By Becky Billingsley
Wednesday, March 21, 2012, Myrtle Beach - Three young men from the Steubenville, Ohio, area are introducing their hometowns' delectable pizza style to grateful Myrtle Beach diners at Gem City Pizza.
"Every pizza shop up there has square pizza," A.J. Hunt said on March 20 as he prepared for the lunch rush. "When I say square pizza here people think I'm talking about Sicilian, but this is different."
No offense to Sicilian pizza, but Ohio pizza is magnificently different, and Hunt, with partners Scott Roman and Eric Archey are doing an excellent job making pizzas (except they call them trays, not pizzas) and other specialties.
Hunt's background is in clothing design - he came to Myrtle Beach via Hollywood where he worked with American Hooligan Clothing Company and one of its principals, songwriter Sleepy Brown. But he and Roman and Archey saw the potential for bringing Ohio-style pizza to Myrtle Beach.
They immersed themselves, with the help of a buddy who owns an Ohio pizza shop, in learning the art of making the special type of dough.
"I spent weeks perfecting it," Hunt said. "Our sauce is a hometown recipe."
The components make for an incredible creation.
The crust is thin and crispy - crunchy even - on the bottom, and the back crust is soft, moist and tender. The pizza sauce is a much brighter red than the darker Italian-style sauces and tastes garden-fresh. Cheese is piled on to make it thick and gooey.
Whole square pizzas are called trays, and each tray cuts into 16 pieces (double a "normal" pizza serving size). The base price is $20, and extra toppings are $1.50 each.
Specialty trays are $22-$24 and include Buffalo Chicken, BLT, Veggie, Chicken Bacon Ranch, Primo (think Garbage Pizza, with everything on it), White and Sweet 'n' Spicy. The White Tray is made with olive oil, basil, parsley, garlic and black pepper.
I tried a square of the Sweet 'n' Spicy (squares are $1.50), and it is my new favorite pizza. It's cheese pizza with brown sugar and crushed red peppers, and is outrageously, spicily, addictively delicious.
That incredible back crust was made even better dipped into the trio's Swagger Sauce (25 cents per serving), which is a mayonnaise-based sauce with loads of seasonings. Up in Ohio, it's called Hoagie Sauce and is routinely put on hoagies.
The Gem City guys don't serve hoagies, but they do serve Roni Balls ($2), and dipping them in Swagger Sauce is a treat. Roni Balls are soft buns a little bigger than golf balls that can be filled with a variety of ingredients, like pepperoni and cheese or peppers, onions and mushrooms.
Gem City also serves G Spots, where freshly baked Filone bread supplied by local Benjamin's Bakery is split open and topped with generous amounts of cheese and garlic. It's served with a ramekin of pizza sauce, for dipping, and I recommend also ponying up a quarter for additional dipping pleasure via Swagger Sauce.
This is a place to go for the meat - the partners cook piles of fresh ham and bacon every day.
If you want to sound like you're all about Ohio cuisine, order an Ohio Valley G Spot or tray. It's a regional favorite where the tray or G Spot is covered in pizza and pepperoni after it comes out of the oven.
The Gem City guys also bake fresh Calzones ($8), including the wackily wonderful Chicken Pot Pie Calzone, breadsticks and crazy-awesome S'Mores dessert trays drizzled with chocolate syrup.
Soon they'll have a license to serve beer and wine.
About the name - Hunt is originally from Toronto, Ohio, which is known as Gem City (maybe due to its twinkling nighttime lights, maybe because it's such a cool place; it's not known for sure).
Delivery is available within the city limits, but if you can spare the time to stop by instead of getting delivery, you'll be pleased by the decor the men have created. It's modernly funky, with wavy tin wainscoting, street signs and a cheerfully youthful hard-working energy. Sit at the bar, in a booth or at a table, and soak in the colorful aromatic ambiance that fits perfectly into a tourist neighborhood.
Or don't sit. Get up and bowl while waiting for your food, using their Nintendo Wii hooked up to a large screen television. They've also got WiFi.
"We want this to be like an old-school barber shop, as a cool-ass hangout," Hunt said.
Keep serving kick-ass food, and it will be. It's the best pizza - make that tray - I've ever tasted.
Gem City Pizza is at 819 Main St. in Myrtle Beach, across Kings Highway from the Myrtle Beach Zipline Adventures in an historic building that ends in a triangle point. The number is (843) 712-1369, and it's open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and until 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. When the weather gets a little warmer, they'll be open until 3 a.m. daily.