Pie vs. Pie

Digging out of the Valley's pizza rut

I'm feeling like that guy in Mystic Pizza, the cozy Julia Roberts movie from 1988. Remember him? He played "The Everyday Gourmet," a TV restaurant critic who traveled to Mystic, Connecticut, just for a bite of Mystic Pizza pie.

He was endearingly pompous when he arrived, making high theater of tasting the shop's specialty combo. He picked up a slice, and studied it, peering intently from beneath his clichéd fedora. He whipped out his notepad, and scribbled something secret. He took a tiny bite of just the tip of the slice, smacked his lips and rolled his eyes, savoring tomato sauce like fine wine. A few more drama queen nibbles, a few more notes, and he was done. He marched out, leaving the entire rest of the pie in his wake.

We all laughed when we watched him, didn't we? Because pizza is pizza. Stuff to be eaten carelessly in front of the TV. It ain't knife-and-fork stuff, to be critiqued as art from America's great chefs. There are some pizzas better than others, to be sure, but pretentious, this pie shouldn't be.

Buy the slice: La Grande Orange executive chef Douglas Robson knows his pie.
Jackie Mercandetti
Buy the slice: La Grande Orange executive chef Douglas Robson knows his pie.

Location Info

Map

La Grande Orange Grocery

4410 N. 40th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85018

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: East Phoenix

Details

Goat cheese, corn, tomato and basil pizza: $11
602-840-7777. Hours: Big Orange Pizza served 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Patsy Grimaldi's Pizzeria
4000 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Small white pizza with garlic, ricotta, ham and Kalamata: $19
480-994-1100. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Extreme Pizza
1561 North Cooper, Gilbert
Small Pandora's Box: $13.95
480-926-4544. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Nick's 24/7 Pizza
6855 North 16th Street
Large sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza: $14.25
602-279-6200. Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily, 24 hours.

4410 North 40th Street

Yet now, here I am, working my way through almost a dozen pizzas, searching out the glamour. I'm nibbling, smacking my lips, rolling my eyes. Why? Because the James Beard Foundation has decided that our pizza is a national treasure. A few weeks ago, the organization nominated one of our local pizza masters, Chris Bianco, for its annual Best Chef of the Southwest competition. This is a really big deal for a chef, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar. If he wins, Bianco will join the ranks of just a handful of Arizona's world-class chefs, including Vincent Guerithault (Vincent's on Camelback), RoxSand Scocos (RoxSand), Janos Wilder (Janos of Tucson), and Robert McGrath (Roaring Fork).

It's true that Bianco's brick-oven wood-fired pizza is spectacular (oh, the crisp, chewy thin crust topped with creamy mozzarella, homemade fennel sausage, wood-roasted mushrooms and fragrant basil!). The quality is that of a fanatic: Bianco regularly travels to Italy to fine-tune his craft. He uses locally grown organic produce and herbs from his own private garden, he makes his own mozzarella, and he's constantly updating his small menu for what's fresh and seasonal. He's so hung up on keeping his pie just-from-the-oven perfect that he doesn't even allow takeout.

But, Beard, dude, it's still just pizza. So what if the no-reservations-accepted, tiny downtown Phoenix place is always a mob scene, packed with diners willing to wait upward of an hour for a piece of pie? And this isn't even the first time Bianco's been up for the honor (he was nominated in 2000 as well). Is this stuff really so incredible it belongs up there with guys like Guerithault?

In a word, yes. It'd been a while since I'd battled the crowds at Pizzeria Bianco, and it takes a refresher course on the Valley's other pizza joints to remind me just how remarkable Bianco's dishes really are. A taste tour takes me to four of the Valley's newest pizza emporiums, each promising a euphoric eating experience. What I find: one superb purveyor, La Grande Orange in central Phoenix. One first-rate pizzeria, Patsy Grimaldi's in downtown Scottsdale. One surprisingly good, speedy-quick shop in Gilbert. And one pizza place -- Nick's 24/7 -- that's just okay. None, though, that capture the mystical magic that is Bianco's.

Craig and Kris DeMarco are the proprietors behind the closest contender, La Grande Orange, a Berkeley-esque grocery/deli/pastry shop/sit-down cafe/coffee house/wine store and pizzeria. The DeMarcos also own Postino Wine Cafe next door, an absolute gem of a bistro for upscale appetizers, light dishes and eclectic wines. For La Grande, though, they've divided the shop into a culinary co-op of independent local food artisans (a pastry and cake wizard, a master bread baker, a produce expert, a fruit genius, etc., all share the space).

Chef Doug Robson is La Grande's pizza god. This is no fast food, with each small pie -- one size only -- taking up to 25 minutes to craft and bake (call ahead, and it'll be ready for eating at one of the six tiny tables). A handful of pizzas are available every day, and there's a single specialty pie presented each day of the week. The pizza even travels well, Robson boasts, recommending that for optimum reheating I splash a few drops of olive oil in a skillet and let the pie crisp over medium-low for 10 to 15 minutes (it works!).

I absolutely adore this crust. Enough that I would eat it straight, treasuring its bubbly crisp bite, its gently sour character of natural sourdough fermented overnight. These toppings put everyday pizza to shame -- organic, seasonal vegetables are brought in daily from the Valley's Victory Farms and other local growers; intensely herby moist sausage is homemade, pepperoni is premium, and herbs are so fresh they're plucked in bunches from silver tubs in the store's produce section.

I eat, and eat, and eat, with Sunday's breathtaking combination of crisp roasted corn kernels, juicy sliced tomato, aromatic basil leaves, silky goat cheese and the laciest mantle of mozzarella. I devour Wednesday's fennel, organic greens and goat cheese; Saturday's mushroom ragout and sweet onion. They taste like the sun. I make my own masterpiece: mozzarella, wet tomato, plump sausage, pepperoni baked crunchy on its edges, tangy Kalamata and green olives, and the most marvelous thing of all -- whole eggs, dropped in raw and baked to a creamy, yolky poached manner.

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