In most circles, any person venturing out of the house after midnight invites suspicion. Little good can come from folks rambling about at this dark hour. Late-night frolickers are getting drunk, they're cruising the opposite sex with purely physical intent, or they're looking to pick a fight.
How boring. As one who cherishes life in the liquid black, I can attest that while some late-night warriors are indeed seeking trouble, many of us night owls simply operate on a different body clock. For us, evening welcomes in the velvet time, when the harsh edges of day slip away. Fewer phones ring. Street traffic disappears. The Internet unclogs, and we can actually sign on without being kicked off every few minutes. We can return voice mails at 2 a.m., and have our co-workers agog at our dedication to working so far into the night (just don't try to reach us before noon the following day). Plus, in Phoenix, it's hot as hell during the summer daylight. And some, like nightclub employees, are simply forced to exist within the swing shift.
But night owls are ostracized. Hundreds of restaurants cater to the chipper freaks who are up and out of the house by 7 a.m. People of the evening, meanwhile, have so few dining choices. Denny's. Whataburger. Stale deli leftovers from Safeway. Filibertos, Rolbertos, Dogbertos. A scary microwave burrito from Circle K.
But Western Pizza has heard our hungry cries in the darkness. The parlor, which opened early last year, celebrates the joy of vampire vamping, staying open until midnight on Sunday, 1 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends. Located a few minutes' drive from Scottsdale's nightclub district, this is where our local hospitality employees go for good food when they've punched out -- including staffers from Lon's, Mary Elaine's, Windows on the Green, Sanctuary and Royal Palms Hotel. Here's where you'll find ultra-trendy nightclubbers, including a customer who, worried about security at the late hour, once parked his $50,000 Harley-Davidson inside the pizza place.
It's not just glitz and yuppiedom, though. Western Pizza also is the place you'll find some of the Valley's best Italian pies, no matter the time of day. It's high energy, but civilized.
Designed by Nelsen Architects, one of Scottsdale's premier shops, Western Pizza has a much more cosmopolitan look than we'd expect from a strip mall shop next to Arcadia High School. Walls are fashioned of steel and strewn with colorful magnets. A wood-slat ceiling tops a concrete floor, decorated with natural-wood tables and servers flitting by in cow-print aprons. Our waitress has to lean in to take our orders under the din of techno music.
A bar takes center stage, and pours such classy sips as Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio (Italy), Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Village (France) and Symmetry by Rodney Strong (California). The house is an acceptable Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi.
Beers go beyond the boring, too, keeping us awake with interesting choices like Celis White, Shiner Bock, Negra Modelo and Molson Ice; plus on tap, Fat Tire and Dos Equis Amber. Café? Of course -- all the favorites are brewed hot, iced or decaf.
Okay. It's true that some late-nighters are on the prowl, and more than likely, you'll find a few of these amateurs flexing at Western Pizza. That's the case at 11:30 on a Thursday night, at least, when college is on winter break, and the eatery is flush with fine young animals who are as intent on picking up fellow partiers as they are on the food before them. No complaint, really, the guys next to us simply want us to sample their Popeye's dip starter, and we're more than happy to oblige. Such cooperation allows us free tastes of good, zesty spinach, served in a black bowl and ringed with sticks of puffy, buttery, garlic-salted toast.
Souvlaki are must-orders, they swear, acknowledging that Western Pizza is one of their favorite after-hours haunts. No dispute on the souvlaki's success, even if we only receive two skinny skewers of tender pork marinated in Greek herbs and spritzed with lemon juice. I like the meat's char-grilled edge, appreciate the drizzle topping and puddle bottom of lemon crème, plus the side of excellent garlic bread.
Mushroom hats are our own call, and they're a good one. The 'shrooms are meager buttons, but still juicy, and nice when dipped in our choice of Caesar or ranch dressing. The star touch is the batter -- a light, sweet pillow that reminds me strongly of Krispy Kreme casing. If restaurants in the '80s had prepared deep-fried veggies in this fashion, the trend might still be around.
Western Pizza has more: fries and gravy, chicken wings, rib appetizers, entree salads. Pizza, though, is what encouraged owners Brent and Lisa Wolfe to create their own spin-off of the 18-store Western Pizza based in Canada. They claim it's not a chain -- the only corporate influence is in the dough and tomato sauce recipes, they say. I don't care who invented it, I'm just happy to eat it.
The pie is primo. It doesn't hurt that the portions are huge, either. The large, an 18-incher, is about two inches thick and weighs almost 20 pounds. The small, an eight-incher, is dinner for one, or a filling snack for two. Dough is bubbly, even for its thick girth, and toppings spread all the way to the pie's edge. My favorite's the Western Round Up, a massive indulgence featuring mushrooms, pepperoni, salami, ham, peppers and onions layered high and in thin slices like a hoagie, then buried under a truckload of mozzarella, ricotta and Cheddar.
