Restaurant Reviews

Top pie

More news from the pizza front. Not long after responding professionally to the growly-sounding phone call recommending Al's ("best pizza in town"), I received another message on my voice mail also sounding like Harvey Keitel with a head cold. "Ya keep eatin' pizza but you don't come to Al's," the voice said, or seemed to say. "Best pizza in town." What? I thought. Been there, done that, wrote the review, had the pizza dreams. Why are they still calling me? I selected "delete." A week later, the message was repeated. And it wasn't until playing back the third message that I realized the voice was saying "Sal's." Sal's. So, abashed and admittedly burned-out, I girded my pizza-burdened loins and prepared to enter the pizza fray yet again. Someday, I keep thinking, perhaps someday, we really will determine whose is the best pizza in town.

Sal's certainly has its, or his, supporters. As soon as we arrived, we saw friends--including, in fact, our ex-next-door neighbor Pete--who were shocked and amazed that we'd never visited Sal's before. "What? Best pizza in town!" they exclaimed. All right, already--so this critic is the last person in town to eat at Sal's. We all make mistakes.

It turned out Sal's is in a strip at Wycliff and Maple, near a black-leather boutique and several very dark and mysterious clubs.

Sal's is a three-dimensional advertisement for the unifying pull of good pizza; here was as diverse a crowd as you could hope to see.

Americans can't help but think of pizza as an Italian dish; the Italians don't claim it's theirs but don't hesitate to exploit what they insist is an American invention; needless to say, the French don't even want to claim it--they own a much superior dish called pissaladiere, a rectangular bread crust topped with sautŽed onions, anchovies, olives, and a most tasteful showering of cheese. Only the crass could mistake it for pizza.

Pizza was always teen-age food--urban food, anyway--until the food revolution of the '80s during which Wolfgang Puck topped one with caviar and Alice Waters one with goat cheese and then pizza's popularity really peaked. Now pizza is on every menu, up and down the culinary ladder. We are the world, we all eat pizza.

Sal's is an old-fashioned kind of Amer-Italian pizza place, but it was full of all ethnic groups and persuasions--couples, families, babies, policemen and policewomen (always a good sign for a pizza joint). A multi-generational group brought balloons and presents for a birthday party to one table. At the next, a balding man ate alone, reading a book. A basketball game was on both TV sets, the one in the smoking, the other in the nonsmoking section, and both sections were full.

It wasn't until we were seated (Sal's offers the nicety of table service) and sipping frosty mugs of beer that we appreciated the Budweiser sign (with the Clydesdales going around and around it) and the three-bottle Lite (beer) fixture, which pretty much sums up the decor: Sal's has a laminate ambiance. (The nonsmoking section has red tablecloths over the laminate tabletops and carpet glued down over the laminate floor; the smaller smoking section is composed of nonabsorbent surfaces and is where we, nonsmokers with kids, chose to sit just because we didn't want to wait.)

We kept the food order simple: stromboli, calzone, pizza, a salad, and, of course, beer. The menu is long--seven veal entrees, 26 pasta dishes--but no one had called saying Sal's has the best veal marsala in town and the stromboli got big nods from the ex-neighbor, so we stuck with pizza variations and added a salad to make us feel OK about the kids' food pyramid.

The salad was just a bowl of cold iceberg, a trio of canned ripe olives, and a wedge of watery tomato in a frightening bright-red dressing that seemed to be based on ketchup. Oh, it was probably cocktail sauce, but that's OK: We hadn't really expected much from Sal's salad.

At about this time the Mavericks pulled ahead and our daughter, the basketball fan, spilled her soft drink. The first time.

I'm especially glad to be able to say that Sal's pizza was, as advertised, excellent. It arrived, shortly after the mop-up, a perfectly molten gold disc--no frills, just a brown crust, crisp at the rolled edges, softer under the tomato-cheese mantle, and cooling to cracker-like blandness. (Who wants pizza crust with a lot of character? Its part of the relationship is to let the sauce and cheese shine.)

The calzone, a monster crescent of browned crust, puffed fully four inches high, poured forth a slow river of pure white cheese when I cut it. It was a celebration of the ancient simplicity of basic bread and bland cheese: elemental, pristine, its flavors as subtle in their excitement as a Jane Austen novel. But the marinara served discreetly on the side was there for the moment when the pleasures of subtlety palled.

Contrast the calzone with its exuberant bodice-ripper sister, la stromboli: wild, effusive, the same brown crust barely containing a sexy extravagance of cheese mixed with spicy Italian sausage, oily disks of red pepperoni, and luxurious mushrooms. No wonder Pete liked it.

The second time we ate Sal's pizza, we picked it up and took it home, a dangerous practice for the palate since you're risking congealed cheese and soggy crust, but I'm sure the mop brigade was relieved. It proved also to be a danger to the driver, since the famous garlic pizza, its seasoning invisible to the naked eye, filled the car with the aroma of fresh (and, I suspect, powdered) garlic as soon as the doors were closed, making it impossible to drive without reaching impossibly into the back seat and nabbing a slice for rush-hour consumption.

Irresistible, yes. The best? You decide.

Sal's Pizza and Restaurant, 2525 Wycliff, 522-1828. Open Sunday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-midnight; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Sal's Pizza and Restaurant:
Stromboli $4.95
Calzone $4.95
Medium Cheese Pizza $7.95

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