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.


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