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Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGELKenneth Smith, front, whips up a pizza while Justin Lewis adds toppings to an order at Nicolletti's Pizza in California.
Seeing that last week marked my sixth month on this job, maybe it is time to tell you a bit about myself: I was born in New York City and grew up in a part of the world — northern New Jersey — where pizza and pie are interchangeable terms. What I really mean to say, though, is that the further I have drifted away from New Jersey, the harder it has been to find a real-deal slice.
Last week I spent a few days scouring Southern Maryland for some decent pizza, and although this region is surely known more for inventing stuffed ham than pizzerias, I found more than a few solid spots. Like Alexia McIntyre from Waldorf, who e-mailed me in support of Waldorf's Napoli Pizzeria, I did indeed find pizza that passed my initially "picky New York taste test."
The Southern Maryland phone directory lists 71 places to get pizza. There are 12 Domino's, 9 Pizza Huts, seven Ledo Pizzas, five Papa John's and four Jerry's. Out of Arizona Pizza Company's 10 franchises nationwide, two are in Southern Maryland, and Boston's The Gourmet Pizza's only Maryland franchise opened recently in Waldorf. Since Southern Maryland Weekend has already reviewed both Arizona Pizza (in 2006) and Boston's (in 2008), I decided to turn my attention elsewhere. I confess that I did go to Napoli, as well as the nearby Mama Mia's, both of which we reviewed recently, so as you can see, this experiment was less than perfect. There were plenty of places I did not go, including the venerable Ledo Pizza chain, Three Brothers in White Plains and the two Mamma Lucia locations in Calvert County.
I took many of my leads from responses I received from our readers, whom I asked to e-mail me their favorite spots to get pizza in Southern Maryland. The e-mails did not exactly pour in, but a few people at least took the time to write with fervor.
"For pizza in La Plata or Charlotte Hall," wrote Brian Compton. "No, it's not Papa John's, Domino's or Three Brothers. Uno's, Ledos, Jerry's; nice try. You can keep your franchises! I go for locally owned and operated nonchain Pizza Hotline pizza. Fresh ingredients, hand-tossed dough and service with a smile from the owners."
Right on, Compton! I like your style. I too avoid chain pizza (or eat it three-slices-at-a-time if the editors are buying). As far as this article goes, however, it is not that chains should be discounted: It is that, by now, we all know what most chains' versions of pizza taste like: The taste they create will last longer than mountains.
My nearly 100-mile trip down to Lexington Park and then up to Prince Frederick included about 10 spots. I made my first stop at Pizza Hotline, near Charlotte Hall, which had an Amish buggy parked out front. Pizza Hotline offers a style of pizza I certainly take no issue with: lots of dough, lots of sauce, more cheese. The cheese, though slightly gobbed (which I like), did not slide off when handled, and only a slight fold was necessary to keep it all intact. Here is some of Southern Maryland's cheesiest pizza — pizza that's good and greasy without the off-putting sight of too many pools soaking through a paper plate, and with crust that's precisely undercooked.
Man, this day was shaping up. Rick's in California was about 20 miles away, and it gave me some time to digest my first heavy slice. In a past visit to Rick's (which used to be in Wildewood), I found that Philadelphia native Rick Toth delivers a more-than-legitimate Philly cheese steak with (Cheez) whiz. But was he a whiz at pizza?
If my first stop offered a delightfully sloppy slice, Rick's New York thin crust was almost amazingly composed and sturdy, the cheese so evenly spread. As designed, there was not a lot of cheese, just enough, and the crust was a golden brown, crispy and flaky.
Rick's, no doubt, provides a worthy adversary to the well-known Nicolletti's, a homey restaurant with wooden booths and low-hanging lights which my Google map directions said was 20 feet away from Rick's. For the first time, however, I hit a roadblock that would continually plague an otherwise intrepid pursuit. Nicolletti's does not sell by the slice. Not really, anyway, unless one wanted to try the Domino's sized-slices with a Domino's-like taste that sit out near the salad bar. I did try some, of course, and while I could almost immediately understand why Nicolletti's is so popular, a return trip seemed necessary.
As I drove on to Lexington Park it began to dawn on me just how many pizza outlets exist — at 7-Eleven, at Dash-In, at gas stations. While looking for Nikos, I saw a Papa John's attached to a Chinese restaurant advertising pizza of its own.
Nikos' Greek food seems like it's worth a try, but there are no slices here, either. They offer a personal pita pizza.
This is when my luck began to run out. From this point on my only option was a personal pizza, and you might as well as just try to make your own pizza at home or pop some Bagel Bites in a microwave.
Napoli Pizzeria is a classic pizza parlor. Italian scenes are hung on the wall and there is a Pac-Man arcade game in the back. A family-run restaurant, owners Cindy and Panagiotis Skaltsis greet most of the people who walk through the door by name. Cindy takes food out to the table, and Panagiotis takes on each order in stride. Along with specialties like white cheese, Napoli serves New York-style pizza, offering both "regular" Neapolitan, with flimsy yet robust crust and herby cheese, and thick Sicilian with airy bread and plenty of cheese.
A few stops down the road, one finds the second-generation family-run Mama Mia's in the Pinefield shopping center. One can buy $2 slices out of a display case — which are good even if freshness slips — and add toppings for 25 cents each. Near the counter, I felt the heat steaming out of the ovens. Nicola Caniglia beat the dough while her brother, Antonio, took care of odds and ends.
