Pie-eating contest

Two pizzerias--one new, one ancient--are legitimate contenders for Dallas' best

A tale of two pizzas: I said it was the best of pizzas, and though no one said it was the worst, there were a lot of people who claimed the superlative for their favorite pizza place, not mine.

In the weeks following the Observer's September 28 "Best of Dallas" issue--in which I proclaimed Arcodoro purveyor of the city's best pizza--I received several anonymous phone calls ("Al's has-a the best-a pizza in Dallas!" growled one anonymous caller, then hung up). One reader even passed me a note when I was browsing in a CD store: "Go eat at Lovers Pizza!" (See--all you gotta do is step out on a limb and somebody saws it off. That's the hazard when your job description is "airing your opinion.") So this week I decided to investigate a couple of Dallas' supposedly premier pizza joints.

I have to admit, I get really sick of eating pizza. These days, you can hardly find a restaurant that doesn't offer pizza on its menu, and I should know. I go out for Mexican food and end up eating pizza. I go out for Thai food and end up eating pizza. Any flat bread with a topping could be called a pizza on the evidently sound theory that Americans will eat anything on dough. (This must go right along with the "anything fried" rule.)

Of course, there are plenty of places where pizza is the menu--the only possible dish for a person of reasonable taste to order, unless you count baked ziti as a dinner option. But I said people of reasonable taste. There is always at least one corrugated pizza box in my fridge, with a leathery leftover wedge or two rattling around inside. (If you're going to try to eat leftover pizza, sprinkle it with water as if you were going to iron it, and heat it at 400 till the cheese barely bubbles.) We eat pizza more than any other food. (There are little-known side effects. Did you know pizza causes you to dream more than other foods?)

But when my family orders pizza for pizza's sake, we don't usually get it at the neighborhood pizza joint, because most of those are gone--swallowed whole by the chains. No, our pizza normally comes in a speeding vehicle, to our door, from a place that accepts checks. It is the dinner of last resort.

But these pizza places that were brought to my particular attention are both individually owned, un-linked, neighborhood pizza parlors--they do deliver, but not in my neighborhood, which means they're too far away for me to do anything but eat it there. Well-traveled pizza is inedible pizza. Both places were recommended as the best pizza in Dallas, and both were touted as serving true, "New York-style" pizza.

Of course, New York versus Chicago style is not the debate it once was, not now that there are so many other options to discuss, like, is the crust stuffed with cheese, is it buffalo or cow's milk mozzarella, or is it gorgonzola or maybe goat cheese? Leaving the Thai and the Tex-Mex versions of pizza behind (where I hope they'll stay) for a minute, and getting back to basics, you may remember that tradition says Chicago-style is deep-dish pizza, and New York is "Neapolitan"--thin-crust pizza. (So-called "Sicilian" pizza is cut into rectangles. But it's never been part of the debate, anyway.)

The main difference between the two is that you eat your Chicago pizza with a fork, and your New York pizza is a hand pie (unless you're a fork fanatic like me and prefer to break out the prongs for any and everything topped with stringy cheese, including nachos). This general rule makes sense, because in New York, pizza is street food--there are lots of places that sell pizza by the slice for pedestrians, obviously a useless sales pitch in Dallas where delivered pizza is more to the point.

In the case of Lovers Pizza (officially titled "and Pasta"), I would prefer to be in the delivery area; there's not much of a point in going inside the place to eat, unless you just want to feel depressed and for some bizarre reason can't induce the feeling with daily life in Dallas or a movie.

There are only a couple of discouraging tables and a couple of booths inside Lovers Pizza. The plate glass windows look out on the crummy asphalt parking lot. There are frightening photo enlargements of the pasta dishes allegedly served decorating the walls, though you can't see them too well because the room is so dim. You order at the counter, where a couple of kinds of pizzas for sale by the slice are kept hot under pitiless lamps. You get your drinks yourself--Snapple from the cooler. The dark dining room is lit slightly by the blue glow of one TV.

The bright kitchen behind the counter, where the pizza guys are talking on the phone, joking and rolling pizza dough, looks like a much cozier, more inviting place than your lonely laminated table. You wish they'd ask you to come back there and wait while they make your pizza. But they won't.

That's OK. There's not much service, but what there is, is friendly. If you want a slice of a type of pizza that's not under the lights, they'll make it up fresh--and gladly--even near closing time. And once the pizza comes, you won't feel depressed anymore, anyway.

