An entire meal condensed into a weighty wedge of baked dough, sauce, cheese and toppings. Orange grease trickles down your hand and lactose courses through your veins as four kinds of animal protein combine in gooey deliciousness.
But what if you could get the satisfaction of pizza without some of the guilt? What if a pizza dinner didn't have to remind you of long-ago dorm-room study sessions? What if you're a member of PETA?
Those are some the questions Sid Fanarof was asking himself back in the mid-1980s. Determined to inject a dose of California consciousness into the pizza experience, the Laguna Beach resident founded zpizza in 1986. He started franchising in 1999. The chain has since expanded to hundreds of locations across the United States, with more than 50 in California. Mexico is home to several zpizzas, and if you ever find yourself craving, say, a chicken curry and yam pizza rustica while in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, you're in luck.
The local zpizza, owned by Mountain View resident Linda Su, has been serving pizza, salads, sandwiches and pasta on Castro Street for a little over two years.
The simple, counter-service restaurant prepares slender pizzas with fresh, additive-free ingredients, a number of vegetarian and vegan toppings, and a whole-wheat or gluten-free crust if you desire. Of course, the restaurant has all the requisite nouvelle-California-Mediterranean ingredients you'd expect: arugula, artichoke hearts, pine nuts, roasted eggplant, gorgonzola, truffle oil and the like.
But have no fear, traditionalists. They've got you covered, too. Pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, ham, salami, anchovies — they're all on the menu. But even some of the standard fixings take on the guise of more healthful and politically correct fare. The pepperoni is low-fat and MSG-free; the tomato sauce is certified organic; and the mozzarella is made of hormone-free milk.
The franchise's popularity can be attributed only to the fresh, flavorful food as the atmosphere — at least at our local zpizza — hews toward "corporate cafeteria." The place feels like, well, a franchise with stark lighting and a sterile decor that only a home office could create. But the food is good.
On our recent visit, a large pear and gorgonzola salad ($8.50) provided generous helpings to three adults. The only way that this now-standard salad doesn't work is if the balsamic dressing is too overpowering or the pears unripe. Zpizza's version satisfied on all fronts.
The Greek salad ($5.95; $8.50) was similarly familiar, a carbon copy of Greek salads you'll find in reputable restaurants everywhere, but generous, fresh, and tangy with feta cheese.
Zpizza's oblong "rusticas" can be shared as an appetizer and also work as a one-person meal. We loved our Moroccan pizza rustica ($8.95), smoky and satisfying with basil pesto, mozzarella, roasted eggplant, feta, caramelized onions and pine nuts.
Zpizza's crust is fabulous. Granted, die-hard Chicago-stylers might not feel the vibe with zpizza's interpretation of the thin-crust experience, but if they don't give this crust a try, they're missing out. Fire-baked on hot bricks, it comes out chewy and toasty, comparable to fresh-baked, high-quality bread. I was actually surprised to find myself savoring the sauce-less, bready ends of each slice. Normally I jettison the pizza ends as a mere wasted experience in carbohydrates. Not so at zpizza.
Another great combination was the Tuscan pizza ($10.50; $17.50; $21.50). It was slathered with a roasted-garlic sauce, covered with mozzarella, caramelized onions, feta, truffle oil and thyme, then populated liberally with cremini, shiitake and button mushrooms.
We also tried the Provence pizza ($9.95; $16.95; $20.95), this time with zpizza's vegan cheese. Everything about the Provence was delicious: the tangy tomato sauce, the roasted garlic, the capers, the fresh basil. But that vegan cheese was — how do I put this delicately? — kind of icky.
As someone who loves dairy, but is also acutely aware that not all California cows are happy cows, I really, really wanted to like that vegan cheese. But my two dining companions and I agreed that it pretty much ruined the pizza. It melted to the consistency of Velveeta and tasted like canola oil, which happens to be a primary ingredient in the Daiya-brand cheese the restaurant uses.
I appreciate that zpizza offers so many vegan and veggie alternatives and can only hope that those people better accustomed to mindful eating than I am find something to love in Daiya. A tastier alternative for vegetarians might be zpizza's soy-based cheese. True vegans will want to know that the soy cheese contains casein, an animal protein.
Zpizza also offers two copious and tasty pasta dishes: penne with meatballs and a chicken penne pesto ($7.50 each).
Each day of the week brings a different special. For example, during lunch on Tuesdays you get a free 14-inch specialty pizza with the purchase of an 18-inch. On Saturdays, kids get a free slice of cheese pizza and fountain drink with a minimal adult-sized purchase. Delivery is free with a $20 minimum.
It might be easy to dismiss franchises as soulless purveyors of cuisine created by committee, but in the case of franchises like zpizza, where a good concept meets good food and a good value, what's not to enjoy?
146 Castro Street, Mountain View,
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat. noon-10 p.m. Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Outdoor dining: yes
Party facilities: no
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: good