CRUST ALMIGHTY

Beulah's, 2022 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 252-5303. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Pizza sure has changed since I was a kid in the old Brooklyn neighborhood. Back then, pizza was dished out in no-nonsense style by dour, flour-spattered, dark-haired guys named Mario, Joe and Vinnie. A great, cheesy, oregano-doused slice came on a thin paper plate, which quickly got soaked through with grease and sauce. You always consumed pizza leaning up against a counter, folding it carefully in one hand. The idea of "gourmet" pizza lay far in the future. At most pizza joints, a "gourmet" pizza was one the flies hadn't touched down on for 15 minutes. These days, pizza is fashionable, even exotic. You get it at pricey restaurants, where it's invariably served by big-toothed waiters who cheerfully introduce themselves with a "Hi, my name is Kevin, and I'll be your waiter tonight." The pizza comes wood-fired, in brick ovens, and designer-topped with everything from chipotle peppers to moo shu pork.

Sadly, pizza's ethnic roots have just about disappeared. Whether you order at a local takeout chain or a chichi Scottsdale bistro, today's pizza experience seems as likely to recall the streets of Little Italy as a food-court corn-dog-on-a-stick.

Despite my nostalgia, I accept the fact that modern Valley pizza restaurants operate in another time and place. I know our local pizza makers won't be spinning dough to Al Martino records, muttering in Italian or selling the pie at 25 cents a slice. But I still expect them to bake up good pizza. Hunting for that old-time flavor, I checked out three new Valley pizza parlors. Beulah's is a kick. If you had topped your pizza with LSD instead of sausage, you might have come up with the interior design. Hanging from the ceiling are an accordion, a saddle, a bicycle and conga drum. Skeleton-themed paintings line the walls. Tropical-print tablecloths cover the tables. It looks like the kind of place that would sponsor poetry readings and mournful guitar players. (It does.)

It's operated by the founder of Long Wong's and Willow House, easing back into the restaurant business after a heart attack convinced him to sell those enterprises. Beulah's shouldn't cause him much additional stress. That's because this funky place puts out some pretty funky pizzas at a very funky price. I know the boys in the hood would be scratching their heads over some of Beulah's spacy pizza concoctions--Chinese vegetable, Carolina barbecued chicken and, maddest of all, the Jewish pizza topped with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing. But if, like me, they've opened themselves to new experiences, I suspect they could be won over. The Chinese pizza is massively loaded with broccoli, peppers and onions, all tinged with a teriyaki glaze. (Thankfully, there's no tomato sauce.) Best of all, the ingredients sit on a first-rate crust, neither too thin nor too bready. It's the kind of crust you don't leave on your plate, even after you've nibbled off all the good parts. Carolina barbecued chicken is my favorite, the crust swabbed with barbecue sauce and studded with hunks of chicken. Italian? Hardly, but it works. The Greek pizza actually has some southern Mediterranean touches: olives, tomatoes, mozzarella and feta, interspersed with some beef that could have used a dash of tenderizer. Best of all, these 16-inch pizzas go for a low-margin $7.95. Beulah's offers sandwiches, too, but nothing remotely exceptional. The "Uncle-Brother Tex" features bland, skinless chicken breast, some jack cheese, mild green chile and tomato, served on a mushy hamburger bun that management presumptuously calls a kaiser roll. On the other hand, for folks who enjoy spending endless minutes chewing tough roast beef, the "Longhorn Lucy" is a dream come true. Stick to the pizza and groove on the scene: At Beulah's, life is cheap, but it's also fun. Oregano's, 3622 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 970-1860. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 1 to 10 p.m.

Unlike Beulah's, Oregano's features Chicago-style pizza, both in its thin-crust and stuffed forms. It's a nifty little spot that's easy to miss as you whiz down Scottsdale Road. Inside, it looks like a woodsy mountain cabin, a somewhat atypical pizzeria design scheme. Big cans of tomato pur‚e perched on shelves provide some reassurance, as do the friendly proprietors behind the counter. And once the misters are in place, the patio should be a relaxing spot to fill up and knock back some cold brews on tap. I'm not much of a thin-crust Chicago-pizza fan. Too often the crust has all the mouth appeal of cardboard. Happily, Oregano's version does significantly better. I also appreciated the genuine, though far from plentiful, toppings--fresh mushrooms, chunks of sausage, real Canadian bacon. You'd better be hungry if you've ordered the huge stuffed pizza. A couple of these babies could see you all the way through the NBA playoffs. Layers of crust, cheese and toppings are sealed with a thin crust, then richly slathered with a thick tomato sauce with a tangy bite. Good as it is bubbling right out of the oven, an overnight stay in the refrigerator brings out new flavors the next day. Oddly enough, the best thing here isn't the pizza. It's the wonderful artichoke lasagna. The kitchen combines whole-wheat pasta (which makes this quite a filling dish), cheese, cream sauce and tons of artichokes to create a tasty twist on an old Italian staple. Too bad the same imagination and care aren't given to the stale garlic bread that comes with it.

Oregano's hoagies have a touch of ethnic oomph. The thick-stuffed Italian hoagie comes crammed with pepperoni, ham, salami and provolone, spiced up with peppers, olives and tomatoes and then baked. In this case, the bread's on target, too. Like the lasagna, the desserts unexpectedly knocked me out. I'm a New York cheesecake snob, but the homemade cheesecake here is ready for Broadway--thick, creamy, cheesy and heavy. There's also something called a pizzookie: It's a slab of almost-baked chocolate chip cookie dough lining a six-inch pizza pan, with a heap of vanilla ice cream. You won't find the recipe in Gourmet magazine. But, like most of Oregano's offerings, it is primally satisfying. Gino's East of Chicago, 1470 East Southern, Tempe, 730-0300. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight. Founded by two cabdrivers in 1966, Gino's is a popular Chicago pizza institution that's aiming to go national. You don't need an MBA from the Wharton School to figure out why the Midwestern-rooted Valley is one of its first expansion stops. The Tempe branch looks like a typical college-town pizza-and-beer joint, but it's not a boozy student hangout. You'll see plenty of families and older folks here, too. The key decor element, just like in the original Windy City place, is graffiti. Management encourages customers to scrawl on every surface, even providing markers for that purpose. If you sit motionless for 15 seconds, there's a good chance someone will use you as a human blackboard. Of course, there's a dangerous element in this. Despite continual staff efforts to wipe out unsavory messages, not all pungent suggestions can be erased. Patrons who don't want to contemplate the enormous variety of English-language scatology may have to try out several tables before they're comfortable. On the other hand, diligent wall-readers can be rewarded with some dry wit. My favorite: "Born to bale hay." Pizza eaters can also be rewarded. Gino's pan pizza is as good as its reputation. A good two inches thick, it sports a crust with real character, a winning combination of taste and texture. The liberally applied toppings are also first-rate, particularly the charred pepperoni and slices of Canadian bacon. And the sauce packs a solid tomato flavor that you rarely encounter on pizzas anymore. The other menu items, though, can't nearly match the pizza. The good news about the lasagna is that there's plenty of it. The bad news is that it's a mushy, gloppy pile of pasta with no distinctive flavors. And our opinion didn't change after we sent it back for reheating--it initially arrived refrigerator-cold in the center.

Nor will the sandwiches threaten to put any local Italian delis out of business. The beef in the Italian beef and sausage combo looks and tastes several processing steps away from fresh. And the bland sausage is keyed to Midwestern palates, not Old Country recipes. Desserts are worse. I've heard a lot of good things about Eli's cheesecake, which, we were told, Gino's brings in from Chicago. So it's hard to believe the light, runny wedge they serve here is a representative sample. Whoever is responsible for the cannoli should be driven to a Jersey swamp and forced to sign a pledge to take up a new line of work. Pizza made Gino's famous. It's still a good reason to eat there--the only one.

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