Like so much of what one finds on Grand Avenue, Carson Wheeler's pizza joint is a little grungy. Grand Avenue Pizza Company's itty-bitty dining room is besotted by an amateurish mural, the relentlessly hip music is played too loud, and the patio is tastefully unkempt -- all in keeping with the tone of Grand's scruffy downtown arts district. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. No one who's eaten this tiny diner's pies is coming back for the ambience. The pizza here is excellent.
Wheeler, a native of Virginia, opened his pie shop about 11 months ago in a long-vacant corner store at Grand and Fillmore. The former home of Long Wong's and later a small bakery, the building originally was built in 1951 and sat empty for five years before Wheeler -- who'd previously run pizza places in Virginia and Mississippi -- moved in.
Wheeler, who's also the pizza chef, designed his menu after an old school East Coast neighborhood slice shop, like the ones he knew from every corner of every borough in New York.
Wheeler blasts his pies in a pair of standard gas pizza ovens. His crusts are made using an old family recipe, and while no one will mistake Wheeler for any of the Chicago coal-oven greats, his pizzas are pretty darn terrific. He uses some locally grown ingredients but is less interested in supporting local farmers than he is in procuring the best stuff to make pizzas with. What he does with flour from Florida and tomatoes and olive oil from California is worth checking out.
Return visits proved that Grand Avenue pies are wonderful straight from the oven and still tasty 20 minutes later. Slices dragged home even passed the next-day, cold-slice-for-breakfast, eaten-over-the-sink-while-standing test: The refrigerated cheese and zippy red sauce hadn't soaked the crust, which retained the pliancy and flavor of bread, not cardboard.
Those sauces are bright and well-balanced, sweet but not sugared. Most appear to start with the same simple recipe made from good-quality crushed tomatoes. They, and various white cheeses, are layered onto crusts neither bready like traditional Neapolitan pies nor flat-and-crisp like Tuscan pizza. These are airy and light and both slightly greasy and neatly crisp, the kind of full-flavored, crispy-chewy, foldable crust you want in New York-style pizza. It's a rare combination of textures that stand up well to toppings either scant or piled on.
Wheeler's most successful topping combos are those that keep things simple. The best of these is the Large Marge, a two-cheese mozzarella crowded with fresh basil. The 4 Cheeeese also is a winner, deliciously stacking cheddar, parmesan, mozzarella, and sharp feta.
I usually steer clear of pies piled high with too many unrelated ingredients. But I was game to try a recent special-of-the-day pie that combined Brussels sprouts, corn, and new potatoes. It was a delight, the sprouts lightly crunchy, the potatoes slightly charred and mellow on top of handfuls of melted white cheese. I was able to taste each of the distinct, perfectly balanced flavors.
The Diana Ross (Grand Avenue's version of "the Supreme pizza" -- ha ha) was a disappointment. A combo of pepperoni, mild sausage, onion, pepper, and mushrooms, it offered a mélange of traditional pizza stuff overpowered by cheese and onion flavors. By-the-slice pizza is always available, and also a mixed bag. A straightforward cheese and pepperoni pie offered a thick pavement of cheese bubbling atop splotches of red sauce on light, deliciously crunchy crust. Another, offering tater tots and spicy honey, was greasy and too sweet by half.
A calzone version of any pizza is also available. Its crust, crammed with ricotta, was nicely browned with puffy edges and had the chewy texture of fresh bread. I let mine cool before eating it, so the sauce and cheese wouldn't separate. Perfection. Sides of sauce can also be had, and while the ricotta white sauce was gritty and under-salted, the basil pesto was delicious, super-garlicky with fresh hints of olive oil.
Grand Avenue Pizza Company takes "no frills" to a new level. Its surprisingly fresh salads come in plastic to-go boxes; its outdoor tables are adorned with wall-mounted rolls of paper towel. No matter. Lowbrow chic is forgivable when what's being served is so often heavenly.
Grand Avenue Pizza Company 1031 Grand Avenue 602-253-6107 www.grandavenuepizzacompany.com
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Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Monday through Friday; 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. Saturday
Large Marge pizza (16 inches) $16 Garden salad $3.50 Calzone $10 Pepperoni pizza slice $3