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Opening a restaurant is never an easy task, but a small village location highlighted by a huge, mostly empty plaza seems especially daunting. Trying to reenergize a business district has to start somewhere, however, and late last year, Stephanie Nicholson may have done just that in Gales Ferry with Fireside Brick Oven Creations.
The restaurant still faces the former Ocean State Job Lot across the street, but Ledyard residents are likely glad to see a new business and to have a new dining option close to home.
At the corner of Route 12 and Military Highway, Fireside greets you with a cute patio area outside, and inside, with the smell of dough and the wood-fire. The restaurant appears to have plenty of takeout customers, but takes great care of creating a welcoming place for those dining in, with wood floors, walls painted in earth tones and a stone wall. You can watch dough flip in the air from your seat and pizzas sliding into the two brick ovens with purpose.
The waitresses on a recent Saturday night seemed like high-school-age kids, but while slightly shy, they seemed to be attentive and well-trained in customer service.
We asked ours about the Fireside ale, and though she didn't have the info (we're guessing because she was under 21), she quickly came back with a sample, and we ordered a full glass of the nicely hoppy beer made for the restaurant. We were served some basic pieces of flatbread and a garlic oil for dipping, and we consulted a list of specials, which are "coming soon" to the menu.
The Fireside Bites ($5.99) are hand-rolled wontons stuffed with your choice of Philly cheese steak, broccoli and cheddar, jalapeno and cream cheese or baked stuffed potato. After quickly nixing some of the other fillings, we tried the baked potato, which was like a tiny empanada filled with a mashed mix of red potato, scallions, bacon and Colby-jack cheese, but they weren't very crisp and needed more flavor.
The main menu features salads, including a "love salad" with lots of garlic; rice bowls, such as taco beef and cheese; and some pulled pork and beef brisket concoctions.
But we decided to stick with the namesake wood-fired fare, enjoying the names of national parks and park attractions. The Muir Woods sandwich, for example, features eggplant, pesto, onions, sauce, roasted garlic and provolone. The Grand Canyon white pizza offers BBQ chicken, bacon, gorgonzola, onion and Colby jack.
We had to try the Old Faithful - classic mozzarella, the standard by which pizza should be measured ($8.99 for a 12-inch). The cheese was just the right amount, and the sauce was very strong on the tomato flavor. The dough was cooked well but was a bit bland, considering it came from that wood-fired oven.
Toppings helped. The Olympic pizza ($12.99 for a 12-inch) was layered with tomato, spinach and feta and was good with a little seasoning.
From the sandwich selection, the Fiery Furnace ($8.25 for a ¼ flat bread) lived up to its namesake. The buffalo chicken happily did not have that fake orangey color but was still hot, piled in between flatbread with tomato, onions, spinach and gorgonzola. Our only problem was the difficulty in eating it, as the shreds of chicken easily fall out from between the bread. But when we took home leftovers, the stray chicken pieces made a great pizza topping.
Fireside definitely has the careful thought and creativity needed to start a restaurant, and with a few culinary tweaks, it could become a bigger name on the regional pizza map.
1661 Route 12, Gales Ferry
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tues.-Sun.
Cuisine: Wood-fired brick-oven pizzas, calzones, sandwiches and more
Atmosphere: Casual, newly renovated with a view of the pizza-making
Service: Quick and attentive
Prices: Appetizers and salads, $3.75 to $8.25; sandwiches $8.25 to $10.95; red and white pizzas $8.99 to $19.99
Credit cards: All major