By Marjorie Rice
Of all the restaurants that have faced the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, pizza places are among those that seem to have fared best. They are, after all, made for pickup and delivery service, so when in-house dining was closed, their customers already had a convenient alternative.
Federal Pizza took that convenience a step further, with a drive-thru window that was part of the original design when parent company Upward Projects opened the restaurant nine years ago in a renovated 1950s First Federal Bank building.
The drive-thru has been a powerful draw, said Chef Eric Ramirez, director of culinary for Upward Projects. It allowed patrons to pick up pizzas, sandwiches, salads, pastas, drinks and more, without leaving their cars.
Off-premise liquor licenses at Federal and its sister restaurant, Postino, also helped them ride out the worst of the pandemic closures, said Lauren Bailey, co-founder of Upward Projects with Craig Demarco. The company operates several Postino locations, as well as North Central favorites Windsor, Joyride and Churn.
Customer loyalty has been invaluable as well, Bailey said.
“As everyone has, we’ve been through the wringer with COVID in some way, shape or form,” she said.
“But I think we’ve been really lucky because we’ve had such great support from the neighborhood in getting to-go food from us. That’s really helped sustain us.”
Ramirez, who joined Upward 15 years ago after attending the Arizona Culinary Institute and stints with local hotels and Fox Restaurant Concepts, is proud of Federal’s contribution in sustaining the parent company.
“Federal Pizza as a whole was a really big part of our success during the COVID shutdowns,” he said. While convenience played a big role, Ramirez credits Federal’s quality for bringing customers back again and again.
“We want people to know just how good our food is,” he said “It’s a scratch kitchen with everything made in house. And we want them to know how fun the environment is. It’s a non-pretentious spot and I hope more people in the city get to know about us.”
Pizza leads the menu, of course, and this pizza is a standout, with a distinctively tangy crust.
“It’s made with biga, an Italian sourdough starter that is kick-started with just a little bit of dry active yeast to help start the fermentation process,” Ramirez said.
“We make our starter the night before and let it ferment about 12 hours. We use that biga dough to make everything – our pizzas, sandwiches, focaccia, and even breadcrumbs for our chicken parmesan.”
Pizzas are baked in an oven that includes gas-fired burners on one side of the big chamber and wood on the other, giving a smoky finish to the crust as it bakes to a pleasantly chewy texture.
The menu includes popular standards — pepperoni, margherita and combinations of sausage, pepperoni, peppers and the like – and some unusual offerings including one with roasted brussels sprouts, pancetta, Grana Padano (similar to ParmigianoReggiano) and lemon zest; and another with sweet potato, sage and ricotta.
Or ask for your own favorite combo. The menu includes several pastas including a traditional spaghetti Bolognese with large house-made meatballs. Additionally, Ramirez offers an unusual pasta with lamb Bolognese sauce.
“It’s a little tangy and tart, really delicious and really popular,” he said. Another favorite is the pasta garganelli, with broccolini, lemon basil pesto, pine nuts, oven-roasted tomatoes, red pepper and Grana Padano. Popular appetizers include several types of chicken wings, along with fried mozzarella, arancini and “loaded” brussels sprouts with bacon, sliced almonds, garlic, shallots, saba (an Italian syrup similar to balsamic vinegar) and lemon herb aioli.
New menu additions are on the way, Ramirez said, though the final list was still being developed at press time. One to watch for: a Detroit-style deepdish pizza. Throughout the pandemic closures, Ramirez was able to keep most of his team.
“We’re very close-knit, and there was plenty for everyone to do,” he said. Meanwhile, Upward Projects is staffing up, inviting staff members who were out of jobs during the pandemic to come back this month.
“We’re facing increased demand as customers come back into the restaurants,” Bailey said.
“Like many other restaurants, we’re really struggling to staff for it. It’s a great problem to have. If you had told me a year ago I would have this problem, right now I would be so thrilled and excited. We feel such gratitude to everyone in the neighborhood. We’re still standing because of their support, and it means the world to us.”
Federal Pizza, located at 5210 N. Central Ave., is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Mondays through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays. For more information, call 602-795-2520 or visit upwardprojects.com.