they offer an extensive menu, including a variety of sandwiches, pasta and plate dishes. Vegetarians should try the Cauliflower T-bone, a novel approach to the vegetable that treats it like a center-of-the-plate item. The veggie is poached, and then cooked on the flat top to mimic a steak.

Each Wheat Penny pizza offers something unique, something just a bit outside the traditional. Wheat Penny’s pizzas are made California-style, with thin crusts that rise over two days. The long proofing process creates a dough that is, according to the restaurant’s website, “slightly chewy” and “air-pocketed.” Pizzas can be ordered as small or large rounds, with the small being a perfect single size (sometimes with slices left over).

I ordered the Hawaii 4-0 and my date had the Siciliano (both $10.95). My pie was a variation of a traditional island pizza, with ham, charred pineapple, fresh jalapenos and cilantro. The pineapple added a sweet note to the salty ham and the acidic red sauce, while the jalapeno and cilantro punctuated the tropical, summer flavors. The Siciliano is a taste of Italia, with orange-scented Castelvetrano olives, ricotta and toasted almonds over a red sauce. The highlight of the pizza was the olives – big and green, with a delicate flavor that was not overly briney, and that accentuated the citrus notes.

About half of the pizzas on the menu are white pizzas, made with a béchamel sauce. Patrons can pick a pie from the list or build their own. Wheat Penny caters to a variety of dietary needs: gluten-free dough is available, as is Daiya soy cheese.

The service was attentive without being overbearing, which we were impressed with for a busy Friday night with a long wait list. The atmosphere is upscale casual, with the décor as unique and as stylistic as the menu. The crowd ranged from families with kids to couples to large parties and everyone was welcome.

Wheat Penny is located on the edge of the Oregon District at 515 Wayne Ave. The menu changes seasonally and is available at wheatpennydayton.com. For reservations or more information, please call 937.496.5268.

Reach DCP food critic Avery King at AveryKing@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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