Why Joe Sheena doesn't deliver
by Sally Mitani
Joe Sheena proudly holds out a margherita pizza just out of the oven and gives it a shake. A few bubbles appear--it looks almost soupy. This is exactly the effect he's after. It's a "neo-Neapolitan" pizza. Neapolitan-style pizzas (and their neo cousins--the difference between them is a technical dispute best left to experts) have a higher moisture content than the pizza most of us are used to, and they're cooked quickly in fantastically hot ovens. "Our pizzas are done in two or two-and-a-half minutes," says Sheena. With a crisp, charred crust and wet center, they don't travel well--which is why Sheena's Neo Papalis restaurant on the ground floor of Zaragon West doesn't deliver.
About the extent of their portability is upstairs to the new student apartments, but really, says Sheena, they're best eaten in the airy, modern restaurant. He's right next door to the Original Cottage Inn and just down the block from NYPD, but he doesn't view either as a competitor. The Original Cottage Inn is really a full-service Italian restaurant, not a pizza joint, and NYPD is "a totally different kind of pizza," he says.
Sheena, wearing chef whites dotted with tomato sauce, bears a spooky resemblance to the Sopranos' favorite chef, Artie Bucco. Sheena isn't Italian and has never heard the Artie Bucco comparison, "but I've heard James Taylor and Steve Jobs," he laughs.
Customers walk down a cafeteria line, choosing one of four base pizzas (margherita--the favorite--white, classica, and the vegan red marinara), assembled to order. To those, you can add additional toppings, but they're all twelve-inchers with light, thin, slightly charred crust, made from dough made in house and aged for thirty hours. Sheena fell in love with this style of pizza on a trip to Naples with his wife and went to San Francisco to learn to make it from a master.
"We're still waiting for our beer license, a point of massive frustration," he says. "Our intention is to sell local, Michigan micro-brewed
beers, all draft, and maybe four or five kinds of wine. No liquor."
Sheena has been making pizzas since 1986, when his first Chicago-style Pizza Papalis opened in Detroit's Greektown. He's the founder of two regional chains--Pizza Papalis and Rio Wraps. He likes to spend a lot of time on site when he opens a new restaurant and will be working full time as pizza chef here for awhile.
Neo Papalis also sells salads and sandwiches with a pita-like bread made from the same pizza dough.
Neo Papalis, 500 E. William, 929-2227. Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-midnight, Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m. neopapalis.com
[Originally published in December, 2012.]