POSTED ON OCTOBER 3, 2007:
The tenor of the times hits high notes for local eateries
At one time long ago, someone somewhere fried a piece of ground beef, added various condiments, cheese, put it all inside a bun and the hamburger began its steady march to the top of the food chains.
Burger stands popped up all over the land, and sometime in the '50s a guy named Ray Croc took the humble 'burg over the top, envisioning the McDonald's concept. Not only did he export these American sandwiches by the billions, worldwide, but he developed the duel concepts of fast food marketing and that of franchised and chain restaurants.
Pizza, the new hamburger, has reversed the trend.
For all their market dominance, Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's, and all the other major regional chains, have not been able to put the mom and pop pizza places out of business. To the contrary, the number independently owned pizza restaurants are growing.
While hamburger joints had suffered Zero Population Growth since the '60s, pizza parlors continue to pop up all over the city landscape.
At its finest manifestation, biting into a slice of hot pizza, with all its rich flavors and textures, brings a culinary satisfaction like no other. The hot, gooey mozzarella cheese stringing from pie pan to mouth, the juxtaposition of rich, red sweet sauce and the classic bursting flavor of anise spice in Italian sausage or saltiness of anchovies are collaborations of ingredients like no other.
Real pizza cannot be mass produced.
There is no one who doesn't like pizza--or who will at least admit to it. Everybody will eat a cheese pizza.
Pizza's popularity has soared to becoming an all-American food, so much so that it is estimated on average that Americans eat about 350 slices of pizza per second, and 36 percent of these slices are pepperoni, making it the number one pizza of choice.
Actually, my earliest memories of dining out with family as a child always return to The Pizza House, probably the city's first, certainly its best pizzeria. (Shakey's, the city's first franchise) can years later.
Originally located in an appropriately subterranean location between 15th and 11th Streets on Harvard, it eventually moved to an interesting two-story building just east of northeast corner of 11th and Sheridan, The Pizza House was my first exposure to this "all-American" food.
Few foods equal the same satisfaction as biting into a hot slice of well-adorned pizza. Even most of the chains aren't bad. While pizza creations from simple to artisan keep gaining in popularity across Tulsa, pizza remains a simple, almost peasant-like meal of bread, sauce, toppings and cheese. From these modest foundations, pizza has taken off to be a gourmet meal that even fine chefs, such as Wolfgang Puck, have popularized.
In and around the Tulsa area, the power of pizza's popularity continues virtually forces new pizzerias into existence throughout the Metro area.
Prowling for pizza for about a month (yes, it's a tough job) reacquainted me with old favorites and introduced me to new. Pizza possibilities can be as sophisticated as desired or as simple as crust, sauce and cheese. Dine in, carry out, or have it delivered at virtually any hour of the day are the many possibilities to eating pizza in Tulsa.
For example, been out late? Got the munchies? You're leaving the club and want the pizza to meet you at home?
Get out the cell and dial up Mary Jane's Pizza, open 11pm to 4:20am or Cowboy Sharkies Pizza, delivering from 5pm to 4am. You never know when the munchies will strike, and these two insomniacs will deliver pizza at the odd hours.
At Mary Jane's Pizza (742-jane), the selections are simple: one size (large) fits all at $11.99 with one topping. Specialty pizzas--veggie, munchie and supreme--are a little more, at $13.99 and $14.99. (They also deliver hot wings, breadsticks, candy bars and soda.)
Owner Alan Trac says he delivers to most anywhere in Tulsa, but does attach a delivery charge to each delivery, $2 to $4 depending on the location.
"Business is busy," he said, "Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays."
I sampled their pizza at a witching hour recently. It was good, and did what it was supposed to do. Since it is such a small operation, Trac says he buys all food items from major vendors; nothing is made on site except the assembling and heating of the pies. It's an easy fix for the late-night munchies.
Remember James the Pizza Guy who delivered his pizzas on location, known to pop into many Brookside and downtown hot spots late night soliciting his pizza? James has left town but Cowboy Sharkies (280-9000) bought his business, tweaked the pizza with homemade crusts and enhanced the sauce, and now continues the tradition delivering pizza until 4am (south of Pine and east of the Arkansas River).
Sharkies also delivers beer and wings until 2am and a full menu until 10pm. The pizza choices are more varied at Cowboy Sharkies than Mary Jane's; besides basic toppings, specialty pizzas include Hawaiian, Meat Lovers, Loaded--Deluxe, Chicken Alfredo and Buffalo Chicken, with the latter two being the most popular.
