Egyptian-born Saleh Ahmed is the owner and one-man band behind the newly opened New York Pizza on South Main across from One Commerce Place.
The veteran restaurateur's enthusiasm for the made-from-scratch dough he makes daily is part salesmanship, which he doesn't disguise. But he also spent years working alongside Italian families in the New York pizza industry, an uber-competitive market akin to barbecue in the Bluff City.
"If you live in New York, you can go anywhere in the world. Everybody wants to do their best to show their country," he says. "Italians are good at two things: food and clothes."
Ahmed volunteers that he uses a secret ingredient in his pizza sauce, one that he'll never reveal, not even off the record. Then he launches into a mini-sermon on the importance of shunning dough with chewing-gum gooeyness.
The crust avoids the too-thin cardboard texture of some New York pizzas, offering a subtle near-crunch that maintains a whiff of fluffiness. It blends seamlessly with cheese and especially accentuates New York Pizza's specialty, the double-sausage, double-pepperoni calzone ($4.99). Ahmed's elongated version of the dish features dough ends, allowing customers to savor his staple for a few bites before an enjoyable transition.
There's no posted menu at the 1,000-square-foot shop. Ahmed is hoping to parlay a prime location for walk-in customers into a thriving business, but mostly stands on the draw of by-the-slice ($2.50) grazing imported from the Big Apple.
"I depend on my mouth. I do everything the way I like it," Ahmed says. "It's supposed to make you eat a slice, then a second, and then a third.
"When somebody comes to eat my pizza, they should get stuck. A lawyer across the street, he comes here almost every day. When he eats my pizza, he goes crazy!"
Just then, a first-time customer stands up to leave, raving about the price value with the massive slice and vowing to return.
Ahmed's eyes gleam and he hardly has to say it, but he does anyway: "See what I mean?"
New York Pizza is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to midnight Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
It also offers 14-inch ($8.99) and 16-inch pies ($15.99), as well as pasta and garlic knots ($6.99).
45 S. Main (310-4253)
The idea for Cafe Keough, just a stone's throw from Rendezvous and within shouting distance of Beale Street, seems almost heretical, like something that should be whispered.
The European-style café, coffee shop, and bar at 12 South Main, does not have a deep fryer or a commercial vent hood to speak of. Instead, owner Kevin Keough and chef Demitri Phillips designed the kitchen around a panini press.
Keough and his team converted a filthy room commandeered as storage space for an adjacent apartment building into a quaint café, a job worthy of the Food Network's Restaurant Impossible. The ambience beckons customers to sit and chat. There are painted ceiling pipes, tall Corinthian columns, and patches of leftover art from the time a Hurricane Katrina transplant used it as a studio.
The fluid menu features standard café fare: quiche, bagels, and croissants for breakfast; and soups and salads like goat cheese, red beet, and smoked salmon for lunch and dinner. Sandwiches, ranging from about $7 to $10, include a salami panini with mozzarella, spinach, braised fennel, and basil pesto, and come with sides like fresh fruit or quinoa. There are also what Keough calls "best hits" of coffees and beers, and after he secures a liquor license, he'll add tapas to the menu.
"It's much more of a spoke-on-a-wheel concept, which is the concept of cafés in Europe," Keough says in reference to the menu. "I'm really wanting you to come by, have a glass of wine, have a cocktail, get your taste going, and then go across the street to Felicia Suzanne's or someplace like that."
The concept is a curveball within the Memphis food scene, but Cafe Keough is hardly a poser. The black-and-white photos of Paris that line the walls? Keough's father took them decades ago. (His parents met in Europe.) Keough has ventured to the continent himself and has adopted menu items from his travels, gleaning the "Bavarian Breakfast" (dense bread, fresh fruit, soft cheese, boiled egg) from the kitchen of some friends in Germany.
"Cuisine's gotten really complicated. There's nothing wrong with haute cuisine, but sometimes simplicity works really well," Keough says.
Cafe Keough is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Hours may be extended on Friday and Saturday nights after a liquor license is obtained.
12 S. Main (509-2469)