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It hasn't taken long for the masses to discover Patsy Grimaldi's Pizzeria, open just one month in a pretty brick building across the street from Scottsdale's historic Sugar Bowl. I stop in, rumpled and weary on a Saturday night, and immediately realize I'm underdressed and underenergized for the event. Even if there are only two sizes of pizza, two bases (tomato or white), and 14 toppings, plus two salads, a calzone and two desserts, our local diners are treating this place like fine dining. The look certainly is big city, with moody lighting, glittering walls of liquor bottles, a coifed hostess and an expo kitchen featuring chefs hand-tossing dough. Pizza with the services of a sommelier? Patsy's has got it.
This is big-time pie, too, featured on the Today show,in Good Housekeeping, the New York Times and USA Today, and rated #1 Pizzeria in New York for seven years straight by Zagat (Bianco himself trained under Patsy Grimaldi). It's apparently been an East Coast institution since 1933, though the name rings no bells for me, and several of my diehard Manhattan buddies shrug when I bring it up. We're the first expansion outside of its two original shops in Brooklyn, and Hoboken, New Jersey.
The hoopla comes from the baking process, 25-ton brick ovens fired not with wood, but with coal, reaching temperatures of 1,200 degrees. There's no denying toppings are above average, the gently spicy red sauce with squished tomatoes, the pure earth-flavor mushrooms, the oven-roasted sweet red peppers, fresh garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. I try two pies -- diners create their own; there are no special combos -- and am plenty happy. One is classic: pepperoni (fine), sausage (obviously handmade) and mushrooms with mozzarella and red sauce. The other is creative: a white base with garlic, ricotta (wonderful, creamy clumps like little land mines of sweetness), ham (deli-quality, though in too fine a chop to appreciate) and Kalamata olives (sliced, thank you; the whole olives served at La Grande Orange roll off the pie).
4410 N. 40th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Region: East Phoenix
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.
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.
The crust, I don't like so much. It's delightfully English muffin chewy, French bread taut and elegantly thin, but the coal-baked dough tastes like, well, coal. I discuss it with a New Jersey transplant who grew up on the stuff, though, and he loves the familiar flavor.
I surprise myself that I enjoy Extreme Pizza as much as I do. Because this is essentially a Quizno's of pie-dom, a franchise with locations across California, Colorado, Florida, and now here. It's fast -- pies run through a conveyor-style oven in about 10 minutes -- and entirely casual, with a loud television blaring while high school kids snap gum and take our orders.
Except these are really fine eats. As its promo materials say, Extreme caters to "freethinking, pizza connoisseur daredevils" -- which would bug me for its cuteness, except that it's true. Its creative specialty-combo menu is the only reason I ever could have stumbled upon such a suspicious-sounding but spectacular blend as "Peace in the Middle East." The pie comes slathered with homemade hummus in place of tomato sauce, tomatoes, olives, feta, fresh basil, pepperoncini and mozzarella (trust me, try it -- the ingredients are chopped so they blend instead of overwhelm, the hummus is the real thing, the crust is thin but buoyant, almost like pita bread).
The imaginative combos are how I find myself under the spell of Pandora's Box, with real-live fresh baby spinach, sparkling marinated artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, real salty feta, fresh garlic, fresh basil, oregano and mozzarella. And it's how I find myself stuffing on a Holy Cow, a rich recital of fontina, Swiss, Gorgonzola, mozzarella, roasted walnuts and fresh sage.
If I've been questioning a bit as to what could propel plain pizza to James Beard status, all I have to do is slide by Nick's 24/7 in north Phoenix. The gimmick here is that the place is open around the clock, every day of the week. And honestly, staying open is what this shop does best. It isn't the pie, thick, commercial-tasting fare that's fine for 2 a.m. cravings but doesn't hold up in the light of day. There's too much crust, too much sauce, too much leaden cheese, and after feasting on homemade sausage, these dot-size nubs just don't satisfy.
As the Everyday Gourmet summarized his fascination with Mystic Pizza's pies: "I must tell you this is probably the best pizza I've ever tasted, mystic indeed. Just the right blend of cheese, and tomatoes, and spices I can't quite identify."
So maybe I'll never uncover the exact magic that makes Pizzeria Bianco remarkable enough to get the James Beard Foundation to sit up and take notice. I just know, after one taste, that he's got it. Should he take home the trophy when the awards are announced in May, the rest of the world will know it, too.