I ordered these latter two at 7pm one evening (not anticipating the late night munchies that night), and my guests and I found them remarkably tasty. The Chicken Alfredo was especially satisfying; the spongy and airy crust was covered with a rich and creamy Alfredo sauce then generously topped with fresh mushrooms, chicken, chives, ham, bacon and small wedges of fresh tomato. The toppings worked well together, blended as if they were carefully chosen to complement each taste.
For an up-close and personal study of how the pizza pie is prepared, Zachary Matthews invited me to step into The Pie Hole Pizzeria's (2708 E. 15th St.) kitchen recently, observing first hand how his crew prepares some of Tulsa's finest pies.
If you've seen this location, you know it had been the tiniest of liquor stores. Folklore has it, according to Hole owner Matthews, that the location was built from the leftover brick and supplies from the IPE building at the Fairgrounds.
Matthews opened the Hole five years ago, and kept the building true to its original size, and simply made adaptations to fit his purpose. The dining is small with only a few tables for those eating in--and the kitchen is even smaller. Three steps in and I was positioned at the epicenter, surrounded by a prep area, table for cutting pizzas, sink area and fridge.
"It all happens right here," Matthews explained, saying it does not take much space.
"I grew up on street pizza," he said, having now created this place to be not unlike the many pizzarias he's frequented over the years from his original home of New York City: Ray's, Joe's, Patsy's and Grimaldi's. He's worked on perfecting his pizza through the years and seems to be happy with the result.
He illustrated his pizza making technique as I stood within near proximity.
"We make dough two to three times a days," he said, thinly stretching out the dough with his fists, placing it on a pizza screen then building up the outside edges, adding a little corn meal and flour mixture to the bottom of the crust, "to make it look like someone made it from scratch," he said, smiling. He then ladles a thick, rich-looking red sauce onto the dough, spreading it around somewhat evenly, "riding it up and around the edge" he explains to also give it a home-made look.
I inquired about how he prepares his sauce, and he motions, pointing to the trash where a gallon-sized sauce can has recently been tossed, "Want to read the jar?" he quips. He says this sauce is a very good one that needs little touch up, commenting that it is sweetened with carrots, which makes a difference.
He then drops handfuls of thickly shredded Mozzarella cheese, saying he uses only whole milk which has lots of moisture. He offers me a taste of this cheese--very creamy and rich to be sure. Next, he builds the pizza with toppings, such as sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, feta cheese, red onion, gyros and anchovies, at my request.
The Pie Hole Pizzeria has Gourmet Pizzas (Pie Hole Classic, Mangia Carne, Peppereno, White Pizza Capri, Greek Pizza, Naples Pizza and more). Lunch specials are popular, eight-inch pizza with single topping and a fountain drink for $5.75, 11am to 3pm.
Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays are his busiest nights; Tuesdays because of the evening's special, large two topping pizzas for $10 or a 12-inch gourmet for $10. He almost apologetically admits that he and his family have been in the restaurant business for years, as if it were an addiction. It is, for this family, but a good one, proudly saying he makes the "best freakin' pizza," redundantly painted on the glass window fronting his establishment.
Matthews says there are other "old style pizza guys" around the city making very good pizza, namely Mario's, Umberto's and Savastano's.
Godfather of Tulsa Pizza
My prowling next took me to Mario's N.Y. Style Pizzeria (3323-U E. 51st St., with a new location opening this month in Broken Arrow, at the Boardwalk Shopping Center, 71st and Elm.), which opened in 1987 and has spawned a number of local knock-offs.
Mario (born in Italy) and Mike Selvaggi (from New York) started the business, says General Manager Kyle Swendrowski, a Jenks High School graduate.
"It was Mike's money and Mario's knowledge of pizza making" that got this place going, he said.
Swendrowski says business continues to be strong, with long-time customers who continue to return and, to his surprise, many first-time customers. Thin crust and deep dish (Sicilian) are the crust types, with the Supreme being the most popular Swendrowski says, and the Gourmet White Pizza the most popular among the women.
"This pizza has a white garlic and oil sauce," he explained, with tomatoes, ricotta cheese and sometimes with requested artichoke hearts.
Swendrowski commented on the many new pizza places about town, saying "there's a million pizza places. It's a fashionable thing--everyone's doing it. People say they try these places, but keep coming back to us." He says it's the quality of the pizza that brings the people back.
So, what exactly is New York-style pizza?
"I get asked that a lot," Swendrowski said, smiling. He explained that it is all in the ingredients and "how we hand toss the crust."
