Cafe Reviews

FLASH IN THE PANS

Blame it on Wolfgang Puck.
The California restaurateur is the one responsible for creating America's voracious appetite for fancy pizza. After all, we common folk can only be expected to watch so many installments of Warren, Madonna and Jack snarfing pizza exotica at Spago on Entertainment Tonight before we, too, demand the same.

California Pizza Kitchen knows this. Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax, the two L.A. lawyers who started this rapidly expanding, 22-store chain, are banking on it. They have figured out what we, the people, want and are giving it to us at a price we can afford. Not that the delicate wood-fired pies at CPK are inexpensive. Many individual-size works of art cost close to $9. And though it might be possible to share with a friend, if, for instance, you both began the meal with a half-portion of salad, I don't recommend it. The pizza here is so good, you'll be sorry if you limit yourself to two or three pieces. Better instead for each of you to order a half-salad and each try a different pizza. This way you can exchange slices, eat what you want and take the rest home for later.

Trust me. I know the path to gustatory happiness.
"I feel like I'm eating fine cuisine," gushes my dining accomplice. She has just consumed her first piece of cheeseless, grilled-eggplant pizza. Her sentiments mirror mine exactly. On my initial visit to California Pizza Kitchen, everything goes well.

Our individual half-salads are excellent. Hers is an organic mix of greens, mine is a tart toss of watercress and romaine sprinkled with walnuts and Gorgonzola cheese. "Look, Penelope." My vegetarian accomplice holds her fork aloft, actively admiring what she has speared from the field of greens before her. "Grass," she says. "Real grass."

Equally delicious are our two pizzas. The grilled-eggplant pie, prepared sans cheese, leaves neither of us feeling deprived. I, on the contrary, feel virtuous, healthy and pampered. Thin slices of supple eggplant, slivers of Bermuda onion and sun-dried tomatoes are the dominant flavors. Though I'm skeptical of the fresh spinach that comes piled high on top, it works. Olive oil keeps the pizza's lovely, crisp crust moist. Piquant shrimp-pesto pizza is as close to a perfect food as I imagine I'll find in this world. Each ingredient--Calamata olives, shrimp, pesto sauce, sun-dried and fresh tomatoes--is individually discernible, yet all work together exceptionally well. CPK's special gooey blend of cheeses has a pleasantly subtle "bite" to it, reminiscent of Gruyere.

Unfortunately, the two pizzas I sample on a subsequent visit do not measure up to this ecstatic first impression. My biggest complaint is that both our spicy Thai chicken pizza and creamy five-cheese-and-tomato pizza are tepid on arrival, though this may reflect the inadequacy of our waitress more than any problem in the kitchen. She is overburdened and underexperienced, and it shows.

But that's not surprising. In general, I find the service here odd and stilted. CPK's wait staff has been trained well, but too narrowly and specifically. It is as if this staff has been programmed to anticipate a rigid pattern of customer interaction and cannot deviate from it. Ask for anything unusual or interrupt the sequence in any way, and watch the glitches begin. This includes requests for additional napkins, more salad dressing or even coffee, if the dessert order's already been taken. Confusion crosses the young server's face like a power surge. Such requests simply do not compute.

On the other hand, it is possible that this robotic level of service is intentional. If nothing else, it encourages quick turnover--as does the general ambiance of California Pizza Kitchen. The white-tiled restaurant is coffee-shop bright, noisy and covered with mirrors. "Everywhere you look someone catches your eye," my accomplice frets. This can be annoying for those of us here simply to enjoy the food, not to make social connections.

But, for now, anyway, there is a certain amount of that going on. Chalk it up to the "glamour" attached to nearly anything transplanted from Beverly Hills to Arizona, or to the fact that CPK is located in the terribly upscale Scottsdale Galleria, but many people are here to see and be "scene." They've dressed themselves funky, funky but chic and sprayed themselves with expensive, pungent scents, and what they put in their mouths is secondary to the fact of simply being here.

My dining accomplice scrunches up his face. "Is this Sting?" he asks, listening hard. Though I'm savoring each bite of my fabulous rich chocolate sorbet, I stop a moment and shift sensory gears.