At the urging of my fellow reporters, I decided to go for two whole pies — a large, half plain and half pepperoni and another large, half bacon, mushrooms, onions and green peppers and half mushrooms, onions and green peppers.
Mama Mia's pizza has savory cheese, although keep in mind that the amount of it will decrease in favor of sauce if you load up on the toppings — which were layered on more than cooked in — whereas cheesier slices tend to be lower on sauce. The menu says "love at first sight," and while I can't say I fell in love, I was nonetheless satisfied.
That night, my wife Emily and I decided to check out some of Southern Maryland's gourmet pizza options. It was Thursday, which means "pizza nite" at The Crossing at Casey Jones, an unpretentiously upscale restaurant and bar in La Plata. After we were seated in a dining area adjacent to the barroom, our server, in a tie-dyed T-shirt, delivered the menu along with the news that some of the pies were "42 percent off," making the price of a 12-inch, round pizza comparable in cost to a microbrew. We learned that we could have (maybe) gotten away with splitting one pizza, but at that price you might as well order more than one. I went with the Thai chili chicken pizza; Emily tried the vegetarian, with tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and olives. At a nearby table, I saw the Caesar salad pizza, the cheese obscured by a mound of lettuce.
Both pizzas were a treat. The Thai chili had thick puffy crust and lots of thick, chewy cheese, which was covered in an awesome sweet and sour chili sauce. Each slice had a strip of chicken in the middle and, cleverly, a cilantro leaf. As for the vegetarian, it had the same thick, smoky crust and a generous pile of toppings.
We had to leave some room, though, for Neptune's Seafood Pub in North Beach. At Neptune's, the jerk chicken and scallops pizza with white sauce ($14.99) is one of the richest pies I have ever tried. The secret for owner and chef Bill Sherman appears to be his clever blend of cheeses, from gruyere to fontina and provolone. One of three pizzas on the menu — there is also a "build your own pie" option — it's about the same size as a pizza at Casey Jones, and if you had to determine the more worthy pie between these two establishments, it might require something along the lines of a drawn-out, Rocky Balboa-esque bout which for now seems too close to call.
One thing worth noting, however, is the difference in environments. At Casey Jones, the closest table to us was occupied by a father and son working on homework. Around 8 p.m. at Neptune's, a small bar, the scene was starting to get pretty interesting.
My body was beginning to rebel against the new schedule of a light breakfast followed by meals of pizza and pizza and pizza. I was starting to feel deadline pressure, starting to fear the act of turning in my receipts.
Still, I felt like I needed to give Nicolletti's an honest shot, What's more, I had forgotten about Mom and Pop Pizza in Ridge, tucked back off the road with Boatman's Mini-Mart.
Mom and Pop! What a place! No tables, just a counter, checkered floor and five arcades games. The South Park pinball machine's particular malfunction only involved endless free games.
Since there were no slices I put in an order for a small cheese ($9.53) with the thought that this story was spinning out of control faster than Kenny's head every time I pelted it with a pinball. This was deceptively good pie, though, even if the crust crumbled to pieces. It was a bit junky, but great if you like sloppy pizza. I downed a couple pieces enroute to Nicolletti's.
Carol Hagen wrote to say she liked Nicolletti's because "the crust is just the right thickness, the sauce is terrific and they don't put globs and globs of cheese on your pizza."
The place was packed. A young kid stood on the tips of his toes to look through the window where employees were working with the dough; other tykes ran around the salad bar, the excitement of Friday night pizza too much to contain. Looking around I saw families splitting pizzas piled high with toppings.
Photographer Reid Silverman and I split a solid 12-inch pizza with pepperoni. Nicolletti's crust is thicker than average, and Hagen is right in her assessment that they do not use "globs and globs" of cheese. Nor do they undercut it.
From there, I was off to downtown Leonardtown to report on First Friday. It was a cold night and there was less going on than during warmer times, but the Christmas lights added extra charm to an already charming place. My work done, I went to the new Olde Town Pub and took a seat at the bar with a thought I found myself unable to shake. How could I pass up Pepperoni's Pizza and Subs in Callaway? It was just a short drive down the road.
It was at the end of a shopping center capped by a faux lighthouse. There were slices of plain and pepperoni pizzas in a case marked "fresh and fast." Two slices were gone from the plain, and a pool of oil was left in their wake.
The employees, mostly high school-age, wore black T-shirts emblazoned with the restaurant's Sponge Bob-turned-pizza slice logo. "When I quit," one worker said as she swept the floor around the salad. "I am going to burn my visor."
Commercial photographs were hung on the dark orange walls. Jeff Foxworthy was on the television. The pizza was different than any I tasted — pleasingly unctuous with light crust, the kind you mow right through. I grabbed a napkin, wiped off my hands and lips. I returned the plastic plate and walked out the door.
Lately, my co-workers have been asking me where the best pizza is. I tell them it is hard to say. It depends too much on what style you prefer. For me, this experience mainly confirmed a widely known fact of life: There may be bad pizza out there, but even the bad stuff is hard to pass up. Maybe my "picky New York taste test" was just something I assumed about myself. Something I imagined without putting to a real test.