In February, Wilkins, 33, was named a semifinalist in the outstanding baker category of the James Beard Awards for the second year in a row. Around that time, his idea of a neighborhood slice joint, Pizza Jeans, was taking shape at the bakery on the second floor of Ponce City Market. But, before Atlanta could get a proper introduction to Executive Chef Shayley McQueen’s rustic pies and classic subs, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the food hall.
While Root Baking continues to make bread seven days a week and distribute it to markets and restaurants around the city, Pizza Jeans offers curbside pickup Wednesdays through Saturdays. Lovers of Wilkins' baguettes and sourdough can order bread online for Saturday morning curbside pickup.
“We are kind of building a pizzeria while refining our systems,” Wilkins said recently by phone as he made a bread drop-off. “It’s not an ideal situation, of course, but we are trying to make the most of it.” Root has trimmed its staff from 12 to 6.
Wilkins, who got up at 4 a.m. to bake and deliver bread, ends his day by pulling a pizzaiolo shift until 8 p.m. “I like the pizza shift,” he said later. “It makes me feel useful and nostalgic for home.”
Though Wilkins and Lewis didn't envision making pies when they moved Root Baking from Charleston, South Carolina, to Atlanta in 2018, he clearly has an affinity for it. Lewis works full time as a clinical pharmacist, as well as for Root Baking, where she does everything from answering the phone to posting on social media.
Wilkins grew up with pizza. At 15, he began working for a provisioner that supplied pizzerias and restaurants. “We delivered sauce, tomatoes, cheese to different pizzerias all over the state of New York, and New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” he said. “I just loved that job. … That was my favorite world to be in.”
His rigor in making pies is as intense as it is for molding loaves from heirloom grains. He makes the dough from flour milled in the bakery. “Good pizza is just really good stuff on top of good bread,” he said, “and so I think we care a lot about the bread, and we care a lot about what’s on top of it.”
Most likely, this has been stewing in his psyche since his grandpa gave him that first taste of red sauce. “In some cosmic way, this pizzeria is probably somewhat his fault.”
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ROOT BAKING CO. AND PIZZA JEANS
Menu: Root Baking has suspended restaurant service while rolling out Pizza Jeans, which offers three pies, two subs, bread sticks and a Caesar. Cookies and bread from the bakery are offered via the Pizza Jeans app, depending on availability.
Alcohol: beer and wine via Pizza Jeans
What I ordered: whole red pie (essentially a Margherita), Jeans Sub (a classic Italian roll with salami and capicola), a meatball sub, a "cookie jar" of six confections, a loaf of sourdough. Owner Chris Wilkins had told me his old school sub would be dripping in olive oil and vinegar, and that the meatball sandwich, made with beef, lamb and provolone, would be fat and messy. He wasn't kidding. I absolutely loved both. His sesame-flecked hoagies are perfect for sopping up the mess; a half of each sub held up well in the fridge for a day. Slices fold perfectly in half for shoving into your mouth. The cookie assortment — oversize chocolate chip, ginger-molasses sprinkled with glistening sugar crystals, and a decadent all-chocolate creation with a soft crumb — did not last long.
Safety protocols: Wilkins said the bakery always has been fanatical about cleanliness. The staff wears gloves and masks; all transactions are contact-free and picked up curbside.
Address, phone: 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta. 470-639-8046
Hours: Pizza Jeans, 12-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. See website for details on buying Root Baking bread.
Read the AJC Fall Dining Guide: The Noodle Edition
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