Cafe Reviews

Like La Bocca Urban Pizzeria's crust, the pizza competition in Phoenix is stiff

New York. Chicago. Phoenix.

All great pizza cities. Don't laugh — you know it's true.

Here in the Valley of the Sun, we may not specialize in a certain style of pie, but an enterprising population of Big Apple and Windy City transplants means we can enjoy the best of both cities' pizzas. And we don't just bask in the wood-fired glow of Pizzeria Bianco's golden reputation — we also enjoy plenty of craveable neighborhood haunts, from Cibo to Patsy Grimaldi's to Humble Pie. Competition is stiff.

Strangely, though, Tempe hasn't brought much to the scene besides cheap, convenient places for a slice and a soda. Other than Classic Italian Pizza (which is pretty difficult to find, even when you're looking for it), Tempe has had little in the way of stylish, sit-down pizza restaurants.

So it makes sense that Mill Avenue restaurateur Julian Wright — founder of The Library Bar and the now-defunct Jax Thai Bar, as well as restaurants in New Mexico — would see the need for something more grown-up, a pizza place worthy of a night out on the town. With four-month-old La Bocca Urban Pizzeria + Wine Bar, Wright is clearly trying to fill that void.

But what can I say? The pizzas here just didn't impress me that much.

To be sure, Wright raises the bar for atmosphere among restaurants along Mill Avenue, where there's still an overwhelming number of casual spots that cater to the budget-conscious college crowd. Situated in a high-profile space at the Brickyard, between Borders and Bank of America, La Bocca brings a slightly more upscale dining option to the area, not only because of its warm, contemporary décor, but also because of its menu. When you're looking for an alternative to beer, burgers, and tacos, here's a place where you can sip wine, nibble on bruschetta, and eat artisan pizzas with gourmet toppings.

If it sounds a bit like Postino-meets-LGO Pizzeria, then you've already figured out my first impression of the place. However, La Bocca has a ways to go before it comes close to competing with either of those restaurants, which seem to draw customers from well beyond the neighborhood.

I tried to love the pizzas at La Bocca. I ate one smothered with mushrooms, tomatoes, and goat cheese, topped with spinach and white truffle oil. (Truffles are one of my weaknesses.) I sampled the Flammkuchen, a decadent pie topped with applewood-smoked bacon, béchamel sauce, mozzarella, caramelized onions, and caraway seeds. I tasted the traditional Margherita, as well as the Italian sausage pizza, covered with gooey melted mozzarella and Fontina, caramelized onions, and wild mushrooms. And I even gobbled up a few pieces of chicken, sun-dried tomato, and pesto pizza.

It wasn't really the toppings that failed to please me. The toppings were fresh, and fairly generous — not bad.

The thin, slightly puffy crust was a disappointment, though. Made with organic flour, and left to rise for 24 hours, the dough sounded really scrumptious in the menu description. But in reality, it didn't have much character. Good crust is something you'd want to eat on its own, like a breadstick, but this didn't do that for me. The flavor was indistinct, and the texture lacked that chewy-crispiness that makes some pizzas so addicting. As soon as it started to cool, it hardened into flour-y cardboard.

I'd been to La Bocca a few times and had the same experience with the pizza. Each time, my heart sank. But on my last visit, the kitchen had improved the crust somewhat. It was a bit lighter — moist inside while bubbly on the outside. If the kitchen continues to tweak things like that, it'll give me hope.

There were lots of other changes as well. A few months after opening, La Bocca had an official grand opening and unveiled an almost completely different menu from the original one.

That's not a bad thing. As it stands now, there's a decent selection of starters, salads, and sandwiches to round things out. There's also a reasonably priced wine list, as well as sangria. The sangria was filled with tiny bits of fruit, but somehow missed the mark anyway — I expected something more luscious and, well, fruity.

Baba ghanouj, served with roasted red peppers, a chunk of feta, soft pita wedges, and toasted baguette slices, was creamy and smoky, lick-your-plate good. Bruschetta planks were a fine appetizer, too, with a variety of toppings, including salami and pesto; caprese; and prosciutto, fig and truffled mascarpone. These struck me as very similar to the offerings at Postino — although not quite as memorable.

Salads were nicely prepared, and sized like entrees. Goat cheese and pear was my favorite combination, tossed with greens, tomatoes, candied walnuts, dried cranberries, and balsamic vinaigrette. Harvest chop was a flavorful salad studded with bits of applewood-smoked bacon, blue cheese, tubetti, tomatoes, and green onion. A traditional caprese was fine, too. However, the prosciutto, zucchini and artichoke salad didn't agree with me — it might have been the combination of goat cheese and Dijon dressing.

I had no complaints with the sandwiches, all of which came on soft, fresh bread, and were served with a choice of chips, couscous, or coleslaw. Oven-roasted shrimp and pesto, tucked into a baguette with tomato, mozzarella, and fresh basil, had a robust flavor but still seemed light and healthful. Turkey and Brie, on the other hand, was about as rich as you'd expect from this ubiquitous combination, with the welcome addition of figs and sliced apples to add complexity. Country chicken salad, served on fragrant nine-grain bread, was jazzed up with hard-boiled eggs, pecans, celery, and golden raisins.

At the end of the meal, my dining companions and I polished off a bit of gelato, as well as some tiramisu, which was creamy and fluffy and just sweet enough to give us all a boost. Both desserts were cool and refreshing — nothing fancy, but tasty nonetheless.

La Bocca certainly deserves points for its convivial atmosphere and friendly service. It brings a hip new dimension to the Mill Avenue dining scene, too. But for now, the food isn't enough of a draw on its own. In light of the Valley's best pizza destinations, La Bocca's not about to put Tempe on the map.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig