The culinary scene in Jacksonville is changing. If you need proof, just follow your nose in and around San Marco, Five Points, or other areas of Riverside. Better still, sniff out the remarkable transformation that’s taking place in Neptune Beach.
The latest addition to this hotbed of culinary activity is the Craft Pizza Co. While not part of the cluster of eateries that make up “the corner,” this purveyor of fresh, California-inspired pizzas and other Italian delights is conveniently located just across the street on A1A and a few doors down from Atlantic Boulevard.
The imaginative force behind all things edible at the Craft Pizza Co. is Joshua Agan. This is the same chef that brought Latin-inspired delights to the highly popular Flying Iguana Taqueria & Tequila Bar.
According to Chef Agan, “There is no bigger challenge than opening a restaurant.” With a light and bright dining space that artfully exploits wood surfaces, coupled with an innovative and compelling menu that includes White Truffle Fries, Fried Burrata Cheese and some very eclectic pizzas, including Jambalaya, Fig & Prosciutto, and an interesting concoction called Rise and Shine (eggs, bacon, potatoes, tabasco aioli), it appears that he has overcome those hurdles and is making another inventive splash at the beach.
Their wine list, while far from encyclopedic, has something to satisfy everyone’s preferences. For our purposes, we wanted to select dishes that would pair well with the 2014 The Dreaming Tree Crush, a red blend from California. This is a very drinkable, albeit somewhat young, wine that displays notes of mixed berries with some vanilla oak characters on the nose.
For those of you who enjoy music as much as food, you’ll be surprised to note that musician Dave Matthews is a co-collaborator with winemaker Sean McKenzie at The Dreaming Tree. While you can learn more about their collaboration online, we wholeheartedly agree with their philosophy, “Great minds drink alike.”
There’s no doubt this wine would pair exceptionally well with the Craft Pizza Co.’s Diavola (San Marzano tomatoes, soppresata, parmigiano, oregano, chili oil) and/or Brooklyn Bomber (pepperoni, San Marzano tomatoes, oregano, mozzarella) pizzas. That being said, we were intrigued by the Roasted Cauliflower (kale pesto, smoked gruyère, caramelized onion) pizza. Let’s just say the creative use of highly suspect veggies is, pardon the pun, a slice of heaven.
Speaking of veggies, our Craft Pizza Co. adventure did not begin with pizza. At the recommendation of Chef Agan, we started with Mushroom Toast – a flavorful alliance of portobello, beech and shitake mushrooms tossed with Madeira cream, crispy shallots and scallion atop a toasted slice of brioche. While you could eat this by yourself, especially if you are particularly gluttonous, sharing with others is recommended.
Just to be sure we conducted a proper number of tastings, and recognizing that some of you may not be as adventurous, we passed on the “Porchetta” Style Pork Shoulder and the Fennel Sausage pizza, reserving a little share of stomach to accommodate the Beef Bolognese (potato gnocchi, roasted garlic cream, shaved parmigiano, baby arugula). As we had expected, this dish was quite enjoyable, paired well with the wine, and was a worthwhile indulgence.
If you are the sort who likes to read the last few pages of a book to see if you like the way the story ends, you’ll understand why we like to visit the dessert menu before ordering starters or main courses. While there are only three items on the menu, each resonated with us enough to insist upon a dessert course as part of our inaugural experience. Although we gravitated towards the Zeppole (fluffy sweetened dough pockets with raspberry coulis), and as long as Chef Agan was still at the table, we asked for his recommendation. Apparently the Ice Cream Sandwich is a real crowd pleaser, as is the S’mores Mugcake Sundae. Since the ice cream sandwich did not sound terribly exotic (despite Chef Agan’s insistence to the contrary), we opted for the Mugcake. For those of you who prefer sweet over savory, this generous serving of Nutella, marshmallows and graham cracker is undeniably worthwhile. While not suited to pairing with the wine, a tall cold glass of milk or freshly brewed cup of coffee would do quite nicely.
We noticed that every dish was consistently rich and flavorful. How is this achieved? “Great food starts with great ingredients,” Chef Agan explains. “Add a little creative inspiration, patience and solid culinary technique and the results will be worthwhile.”
With this in mind, there’s no doubt that the Craft Pizza Co. brings a new and exciting culinary dimension to Neptune Beach and the Jacksonville dining experience overall.
Written by Jeffrey Spear
Click here for Chef Agan’s Mushroom Toast recipe.
Pair it with Dreaming Tree Crush Red Blend
Grapes: 2014 vintage, California. 64% Merlot, 20% Petite Sirah, 13% Zinfandel, 3% Other.
A blend of the North Coast’s finest varieties, this wine has some great raspberry jam and vanilla oak characters on the nose, juicy mixed berry flavors, and full-but-soft and approachable tannins.
Description: An exciting collaboration between Dave Matthews and award-winning winemaker Sean McKenzie, The Dreaming Tree captures the spirit of California’s wine country.
The 2014 growing season was hot and dry, pushing harvest up to the earliest date. Fortunately, nighttime temperatures still dipped, which was great for maintaining the natural fruit acidity. September also cooled a little, providing much needed time to catch up on getting all of the grapes in. In October, the heat returned and ripened the fruit for the balance of the harvest. Overall, this year delivered big fruit expression, great tannin development, and nice ripeness across all varietals.
Dreaming Tree Crush is the Silver Medal winner of the 2017 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.