Dining at Pizzeria Ruby requires enough patience to reckon with a mighty crowd. Chef Michael Robertshaw and Meredith Butler, his business partner and significant other, are responsible for one of the hottest spots in Northwest Arkansas. And that’s saying something, given the sizzling streak the region’s culinary scene has been on lately.
Pizzeria Ruby’s pies are served in one standard size — 18-inch — and they’re straightforward and delicious. The pasta is impeccable. The ingredients sing the siren song of superiority. And all of it can be enjoyed in a minuscule municipality few take notice of: Johnson, a Washington County community tucked between Fayetteville and Springdale.
It was a long and arduous journey to Northwest Arkansas for the self-described skinny hippie New Englander, who started out “corporate,” bootstrapped a couple of successful food trucks, and eventually launched what some consider to be the best pizza shop in the region.
Robertshaw and Butler have been together for nearly 16 years. They met in Seattle by chance while he was there staking his claim as one of the city’s best chefs. She — a Kansas native — was there looking for something to do after graduating from college.
“We met at an Irish pub,” Butler said. “We were sitting at the bar and started exchanging Ron Burgundy quotes.”
The pair has a wicked awesome sense of humor, and they come by that “wicked” part honestly; Robertshaw claims deep allegiance to the Boston area. Born and raised in Portland, Maine, with his heart in Beantown, the pizzeria’s ovens sit below a sign that declares it 1,535 miles to Fenway Park.
Robertshaw’s origin story begins with a job washing dishes at the seafood restaurant where his brother worked. The itch that developed after seeing his sibling stab a live lobster, and subsequently stuff and bake the then-dead crustacean, would lead him to a series of cooking jobs in Portland, Boston, Seattle and, ultimately, Northwest Arkansas.
His interest in cooking comes naturally.
“My father was Greek Orthodox and my mom was Catholic, so we would always have two Easters,” Robertshaw said. “We would have Italian food on Catholic Easter and then we’d go to Boston and have leg of lamb with chestnut and rice stuffing for Orthodox Easter.”
After the stint at the seafood restaurant, Robertshaw worked a breakfast buffet for a 70-year-old woman named Phyllis, then a sojourn at The Good Table in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and then landed back in Portland where he received tutelage from two chefs: Sam Hayward, who The New York Times calls the “father of Portland cooking,” and the James Beard Award-winning chef Rob Evans.
“Working for them started my journey of hunting down dickhead chefs who could teach me something,” Robertshaw said.
Before long wanderlust started to set in for Robertshaw, and he set his sights on the Pacific Northwest — based on the reputation of the region’s chefs — even though he didn’t have a job lined up beforehand.
“I went up there and started handing my resume out,” he said. “I took a real shit job and was hanging out at Mistral, which was Will Belickis’s restaurant, who I had read about before. He hired an amazing chef from a restaurant with three Michelin stars, and I started tagging along, going to markets to scout ingredients.”
Robertshaw ended up working for Chef Scott Staples at his first place, Restaurant Zoë. He went on to become Staples’ executive sous chef at Quinn’s Pub when it opened in 2007. Robertshaw’s list of bonafides also includes a stop at Union, a concept from Chef Ethan Stowell. Some consider it to be one of the top 10 restaurants of its kind in the United States.
Robertshaw was working at Union when he and Butler first met. She would visit him at the restaurant near closing time, and then hang out for the revelry after the doors were locked for the night.
“It was pretty debaucherous,” Butler said. “I remember the staff had its own keg, and they went through cases of Jägermeister as well.”
Robertshaw recalls those days as being full of hard work, little pay and endless memories. Some of the most famous chefs came through the doors of Union to dine, including José Andrés, Anthony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White.
He recalled one memorable night that involved the author of “Kitchen Confidential.”
“At the end of the night, after drinking copious amounts of whatever we could get our hands on, there was Ethan Stolle and Anthony Bourdain walking around giving whippets to people who were still there.”
Robertshaw made a name for himself in Seattle. Food writers were smitten with the smack-talking New Englander’s prowess in the kitchen, and his reputation as an opener was strong. Need to launch a new restaurant? Robertshaw was your guy. The total number of restaurants he has helped open — including Pizzeria Ruby — is 11.
But Robertshaw said he needed to find a new place to practice his trade. The rents in the Pacific Northwest were exorbitant. If he and Butler were to settle down and open a place of their own, it needed to be somewhere more affordable.
Bentonville-based Ropeswing — a hospitality company with ties to the Walton family — recruited him to open a new version of Pressroom. Butler went to Arkansas to scout for a place to live while Robertshaw wrapped up his commitment to Restaurant Roux, a cajun-creole concept that would be his last job in Seattle.
Although the Pressroom experience didn’t last long, he did get a chance to work with Chef Matthew Cooper, who now owns and operates Conifer in downtown Bentonville. And it was there that he had a chance encounter with someone he deeply admires, chef and food writer Ruth Reichl.
“I got to cook for my fucking culinary journalist hero, which is a highlight of my career,” Robertshaw said. “She came in one night and I prepared crispy pigtail with sumac yogurt and grilled peaches. She wrote about it and put the dish I served her on the front page of her website. I will always keep that with me.”
After two-and-a-half years with Ropeswing, working in a corporate environment grew stale. Robertshaw struck out on his own with a food truck called Persephonē on Wheels.
“It was a weird time in my life,” he said. “My mom had just passed, and I had a revelation about what was fucking important. I’m a momma’s boy, so I named it in her honor.”
Robertshaw and Butler invested $8,000 in a food truck and started dishing out what might be best described as Mediterranean street food. Think gyros, shawarma and falafel. Butler was enlisted to help in the kitchen because Robertshaw developed a consulting gig on the side. “He gave me a one-day training on how to cook in the food truck,” she said. “I’m a cook but I had never cooked for the public before. I seriously almost had a panic attack every day.”
Persephonē on Wheels was a hit, which led to a second food truck — Three Cents an Acre. It featured some of life’s guilty pleasures, such as fried chicken, fried catfish and shrimp po’boys. The response was off the charts. Three Cents an Acre was pulling between $4,000 and $5,000 a day at its peak, with the two trucks consuming a combined 1,000 pounds of potatoes each week.
After flirting with a location in Rogers, a local developer suggested that he locate in a new development in Johnson. What was Robertshaw’s response?
“Dude, I’m not going to Johnson,” he said. “What the fuck is Johnson?”
Situated between Fayetteville and Springdale and just a mile east of Interstate 49, the development was easily reachable from anywhere in Northwest Arkansas. Plus, Onyx Coffee’s new concept -— Hail Fellow Well Met — was going in right next door. Robertshaw and Butler were in.
Work started to turn the 2,400-square-feet of unfinished space into a cozy pizzeria. Butler said Robertshaw was obsessive-compulsive in his quest to craft the perfect pizza. The pair traveled extensively conducting sensory tests of pizzas they felt were superior. Crusts, tomatoes and cheeses — everything was scrutinized ruthlessly. Robertshaw made the Ruby’s Pie exclusively for a year-and-a-half. “I felt that once it was perfect, everything else would be fucking fine,” he said of his version of the classic pizza Margherita.
For Robertshaw, a great pizza starts with a solid foundation.
“Everyone overlooks the most important part of pizza, which is the dough,” he said. “But everything else matters, too. You don’t ferment your dough for five days and then buy the best tomatoes money can buy, and then put plastic cheese on it.”
The pies sport artisan pepperoni and Soppressata, anchovies and truffle dust. “It’s hard for me to articulate what makes our pizza better,” Robertshaw said. “I think it comes down to the fact that we just care more.”
He’s also proud of the shop’s “Nice Bread,” which is named after the “nice bread” his mom used to have him pick up at the store on the way to Sunday dinner.
“It’s our house-made ciabatta bread,” he said. “The dough starts at 86% hydration, and it’s a two-day process to make. Because of the hydration level it has to be worked all day long. It gets slapped and pulled four different times.”
His mother’s influence is felt throughout the menu, though he ventures that his meatballs — made from beef and pork with tomato sauce, parmesan cheese and basil — are better. “No offense to her,” Robertshaw said.
It takes more than great food to make a great restaurant. Robertshaw is quick to call his 39 staff members “amazing.”
“It was a bit of a revolving door when we opened. It takes some time to stick, but we’re pretty fortunate to have the staff we have now.”
Robertshaw learned a long time ago that kitchen cohesiveness makes or breaks a restaurant. Robertshaw may talk a tough game in the kitchen, but he hosts family meals with staff, and when something is wrong he jumps in to see if he can help make things better —whether at work or in an employee’s personal life.
“We’re all spending so much time here that it’s essential that we care for each other,” he said. “For me it makes sense to develop a culture and take care of the people who take care of me.”
Even with all those accolades and meticulous planning in the rearview mirror, Robertshaw still seems surprised that the place was an immediate hit. “If I’m being completely honest, as much of an egomaniacal asshole as I am, I was very modest in my approach to this because I didn’t think anyone would get it,” he said. But people seem downright giddy to wait up to two hours for a table, even on a weeknight.
As for the future, Robertshaw is pretty happy right now. He’s not willing to say that he’s going to be in Northwest Arkansas forever, but he does see Pizzeria Ruby as a legacy institution, like the old school pizzerias Italian fathers jumpstarted to support their families, meant to be passed down to the next generation. Even if he moves away one day, he hopes to see Pizzeria Ruby carry on.
“I’m having fun,” he said. “The best days of my life are when I come home and tell Meredith that we had great service tonight. Food looked good, everything tasted good. Just completely fucking happy.”
And pizza lovers in Northwest Arkansas are happy, too.