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Diving Back In

Former chef at Overton Park Pizze Stone gives it another go.

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Overton Park Pizze Stone is long gone, but the dream of thin-crust, authentic European pizza is experiencing a renaissance in Cooper-Young. Duncan Aiken, the chef behind Pizze Stone, has taken charge of Lou's Pizza Pie and is turning it into his own pizza dive.

This isn't the quaint neighborhood Pizze Stone you remember. The décor is decidedly grittier, with a new bar and a jukebox, and Aiken has changed the name to Skunx Chef Pub to fit the new atmosphere. While he's bringing back the Pizze Stone menu, he is also adding a few blackboard specials he hopes will transform the spot into a Memphis foodie haunt.

Aiken was days away from leaving for a culinary teaching job in Portland, Oregon, when he found out about the possibility of taking over Lou's. Faced with the option of total creative freedom, Aiken jumped at the chance.

"Here I can do anything," he says. "That's why it's a chef pub."

So while Pizze Stone fans can rejoice at the return of The Memphis pizza with barbecued Newman Farms pork, jalapenos, caramelized onions, and mozzarella, Aiken is dreaming of his blackboard specials.

The blackboard is where Aiken plans on working out his culinary whims. Charcuterie and cheese plates are perfectly in sync with a pizza joint, but Aiken also wants to do coq au vin, osso buco, and bone marrow on artesian bread with a parsley salad. These specials are flexible, and as Aiken says, "When I'm done, I'm done. When I've run out, I've run out."

Not surprisingly, Aiken admits that he craves change. "I get bored pretty easily," he says, before he jumps into a discussion of his love for waffles. "I want to get one of the waffle-makers like they have at CK's," he says. "I'll have specials like blueberry waffles or waffles and shrimp."

But what keeps Skunx from having a full-on identity crisis is the core pizza menu. Regardless of what daily specials Aiken is dreaming up, you will always be able to get one of his beautifully executed pies: a homemade crust, fresh sauces and cheeses (including a homemade mozzarella), and quality toppings.

The crust, arguably the definitive part of any pizza, is thin and chewy but not cracker-like. Making the dough is a multiple-day process that Aiken picked up during his culinary training abroad. He begins with a poolish, a fermentation starter that is commonly traced back to Polish bakers and the Old English word for "Polish." The poolish — equal parts flour and water with a leavening agent like baker's yeast — sits for at least 24 hours to develop a more complex flavor before sugar and salt are added. Aiken then rolls out and tosses the crust by hand.

The pizza toppings might be unfamiliar, but they aren't gimmicky. The Lucca Brazzi pairs hot and cold in a sophisticated flavor combination: a sauceless roasted-garlic, mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano base topped with a fresh arugula, tomato, anchovy, and truffle oil salad. The Achilles' Heel does away with the tomato sauce standard as well, using hummus instead and layering on cucumber, tomato, roasted red pepper, goat cheese, feta, and red onion.

Of course, there are plenty of more traditional pizzas to choose from: the Mafioso with meatballs and caramelized onions; the Napoli with pepperoni, sausage, and mushrooms; and Maui with ham, caramelized onions, pineapple, roasted red peppers, and goat cheese. And what kind of a dive would it be without beer? Aiken says they've already been serving bottles of domestic and imported brews, and they are in the process of procuring a license to serve wine.

Skunx is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to at least 10 p.m.

Skunx Chef Pub, 2158 Young (722-4031)

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