Atlanta Orders In: La Calavera has switched from artisan bread to pizza

This is a slice of Ladrillo — aka grandma pie — from La Calavera Pizza. Ladrillo is the Spanish word for brick, and these heavy, red, rectangular slices do look a bit like red bricks. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This is a slice of Ladrillo — aka grandma pie — from La Calavera Pizza. Ladrillo is the Spanish word for brick, and these heavy, red, rectangular slices do look a bit like red bricks. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Artisan baker Eric Arillo and his wife, Dale Ralston, got their start at Atlanta area farmers markets, selling sourdough, cinnamon brioche and whole-wheat loaves crafted from wheat berries that they soaked, sprouted, dehydrated and milled into fresh flour.

That was in 2012.

By 2014, their La Calavera Bakery and its thoughtfully crafted bread and Mexican-inspired pan dulce had such a following that the couple was able to quit their restaurant and bar jobs and open a shop on East College Avenue in Decatur. By September, 2019, they had purchased and renovated a red-brick cottage on Memorial Drive, turning it into a new home for La Calavera.

Then, something weird happened: After just four months, they closed the business and listed the property.

Dale Ralston and Eric Arillo — shown here with son Helio and daughter Lala — own La Calavera Pizza, formerly La Calavera Bakery. Courtesy of La Calavera Pizza
Dale Ralston and Eric Arillo — shown here with son Helio and daughter Lala — own La Calavera Pizza, formerly La Calavera Bakery. Courtesy of La Calavera Pizza

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The reason: They never could find reliable help; Arillo was burned out.

“It was excruciating,” said Ralston, who handles the business side of the operation. “It was really, really hard for a long time there, because Eric was just chained to the oven, just had no life at all.”

They had a toddler and a second child on the way. “We had to be honest and just say, ‘We can’t do this anymore. It’s not working,’” Ralston said.

As it turned out, 2020 was not a good time to sell a commercial space retrofitted to accommodate a bakery. The couple got such low-ball offers that they decided to stay put and come up with another business model.

Today, Arillo, 43, and Ralston, 38, are recovering bread makers who’ve switched their focus to pizza. Where customers once queued up for loaves of olive bread and sweet orejas, they now stop by for hand-crafted pies, sourdough bread sticks and vegan cookies.

La Calavera’s Homeboy pie is made on a whole-wheat crust with mushrooms, Spotted Trotter pepperoni and Pulp chili oil. Bacon also was added to this pizza. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
La Calavera’s Homeboy pie is made on a whole-wheat crust with mushrooms, Spotted Trotter pepperoni and Pulp chili oil. Bacon also was added to this pizza. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Open since late April, the newly minted La Calavera Pizza has been a hit from the get-go. Ironically, at a time when restaurants everywhere are struggling to find workers, La Calavera has snagged a couple of hard-working young employees who want to learn the art of pizza-making.

Arillo and Ralston — who both grew up in Atlanta and spent about four years in Arillo’s native Mexico after they married — are feeling better about life. They have predictable hours, and time to spend with their two small children.

And, Atlanta has a new destination for artisan pies, which can be built on white, organic local whole-wheat or gluten-free crusts. The kitchen makes its own simple tomato sauce (“it’s not even cooked; that’s all I can say about it,” Ralston said) and a vegan, cashew-and-sunflower-seed cheese sauce.

La Calavera Bakery opened its Memorial Drive location in 2019, but closed after four months; it recently reopened as La Calavera Pizza. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
La Calavera Bakery opened its Memorial Drive location in 2019, but closed after four months; it recently reopened as La Calavera Pizza. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

La Calavera uses flour from DaySpring Farms in Danielsville, cured meat products from the Spotted Trotter and hot sauce from Grant Park-based Pulp. The Homeboy pie incorporates ingredients from all three.

The only by-the-slice option is the cheeseless Ladrillo (aka grandma pie), with a thick crust that’s close to foccacia. Ladrillos are baked in sheet pans and cut into rectangles resembling bricks. (Ladrillo is the Spanish word for brick.)

“We are messing around with sandwiches,” made with Arillo’s sourdough rolls and stuffed with the same meat and veggie toppings as the pizzas, Ralston said.

La Calavera Pizza on Memorial Drive offers hand-crafted pizzas, sourdough bread sticks and vegan cookies. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
La Calavera Pizza on Memorial Drive offers hand-crafted pizzas, sourdough bread sticks and vegan cookies. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

When I asked Ralston if they ever would sell bread again, I almost could hear the tension in her voice.

“We get asked that every week,” she said. And, yes, they have considered it.

“At the same time, that was what we were doing for so long, and what eventually became unsustainable. I don’t know. It’s a possibility.”

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

Dale Ralston is co-owner of La Calavera Pizza on Memorial Drive. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dale Ralston is co-owner of La Calavera Pizza on Memorial Drive. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

LA CALAVERA PIZZA

Menu: artisan pizza

Alcohol: no

What I ordered: slice of Ladrillo; Homeboy pie, with bacon added; Mercado pie with a gluten-free crust, plus onions and mushrooms; vegan chocolate chip-oat-coconut cookies. I loved the Homeboy, and was super-impressed with the longevity of the whole-wheat crust; after two days, the crust of a leftover slice was still moist and delicious. The Ladrillo, which comes with sauce, but not cheese, had a nice foccacia-like chew and the delicate aroma of basil and tomato — lovely. (Cheese and toppings can be added your Ladrillo, if you like.) The Mercado, made with vegan kale pesto and our choice of house-made cashew and sunflower cheese sauce, is a nice option for vegans, and those on a gluten-free diet.

Service options: takeout only; order online or in person; no delivery

Outdoor dining: no; they hope to add it in the near future

Mask policy: yes, for staff and customers

Address, phone: 696 Memorial Drive SE, Atlanta; 404-697-7030

Hours: 4-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays

Website: lacalaverapizza.com

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