First Things First

Photo by Brent Fleury

Photo by Brent Fleury

Best slice of pizza I ever had was on the island of Elba, gazing off into the Mediterranean Sea. Second best slice was right here in Hendersonville. West First wood-fired pizza, just off Main Street, is the inspiration of Scott and Alexis Unfried and Dave Workman. These are also the bakery brains behind Flat Rock Village Bakery, which has been turning out notable scones, breads and pizza for the last six years.

The space is hip and very cutting edge for Hendersonville; exposed steel beams and ventilation are brought into the design elements along with silver paint on corrugated metal, gothic stained glass and haunting original art. Alexis created all of the art, glasswork and finish paint on the walls and bar.

And at the heart of it all, a massive one-of-a-kind wood-fired pizza oven takes center stage in the open kitchen. “It was important to connect our customers with the food,” said Scott.

So, let’s talk about the food. The menu is purposely short and sweet. Scott’s goal was to “do a few things really well.” And from everything we tried, West First has succeeded in a big way. A traditional caprese salad, presented beautifully with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil chiffonade was a perfect start to the meal, as was the Caesar. These are large plates, more than enough to share. Be sure to order a basket of fresh-baked focaccia bread, which comes with a garlic infused oil for dipping.

After that, it’s hard to choose between pizza or pasta. We went for both, and our waitress was happy to bring extra plates for sharing. The pastas are homemade and melt-in-your-mouth tender. We tried the tagliatelle with shrimp, tossed with nutty garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. The pizza bianco was what sent me over the moon–ricotta, roasted garlic, herbs and mozzarella on a crust that was thin and crisp but still supple enough to fold. My major complaint about fire-baked pizza is that it usually comes more fired than baked…I’m not crazy about charred dough. West First got it just right, with the 30% whole wheat, all organic crust being cooked perfectly.

While there are different specials to shake things up every night, you have pizza choices on the menu that range from pizza margherita or puttanesca to potato and gorgonzola. Or how about a veggie, prosciutto or goat cheese version?

First West has a terrific (and large) micro-brew menu and a wine list that is both affordable and interesting. Wines are segregated into New World (wines from the U.S.) and Old World, which encompasses mainly Italian and Spanish offerings. Prices are reasonable (you can hardly find a wine by the glass anymore for $4.50) and most bottles are in the $20-30 range. We loved the Casa Solar Tempranillo from Spain, which was a bargain at $14 a bottle. Also noteworthy is the 14 Hands Cabernet from Washington State at $22. The most popular beers on tap are the French Broad Pilsner and Wolaver’s Organic Brown Ale.

No matter what you decide on for dinner, save room for dessert. Baker Jessie Shepard can take credit for some truly memorable desserts (especially her signature poached pear with mascarpone). Every day brings a different flavor of gelato (we had an intense vanilla bean version) and you can’t go wrong with Jessie’s version of the classic tiramisu, with a light espresso flavor. Gild the lily with cappuccino kicked up with frangelico.

Here are a few tips to make a good evening exceptional: For better or worse, this place is popular. That means that if you don’t want to be in the throes of what Scott refers to as “a dynamic atmosphere,” go early. After 6:00pm, be prepared to wait at the bar or outside. Also, keep in mind that while the food surely isn’t “Chuckie Cheese,” the restaurant is very child-friendly. There is even a play area tucked behind the couch in the front foyer. This is not the place to whisper sweet nothings in your love muffin’s ear…unless you want the guy at the next table to pick up on your smooth lines.

West First is the place to go and enjoy the sight of people from 2 to 102, passing, sharing, laughing and, sometimes, shouting to be heard. In other words, a true pizza joint, in its best sense.

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