Photo by Jeanne RiceWe critics have a duty to reminisce at year's end, so I'm thinking about the significant events of the past 20 years of my eating life: the proliferation of ATM machines, homegrocer. com, the explosion of brewpubs and, most important of all, the liberation of the pizza.
The first two are self-explanatory, and I've written enough about brewpubs to have ale shoot out my snot hole. So I'll examine what has happened to the most popular ethnic food in America:
A few guys discovered they could put all sorts of shit on a pizza crust and people would eat it.
I don't know if Americans were getting bored with the standard sausage/pepperoni/mushroom, but suddenly in the '80s, the "gourmet" pizza emerged. Wolfgang Puck put duck sausage on one, and LA dining scenesters went mad. And then the California Pizza Kitchen started tossing barbecued chicken and egg salad on a thin crust, and a full-blown trend was born that has settled into a contemporary dining habit.
Some of this nouveau pizza is good; some of it is shit. At its best, it challenges how we think about pizza, extending its possibilities. Still, as Thai spices found their collective way onto a crust, I just couldn't shake my passion for the classic thick-crust, cheese-oozing, meat-heavy pizzeria pie.
The classic neighborhood pizzeria has also come under attack by the other big event in pizzadom: the carnivorous competition among Domino's, Little Caesars and Pizza Hut. When the Hut opens a takeout in your neighborhood, it's akin to having a Wal-Mart there. The little guy will feel the pinch. I saw it happen to Circus Pizza in my hometown of Norwalk.
Still, the best pizza is old-school pizza, and I went to one place that has been a neighborhood stalwart for more than 40 years: Giovanni's in Fullerton.
Giovanni's is about a mile from the city's old downtown on a street featuring one auto shop after another. This place is a classic neighborhood pizzeria, from the vinyl booths to the plastic plates. A youth soccer team was holding its year-end banquet when I went in, and preteen boys ran randomly about the place with their trophies. This was Americana at its contemporary suburban finest.
Giovanni's also serves pasta dishes and sandwiches (which they call grinders—very East Coast), but this place is about pizza. The big cheese of pie here is the Deluxe, which features pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, olives, onions and bell peppers—even anchovies on request. A large one of these babies is $16.75.
Although Giovanni's must make a hundred of these a day, our pizza didn't look or taste prefabricated like one from Domino's. A thick, chewy crust served as a place mat for an oregano-rich sauce and gooey cheese. Each slice was messy and a little watery (because of the bell peppers), but that didn't matter. This is as good as pizzeria pizza gets.
One large pizza satisfied a group of four hungry eaters. Each $3.95 pitcher of Bud offered one glass per person. So what the hell, we ordered three.
If I had to be critical, I would recommend cutting back on the peppers and onions, but hey, smart guy, I could have ordered a standard pepperoni/sausage/mushroom. Overall, Giovanni's offers 18 toppings, including that strangely popular Canadian bacon and pineapple. I never could figure that one out.
Monday-night pizza specials make these big pies more affordable —$7 for a large cheese with $1.50 per extra topping. I somehow get the feeling that this place and Monday Night Football are Fullerton traditions.
So, kiddies, as the century/ millennium ends (or doesn't, depending on whom you speak to), my advice is this: go old-school. Patronize your local pizzeria. Neighborhood markets may be history, but you still have a chance to save your pizza.
Giovanni's Pizza, located at 922 Williamson Ave., Fullerton is open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (714) 526-5561. Figure spending about $10 per person if you drink as much as we do. MC, Visa and AmEx accepted.
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