If you're opening a new pizza restaurant these days, either you're going after the fast-fired casual model pioneered by Pieology and 800 Degrees, or you're aiming for the authenticity of Mozza and Pizzeria Ortica. The new Craftsman Woodfired Pizza is neither; it's an honest-to-goodness pizza parlor, the first one I've seen in a long time. Think of Shakey's in its heyday, the kind of place your Little League coach would take you to soften a loss or celebrate a victory. Either way, you know you're getting pizza.
As a pizza parlor, Craftsman fits in the comfortable middle ground of pizza-pie purveyor. You're not here to spend a fortune on your meal or impress a hot date; you're here to be served hot pizza still on the tin, washed down with a pitcher of beer you'll share with someone who has already seen you in your sweat pants. There are booths, long tables, a bar and plenty of televisions tuned to sports. In the back, an open kitchen allows you to witness pies being made by guys who press the dough flat with their palms, sprinkle it with toppings, then slide it into the gaping hole of a wood-fired oven. Because of what it is and where it's located (in a quiet shopping center in quiet Placentia), Craftsman is also decidedly hipster-free. It's rare to see anyone here younger than 25 who isn't with parents; instead, you see whole nuclear families—Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Grandma and the kids, all together for a meal. On a visit, I sat near a table of actual soccer moms who brought a team still in their grass-stained uniforms. And when this prepubescent set ate their pizzas, they did so by eating around the crust.
The pizzas are wonderful, by the way. They aren't thin or cracker-like as at Pieology's. There's a real bread-like integrity to the dough, something to really chew on. But unlike Mozza's pies, the crusts aren't puffed up to balloons; there's a uniform thickness throughout. When I picked up a slice, my fingers became covered in cornmeal and soot. First and foremost, the pizzas are designed to be melted-cheese platforms. More satisfying than California Pizza Kitchen's, but less substantial than deep dish, they're the cheesiest pizzas I've had in a while. Even after being sliced, the cut seams disappeared, as the melted cheese restitched itself.
You have the option of building your own pizza with toppings that range from the mundane (pepperoni and mozzarella) to the unorthodox (steak and blue cheese). No toppings exist here that could be considered weird by the Cleaver clan (there is no Thai pizza with bean sprouts or even barbecue chicken). For an idea of where Craftsman is coming from, consider that it's described a pizza topped with jalapeños and pineapple as “a daring combination.”
Craftsman's most interesting pizzas are the bacon and Brussels sprouts pizza, the steak and potato, and the shrimp and spinach, in that order. That bacon pizza may be the best of its kind in OC. Rendered crisp and embedded in a big wave of cheese, the bacon pieces appear in every mouthful, their crunchy texture intact. The steak pizza is as hearty as a casserole, with the grilled tri-tip sliced into thick pieces, the potato cut into wheels, all of it buried in gobs of smoked Gouda with strips of caramelized onion. The shrimp pizza, which might sound tempting (what shrimp dish isn't?), seems to be the one pizza that tastes less than the sum of its parts. Though cooked correctly, the shrimp needed something, well, more “daring.”
Apart from the pizzas, which run $9 for a 10-inch pie that serves about one to two people to $15 for a 14-inch one that could feed two to three, you'll also want appetizers, which are done very well here. The beer-battered zucchini were cooked to order, spewing scalding juice when I bit into them too early. The fries are hand-cut in house, but the best appetizer I ate was the sweet potato chips. When I detected what tasted like cinnamon-spiced brown sugar on the surface, one of my companions licked his and confirmed it.
If you need a salad, get the bright and surprisingly competent citrus-grilled chicken, which is akin to a Chinese chicken salad that's only missing its wontons. And for dessert, there's an apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream, served on a sputtering-hot plate surrounded by a lake of boiling caramel lava. It may have burned off portions of my mouth, but the fuming spectacle quickly drew the attention of the soccer team. Since the moms obliged them the dessert, I can only guess the team either suffered one devastating loss or won the most glorious of victories.