"No, it's Christine McVie," I tell him, though it might as well be the former Police man. CPK's music is calculated to appeal to ex-hipsters who were born in the Fifties. On the nights I visit, the soundtrack includes late Seventies/early Eighties hits from Blondie, Talking Heads, Pretenders and Steely Dan, combined with contemporary music from veteran artists like Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon and Don Henley. The mix is a refreshing change of pace from worn-out oldies and nerve-numbing "lite" formats. It's hard to hear much of the time, what with the cacophony of coolness bouncing off those clean white tiles, but if it's meant to make people like me feel welcome, it's doing its job.

So is the food.

It wouldn't surprise me in the least if, in our nation's next civil war, sides were determined not by politics but by pizza preference. In every city across the country, the questions will fly fast and furious: Thick? Or thin? Chicago or New York? Which is it, buddy? Choose.

Pizzeria Uno does nothing to hide its loyalties. The nationwide chain sells what it calls "Chicago's Original Deep Dish Pizza." This pretty much guarantees the devotion of a) most deep-dish fanatics, b) anyone from Chicago and c) anyone who says he's from Chicago, but is actually from Indiana. That's a big group. Smart move, marketing guys.

Visually, the restaurant is the opposite of California Pizza Kitchen. Here the tile is black, the neon is red, and brass--not chrome--dominates the decor. An elevated bar, wood floors and big private booths (many of which have "cute" names) give Uno a warmer, more intimate feel than CPK. Though the level of service is similar at both restaurants, I feel encouraged to linger at Uno, simply because of the atmosphere. It is the difference between dark and light, sports bar and ice cream parlor.

Individual-size pizzas here are about half the price at CPK. Then again, they're also smaller. But filling? Yes. Don't underestimate these deep-dish babies, especially when they're loaded down with Uno's high-grade pepperoni or tasty Italian sausage.

My favorite pizza, by far, is the spinoccoli. Garlicky and moist, this cheesy wonder is topped with fresh broccoli, spinach and tomato. Moist is the key word. The problem I have with the three other pizzas I sample is that their thick, dry crusts taste overwhelmingly of shortening.

In terms of starters, Uno's house salad is surprisingly ample for $1.95. A platter of veggies and dip is similarly generous. Forget the crummy crudites you've had in the past. Uno gives you carrots, celery, zucchini, red bell pepper, broccoli and cauliflower--all fresh and all cut hungry-man size. The plate is so big, in fact, I end up taking half home.

Not that size is everything. A generous basketful of toasted ravioli is a real disappointment. The crispy pasta pockets have a lackluster taste and don't improve much when dipped into the mundane marinara sauce that accompanies them. Most annoying of all, this unspectacular appetizer arrives mere seconds before our pizzas. Timing could definitely be improved at Uno. To end our meal on a sweet note, my accomplice and I share a forgettable dessert called the dumb monkey. There's only one reason to order this skimpy banana split in a mug: It comes with a little plastic monkey like the ones your parents used to bring home from all those cocktail parties in the Sixties. (Remember those? And those little donkeys? God, they were fun.)

You see? Nostalgia works at all levels at Pizzeria Uno. I'm not from Chicago, I'm not a deep-dish-pizza lover, but still this restaurant managed to strike a chord with me.

A minor chord, perhaps, but a chord, nonetheless.

California Pizza Kitchen, Scottsdale Galleria, 4343 North Scottsdale Road, Suite 3521, Scottsdale, 949-3020. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday; noon to 10 p.m., Sunday.

Pizzeria Uno, Camelback Esplanade, 2501 East Camelback, Suite 50, Phoenix, 553-0910. Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday.

california pizza kitchen

Piquant shrimp-pesto pizza is as close to a perfect food as I imagine I'll find in this world.

People are here to see and be "scene." What they put in their mouths is secondary to the fact of simply being here.

The music is calculated to appeal to ex-hipsters who were born in the Fifties.

pizzeria uno

It wouldn't surprise me in the least if, in our nation's next civil war, sides were determined not by politics but by pizza preference. My favorite pizza, by far, is the spinoccoli. Garlicky and moist, this cheesy wonder is topped with fresh broccoli, spinach and tomato.

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Penelope Corcoran