Sauce. Cheese. Dough. Pizza-making might seem like a simple endeavor, but there are dozens of factors that go into determining what makes a quality pie. Most are personal preference: wood fired versus oven baked; thin crust or deep dish. Hand tossing, sauce consistency and type of cheese also affect the final product.
Whew! For this week's Battle of the Dishes, we decided to go easy on ourselves by comparing two Italian style wood-fired pies with similar toppings at two of the Valley's most reputable 'za joints.
In One Corner: Pizza a Metro
"Are you sure this is it?" my companion questioned as we pulled up to the seedy strip mall housing this Phoenix favorite. In New York City you wouldn't think twice about going into a pizza joint like this, but here in Phoenix it can signal either a hidden gem or a biohazard in the making. Luckily for us, Pizza a Metro is the former.
Inside, the small restaurant is homey and warm. Literally warm. Pizza a Metro is tiny, with just a handful of tables all within view of the blazing pizza oven. A painted mural of the Italian countryside fills one wall.
The landscape is pretty, though the Commedia dell'arte performer with the long-nosed mask is almost as creepy as the clown from Stephen King's It.
Owner Maurizio Benforte makes pretty much everything here from scratch, even the sausage and pasta. At the suggestion of our server, we ordered the housemade lasagna and a pizza. Not the three-foot-long monster the shop is named after, but a small pie with fennel sausage, broccoli and mozzarella.
|Cute, or creepy?|
Our pie arrived a little extra crispy, with black char streaking the underside and crust. That's the downside of the wood-fired oven. I slid out a slice and the middle nearly collapsed after becoming soggy with grease. Good thing it tasted better than it looked.
The mozzarella was salty and fresh, the sausage sweet with a pungent anise flavor. Unlike most other pizza places offering broccoli, which burn the poor florets to a crisp, the broccoli here was perfectly cooked.
Pizza a Metro's pie was pretty tasty, but couldn't compete with the amazingly light lasagna, homemade noodles stuffed with ricotta and a sweet tomato sauce that tasted like fresh picked tomatoes.In the Other Corner: La Piazza al Forno
Yelper Lewis H's assertion that this Glendale pizza parlor is the "next best thing to Pizzeria Bianco" brought us here on a weekend evening. That, and Guy Fieri's endorsement on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The place was packed, always a good sign. We were led past the open kitchen with its fiery pizza oven to a small table in the back near the wine rack.
La Piazza sports basic decor, with neutral colored walls and black-and-white images of the pizza-making process lining one wall. The folks who decorated La Piazza were clever enough to use what they had -- all of the artistic photos were taken at the restaurant.
La Piazza al Forno offers appetizer staples fried ravioli and bruschetta, plus salads and homestyle pasta dishes such as fettuccini and lasagna. Brick-oven pizza comes in several custom varieties like the Italian Stallion with four meats, or you can design your own from the toppings list. Prices average about $12 for a shareable medium-sized pie.
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Not wanting to gorge on salty meats, we opted to design our own pie with sausage, mozzarella and fresh basil. Here, the sausage comes from Schreiner's in Phoenix. "Crumbles or sliced?" our waitress asked. "I recommend the crumbles."
The crust was medium-thick and crisp, firm enough to stabilize the toppings so nothing would slither off the edge of a slice. The cheese was liberally applied and delightfully salty, contrasting with the savory anise and sage flavor of the sausage crumbles. The basil was barely cooked, leaving the fresh, natural flavor intact.
Is it as good as Pizzeria Bianco? Not likely. But if you don't have time for a three-hour wait, it's a good Plan B.
The Winner: La Piazza al Forno