by Susan Bryan
You don't need to know State Street from Michigan Avenue to like the new Pizz'a Chicago on El Camino Real. The deep-dish pizza is terrific. Salads are big and crunchy. And the staff is friendly to all comers. Stepping into this restaurant (the former site of Famiglia's) is like entering a wacky fantasy of Chicago. There are street signs from famous corners of the city, a mural of the "El," and a rooftop perch complete with a line of laundry that features Chicago Bulls T-shirts.
Red-and-white checked vinyl tablecloths and paper napkins make this a kid-friendly restaurant. No one lifted an eyebrow when a birthday party's worth of little boys tried their stainless steel pizza stand as a party hat. But then, what would you expect from a place that laminates "Far Side" cartoons to its bill trays?
Part of the fun at Pizz'a (as in a "piece of") Chicago is reading the menu. Sassy jibes at Chicago's rich and famous are just as jazzy as the pizzas they describe. There's wit and creativity here behind every bite.
The Jane Byrne, for instance, is a tart and tangy combination of spicy tomato sauce topped with bits of dried apricot, bacon and sauteed red onion rings. Why name this daring combination for the first female mayor of the city? "She was very much into pork-barrel politics," according to the menu ($8.25 small, $11.25 medium, $13.95 large).
Another of my favorites packs the eponym of pistol-toter John Dillinger. No tomato sauce or mozzarella in this one. Instead, there's a slather of pesto topped with crunchy slivered almonds, cloves of roasted garlic, strips of roasted red bell pepper and sharp Romano cheese ($9.75, $12.35, $15.95).
For dieters, there's the Air Jordan at 98 calories a slice. Just like the other pizzas, this one starts as a tall puff of yeasty white bread that's soft in the middle but crunchy on the bottom. The low-cal comes from a svelte topping of fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic ($8.25, $11.25, $13.95).
Another fabulous lightweight is Sweetness. There's no sauce or mozzarella. The top is painted with garlic butter, then drizzled with Parmesan and Romano. The result is garlic toast pizza that's finished off with a scattering of fresh red onions, fresh tomato slices, fresh basil and chopped Italian green peppers. ($8.25, $11.25, $13.95).
If you still believe pizza isn't pizza without a sloppy topping, Pizz'a Chicago can take care of you, too. Order The Fridge with pepperoni, Canadian bacon, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, black olives and onions plus spicy sauce and mozzarella. Or go exotic with Thai or The Untouchables. Even Pizz'a Chicago's inch-thick crusts sag under the bog of toppings on these pies.
Beware of substitutes for the terrific tomato sauce here. This tomato sauce is full of tomato chunks and spicy enough to satisfy adult tastes. Other sauces are kids' stuff. The Untouchables has a barbecue sauce straight out of the sugar bowl. Order the pizza with tomato sauce if you like the topping of barbecued chicken, smoked gouda, onions and cilantro ($10.75, $13.50, $16.95).
In addition to deep dish pizza, Pizz'a Chicago cooks up calzones, meatball sandwiches, pasta salad, soup, lasagna, ravioli and spaghetti with or without meatballs. But salads are the real bargains. The chicken salad platter mixes crisp greens with a bounty of dried apricot bits, fresh onions, carrot slices, mushrooms and teriyaki chicken ($4.25).
Spinach salad is only a little smaller, with fresh leaves topped with marinated artichoke hearts, carrot slices, onions, mushrooms and pecans ($4.50). Snail rolls--unsweetened cinnamon roll look-alikes--come with all salads. When we asked to split an order, our server brought us two. When our spinach salad arrived without pecans, she brought us a bunch to toss on top.
Servers here are also easy about putting two toppings on the same pizza. Or leaving off the yucky stuff on your half.
Because all pizzas are cooked to order, you'll have to wait about 40 minutes for your beauty. But you can shorten the wait by calling ahead and asking that your favorite be timed to your arrival.
As for reservations, you'll have to promise to bring seven friends before they'll save you a table. If you have to wait, take my word for it: this pizza is worth it.
Pizz'a Chicago, 4115 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, 424-9400
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Atmosphere: Virtual reality Chicago
Highlights: Standard and wildly creative pizzas, fabulous salads
About the owners: "Art does the marketing; I do the recipes," says Theo Reynolds, who met his partner Art Harris in L.A. where both were managing deep-dish pizzerias for a tiny chain. "I trained Art," says Reynolds. "But he sold his condo to put us in business, so he's president and I'm vice-president." Actually, it was Harris's cash and $20,000 in credit card debt that put the daring duo in business. "It was $20,000 at 19.8 percent interest; we believed in ourselves that much," says Reynolds. "It took a year to pay it off." With three locations now in Santa Clara, Campbell and Palo Alto, Pizz'a Chicago has just begun to grow. "We want 10 or more," says Reynolds, whose 3-month-old Palo Alto store is already matching sales at the original Santa Clara location, which opened in 1991. Reservations: yes
Credit cards: yes
Wine and beer only: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Outdoor seating: no
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