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Pizza: Every Man’s Food

J.J. Rees | Thursday, April 23, 2009

In January, I learned from my Notre Dame planner that Americans eat approximately 100 acres of pizza each day, or 350 slices per second. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. What food could be so pervasive in our culture as pizza? The Americanized version of the Italian original is an iconic staple in the modern diet, regardless of budget.Pizza is about as personal as a food can get. Most people know exactly how they like it and defend their preferences strongly. As with any debate at Notre Dame, the stances are further entrenched when hometown issues are introduced. Most Chicago and New York natives are set in their ways, but these pizza praetorians fight a battle to win over the rest of the students with wavering tastes. To weigh in, I visited five of the South Bend area’s most popular pizza places to evaluate only their pizza.The Outliers – Saylor’s (233-5935), The Vine (234-9463)A good starting point for pizza is an all-you-can-eat lunch, such as the buffet offered by Saylor’s Pizza weekdays from 11 to 1:30. At only $6.50, this is one of the better buffet deals in town. Located about 10 minutes south of campus on Michigan, Saylor’s tries most to imitate Pizza Hut.On a rainy Tuesday, my company was chiefly locals (possibly employees) watching Maury’s “Revenge of the Geek.” The lack of customers was the reason for the lack of variety; the only two pizzas (half onion & half mushroom, and mushroom & pepperoni) stayed out, unchanged and, aside from my contributions, uneaten.In their emulation of Pizza Hut, other dishes are offered in the buffet, like unattractive macaroni and cheese, pretty good breadsticks, herb-y mashed potatoes, and slightly vinegary rib tips stewed in barbecue sauce. The pizza itself is a consistent, zesty, local-type offering. The crust is one of Saylor’s strengths, although not for the health-minded. Its bready, buttery crust is only a fleeting reprieve from the lightly greasy pizza. Despite the forgetful fare, Saylor’s deserves mentioning because of the considerable deal.On the other end of the spectrum lies gourmet pizza like Uptown Kitchen’s pricier 12-inch pizzas, or the five that The Vine has to offer: La Margherita, Tre Carne, Pesto, Quattro Fromaggio and Tuscan Vineyard. The Tre Carne ($7) offers a fairly traditional take on meat-lover’s pizza, with pepperoni, bacon and sausage. The mozzarella cheese is runny and good initially, but after the first slice, there is too much of it to allow the flavorful taste of the meats to pervade. The bland sauce is evocative of tomato paste, but the doughy and somewhat thick crust adds to the taste. The best sensation of the small pizza is the combination of the hearty pepperoni and sausage.The Tuscan Vineyard ($7) brings several ingredients together for an interesting new kind of pizza. Large Roma tomatoes, crispy bacon, spinach and basil chicken are set on a creamy alfredo sauce, all covered with a mozzarella, provolone, and asiago blend. The asiago adds a welcome bit of bite to the pizza, but altogether, the pizza surprisingly lacks the zest expected from such a diverse combination.The Family Inn – Barnaby’s (256-0928)This down-home style restaurant has the feel of a big pub, with old-fashioned signs adorning the walls around the dimly lit bar and pick-up window. Trophies of local teams surround the ample seating area, and TVs play sports and family programming. The unique ordering method is easy to figure out, and perhaps even enjoyable for the customer. Barnaby’s also offers appetizers, sandwiches and sides, and the square-cut pizzas range from $8 to $11 for an individual (10 inches, 12 pieces) or $16 to $22 for a large (14 inches, 16 pieces).The pizza is very greasy, but it’s the best kind of greasy. The cheese is fresh and browned in large spots. It is fairly unique in the area, with crust that is crispy, not bready, and thin, but not too thin. The sausage is rich and spicy. Collectively, the pizza provides great bites, with memorable blends of full-bodied cheese, warm sauce, robust sausage and almost flaky crust. Barnaby’s pizza can induce rabid thirst due to the acidic sauce, which is barely used, thankfully.The Spin-off – Bruno’s (Prairie 288-3320, Roseland 273-3890)In 1975, an employee of Rocco’s started his own pizza place on Prairie Avenue. Today, Bruno’s has eight locations and, most notably, delivers to Notre Dame from its Roseland branch. The original location is mostly staffed by family members, which is definitely a good sign in a pizzeria.Each of the ingredients is remarkably good and fresh, but it seems as if the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The zesty sauce adds a delicious flavor to complement the slightly doughy taste. The homemade sausage is touted, and justly so, though the Roseland delivery’s sausage has a significantly higher level of taste. Nevertheless, when eaten as leftovers, the sauce and sausage still add a flavorful supplement to the pizza.The Original – Rocco’s (233-2464)The last stop on my tour was the first off-campus place that I (and many others) went to as a freshman. I have no hesitation saying that Rocco’s is a Notre Dame institution that every student should patronize at least once before junior year. For $20, a meal for two at Rocco’s is an essential experience.In 1951, Rocco started the restaurant to bring the “first original pizza in town” to South Bend Avenue and St. Louis Boulevard. Rocco’s Restaurant offers superb Italian dishes, but as proprietors Warren and Linda will say, its strongest feature is the dough. The family secret was kept even from Bruno, who received slightly different dough from Rocco when he was unprepared for his opening night.Rocco’s serves some of the thinnest pizza in town, which isn’t too think or too doughy. It is cooked excellently, with a firm bottom crust, crisp and floury texture and smaller brown spots on the cheese. Interestingly, the homemade sausage tastes more Polish than Italian, which would be strange if it didn’t go so well with the rest of the pizza.In fact, what makes Rocco’s so extraordinary is how expertly each layer transitions into the next. All ingredients convene for an exceptional pizza, especially in the case of the Veggie Combo, with tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil. On a plainer pizza, the tough bottom crust progresses into softer dough, topped with smooth red sauce, fresh and thick-tasting pepperoni, and then consistent cheese.The Winner? Me.After a four-day binge of my favorite food, it’s still difficult to say which is the best, or even my favorite. As the old joke goes, pizza is a lot like sex. When it’s good, it’s really good. When it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.