Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Pizza Den, Oxford Institution, Preps Up for Fall

Kera Whiteaker prepares food for the next customer at Pizza Den. All photos by Andy Knef

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote through Jordan Baker’s mouth, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in in the fall.” 
That saying may ring true to Pizza Den as the football season approaches. Brett Whiteaker, one of Pizza Bob’s five children, worked the restaurant kitchen on a hot July day as if it were already September 13, the day of Ole Miss’ first home game this season.
It was July 22 at 1:15 p.m. There are about 15 people standing in front of the counter, some drifting to chairs to wait and patiently drool thinking of their strombolis about to appear out of the huge pizza oven. Brett has on a grey cap emblazoned “Ole Miss,” and he’s walking around the kitchen fast enough to give a people-watcher headaches.
His daughter, Kera Whiteaker, took orders and quickly divided sandwiches with two careful cuts to the middle before wrapping them.  The customers were already up and at the counter before she had to call for them.
“We will be ready for the football season,” Kera said, “It’s the busiest time for us.”
A customer eagerly awaits his stromboli.

Brett added with a chuckle, “I couldn’t even keep count.” He pulled out three sandwiches from the oven and started to cut them. A red-haired lady leaned on the counter, eyeing her order.
She turned and remarked that she orders her stromboli “early enough that nobody can make me wait forever for them when football comes back.”  Kera and Brett chuckled with her as she paid and thanked them.
Brett dusted his hands, poofs of flour disappearing in the kitchen’s simmer, and asked, “So, are you an Ole Miss fan?” After a nod he asked, “Well how many games do you think we’ll win? Gimme a number.”
He held up his fingers, holding down only one pinky. He said, “I want nine wins. I do! I’m ready for the football season, and we’ll get nine wins and a bowl game.”
The restaurant recently faced a rough time. Brett said he didn’t want to comment on its hardships, but explained the restaurant was audited. That was his only statement on the legendary establishment’s status. He only added that the restaurant will recover in the fall as long as those who love Pizza Den come by and support it.
Meanwhile, Brett and Kara continue to work hard at a place they truly love —  all day on Tuesday and Thursdays, and half-day Mondays from 5 p.m. to close. They have seen plenty of customers working for Robert “Pizza Bob” Whiteaker, Pizza Den’s founder.
The perfect half-eaten stromboli.

Kera said, “People come in from Jackson, Tupelo, even from Tennessee. We have this one couple who come here every summer and they eat here for lunch and dinner for a week!” After a laugh, she said, “The Mannings used to come in, but since there might be several admirers here, well, they order delivery now. But we do hear from them often.”
For Brett, Kara and the Whiteaker family, fall and Pizza Den go together like football and Ole Miss.
Callie Daniels is a staff writer.