I recently visited my small hometown in northern Illinois. Decades ago, in the era when I rode home on my Schwinn with friends after Little League games, we would stop at Alfano's Pizza, the only pizza parlor in town, and gorge ourselves as teenage boys do.
Alfano's is still in business, but now it's competing with a dozen other pizza spots. Pizza is as American as apple pie and hating the Dodgers. Pizza is comfort food; it's family, friends and good times. There are people who don't eat pizza for a variety of reasons, but I doubt there are many who don't like pizza.
Howard Bulka, former co-owner and chef of Marche restaurant in Menlo Park, knows that. He has studied pizza, analyzed our local eating habits and thought about what we'll spend money on, and what we won't.
An accomplished chef, Bulka was born in Chicago and raised in West Los Angeles. He came north to study creative writing at San Francisco State University but ended up with a degree in economics.
"One day, a light bulb went off," he said. He decided to become a chef, igniting a career that took him to Europe and Asia.
He did a turn in Los Angeles, studied under Michelin star-winning chefs Paul Bocuse and the late chef Alain Chapel in France, worked a wok line in Hong Kong and was executive chef at the Mandarin Hotel's acclaimed Silks in San Francisco. Bulka spent the next decade as a restaurant consultant. In late 2001, he and a business partner opened the upscale Marche.
"Marche was a critical but not a financial success," Bulka said. "It was a special-occasion restaurant, not an every-night family option." After re-thinking his career strategy, he decided to focus on pizza. It was inexpensive, nutritious and perfect for families any night of the week. Howie's Artisan Pizza opened six years ago in Town & Country Village in Palo Alto. The restaurant has an open kitchen where pizza-makers can be seen massaging the dough. The interior is industrial with exposed beams, sturdy wood tables and chairs and a bar area with metal stools.
A second location opened six months ago in up-and-coming downtown Redwood City. The new location offers nearly the same menu, plus weekend brunch and a large outdoor patio.
Since pizza parlors are ubiquitous, Bulka drew upon his expertise to perfect the sourdough starter that is the hallmark of Howie's. A pizza's crust defines and differentiates it in the same way that a good hamburger bun separates the special from the ordinary.
Top-notch toppings are crucial, of course, but anyone can source quality ingredients. It's Bulka's dough and resultant crust that elevates his pizzas. Howie's crusts are pliant -- the dough is stretched, not rolled -- and baked to just the right amount of char and tanginess.
Bulka uses two Marsal gas-fired pizza ovens lined with 3-inch ceramic bricks. Bulka said he considered a wood-fired oven but figured with air pollution issues, gas was a smarter way to go.
Howie's offers 10 pizza options, including composing your own pie. Prices range from $16 to $23 for a large pizza. Midday, a smaller "petit'za" is offered for $12, which is plenty for a single diner.
The mouthwatering sausage and roasted red onion pizza ($20) comes topped with house-made Berkshire pork fennel sausage, mozzarella, roasted red onion and tomato.
The baked potato pizza ($19) was one of the more unusual offerings but delicious nevertheless. It was topped with scalloped potatoes, Swiss cheese, bacon, rosemary and black pepper. And it really did taste of potatoes.
Other items on the menu include appetizers, salads and sandwiches. The tasty, garlicky prawns ($11) were oven-roasted with garlic butter, tomato sauce and Fresno chilies, then sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
The spicy meatballs ($11) were similar in presentation, served with tomato sauce, Parmesan and garlic bread chunks. It was a huge portion, with plenty for sharing.
The Thai chicken wings ($9) offered just enough spice to get your attention, but came with a soothing peanut dipping sauce, just in case.
My only issue with any of the food was with the chicken chipotle sandwich ($9). The chicken was tough -- not gristly, but chewy. I couldn't cut it with a knife without obliterating the sandwich. With high-quality ingredients -- herb-roasted chicken, smoked jalapeño mayonnaise, mozzarella, lettuce, red onion, peppers and cilantro on a crunchy Acme Bakery baguette -- my guess is that particular chicken breast was an aberration.
At lunch, I was concerned about getting overwhelmed by hungry Palo Alto High School students, but Howie's had a dedicated line for those just wanting a slice and a salad or soda. Students congregated on the outside patio, leaving the inside of the restaurant for families.
I grew up on Alfano's Pizza, but I didn't venture inside on my recent visit. After having sampled Howie's Artisan pizzas, I might have been disappointed -- and why tarnish nostalgia?
Howie's Artisan Pizza
855 El Camino Real #60
Town & Country Village, Palo Alto