Victory Pizza Bar at Flying Tiger
article by Vanelis Rivera
photography by Kelly Moore Clark
“First and foremost, it’s very important to note, I got out of the restaurant business to open a brewery. And I was pretty staunchly opposed to opening a restaurant in the brewery,” says James Earl Simpson, unironically. He had been transparent with his partners from the brewery’s inception but for seven years they found themselves struggling with increasing foot traffic in the taproom. “We never could crack the code,” he says, adding, “At times, it was just crickets, and Rob, one of our partners, put it best, when he said the town is telling us they want more out of the tap room.” Though the shift was complicated and enmeshed with a whole new set of laws by which they would have to operate, this year Flying Tiger Brewery welcomed Victory Pizza Bar, quickly snagging a victory with their distinctive menu.
Once a decision was reached the Flying Tiger team brought in the “great consultant” Emily Ackerman, New York-based owner of Salt Shaker Consulting. Though young, she brought with her a depth of knowledge concerning the restaurant industry and a clarity that expedited Simpson’s vision. “She is sharp as a tack. The final product wouldn’t be what it is without her,” informs Simpson. “She did a little bit of everything,” he adds, mentioning her hand in the aesthetic of the taproom, coordinating with contractors on a day-to-day basis, and creating the restaurant handbook. “In the midst of this menu development, we realized we were on to something pretty special,” he says. The team was further driven by the potential of “not just being another pizza restaurant.” The thoughtful and creative menu, alongside the already existing taproom, creates an environment that people have clearly wanted to stay in and enjoy.
“I was adamant about this being a scratch operation,” emphasizes Simpson who, during the conceptualizing process, wanted to make sure the brands had similar identities. In other words, already having a “grain-to-glass operation” meant establishing a scratch kitchen—making dough in-house, slow fermenting, and slow proofing overnight. “This has to be a craft-style pizza so that everything is cohesive.” Sourcing the best ingredients was another venture, particularly concerning the pizza sauce. At first, Simpson was dead set on using San Marzano tomatoes, a plum tomato often referred to as the Rolls-Royce of tomatoes. Even then, one of his vendors kept bringing him other samples, one of which sat on his dining room table for months. “It was nowhere on my radar,” he says, until one day he needed to make some pizzas, and the only candidate available was a single can of Alta Cucina. The red and white can of whole peeled plum tomatoes was the surprising missing link Simpson sought, giving his pizza sauce a fresh fragrance and “a whole other depth of flavor.”
With all the elements lining up, the final step was to create a menu that highlighted the invigorating ingredients chosen. That is where Katy Aker came in with her kitchen chops. One afternoon, she and Simpson mulled over ideas over a pizza and a beer. “She came in and literally took my menu, balled it up, threw it in the trash, and said, I’ll get back with you in a couple of days,” he laughs. Though she deserves one hundred percent of the credit for the menu, Simpson long had an idea of the kind of quality he was looking for in a pizza. After a 2019 trip to the coastal village of Positano in southern Italy, he discovered the delight of Neapolitan-style pizza. “I immediately knew that whatever we did would need to be based around that to some extent. That’s where the craft part of it comes in,” he says, adding, “And Katy took that and ran with it.”
On the menu, the pizzas are divided into three categories—Red (whole plum tomato sauce), White (ricotta and parmesan cream sauce), and Maverick (nontraditional and savory). “All of our pizzas are fantastic,” beams Simpson, but when it comes to his favorite menu items, he has developed a craving for simple flavors. “I’m going to compare this to drinking beer,” he says, elaborating on his early years when he enjoyed stout, dark-beer flavors, and even the times when he favored IPAs. Recently, he has circled back to the crisp, easy-drinking yellow beers. And so it has been with pizza. Once a lover of pizzas with everything on them, he has discovered an appreciation for simple clean ingredients. On the menu, The Chennault is such a pizza—whole milk mozzarella, fresh basil, olive oil, and Maldon sea salt. Another of his favorites is the Victory Garden, “all the veg, you know,” he says mentioning the fresh toppings: red onion, broccolini, kale, marinated olives, shredded mozzarella, and red pepper. His introduction to broccolini on a pizza came by way of Aker and now it is one of his favorite pizza toppings. These long, thin-stalked leafy florets are also featured in the Warhawk, a rich pizza topped with spicy Italian fennel sausage, kale ribbons, broccolini, and Calabrian chilies.
Nine pizzas on the menu make for adventurous pickings, but other menu items have become just as popular. Create a shareable dinner by opting for the Shark Board, assorted meats and cheeses, whipped ricotta with honey, marinated olives, crispy garlic flatbreads, and seasonal surprises. Also, dinner on the lighter side can be just as delicious if you pair the Victory Bread (ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella cheese, garlic everything seasoning, and tomato sauce for dipping) alongside the salad which has been making converts out salad avoiders, the Kale Caesar (massaged kale ribbons, “a LOT of parmesan,” garlic black pepper breadcrumbs, and lemon Caesar dressing). There’s a lot to work with on the savory side, but on the Sweets menu there is only one option, and it will take you straight back to middle school. Another Aker creation, The Fancy Funroe Honey Bun is the perfect piece of nostalgia, a house-made, gas station honey bun, Colavita olive oil, Maldon sea salt, and lemon zest. “We explored multiple options on the desert side,” says Simpson, informing that the team was limited on what they could do in the kitchen because the only thing capable of cooking is their impressive Neapolitan, brick pizza oven, which reaches about 750 degrees and cooks a pizza in about three and a half minutes. Styled in tomato red tiles, it is characterized by the name of the brewery in black font, a feature that can be seen from the entrance of the space. “If it is cooked in this building, it is cooked in that pizza oven.”
To cater to meal-driven clientele, the interior of the building underwent a few changes. Upon entry, a blackboard sign welcomes you with ordering instructions. To order, round the low dividing wall where a large two-paneled menu awaits your careful inspection. Once provided an order number, you are meant to choose from any of the table seating indoors, under the patio, or the four picnic tables tucked in the back corner of the spacious outdoor recreational area. Of course, the pulse of the operation is the open kitchen. Sectioned off by the prep station fashioned in a herringbone wood pattern which is playfully lined by carefully stacked, 6 oz. cans of Alta Cucina, the kitchen is snug but incredibly functional. At any given moment you can see the cooks buzzing around the oven dome with restaurant-grade wooden pizza peels. “We committed to putting out a fresh product and putting our money where our mouth is,” he emphasizes, particularly regarding the kitchen’s equipment, pointing out the commercial stand mixer which he considers the restaurant’s workhorse. After all, the dough is the foundational element of the whole operation.
Simpson, who grew up in the food industry, has always been a firm believer in the influence of food culture. “My first job was running chips to tables,” he says. As a result, he has always appreciated the fellowship that sharing a meal can inspire, which has become increasingly apparent at the restaurant, particularly with the amount of out-of-town traffic increasing—another example of how growing culture, especially by way of food and drink, impacts the community. Simpson considers the intersections of his profession saying, “Craft beer has very close roots to the food culture, and the music culture, and the art culture of Louisiana.” And that is apparent at Victory Pizza Bar, an avenue of connectivity that is creating community momentum while serving some of the best pizzas in town!