Chucky's Bar-B-Q is another table pleaser -- sauce-marinated chicken breast chunks crunched up with pine nuts, leafed with fresh cilantro and onions, then entombed under a cloak of gouda and mozzarella. There are a lot of tastes to maneuver, but the result is well done, given the light hand with the barbecue sauce and the aggressive, slightly smoky tinge of the poultry.
Popeye and feta pie I just plain love. Forget the adjectives -- mounds of fresh spinach and feta cheese, sun-dried tomato and a swash of pesto couldn't be more satisfying. And garden pizza -- no need to bore you with forays into a culinary thesaurus -- just imagine a dynamite combo of fat mushrooms, grilled purple onion, green pepper, tomato, broccoli, avocado and olives over cheese.
Western Pizza's sweeter stuff is broad, but unfortunately banal. Pecan flan, while nutty and creamy, looks and tastes more like pie than flan. A raspberry flan is pie-eyed, too, topped with a dollop of whipped cream and swarmed by a star pattern of whipped cream. The sweet tastes of good raspberry, but is too dry to recommend. Carrot cake also is achingly dry, tasting commercial with nuts and raisins plus shaved almond topping -- and who puts whipped cream on the same plate as carrot cake? Chocolate cake, finally, served on a blue flower plate with more whipped cream, is fudgy, soothing like birthday cake, but exceedingly average.
Before people judge those of us who prefer to stay up all night, they should try a visit to the dark side first. It's okay to start slowly -- maybe with a midnight feast -- before working up to the really wee hours. And it's certainly all right to experiment in the safety of your own home -- Western Pizza delivers, too.
Cosmic Pizza & Deli
True night owls salute the glow of the moon -- the fuller the better. That is, as long as sick companies like Pizza Hut restrain themselves from advertising on our celestial bodies. Can you believe it? The Hut wanted to burn its logo onto the orb's surface with a laser last fall. But since that plan turned out to be too expensive, they've now simply bought ad space on the Russian Proton carrying equipment to the International Space Station's service module. When the moon hits your eye like a big Pizza Hut pie, that's deploring.
No, for moonstruck munchies, I'll stick with Cosmic Pizza & Deli, which has been serving starving students at ASU for the past two years. Perhaps in consideration of students' attempts to make their morning classes on time, Cosmic closes earlier than Western Pizza -- 11 p.m. on school nights, and midnight on weekends. But that's ample time to snag a pie and scoot -- lingering isn't a large part of the experience in this casual place. It's nice, with wooden floors, sponged orange walls and huge canvases of modern art. Chrome-topped tables are dolled up with fresh flowers in bud vases and votive candles. But ordering takes place at a single counter with a cut-out window, overlooking the kitchen, and there are only five tables for on-site feeding.
The menu is amazing for such a simple operation, listing 51 pizza toppings (soy cheese, pastrami, bleu cheese, roasted almonds, breaded eggplant, among others). More than 30 pie combos are available, plus 25 hot and cold subs. A calzone is another filling option -- the small original is Nerf-football-size, oozing with lots of ricotta, mozzarella, provolone and served with marinara dipping sauce.
Among the two dozen appetizer choices, spinach rolls shine. These are a half-dozen chubby, snail-shell-like wads of buttery browned dough stuffed with mozzarella and chopped salty spinach. Tear off a piece and dip it in the warm marinara served alongside, a thick, tasty tomato paste purée with a few bits of real tomato and slits of garlic. Don't waste time on the antipasto salad, though, even at just three bucks for a half-order that fills an oversize soup bowl. Chopped romaine, too few pepperoni slices, sports pepper, purple onion slivers, tomato wedges, sliced black olives, green olives and meager whispers of mozzarella are strictly routine.
There are better subs available all across town, too. A Hercules doesn't have any of the promised pastrami, and only a single slice each of turkey, ham, provolone and American cheese. The Sicilian's capicola, salami and buffalo mozzarella are ruined by an unwieldy slab of prosciutto with the rind still on. A skinny Reuben has no sauerkraut. And the nirvana features too little marinated chicken, although ham, avocado, Swiss and Havarti fill in the gaps nicely.
Pizza is stellar, though, hand-tossed, seasoned with garlic salt and baked on stone slabs. Pick your crust thickness.
A thin crust is marvelous for the lighter-natured Crater pie, not detracting from thin slices of roma tomato, fresh tears of basil, shards of chicken breast, and tangy mozzarella. The Big Dipper can handle a thick crust, ladled with what's essentially lasagna -- dollops of ricotta, roma slices, scoops of soft garlic, basil, nuggets of ground beef and stretchy Romano (ask for extra marinara). The original crust, meanwhile, is a fine vehicle for the Apollo 13, a clever combo of chunky roasted red peppers, roma slices, fresh basil, green pepper and artichoke hearts on a bed of tangy pesto.
Night owls on the prowl will want to add Western Pizza and Cosmic Pizza to their late-hour feasting choices. Pizza's a much tastier solution, after all, than developing infrared vision to hunt mice on the desert floor.
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