by Ruth Schechter
The best pizza I ever tasted was at Sal's, the hole-in-the-wall take-out pizzeria in the Italian part of town where I grew up. All the teens with attitude would hang out there, blasting the jukebox and nursing an extra-large Coke and a 50-cent slice for hours after school let out. The pizza was incredible, the perfect marriage of cheese, sauce and doughy crust. No one could ever wait until it cooled, so we would inevitably sear our mouths while keeping up our ongoing flirtations, banter and intense discussions about school and each other. What did I know? I was young. After tasting the pizza served at Applewood Inn in Menlo Park, I can also say I was naive. I've grown up, and so has pizza.
Applewood has made its deservedly excellent reputation by creating unusual variations of pizza--pizza for adult tastes. Creative minds have come up with sophisticated flavor combinations with an international edge, such as the Nice (spinach, ricotta, red onions and tomatoes), the Dallas (chili sauce, barbecue beef, chilies and red peppers), and the Athens (marinated eggplant, feta, sun-dried tomatoes and capers). None of this deters from the bottom line of an excellent pizza: a terrific, chewy crust, cheese thick enough to pull off in strings and a flavorful, balanced tomato sauce.
Our hungry group spent a long, casual evening in a crowded booth sampling a variety of Applewood's "signature" pizzas to great satisfaction. The Venice was a satisfying combination of lightly sauteed fresh vegetables generously dappled with ricotta cheese and chunks of fresh tomatoes, one of eight on the menu that would appeal to vegetarian diners. It's a mystery how they are able to serve such a generous amount of vegetables without ending up with a soggy base, but somehow Applewood has mastered this dilemma. The Budapest, made up of sauteed onions, bell peppers, onions and thick Hungarian sausage, was a winning blend of spicy flavors and textures.
I admit I was a skeptical about trying the Scandinavian, a pizza topped with smoked salmon, red onions, sour cream, capers, parsley and dill. I mean, this is the stuff I put on my bagel for Sunday brunch, not my pizza. Somehow it all works: The salty lox, the cool, creamy sour cream and the sharp red onions mix perfectly with the traditional sauce and doughy crust.
Diners can also create their own concoctions from a long list of toppings that rages from the traditional (anchovies, ground beef, fresh mushrooms, Italian sausage) to the downright thought-provoking (clams, cilantro pesto, avocado, jalapeno peppers).
Prices range from $3.25 for an individual cheese pizza to $24.50 for a family-size (18-inch) signature pizza. A 12-inch medium ($12.50) will take good care of a group of four.
The atmosphere at Applewood is casual and friendly, and more reminiscent of a beer hall than a pizza parlor. You order your pizza (there's also a small selection of pastas and salads) at the counter, pay and take a number. You order your soft drinks or beer at another counter farther down, then grab your seat for a short wait. Counter service is especially accommodating--our beverage server gave us tiny samples of several beers on tap while we argued over how dark a brew to order.
The restaurant recently revamped its interior and added some extra booths, a couple of new specialty pizzas and a few finishing touches. More is still to come: Owners Bela and Inga Kardos plan on adding the winning combinations from a recent pizza contest to the menu. In the meantime, be sure to check out the new puffy trompe l'oeil clouds painted on the sky-blue ceiling.
Applewood has been at its busy corner location on El Camino for more than 13 years. Applewood 2-Go opened 10 years ago across the street to provide take-out service. There's another Applewood located at 227 First St. in Los Altos.
Now that I'm a grown-up, I'm afraid Sal's has been replaced. The only thing missing at my new pizza hangout is a jukebox. And my teen-age angst.
Applewood Inn, 1001 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, 324-3486
Hours: Monday-Saturday 5-10 p.m; Sunday 5-9 p.m.
Atmosphere: Casual family-style ambience with efficient, friendly counter service
Highlights: Unusual pizza combinations with an international touch
About the owner: Bela Kardos came to the United States from Hungary in 1956, starting out working in a factory by day and in Miami Beach hotels by night. Working under chefs cooking for the "snowbirds" of Chicago and New York, he developed a firm affection for the food business. Kardos has been in the restaurant business for more than 35 years and owned several institutions in Menlo Park before Applewood. It took eight months to develop the crust, and topping combinations were taste-tested on staff. Kardos makes it a point to use ingredients that fit the character of a region before he comes up with the name. "The ingredients always come first," he says. "They have to complement each other. We never make a pizza with more than five ingredients. Anything more than that is too overwhelming and the flavors cancel each other out." Reservations: No Credit cards: Yes Parking: No Beer and wine only: yes Takeout: Yes Outdoor seating: No Nonsmoking: Yes High chairs: Yes Banquet room: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Back up to the Table of Contents Page