You might even be glad if you're alone because you won't have to share. This is good pizza. The crust is puffed on the sides, flattened in the middle only by the weight of the cheese. The ingredients--sauce, cheese, toppings--are distributed in perfectly correct proportion to each other, the hallmark of good pizza. Those who try but don't understand overload their pizza with sauce or cheese or toppings, forgetting the Tao of pizza. The harmony of the three is what makes a pizza sublime.

Lovers serves pasta, too. (I've never tried it.) And stuff like salads. (Only if you're really desperate.) But Lovers' calzone is their secret weapon. (I don't know why they call it Lovers Pizza "and Pasta" when they serve this calzone.) Brown and barely curved, like some smooth-skinned croissant on steroids, its crust is split at the widest point before it's served, and the cheese flowing out of the wound is sprinkled with bright green parsley. The bread itself is crisp, hollowed over the river of cheese, yeasty but not doughy. The cheese is a gentle mix of mellow mozzarella and whitest ricotta, lovely in its bland subtlety, melting to cream. Alone, it's barely flavored; just the textures--crisp and creamy--and the delicately fermented aromas of cheese and yeast combine to make this comfort food of the highest order. But a dish of warm tangy marinara allows you to season your sandwich as wetly as you wish. It's a huge, ridiculous thing for one person to order, and I don't know any reheating tricks. This calzone is an ephemeral pleasure.

Al's Pizzeria is slightly more atmospheric than Lovers. There are hanging lamps made of that pizza-parlor Tiffany-style stained glass, there are lots more tables, set with brass bentwood-style chairs, and there are classical-style urns and busts cast from concrete. There are some hopeless ivy baskets and some soccer posters. It has at least the pretense of decor.

Pizza is best eaten in the glow of red neon; here it flashes "open." It's best eaten in the company of policemen, who appreciate bulky, comforting food; there are always a couple at Al's. Al's seems like a happier place than Lovers, mostly because Al's is often full of regulars, and Lovers hasn't been around long enough to have many of those.

This is not Al's first location, only its latest. The wall is covered with clips and articles starring Al's and its pizza. In fact, Al's is a byword in Dallas, a relic, a holdover from the days when the only other pizza in Dallas was built on a cracker crust in identical chain links. People over the age of 18 probably didn't eat much pizza then. The few who'd learned to love it elsewhere knew about Al's, and they probably still seek it out.

This is a pie worth pursuing. You order at a counter, again, but here you can have beer--draft or bottled--if you like, or a brimming glass of wine. Don't order a salad; get your minimum daily requirements elsewhere. This bowl of cold yellow leaves and sour dressing isn't worth even $1.75. Just sip, instead, and when your pizza's ready, it will find you. Make way.

At Al's, we liked a combination pie of pepperoni and black olives, with ricotta. The big bubbled crust is pale, even brown around the edges. It's bland, the most basic of doughs, no more than flour, yeast, and water--I don't even taste salt. It's blobbed with puddles of ricotta melted into flat pools as white as Elmer's glue, and spotted with red concave discs of pepperoni, punctuated all over with shiny black olive O's. The whole surface is richly glistening with golden oil. Under the cheese mantle, the crust is only barely brushed with tomato sauce, instead of it squeezing out in a toothpaste squelch of red when you take a bite (or bear down with a fork, as I prefer, even though this pizza comes on an aluminum pie plate and makes a horrible fingernail-blackboard scrape against a fork).

Again, the balance is perfect, the middle way attained. Wait till the pizza cools and the cheese congeals just slightly before you eat it, so the flavors meld together and the bread and cheese form a more lasting bond. Perfect pizza enlightenment.

There's no point in dessert, though cheesecake is available. And I have to admit I've never tried and am not likely to try the baked ziti. I suspect the pizza heroes are good, and I know the calzone is good, though not, in my opinion, the marvel that Lovers' calzone is.

The question is, do these places serve the best pizza in Dallas? The answer: could be, could be.

Al's Pizzeria, 159 Walnut Hill Village at Bachman Creek, 350-2171. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Friday 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday 10 a.m.-midnight. Sunday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Lovers Pizza and Pasta, 5605 W. Lovers Lane, 353-0509. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. -11 p.m. Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Lovers Pizza and Pasta:
Calzone
$3.95
Medium pizza
(one topping) $6.95

Al's Pizzeria:
Small calzone: $3.75
Medium pizza
(one topping) $8.50

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