"We make our own sauce and use whole milk mozzarella cheese. And, the flour we use for the crust is a bit different," he said, stopping short of giving away too much proprietary info. "We get our sausage from Siegi's (a local deli); we make our own meatballs, a recipe like no other."
My sampling of Mario's pizza through the years continues to bring me back for more. It is the real deal, from crust to toppings, and ranks highly with many other New York-style pizzerias in town--not to mention the City itself.
Swendrowski adds that while many non-chain pizza places cannot accommodate large orders, Mario's can.
"We accept large orders, up to 40 pizzas per order, if ordered in advance," he said. "We don't cater, but we do deliver within a four to five-mile radius of 51st and Harvard." And soon, Broken Arrow.
In March or April 2008, because of the I-44 expansion, Mario's will move across the street, and in October, Mario's will open a new pizzeria in Broken Arrow, at 71st and Elm, in the Boardwalk Shopping Center.
Another New York-style pizza that comes highly recommended is a neighborhood-type place, Umberto's Pizza (3228 E. 21st St.) where a very good pizza pie is prepared. Unfortunately, no one was unavailable for comment about their history.
If memory serves, it was started by a man named Moses who parted the Atlantic Ocean from Nigeria to New York City and figured out why so many of his cab fares asked to be taken to Original Ray's in Greenwich Village. Ask him for details.
Pizza You Can't Refuse
My journey took me south to Bixby for Savastano's Pizzeria and Restaurant Chicago Style (8315 E. 111th St., Unit B). Having opened in 2003, Frank Savastano brings his southeast Chicago style of pizza to about the same side of the Tulsa vicinity.
Chicago's Thin Crust and Chicago's Deep Dish pizzas are featured, and Savastano says the names of his pizzas are a hit with customers, especially transplanted Chicagoans: First National Bank, Art Museum, Tribune Building, Lake Shore Drive, Wrigley Field, Hancock Building, Chicago River, Sears Tower to name a few pizza sites.
"Cement Shoes," "Little Caesar" and the "Bottom of Lake Michigan" didn't make the cut.
"What makes my pizza different with the thin crust pizzas are that the toppings are covered with cheese. I layer the crust with sauce, cheese, condiments--and more cheese," Savastano said.
"You no longer need to travel 700 miles to find a deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza," the one-man marketing and advertising team held forth.
Somebody get this guy a creative team and a media buyer!
"It's right here--two inches of deep pie pizza. Layers of cheese, condiments, sauce, and more cheese." Deep dish comes in 10-, 12- and 14-inch pizzas, he said, adding that with the 14-inch deep dish, customers get eight pounds of pizza, one pound per serving slice.
One slice of deep dish was all I could handle in one sitting, though coveting one more bite. This pizza is a meal everyone should try. The thin crust is just as fine in its own way.
All is homemade, says Savastano: crust and sauce. The pasta sauce is "Mom's". The Italian sausage is made on site--and they sell it by the pound. The most frequently ordered pizza is the Homemade Sausage Pizza, with pepperoni a close second, said Savastano.
"We don't do 'supremes,'" he said. "That's a fast food invention. People can add what they want, which might become a supreme, but we don't serve a pizza with that name."
Savastano's is a family-owned and operated pizzaria in the true sense. The family moved to Oklahoma from Illinois in 1993 when Frank was transferred with Amoco. When in Illinois, Frank made pizza for family and neighbors, always dreaming to open his own pizzeria. Frank and his wife Jane have six children, some of whom help in various ways with the business.
Savastano features a Sunday buffet special when the basketball Bulls are playing--all the pizza, beer and wings you can eat for $20 during the game.
"My philosophy when opening was to have to have a truly family atmosphere where parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, can come and enjoy a good meal together," said Savastano. "We often have families come in, and they can eat at a reasonable price, about $4 to $5 per person."
The Blues Meet The Pizzas
Just like Chicago jump blues take a right turn at St. Louis, the nuances of pizzas can be just as dramatic.
It's round, it's got good diameter and great ingredients, but the thickness varies, as does the cheese.
Blake Ewing, owner and found of Joe Mamma's Pizza (10309 E. 61st St.), offers the only St. Louis Style Provel pizza that we know of in town.
Ewing explains that those who have eaten at Imo's Pizza in St. Louis know what he's talking about. The cheese is not the whole milk mozzarella type: this cheese is, in his words, is "gooey or sticky, for lack of a better way to describe it." And while that might sound odd at first, it is an excellent variation for pizza.
