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Dough Boy

Los Angeles may have the ocean, a temperate climate, Hollywood starlets and the Lakers, but the Valley cleans La-La Land's proverbial clock when it comes to pizza. Perhaps Angelenos are too busy eating tofu and primping for their close-ups, but for whatever reason, in El Lay, it's either Wolfgang Puck...

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Los Angeles may have the ocean, a temperate climate, Hollywood starlets and the Lakers, but the Valley cleans La-La Land's proverbial clock when it comes to pizza. Perhaps Angelenos are too busy eating tofu and primping for their close-ups, but for whatever reason, in El Lay, it's either Wolfgang Puck or Domino's, and precious little in between. Denizens of Greater Phoenix, on the other hand, can boast a plethora of pizzerias, both gourmet and greasy, at which to pack on the pounds.

The lamest pizza I've ever had was in L.A. and the best was in New York. No surprise there, I suppose. Still, Gotham was quite a revelation to this Carolina cracker when I moved there a year or two after college. In the Big Apple, I discovered that (shazam!) pizza crust really didn't have to taste like cardboard! Every corner had a parlor that served big slices so wet with grease you had to pat them down with a napkin before eating. The crust was extra-soft, and sometimes you had trouble getting it into your mouth, but once there, it would ooze into nothingness like some sort of warm, doughy ice cream.

Fortunately for us all, the Valley is closer to the East River than the Pacific when we're talking about mozzarella-and-marinara pies. I'll even go so far as to stake our claim to being the desert Napoli -- that Italian city known as the birthplace of the modern pizza. Here follows, then, in rank of best to worst, my selection of the top five spots in town.

Way out in front is Patsy Grimaldi's Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria in Old Town Scottsdale. The king of New York pizza has spared no expense in bringing the coal-burning brick-oven method to PHX, with a huge oven area where you can watch the pizza makers twirl the dough up in the air. Grimaldi's is a big place, with an upscale bar space, tables covered with red-and-white-checked linen, and Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. crooning on the stereo system. It's almost too nice to be reminiscent of Gotham eateries, which are usually a lot grittier. But, hey, that's Scottsdale, people!

Grimaldi's makes a first-rate salad, with romaine lettuce, roasted red peppers, whole black olives, cherry tomatoes, and light Italian vinaigrette dressing. But who're we kidding? We want that pizza, with its crisp, thin crust, charred somewhat by the coal, and topped with blotches of homemade mozzarella and sweet tomato sauce. Grimaldi's only offers traditional toppings such as anchovies, ham, sausage, and so on. And I suggest you go really old school by ordering a personal pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms ($9 for the pizza, plus $2 for each topping). One taste, and you'll see why such luminaries as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Bill Cosby and Danny DeVito are fans of the original Grimaldi's.

Coal-fired pizza is actually an anachronism in New York, and elsewhere, for that matter. America's first pizzeria ever, opened by Gennaro Lombardi in 1905 in what was then Little Italy, used a coal-burning oven, but environmental concerns have mostly done away with these. Usually, what you get in New York is the product of conventional gas ovens. So even though Grimaldi's is by far the best pizza in the Valley, I'm not sold on coal-fired brick ovens, or any kind of oven for that matter, being the be-all, end-all. I know some foodies out there get all worked up when describing that so-and-so's pizzeria has a brick oven that burns some highfalutin wood flown in from parts unknown. This is the sort of tutti-frutti mess you get in our pitiful morning rag, but all I'm concerned about when I push that pizza past my lips is the end result. I don't care if you bake the pie on the hood of your friggin' Humvee, as long as it tastes good.

Which is why second on my list is a little shop nearby Grimaldi's called Slices. It actually has two locations, one in Old Town Scottsdale, and one in Tempe. I haven't been to the one in Tempe, but the one in Scottsdale is the closest to the sort of thin-crust, NY-style pizza I would eat on those mean streets all the time. The dough is not as soggy or as laden with oil as I might like, but it's still right tasty, and, at a mere $2 to $2.50 a slice, a great value. They use a conventional oven, but that hasn't stopped me from making several return visits. I'm perversely enamored of their four-cheese white pizza, with garlic and slices of fresh tomato. So much so that if given the choice between a triangle of Slices' white and a midnight romp with Naomi Watts, I'd have to give it serious thought.

