photography by Justin Fox Burks
On a gorgeous Sunday morning in April, I eat my first poached duck egg, a suitable celebration, I think, to the earthy exuberance of spring. Airy and plump like a favorite bedside pillow, the egg billows off the plate until I slice through its center, when yoke the color of gold slips over spinach, mushrooms, goat cheese, and a flakey biscuit cut in half. Awestruck, I watch the yoke’s journey to a luscious pool of Hollandaise sauce, and when I finally take a bite, the taste is so magical that I almost expect Mother Nature to swim across the plate.
My brunch buddies are equally enamored with the flavor and heft of the entrees they order. “The best in the city!” my husband says more than once about the shrimp and grits, a fragrant dish reminiscent of its Louisiana cousins. Built with Cajun seasonings, bell peppers, wine reduction, and heavy cream, the sauce settles effortlessly on a deep bed of stoneground cheese grits.
My brother-in-law, who lives in Finland, tries chicken and waffle, because, honestly, he’s never heard of such a thing. “It’s Southern, you’ll love it,” I say, and he does, learning quickly that every forkful needs a taste of Belgium waffle, Panko-fried chicken, whipped butter, and bourbon maple syrup made fresh at the restaurant on Saturday mornings.
For kicks, we order a Bloody Beer, a tall glass of Lucid Kolsch from local brewery Memphis Made mixed with spicy tomato juice. The drink is an odd combination for me, but the craft beer lovers at the table like it just fine. “It would be good with that breakfast pizza,” I say referring to the pie topped with egg, sausage, bacon, and ham on a nearby table, and the comment reminds me what I almost forgot: We are eating Sunday brunch — a really good brunch — at a pizza place called Rock ’n Dough.
From the start, Jeremy Denno intended to diversify his pizza restaurant menus. “On Fridays growing up, we got a big pizza for the family and split it, we got a roast beef grinder, and we split it, and we got wings, and we split those, too,” Denno says. “I’ve always remembered that Friday wasn’t just pizza night. It was amazing food night.”
A native of western Massachusetts, Denno grew up working in pizza joints, a rite of passage for local teenagers. Six years ago, he followed his heart to Memphis for his wife Amanda Denno, a scientific editor at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, and joined the team at Trolley Stop Market, where he introduced pizza by the slice with farm-fresh toppings. In 2012, Denno put together a food truck with a wood-burning pizza oven, a venture so popular that he opened his first restaurant in East Memphis a year or so later. A pizzeria and brewery in Jackson, Tennessee, now managed by Trevor Jones, came next, along with investors including operating partner Jerry Corley who helped facilitate the opening of two new restaurants — one at Poplar and Highland to replace the Ridgeway location and one in Germantown, which opened in mid-April.
Along with Amanda, other family members also play key roles in Rock ’n Dough’s success. Denno’s dad, Todd Denno, helps with the restaurants’ build-outs. His brother, Nathan Denno, is the kitchen manager in Jackson. And his mother, Kathleen Margaret, is a Rock ’n Dough nomad, moving from the Memphis food truck to the Jackson restaurant and back again to the new Germantown location.
Today, distinct footprints characterize the three restaurants, but menus are the same, grounded by a hybrid style of pizza that reflects Denno’s northeast roots. More specifically, dough is retarded, or made with cake yeast and refrigerated overnight, for pizza that is part New York (oversized slices that fold easily to accommodate toppings) and part Chicago (deeper edge and softer crust). The pizza’s marinara sauce, a mix of seasonings, oil, Parmesan and crushed tomatoes, reflects similar care, resting for 24 hours so flavors can mingle.
Scratch-made dishes and attention to detail, typically saved for more chef-driven restaurants, bounce across the menu. Chicken thighs and pork butts smoked in-house elevate Smoker’s Pie into a memorable combination of barbecue, cilantro, red onion, and fresh ricotta cheese. Salad dressings also stand out, especially dill ranch for dipping thick, hand-cut fries loaded with crumbled bacon, cheddar, and mozzarella.
House-made simple syrups (honey oregano! Orange green chili!) steer Rock ’n Dough’s recently introduced craft cocktails, a surprise accompaniment for pizza. Yes, the bar serves local craft beers on tap, but adventurous drinkers should try one of six slushy cocktails, served in tall drink glasses to accommodate the restaurant’s crushed ice.
Rock ’n Dough Pizza
3445 Poplar Ave. in Memphis
7859 Poplar Ave. in Germantown
Food: Hand-tossed pizzas lead a made-from-scratch menu that includes beef and turkey burgers, build-your-own calzones, and New England-inspired grinders.
Drinks: Full bar service includes beer on tap from the city’s four breweries, Charles Smith Wines (the peoples’ vintner from Seattle) by the glass, and specialty cocktails like the Rock ’n Dough mojito.
Atmosphere: A puzzle of repurposed wood paneling and artwork of Memphis music icons by Kingfish Metalworks add an updated vibe to lively pizza restaurants with big screens for watching sports.
Extras: Food truck parks every week at the Downtown Farmers Market and the Germantown Farmers Market. At the restaurants, daily specials offer deals like $6 Taco Tuesday.
What’s next: Look for house-made craft sodas, grinders also served as wraps, and a trio of wings (signature, Cajun, and barbecue).
Prices: Appetizers and salads: $5-$9; Pizza in three sizes: $16 to $32; Grinders, calzones, and pizza bowls: $6 to $9; Burgers: $9-$10; Desserts: $4-$6.
Open: Monday through Thursday and Sunday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Three to Try
Chicken & Waffle
The Highland Burger
Farmers Market Slice