One thing you should know about the Lilly's Pizza in Durham: It is not the Lilly's Pizza in Raleigh.
Over the past 10 years, the original Raleigh location has stoked a gritty underbelly in the high-end Five Points neighborhood. Splattered in bright colors and expletive-bearing, kitschy artwork (plus that great illuminated "WOW!" sign), it emits a crass vibe in a historic part of town where former Sen. Jesse Helms is buried among old-money mansions.
For two years, I lived within walking distance of the Raleigh Lilly's. Most of the time, loud raging metal songs would greet me at the door along with a haze of smoke (the kitchen's exhaust fan never seemed to function). Because the pizza consistently lived up to my expectations, I accepted the fact that I'd have to shout my order. I appreciated that a quirky place like this exists—and functions—among beautiful, expensive antique stores, a place where mannequin heads glare at patrons as they edge out of tiny, narrow bathroom stalls and awkwardly wash their hands over one single, dingy, unisex bathroom sink. Weird art by local creative types adorns the walls and supports the restaurant's ethos of using local ingredients as much as possible.
At no point during my four visits to the Durham location, housed in the old Pop's trattoria near Brightleaf Square, did I curse a wobbly outdoor table for sending vinaigrette trickling down my leg and inviting mosquitos to dine with me. In fact, after my first dinner, I drove home with freshly washed hair still smelling of coconut shampoo, not embedded with the stench of pizza smoke. But my first pizza tasted plain; not until the third time did I finally taste some garlic.
On my first visit, the friendliness of front-of-house and wait staff compensated for the bland atmosphere. Accompanying me was an old friend who drove over from Raleigh. We waxed nostalgic about sharing a pitcher of cheap beer and a damn good organic pizza at the original Lilly's.
That night, a baker's dozen of wings appeared to be a perfect start, only to disappoint with a gummy texture that maybe only Dracula could chew through comfortably. The platter came unaccompanied. When I asked about any ranch or blue cheese, the waitress informed me that it costs an extra 50 cents.
Twenty minutes later, an appetizer of bacon-and-shrimp-stuffed mushrooms arrived. My friend, who is allergic to shellfish, avoided them. I ate three, without finding any plump shrimp.
We figured our chances at pizza were better, since Lilly's kept the Raleigh menu. Our favorite, the Buddha, came 40 minutes after we ordered it. Extra virgin olive oil, roasted garlic, organic baby spinach, sharp cheddar, organic Roma tomatoes, organic zucchini, kalamata olives, parmesan and feta cheese: All of the promised ingredients settled into the signature soft and sweet Lilly's crust except for the roasted garlic, which I couldn't find.
The second week, I returned after calling in an order for lunch takeout. I arrived at the appointed time, within 30 minutes. I waited another 40 minutes for my salad with grilled tofu. It gave me a chance to catch up with a friend who ran in on his lunch break. He ordered after me and got his box before I did, but he still waited almost 40 minutes. Thanks to his order, though, I did learn that Lilly's weekday lunch special includes two slices and a drink for $6.30.
On my next lunch trip—with a colleague and former addict of the original Lilly's—I decided to dine in. Our shared salad proved as beautiful as the sunlit dining room in which we sat. Two roasted pear halves were thinly veiled with melted blue cheese crumbles and tucked into a healthy mess of organic greens. Slivered almonds and my favorite croutons—bites of Lilly's pizza dough—were scattered about. Our pizza, the Sergeant Scofflaw, a basic rendition with fresh mozzarella and basil, satisfied our nostalgia.
But on my last trip, I made the mistake of trying something new: the Pig in a Poke calzone. I knew I was asking for heartburn, or possibly a heart attack, by ordering what is essentially a giant loaf of bread stuffed with prosciutto, pepperoni, grilled shrimp, pineapple and cheeses. One meat would have been plenty. My mouth grew parched and my blood pressure probably skyrocketed from the exorbitant amount of salt packed into that Frisbee-sized meal. As Top 40 music hits blared through the speakers, I grieved as I boxed up the leftovers I couldn't fathom eating again. Although the porch was lovely, the only fun, gritty thing about it were the squirrels scurrying underneath the floorboards.
Durham doesn't need another place to nurse a beer special at a glossy bar top, or a restaurant accompanied by local celebrity status. So when we're promised a really great pizza joint with a brazen and entertaining reputation, we expect to be treated with a big-ass bang. You have more time to "WOW!" us.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Waiting to be wowed."