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Restaurant Reviews

Treat Yourself to a Cheese Pie at Pizzeria Carina in Preston Center

Pizzeria Carina focuses on thin, crispy pizza crusts, fluffy puccia loaves, and cheesy Georgian khachapuri.
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The cheesy khachapuri at Pizzeria Carina. photograph by Brian Reinhart / illustration by Andrea Chavez

The story sounds unlikely: a Ukrainian-American baker and a team of Ukrainian war refugees, serving Italian thin-crust pizzas in Preston Center. But it makes more sense when you get to know Eugene Plyako and his two-decade love affair with sourdough.

Breads and crusts are Plyako’s passion, and seemingly every dish at Pizzeria Carina comes with a dough. If you’re not feeling like pizza, you can still get pizza dough folded onto itself to make a sandwich. The meatballs—topped with both marinara and pesto, a surprisingly exciting flavor combination—are upstaged by a round, fluffy loaf of airy bread that’s perfect for sopping up sauces. Starter dips come with puccia, a southern Italian loaf that’s basically pizza dough in roll form: fluffy, golden, and crisp. Plyako says that puccia’s origins have Arabic influences—it’s like a fluffy pita bread brushed with olive oil.

Get a pizza that shows off the quality of the dough. (They’re personal-sized pizzas, 10 inches for hungry folks and 12 inches for even hungrier folks.) The margherita, for example, keeps to Italian tradition. A little more eccentric is the Nora, with burst cherry tomatoes, pesto, and creamy Stracciatella cheese.

But Plyako’s curiosity stretches far beyond Italy, and one of his standout menu items comes from a country southeast of Ukraine: Georgia. “Cheese pie” is the menu’s name for khachapuri, a Georgian dish that is coveted and beloved among American diners who know about it. Actually, khachapuri is a whole family of dishes—there are several dozen varieties—but the premise is simple. Take a pizza-like dough, crimp the edges so that fillings are contained in the center, and then add a whole lot of cheese. Some forms come with greens, too. Others add a rich egg yolk right in the center.

Khachapuri is not common in Dallas yet—the only other spot I know about is North Dallas’ Bubala Cafe—but it is in demand. If you don’t know about “cheese pies” yet, you’d be surprised by how often readers contact me to ask where to find them.

If you do, head to Pizzeria Carina. “I put an extra amount of cheese, and I bake it in two stages,” Plyako says. “Halfway I take it out, top it with oil, parmesan—which never happens in Georgia—and I put on a pan to finish.” It may be inauthentic, but it is also straightforwardly delicious: the complex blend of cheeses, all stretching in a molten blanket from end to end atop Carina’s flavorful sourdough crust, is irresistible.

Plyako has wanted to open a pizzeria for two decades, but until now, the timing never quite felt right. “Back in 2004, I decided that Dallas needed a great Neapolitan pizzeria,” he recalls. “OK, I had no money. Got to fund myself. No experience, either, but I really wanted to, so I went to the Chicago Pizza Expo, came back. And then Jay [Jerrier] came with his Cane Rosso truck. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s somebody ahead of me. That’s it. It’s over.’”

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A straightforward margherita at Pizzeria Carina. Brian Reinhart

In 2009, he traveled to Rome to learn about pizza al taglio, a new-to-the-United-States trend that he thought might represent the future of American pizza eating. But he wasn’t enthusiastic after tasting it, and he watched a number of pizza al taglio shops in Dallas, most notably Sprezza, fail to achieve lasting success.

During the coronavirus pandemic, he turned his baking hobby into a business, like many other bakers around Dallas. “I was working in computer wholesale,” he explains. “I had an executive position, good pay, but I never loved it. I loved cooking. Once I started baking, my friend said, obviously you love food, why don’t you start selling bread? Little by little I gained like 300 followers. I had people picking up bread from me twice a week, and I quit my job.”

It took a year to open Pizzeria Carina, in a space that was formerly Flattery Cafe, a halal pizza shop with Middle Eastern-influenced pies. (Flattery had a spicy Moroccan chicken pie.) The space is challenging: Pizzeria Carina occupies just 700 square feet and doesn’t have a dishwasher, so the staff can’t properly plate dishes. Plyako’s team has learned to turn each of the space’s constraints into advantages. The lack of a dishwasher means salads and sandwiches can easily be packaged to-go. The lack of an ice machine drove them to make friends with neighbor Southpaws Grill, which serves smoothies. “I feed them pizzas, they give me ice,” Plyako says. “The neighborhood has been very supportive.”

Originally he wanted to serve sweet potato fries, but the restaurant has no freezer and very limited fridge space, so Plyako turned to chickpea fries instead. His crew bakes chickpea flour in trays, cuts the result into strips, and fries them on demand. The result is a snack so satisfying that he often hands out free samples to customers to entice them back. (That’s how I tried them.)

The most meaningful adaptation to hardship, though, comes from one of Plyako’s Ukrainian refugee employees. She baked him a traditional Eastern European honey cake for Christmas, as a personal token of gratitude.

“I’m not a cake guy,” Plyako says. “I like Botolino Gelato. For me it’s gelato, that’s it. But I taste it, and it’s good! I ask, what do you think about making it for sale? So we now have it.” Currently, honey cake is the shop’s only dessert.

Like any baker, Plyako is self-critical and always tinkering with improvements. When I visited a second time to interview him, he pointed out one dish my table had ordered that dissatisfied him and outlined the changes he’d made since. There’s an interesting new offering, too: calzones, served the way they’re often served in Italy: with a dab of sauce on top. He’s also still fiddling, in a way, with the restaurant’s name. Different sources have it as either “Pizzeria Carina” or “Carina Pizzeria,” including its own webpages. In conversation, Plyako prefers to place “Pizzeria” first.

For now, as the restaurant grows, lunchtime is not as busy as dinners. On weekend nights, the tiny dining space is packed with pizza-loving neighbors, but when Plyako and I spoke for nearly an hour on a recent Thursday just before noon, nobody else walked in.

“Most people don’t associate pizza with lunch,” Plyako speculates. “I don’t. That’s why I brought sandwiches.”

He’s doing his job; now I’m doing mine. Associate pizza with lunch! You deserve a cheese pie. Be kind to yourself this week. Order khachapuri.

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.

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