It's easy to feel comfortable at Pierre's Place, a downtown café that's been open since late May. Overstuffed sofas, well-stocked bookshelves and a flat-screen TV encourage hanging out, as does the powerful air conditioning system.
The café's peaceful, plush surroundings also make it easy to forget that in the same building, just a few floors above, there's serious life-changing work in progress. Pierre's Place Café is the latest project of the Toussaint Academy of the Arts and Sciences, a member of Father Joe's Villages and a facility that provides on-site housing, schooling, care and services to homeless kids and young adults. The restaurant was conceived to provide job training and an income for the students and graduates, but mostly, it's just about giving people good food.
Thin crust pizzas catch my eye first and I order two warm, crackly slices. All the usual suspects are on the menu, but I go for the new-wave shrimp pesto pizza and a buffalo chicken pizza topped with hot sauce, chopped celery and a drizzle of ranch dressing.
Ciro's Pizzeria in the Gaslamp was one of the local businesses that provided pre-opening assistance and training for the students, and Ryan, a graduate of Toussaint Academy who now lives in one of the alumni apartments on-site, did so well there that Ciro's hired him on for a time before he returned to Pierre's Place. He twirls and shapes the pizza dough like a natural, and I can sense an inner chef in him, so I'm not surprised when he tells me that the daily special, a chicken stromboli, is one of his creations.
The pies at Pierre's are made fresh daily by Ryan and the other young guys who man the pizza station with a mix of swagger and pride. I've had a lot of Ciro's pizza and the crust here tastes a little different. When I ask the boys for the secret ingredient, they teasingly say, 'It's love.' (It's really just a bit of sugar added to the dough to make it uniquely theirs.)
Salads are assembled to order and include one made of chopped lettuce with bacon, avocado and a Dijon vinaigrette. The delicious house salad comes topped with a bounty of candied pecans, feta cheese and dried cranberries and a tangy raspberry dressing. The grilled paninis are good, too--fresh and generously sized, with fillings that range from tomatoes and mozzarella to roasted veggies.
Most of the food is made in-house, but the gelato comes directly from Gelato Vero, where a special flavor was created just for the café--a vanilla with chunks of apple pie and named after Father Joe. A nice selection of gelato and sorbetto is offered, along with shakes and smoothies and other sweets in the form of massive, decadent brownies, cookies and cakes. Caffé Calabria in North Park donated help with the coffee bar, and I have to say that the crew at Pierre's has learned to pull a pretty mean espresso.
All proceeds from Pierre's Place go to the Toussaint Academy's scholarship fund and support services for alumni. Debi, the café's den mother and one of the only non-students employed at the site, supervises the staff, although she's quick to point out that the kids do almost all the work, from prepping and cooking to serving and clean-up. As she gives me a tour behind the counter and lets me peek inside the kitchen, we talk about the café's plans to increase business in the evenings, as their downtown location lacks steady foot traffic after the office crowd has gone home. Open-mic nights and occasional live music will hopefully draw more people so that the café can continue to operate and enable as many students as possible to be able to take on a shift. Aside from the fact that awe-inspiring, truly heartwarming stories come out of the café, I'm just thrilled to find that they specialize in three of my favorite food groups: pizza, coffee and ice cream.
Debi sums it up pretty well when she turns to me and says, 'We all need to eat, so why not eat here?'