Deliverance II: Shawerma? On pizza? 

The search for the best pizza delivery fizzles out.

This was not the first time I'd subsisted on nothing but delivery pizza for a week.

It is, however, likely to be the last. I've given up. I used to believe that the perfect delivery pizza was out there somewhere. No more. Ever since I wrote my first review of on-call pizzas for these pages in January, I've been searching. I've lost track of the number of times I've had the following conversation:

Me: There are no good delivery pizzas around here.

Other person: Well, there's (insert favorite place).

Me (excited): Oh really? Are they good?

Other person: (Thinks.) No, not really.

So it's been me with the phone book, picking places at random and suffering the consequences.

After I completed my first survey of delivery pizzas, I decided that my methodology was flawed. Limiting myself to plain cheese pizzas was asking for trouble. True, I was comparing apples to apples, but it was time for oranges: toppings. I was urged on in this pursuit by the discovery of yet another excellent but, lamentably, nondelivery pizza establishment: Lo Coco's at 1400 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Lo Coco's pizza, with its heaps of tasty mushrooms and pepperoni that could make a grown man weep, helped me understand the transcendent beauty of toppings. And so, fueled with a deep love for roasted red peppers and savory Italian sausage, I began my second foray into East Bay delivery pizzas.

The first delivery pizza I tried--Café Rustica on College Avenue in Oakland, was suggested by a helpful reader of my January lamentations. I was hopeful: Rustica's pizza must be good if it inspires such missionary fervor.

The large mushroom pizza I ordered ($17 including delivery charge) took about seventy minutes to arrive. Not exactly a land-speed record--don't order Rustica if you're fainting from hunger. When we opened the box and prodded the inert-looking pizza, we found that it had slipped over the line from lukewarm to cold, so we stuck it in the oven to warm it up. Hardly an auspicious beginning but, innocent that I was, I remained optimistic.

Later, we sat down and tucked in. "We waited an hour and a half for this?" was my reaction.

"It's not bad," said Anya, my dedicated coreviewer. "These mushrooms are tasty."

I picked one off and ate it--tasted like an ordinary mushroom to me. "I was hoping for something that was actually good."

"It's just a delivery pizza--you can't compare it to the Cheese Board," she chided.

But, damn it, that's exactly what I wanted to do. In comparison with any serious gourmet pizza, Rustica comes off like an overpriced wannabe.

As Anya continues to insist, however, that's not really fair. In the land of the one-eyed delivery pizzas, Rustica is, well, hardly king, but perhaps a respected member of the court.

The cheese is good and salty, I'll give it that. And the sauce--what sauce there was--was good, but there was so little it was hard to tell for certain.

The major problem with Rustica's pizza is the crust. The first time I tried to gnaw through a Rustica crust I thought someone had left a bungee cord in the dough by mistake. Perhaps the crust stubs would've been edible if I followed my dog's example and buried them in the back yard for a few days--that seems to do wonders for the flexibility of her rawhide chews. But the whole point of delivery pizza is to get something you can eat right now. If I wanted something I had to bury in the yard, I'd just buy my own tomato plants and start from scratch.

Despite my disappointment, I decided to violate my own experimental guidelines and give Rustica another chance. There was that reader, remember? Perhaps some ne'er-do-well had siphoned off all the sauce to sell on the black market, and the busboy had tossed the pie. So I ordered a large Quattro Formaggio (a pricey $20.50 with delivery) and tried to rekindle my feelings of flagging optimism. Again, it took more than an hour to get here, and again it was almost room temperature. We decided against reheating, and sat down to try it.

I could hardly believe my teeth: the crust was even harder than before. And there was no sauce at all this time. Okay, that was on purpose, but in order for a sauceless pizza to be good, the rest of the ingredients have to be superb, and these weren't. There was way too much feta, for one thing. I like the feta on my pizza to be either applied in moderation or mild in flavor. This feta was neither, and the dirty-sock taste of over-strong feta made the pizza hard to stomach (although Anya wants all of you to know that I'm a "wimp about feta," as she puts it). The basil leaves arranged on top were a nice touch, but not enough to counter the hair baked into the crust. So much for Rustica--its Quattro Formaggio isn't fit to lick the boots of the four-cheese pizza they serve at Jupiter.

Then things got worse. The next delivery pizza we sampled made Rustica seem like Nirvana in a box.

Portofino Café (655-5550) took the trouble to leave a flier at our door, so, I thought, why not give them a try? We ordered two mediums, one with pepperoni and green pepper and the other with mushrooms and tomatoes. They threw in a two-liter bottle of soda for free, and the whole thing with delivery charges came to $21.75.

Now, before I go any further, I should say that I sympathize with the rigors of pizza delivery. I understand that ordering a pizza at a peak time, like 4:15 on a Friday afternoon, is asking for trouble, and I accept that sometimes it's going to take a while for a pizza to arrive at my door. But when an establishment promises to deliver in 45 minutes, and it in fact takes closer to 90, I get crabby. And I was already a bit testy because the flier failed to mention the $3 delivery fee that was tacked onto my order. Mind you, I don't object to delivery fees; I just think it's a little slimy not to mention it up front (it's not in their phone-book ad, either).

I opened the box, and I knew we were in trouble. I found a total of--get this--eleven pieces of pepperoni on the whole pie (an average of only 1.375 pieces on each of the eight slices). And the mushrooms and green pepper were nearly as scanty, though the tomatoes were present in reasonable force.

