It's difficult to think of an establishment more well-loved than one that serves pizza and beer. The southside was ripe for such a place and Firetap Alehouse & Restaurant sprang up to fit the need.
Firetap has a lot going on. There are 36 beers on tap, an elephantine 5,700-pound fire deck oven and a location that's found an instant market of eager diners.
I went on a Saturday night with a group of friends. I expected a crush of people and was not disappointed. We had made reservations, but had to wait a short while until the table was cleared. We ordered glasses of wine from the stylishly coiffed, friendly bartenders and settled into the waiting area.
Firetap's brand-new interior and muted modern decor brought to mind a chain restaurant, perhaps what would emerge if California Pizza Kitchen and Olive Garden had a love child. I was surprised to learn that not only is the restaurant locally owned, it was created by a group of people who have had their fingers in a number of pies around town. Between the six owners, they can lay claim to the Peanut Farm, the Sourdough Mining Company, McGinley's and in the past Humpy's.
The menu is a departure from the others in that nothing is fried and almost everything is cooked in the massive fire deck oven. This includes appetizers like the baked mozzarella ($7.50) and Mediterranean spread with kalamata olives and roasted red peppers ($10.50), all of the pizzas ($11.50-$20.50) and calzones ($11.50-$12.50). Even the pasta alforno ($11.50) is baked in the stone oven with marinara sauce, onions, peppers, olives and provolone cheese.
One of my friends was impressed the server wasn't writing anything down. She replied that she never wrote orders down, and I heard a little warning bell in my head go off. Still we gamely rattled off our choices and settled in.
My pesto dip ($9.50) came out in a hot ramekin with some triangles of flat bread for dipping. The cheese was gooey and lent some saltiness to the basil and pine nut concoction but was otherwise underwhelming.
My large honey ginger salad arrived ($11) with a heaping mound of spinach greens. A few sections of Mandarin oranges tumbled around with sesame crisps and three little pieces of avocado decorated the top. The dressing was good, but there should have been more oranges and avocadoes tossed in. I felt like Popeye getting ready to do battle with Bluto.
Throughout the night, our server was attentive and friendly. The blow came at the end, when she handed out the bills and realized she had forgotten to order one of our party's entrees. My friend had been waiting patiently, thinking the kitchen was just backed up. The server was horrified and tried to rectify the situation by bringing out bread sticks. Oddly she chose to deliver them to my friend while she waited in line for the bathroom.
The bathroom at Firetap is one of the nicest bathrooms in town. Jack Lewis, an owner, said he is always surprised at the amount of compliments he receives on the facilities. Besides appreciating the new space, Lewis hopes Firetap diners also leave with a sense of satisfaction about the food, drinks and prices.
"We're a work in progress," Lewis says. "We're making improvements constantly, thinking of new things every day. It's really fun."
My next visit came on a Monday night and it was no less bustling than on the weekend. I waited for an inordinate amount of time before I was greeted and waited some more for a glass of water. Once my order was in though, the food came out in a timely manner.
The chicken wings ($11.50) were very juicy with a little bit of heat. They paired well with the blue cheese provided. They tasted even better with the knowledge that they hadn't been deep-fried.
I had been looking forward to the Santa Fe chicken pizza ($12.50 for small), wondering what kind of alchemy the oven performed on dough. The crust was chewy, but it was the combination of toppings I enjoyed. Black bean relish with rich avocado and sour cream played up the chicken, while ancho chilis lent the whole dish a vibrant spice.
If you want a casual atmosphere with an impressive selection of award-winning local beers and hot wings that are practically healthy -- Firetap is it. There is live entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays and a great bar to belly up to and socialize. But don't go if you are overly hungry; in this case, the casual service is a detriment. Firetap has been open for three months, but is still trying to get acclimated to a high volume of diners.
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Firetap Alehouse & Restaurant
Location: 10950 O'Malley Centre Drive
Hours: 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-midnight Saturday and Sunday.
Phone: 561-BEER (2337)
Options: Dine- and takeout
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By Riza Parsons
Daily News correspondent