Third from the top is Western Pizza on East Indian School, near 48th Street. This trendy little spot is a spin-off of a Canadian chain, and its dough is thick, soft and not at all salty. It's somewhat similar to Chicago-style in that it's almost like a pie, with a lot of cheese melted over big chunks of whatever toppings you choose. The place uses a standard gas, deck oven, so there's no smokiness, just a light browning of the bottom, and it has several specialty pizzas, somewhat akin to the unusual combinations you'll find at California Pizza Kitchen, though Western is much better. My fave was the Clucky's barbecue, with chicken, onions, pine nuts and dark barbecue sauce instead of marinara, all topped with a mix of Gouda and mozzarella ($10.45 for a small). Next to that, I'd have to choose the less-exotic ham and pineapple Hula Dance with tangy-sweet tomato sauce ($7.50).

La Grande Orange also has some superb pizza, once again prepared with an ordinary gas oven, though it puts so much fresh basil on some of the pies that they end up smelling and, well, tasting like they were made in a florist's shop. This is in keeping with the character of the little yuppified grocery/deli/bakery, which sells potted plants alongside jars of pickled capers and boxes of Key lime cookies. If Frank Sinatra truly loved Grimaldi's as legend has it, he wouldn't be caught dead in a joint like this. But atmosphere aside, I'll give its proprietors credit for their "don" pizza, with basil, red sauce and big patches of ricotta, as well as for their standard tomato and basil Margherita pie (each $11), this last named for the Italian queen who inspired the first Neapolitan-style pizza. The crust is neither too thick nor too thin and is slightly chewy, so they rate a solid #4 in my book.

Limping in at #5 is Pizzeria Bianco, and its claim to fame -- aside from owner Chris Bianco having a James Beard award -- is the wood-fired brick oven, which all can see in the tiny eatery. Basically, Bianco produces prissy pizza for prissy people, who all rave about what they are eating while discussing the prospects for a Sex and the City movie. Sorry, but the place rubs me the wrong way -- that precious exterior with its little benches and weathered metal chairs, and the interior with that shabby-chic wooden bar at which well-dressed 40-something women anxiously await their dates. Ugh! Here's another place Ol' Blue Eyes and the rest of the Rat Pack would only enter if AK-47s were aimed at their backs.

I could hack the ambiance if the pizza set my shorts on fire, but it didn't. My first time there I had the Sonny Boy with kalamata olives, salami, mozzarella and tomato sauce ($12), and it tasted like someone poured a carton of salt on it. The crust seemed salty as well to me, and it was also quite smoky from the wood of the fire. This overkill of smoke and salt nauseated me, and I barely finished the pie. Figuring I must've missed something, I went back again for the Wiseguy, with roasted onions, mozzarella and fennel sausage ($13). That, too, was one smoky pizza, but less salty than the Sonny Boy. Still, the bread seemed limp and bland, a characteristic the smokiness hid badly. As for that fennel sausage -- I could have devoured a whole plate of those sliced links. Also, Bianco does a truly outstanding antipasto with wood-roasted veggies and cheese, but that pizza hardly lives up to the glory heaped upon it by so many.

Nevertheless, for that sausage alone and for the excellent service the wait staff gives, Bianco sneaks into my top five, right in front of also-rans like Streets of New York and Oregano's, which, though chains, are consistent in taste, lighter on the sodium, and not nearly as annoying.

E-mail [email protected]

Patsy Grimaldi´s Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria, 4000 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-994-1100. Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Slices, 7111 East Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale, 480-421-9540. Hours: Monday and Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

Slices, 11 East Sixth Street, Tempe, 480-966-4681. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

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