"I have a family from Sand Springs, transplanted from St. Louis, who come all the way here just for this St. Louis style pizza," Ewing said. He explains this "gooey" cheese as a mixture of white cheddar, Swiss, and Provolone, a pasteurized, processed cheese. A sort of white cheese Velveeta, so to speak.
This cheese is sliced from a large log and placed on top. The crust for this pizza, says Ewing, is a very thin, cracker-like crust.
He also serves a bready home-style pizza, making the crust daily in house, as well as the sauce.
"We get a basic sauce and then make it a little garlicky and saltier," Ewing said.
The most popular pizzas at Joe Mamma's, according to Ewing, are the Chicken Bacon Ranch, the Buffalo Chicken and the T-Rex, which is full of a true carnivore's delight--pepperoni, sausage, hamburger, Canadian bacon and regular bacon.
Some friends and I sampled both pizza styles, and found them definitely post-Jurassic. The St. Louis style was a hit with everyone, especially me, having had experienced this style of pizza often in St. Louis. The children among us enjoyed the thicker crust pizzas, with the chewier dough.
The location features an outside patio for dining, live music, and many indoor activities, such as video game tournaments, Myspace parties and other themed parties that are attractions for families.
Soon, Ewing says, Joe Mamma's will open a second location downtown around 1st and Elgin.
Way east already, I continued my pilgrimage north, just outside Tulsa to the state's fastest growing city and a hotbed of happening cuisine: Owasso, where I find a place claiming to prepare the largest pizza in Oklahoma and another that prepares pizza Greek style.
Arris' Pizza (9455 N. Owasso Expressway, Ste.E) is found by heading north on Highway 169, and exiting east on 96th St. The eatery has its origins in the Springfield, MO, area with the Arris Pardalos family, second generation Grecian transplants.
Born near Mount Olympus, Greece, in 1935, the Arris' patriarchs combined a homemade pizza recipe with a family-oriented environment, which is what I found here. Russ and Pam Whorton have captured the tradition and carry on the Old World tradition as primary owners of Arris', having only opened this past March.
Whorton describes his pizza as like others, except he uses a lot of Greek spices in the sauces and meats (gyros, which is very popular) which bring a little different taste to the pizza. All the toppings are cut fresh daily, and topped with a combination cheese of provolone and mozzarella, and even feta, a common Greek cheese, is added to some pizzas. The crust is homemade with wheat flour, rolled out, which produces a thin, crispier crust.
"Business is what we had projected so far," said Russ, who is no stranger to the restaurant business, having been in it since 1976, beginning with a family-style home cooking restaurant in Springfield.
Having grown up in Tulsa, and then moving around a bit, he finally settled in Owasso as the place to open Arris' Pizza because of the city's progressive growth.
He says customers enjoy the Greek names given to the pizzas, such as Hercules (seasoned ground beef, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, Greek Sausage and breakfast bacon) and House (seasoned ground beef, pepperoni, Greek sausage, cotto salami, green peppers, sweet red onions and mushrooms), which are two of the most popular. Arris', George's, Achilles and Adonis are next in popularity.
Pies Are Square Meal
Tracing back more than 3,000 years, many peoples are known to have prepared rudimentary meals with flat buns or breads being the base foundation for which they then "anointed with oil, herbs, spices and dates." Closer to what we have today, in the 18th century, street vendors in Naples, Italy, sold these similarly prepared flat breads or "pizzas"; eventually, this food found its way to America.
These humble beginnings of the almighty pie are only a mere memory of what this neatly packaged meal is today. Pizza has always reigned as a popular food for the masses, and the pizza pie craze continues to grow in this post-modern world, taking the ancient flat bread theme and developing it into much more.
In the past 50 years, pizza has taken off as the all-American food, almost as American as mom's apple pie. Its history to America is actually a short one, tracing the first pizzeria in North America to 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi in New York City. We can thank Italian immigrants for carrying on their family pizza-making traditions to America in the latter half of the 19th century. Chicago and New York City were the first major cities where pizza made its American debut, and reminiscent of how pizza used to be sold in Naples, in Chicago a pizza peddler traversed Taylor Street with a metal washtub of pizzas on his head who brought pizza out to the public. For two cents a chew, he would sell his pizza.
Then, in the early 1940s, Ike Sewell developed the Chicago-style deep dish pizza at his bar and grill, with the familiar name, Pizzeria Uno. America's taste for pizza took off as American soldiers, stationed in Italy during the war, came home looking for these tasty pies. So popular, in fact, that a fellow named Frank A. Fiorello created the first commercial pizza pie mix called, Roman Pizza Mix.