The taste was everything we'd feared and more. Anya took it especially hard. She thought the crust tasted like bad supermarket French bread, and the sauce tasted like it came from a can. She couldn't even eat the crust, and I didn't blame her--I managed to get mine down, but consuming the puffy, flavorless stub took longer than eating the part of the slice with the "toppings." Portofino's has the dubious distinction of being the only pizza I've ever reviewed whose leftovers were actually thrown away rather than eaten.

The award for speed goes to the next kind we tried--Golden Gate Pizza (595-8000). Even though I ordered at 5:20 on a Saturday, we had our pizzas in just 36 minutes--4 minutes earlier then they'd promised.

Now if only Golden Gate's pizza tasted good.... It was here I learned that lots of toppings is not necessarily a good thing. I ordered a large Italian Supreme ($17.99), which comes with a decadent-sounding list of fixin's: three cheeses, pepperoni, Italian sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, green onions, and "lots of chopped garlic." The pizza was supposed to come with "creamy garlic sauce," but I asked for the ordinary sauce instead (I've had too many run-ins with substandard garlic sauces that lingered like a pestilent haze on my breath for days afterward).

The pizza looked good--it was mounded with toppings, the opposite of Portofino's parsimony. But, alas, the toppings didn't help. The three cheeses tasted like one (bland pseudo-mozzarella) and the mushrooms, while visible, had no discernible flavor. The weirdest thing, though, was the pepperoni, which was almost flavorless. I'd never encountered such a strange beast--I thought all pepperoni at least imparted a healthy jolt of salt, but not this. And the sausage was no better--it was the pellet, dog-food-looking kind that's never any good. This was all rather upsetting: maybe they made a mistake and gave us the plastic toppings that were destined for the window display?

At least the green onions were fresh and tasty--they got those right. By this point, I wasn't even taking simple things for granted.

The pizza Anya ordered, a small "Sun Delight" ($11.99), was no better. For one thing, it was actually missing its titular ingredient, the advertised "Julienne-cut sun-dried tomatoes" (at least we could find no trace of them). The rest of the toppings (spinach, black olives, garlic, and crumbled feta) were all acceptable, although my other housemate, Ethan, found the feta "particularly nasty."

Anya didn't mind her pizza in the end (she liked the crust, which she described as "wheaty"), and thought Ethan and I were being too sensitive. But she didn't disagree when I said that the pizza wasn't good enough to ever bother ordering again; so let's face it, we were debating shades of mediocrity.

By this time the quibbling over where the various pizzas fell on the scale running from "mediocre" down to "lousy" was starting to take its toll. But I kept insisting, "No, we have to keep ordering--it's out there somewhere; we can't give up." And as I pursued my foolish dream, everyone suffered.

Purple Pepper Pizza (653-5001) was next; I ordered a large red pepper, mushroom, and Italian sausage pizza for $18.25. Alas, when the pizza arrived after around 45 minutes, I found that my vocabulary had run dry. I had no more words to describe minor shades of "okay" and "not too bad." Was this particular kind of bland slightly more pleasant than the last? By how much? How many shades of so-so can a man be expected to hold in his memory? I thought Purple Pepper was a bit better than Golden Gate, Anya thought it was a little worse, and Ethan wouldn't even try it.

And so we came to the final night of the experiment. It was with no great hopes that I flipped through the Yellow Pages searching for something--anything--to give my search a happy ending.

Then I saw one of my favorite words: shawerma, the Middle Eastern meat concoction that's cooked on a spit and seasoned with wonderful spices. If anything ought to banish boring, I thought, shawerma should do it--salty, meaty goodness the likes of which drives away sorrow and curls the toes with delight.

So I called Star Pizza (428-2211, 3109 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland) and after a lengthy conversation in which I spoke much too fast to be easily understood, the woman on the other end of the line assured me that, yes, if you order chicken on your pizza, you'll get chicken shawerma. I generally avoid chicken on pizza, because even at fancy places it's usually overcooked and flavorless, but shawerma ...now that's what I call a topping.

So I ordered a large pizza with chicken and green peppers ($16.75). But then I hit a snag. Star Pizza delivers, but not as far north as my neighborhood in central Berkeley. At first I despaired, but then it hit me--Star Pizza may not deliver to me, but they would deliver to all my esteemed readers in Oakland and South Berkeley. So, in an act of dedication so selfless there was nary a dry eye in the household, I boldly left my home and went to pick up the pizza.

They told me the pizza would be ready in 25 minutes, and they were as good as their word. When I got home and opened the box, however, my spirits sank: there was shawerma on the pizza, but not much of it. A far cry from the heaps of steaming tastiness I'd been hoping for. As I lifted the first piece to my mouth, I braced myself for a Portofino-style disaster.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised. It wasn't the best pizza in the world, but it was better than any of the stuff we'd eaten recently, and I found myself wolfing it. And I guess that's all you can ask for from a delivery pizza--something that prods you to eat as fast as you can until you're overfull.

The sauce was sweet, with just a hint of spiciness, and it nicely complemented the very serviceable green peppers. The cheese was unobtrusive and a little greasy, which is of course a good thing (low-end pizza cheese without a little grease usually means without flavor). And the chicken, what little of it there was, was excellent. But of course it was--it was shawerma, a food sent by God to soothe the hurts of humankind (although not, regrettably, to heal the hurts of chickens and lambs).

The main thing marking the pizza down was the relative scarcity of the shawerma. And that should be resolvable. If you, dear readers, try ordering a shawerma pizza from Star Pizza, be sure to ask for double (or, if you're feeling hedonistic, triple) chicken. Then fire up some Seinfeld reruns and eat yourself unconscious.

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