So, I may have told you before I hate pizza. It’s not true, I really don’t HATE it, but I got so burned out on pizza a few years ago that I never crave it. I’m never excited about it. I’m OK with it, especially if it comes from a nice place with a wood-fired oven and designer pies that border on “hoity-toity,” but it would never be my first choice.
The predictable chain restaurants that offer the goofy things I loved as a kid are now offering the same goofy things (and then some) that show up in my adult nightmares. I see them as one big pile of bread with a couple of items I may or may not like. Mainly it’s the crust. I remember when “pan” pizza first became a thing. Not thick enough for Chicago, but twice as thick as the pizza of the ‘70s. Then came stuffing the crust, flavoring the crust, thus tampering with the most important part of the pizza, all to market over the other chain.
Then you didn’t eat it. You discarded crust like it was contaminated, certain it was different from the rest of the pizza. It’s all in your head. I have a son that doesn’t eat the perimeter of his waffle for the same reason you threw away the crust.
So it was with some trepidation that I took my little show to the Shoppes at Bel Air for some Grimaldi’s Pizza. This Brooklyn-based chain is a success story that rides on its very own coal-fired ovens. In good company across from P.F. Chang’s at the main entrance to Bel Air, Grimaldi’s is part of a welcomed overhaul of the mall’s dining offerings.
For this journey I was accompanied by my friend Pinky T. Pinky is more of a pizza fan than I am and in her travels has experienced coal-fired pies before. We arrived with a very knowledgeable and helpful Deven as our server. I was fairly impressed with the wine list and figured we’d go Italian with a bottle of Ruffino Aziano Chianti Classico ($35). This is one of Ruffino’s more budget-friendly wines, with fruitier notes than their higher-end Riserva Ducale but retaining an easy drinkability. It was nice to see this one on the list, for the taste as well as the pocketbook.
I’d heard the portions were huge here, so we began with a small antipasto ($10) of roasted sweet red peppers with a hint of char, Genoa salami next to fresh mozzarella and fresh baked bread with olives. This portion isn’t over the top in size, which I appreciated.
The salad was another story. Deven said we could easily share a salad and not finish it. The Kale Chopped Salad ($9) sounded as good as any, with a lemon vinaigrette, bits of cucumber and artichoke with the kale mixed in romaine. The presence of sundried tomatoes added a nice touch, as did the Kalamata olives and shaved Parmesan (maybe Romano?). We didn’t put a dent in it. This is a salad for four. It was so big it got in the way, prompting Pinky to drop a bottle of balsamic vinegar into the bowl.
When it came to the pizza I figured we’d get two small ones to see what these guys were all about. I still wasn’t super excited about it, but thought back to my pizza-loving days for some inspiration. Long ago my friend Kevin Taylor introduced me to a spot near the Gulfport-Biloxi line called Alberti’s. It was here he taught me the importance of the pepperoni meatball pizza. The thought of it got me going and I built a worthy version at Grimaldi’s. The traditional 12-inch ($10) plus pepperoni ($3) and meatballs ($4) was an eye-opener.
That thin crust, a little bit of char here and there, the red sauce — I knew that this is what good pizza means to me. I did sprinkle on a little Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes but abstained from asking for the French dressing the Italians on the coast used to serve us with their pizza.
Round two was reserved for something completely different. This time we tried a pesto-base 12-inch ($11), with anchovies ($2), white onion ($2) and Kalamata olives ($3). I sincerely cannot say which was better. If I am wandering from my old favorite, this one is a great sub. I love onions more than anything but the anchovies are mandatory when building something like this.
Two pizzas, two styles, both incredible.
There was no way we could have dessert. There was also no way we could pass it up. The compromise was to save it for later and we ordered the Dessert Trio ($10). (That could be the name of my next band.) You get to pick samples from any combination of their desserts, including seasonal cheesecakes, cannoli or tiramisu. I almost tried three different cheesecakes but decided the New York style would be enough next to a cannoli and tiramisu. The cheesecake was textbook and good, the tiramisu was light and predictably fine, but the cannoli was my favorite.
So, what have we learned today? Well, apparently I love pizza again. This pizza. The thin crust is remarkable as is the coal-firing process. Yes, it’s a chain. Yes, it’s in the mall. But people need to know about this one. Our waiter was smart and knew the menu and wine. The service was fast. The portions were large and the wine selection was pretty darned good.
It’s not as expensive if you just go in for a pie (they will split toppings down the middle) and lay off the booze. I can honestly say I would brave going to the mall just to eat here. That’s saying a lot.
3299 Bel Air Mall, Suite B1
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