Pele’s Heats Up Park and King with Hipness … and Fire!

Posted by on Jan 4, 2012 in Dining, Friends, Jacksonville | No Comments
Ace Pear Cider from Pele's Wood Fire

Ace Pear Cider

The past several years have played stage to a culinary resurrection along King Street in Riverside. Upstarts jostling to make “the scene,” including Intuition Ale Works, Walker’s, Carmine’s and The Loft, cry, “I’m cool, too!” next to neighborhood stalwarts such as Kickbacks Gastropub and Whiteway Delicatessen. Together, these palaces of old-world cool make maneuvering the sidewalks of King anything but a pedestrian taste treat.

And then you come to King’s intersection with Park Street and new proprietors submitting their Awesomeness Application along the 32204-05 line of demarcation – Pele’s Wood Fire. Judging from this writer’s recent visit, the Hawaiian goddess of fire has set up shop in a hot corner, and she means business. Fire up those property values!

Pele’s officially opened January 1 at a coveted corner previously occupied by a pharmacy. Inside you’ll find a modern yet cozy space for 162 diners and barflies in an open-kitchen design, where two oak and hickory-fired ovens create the conversation piece, and lots of modern Italian-American fare. One oven is exclusively for the establishment’s signature pizzas, while its twin manages breads, steaks and other duties. The adjacent bar stocks more than 50 beers on tap—from far-flung labels to Bold City’s and Intuition’s best—with a loyalty card program on the way. You’ll also find 40 wines by bottle, 12-14 by the glass.

But getting back to the reason for this place’s birthing … the pizza! It turns out that restaurant partner Matt Tierney’s wood-fire mobile pizza cart has been feeding hungry patrons at Riverside Arts Market and Intuition for some time. Marry Matt’s pizza acumen with the entrepreneurial drive of investor Mark Frisch, who has long professed a love of NYC pizza mecca Grimaldi’s and its 1200-degree coal-fired ovens, and the pizza cart parked itself at a new brick-and-mortar home that hipsters and Avondale elite alike will revere.

Mushroom Formaggi Pizza from Pele's Wood Fire

Mushroom Formaggi Pizza

Along with pizza, Pele’s breads, pastas and cheeses are crafted in-house, which itself is a remarkable example of “insourcing.” What makes the pizza unique is its prep time—two minutes to stretch the dough and 90 seconds to bake at 1400 degrees—along with a certification that means fewer than 50 places in the US can employ Pele’s process. Reverse-osmosis water filtration brings a flavorful, substantive dough that is a formidable stage for cheeses and toppings to take their rightful places. While you’ll find three published pies here—a Margherita, Prosciutto di Parma and Mushroom Formaggi—you can also build your own.

Our seven-course meal commenced with—what else on a Friday at 5:30?—bar refreshments. I took a leap of faith with the Ace Pear Cider,

Iced Seafood, including Mayport Shrimp, from Pele's Wood Fire

Iced Seafood, including Mayport Shrimp

and I’ll look and leap again and again on this sweet-but-not-candy-sweet brew. Soon after, platters of fluffy, homemade pan rustica alighted on our table, followed by a seasonal selection of iced seafood, including BIG Mayport shrimp, crab legs and Apalachicola Bay oysters. Oh … and the cocktail sauce! I’m not sure what went into that delightful, tangy, hot mess, but it dressed the seafood properly for the holidays.

Next up were the Lemoncello wood-fired wings, served with shaved Parmesan, chilis and olive oil. All I can say is take your buffalo sauce and ship it back North! These wings had tang and pizzazz, and ultimately, class. No red sauce to muck up your fingers. Score! Your date may go out with you again, bucko. Just don’t try eating them with a fork and knife, K? That’s what the wet-naps are for on the table (nice touch).

Two tangled bowls of greens next arrived on our birchwood scene—a Chicken Caesar with smoked white balsamic dressing, and an Arugula and Sweetgrass Dairy Brie arrangement with red pepper, roasted onion vinaigrette, truffle-infused honey and pistachios. Both were outstanding in their own right, but the novelty nod went to the latter, with brie chunks the size of Long Island (well, after a few thousand years of erosion).

We’ve already mentioned the p-word a few times. Being the “fun-guy” that I am, I bowed to the Mushroom Formaggi pie, with garlic ricotta, fontina, fresh thyme and a plethora of roasted seasonal mushrooms. Your wimpy button ‘shrooms are banished to Pizza Hut and Papa John’s forever! I would have eaten a few of these pies if my neighboring diners did not look menacing with their fork tips glistening in my general direction. The Margherita varietal needed more “hardware” (aka: robust toppings) but it definitely brought much flavor.

Black Pepper Spaghetti Carbonara from Pele's Wood Fire

Black Pepper Spaghetti Carbonara

Can you believe we’re only to Course Five? The new arrival, the Black Pepper Spaghetti Carbonara, was my idea of “carb-loading,” complete with smoked bacon (c’mon, let’s just call ‘em pork bellies!), Parmesan, tomato and egg-yolk cream. I would eat this every other night of my life … assuming morbid obesity suddenly became en vogue and heart-healthy. Sadly, Bizarroland is still for the comic books.

Coal-Fired Manhattan Ribeye from Pele's Wood Fire

Coal-Fired Manhattan Ribeye

Finally, we arrived at the Main Event: the Coal-Fired Manhattan Ribeye, dry-aged and served medium-rare with whipped potatoes, sautéed spinach, onions, sliced garlic, sugo and horseradish. Hands-down (but not forks and knives down), this was one of the best cuts of meat I have ever been served. It was obviously hand-carved and lean at that, with perfectly proportioned accompaniments. Being medium-rare, my carving prowess was tested, but the velvety textured meat was worth every turn of the knife.

Zeppole Italian Donut Holes from Pele's Wood Fire

Zeppole Italian Donut Holes

Our four-hour culinary odyssey wound down with La Dolce Vita (dessert) and three premium selections. First to our table was an Italian standby, the Tiramisu. It was a competent dessert by all standards and met all inspections, but (and if you haven’t picked up any hints of a theme so far, this is the spoiler) it didn’t transcend expectations. If the Tiramisu was the hard-working, quiet student, the White Chocolate Cheesecake with amarena cherry glaze and chocolate-espresso pot de crème was the valedictorian – supple, delightful, flavorful, and destined to go far. Then you throw in the Zeppole Italian Donut Holes with hazelnut-chocolate sauce, orange sea-salt caramel and lemon custard, and you’ve got the boisterous class clown, with lots of color, sugar and sass. They joined an excellent Segafredo coffee service to usher us out of our food comas.

Pele’s will be open seven days a week for dinner until 10 p.m., with a limited menu and full bar service beyond that. Breakfast and weekend brunch seatings are on the way in a matter of weeks at 7 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., respectively. Free wifi and ample electrical outlets abound for your laptopping or tableting pleasures, along with a private room available for reservations at no additional cost. Speaking of which, online reservations are in the works, too.

You’ll find Pele’s at 2665 Park Street, across from Walgreen’s. Call 904.232.8545 for info and reservations, or visit for menus and more.

If you haven’t yet already, meet the new neighbors at Park and King. They’re totally HOT, and a welcomed edition to this burgeoning corridor of taste in one of the River City’s great neighborhoods.

View Jay’s photo gallery from Pele’s Wood Fire at