Still, it was not until the 1950s that Americans really got a serious hankering for pizza, set off by Italian and non-Italian celebrities, such as Dean Martin who brought his love of pizza in song: "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore."
The craze began, and, for 50 years ago in 1957, frozen pizzas were placed on grocery store shelves for the first time, marketed by the Celentano Brothers. Soon after, pizza became the most popular frozen of all frozen foods. A year later, the first Pizza Hut opened in Wichita, KS, beginning a chain of events: Little Caesar's in 1959; Domino's in 1960; Papa John's in 1989.
Still, with all the chains, American independents, of Italian and Greek origin, emerged through the slices of these chains' pizzas. These entrepreneurs were making their own sauce, dough, condiment toppings and some their own mozzarella cheese.
Because of its nature, pizza is a convenient food to eat, and thus the popularity in America continued to increase. Pizza was the ideal lunch meal; grab a slice at a street vendor or order a pie as a communal meal, all within the lunch hour. Today, while the chains continue to move the pies across cities to hungry Americans, there is plenty of room for independents to build and create this humble pie into what we find today, not only cheese and pepperoni, two of the most popular across America, but also creative artisan pies.
Centennial Size Pizza
Heading west less than one mile on 96th Street crossing over 169 is Andolini's Pizzeria. Originally from New York City and traveling from coast to coast, Mike Bausch and his brother Jim eventually settled in Oklahoma and began this business in 2005.
"What sets up apart," said Mike, "is that we make everything from scratch."
He explains he makes the pizza sauce with a good amount of oregano; it's not overly chunky, not too red and rich with olive oil.
"The cheese," he explained, "is blended with Pecorino Romano, which a very pungent, salty cheese that absorbs grease. This flavor pops out on the pizza."
Andolini's pizza crust is described as "crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside and bold in flavor." This pizzeria uses specially milled flour that is made to exact specifications. Bausch lauds the fact that his shop makes "the largest pizza in Oklahoma--a 20-inch pizza, which is baked on a three-deck rotating oven. (Other more moderate sizes begin with a 12-inch, and progress to 14-, 16-, and 18-inch.
I sampled this 20-inch pizza (prepared half-cheese and half-chosen toppings) and it was amazing--in both size and in taste--a very good pizza with very big slices. (Cut into squares might have been a better idea than these extra-large slices, reminiscent of Original Ray's in NYC where you have to fold the piece in half.)
The crust was crispy, the sauce was flavorful and the toppings (mushroom, sausage, pepperoni) fresh and plentiful.
More than 35 pizza toppings are listed, divided into Regular and Specialty. Prices are reasonable, beginning with $13.95 for the 12-inch and up to $22.95 for the 20-inch.
Prowling for pizza in and around the Tulsa area would not be complete without stopping in at the local favorite Hideaway Pizza, an Oklahoma tradition since 1957. Hideaway Pizza opened near the OSU campus in Stillwater as only the second pizzeria in Oklahoma. Stillwater native Richard Dermer worked there before he and his new wife, Marti, decided to buy it and try to make something of this place.
The rest is history.
Janie Harris, Marketing Director, who has been with Hideaway since 1998, said one of the pizzeria's most remarkable traits has been its "longevity in the restaurant industry."
Harris says Hideaway has the prestigious title of being No. 3 in the longest lasting list of independent pizzerias in the nation.
Of course the pizza is why people keep coming back--the crust, the sauces, the toppings are all fun and almost avant garde. Take the Maui Magic, which is made with Hideaway red sauce, mozzarella, Canadian bacon, pineapple and mandarin oranges.
Harris says all Hideaways (which are Oklahoma-based) "stay true to the Stillwater menu--with a few variations." For example, in Tulsa, the menu has a Tulsa Hurricane pizza and the Sooner Schooner, which certainly would not be found on the Stillwater menu.
Harris says much of Hideaway's success through the years, besides the great pizza, is the family atmosphere.
"We are very kid-friendly," she said. "We're creating a new experience for people who eat here. We are committed to quality while still being a little 'cutting edge,' a little bit funky. We have the tie-die t-shirts, the collages on the walls and kites across the ceilings. There is a story behind all that we do here."
Hideaway is a fun place to dine, to work and to return to, Harris says. This past July Hideaway celebrated its 50th anniversary employee reunion, and Harris says people came from all over the world to celebrate.
"This shows how much of a family has been built through these years," she said.
The pizza story certainly does not end here. Go out and discover your own.
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