Roma tomatoes sliced thin lengthwise, a smattering of fresh basil leaves and a little garlic over olive oil -- these are the only toppings on the margherita pie at Pizza Bella. I'm even more impressed with the crust: Light and airy with a few yeast bubbles for chewiness, it is crispy yet still a little flexible. I turn it over and admire the bottom, dappled with dark freckles from the oven floor. A crispy, fresh-out-of-the oven flatbread with just enough garlic-infused olive oil and scant but aromatic toppings -- this is what pizza is all about.
Pizza Bella is a nondescript shopping center pizzeria across the street from Katy Mall in the Pin Oak Crossing Shopping Center. I've heard great things about the pizza here. Proprietor Hines Harrison was raised in Columbus, Texas, but he learned his craft in an Oregon pizzeria under the tutelage of a New York pizza man. He calls Pizza Bella's pie "California-style pizza."
"What makes it California-style?" I want to know.
"I think of New York pizza as a big floppy slice that you have to fold over to eat," he says. "Our pizza is crispier than that. The toppings are different, too." New York pizza comes with a short list of ingredients, while California pizzas are available with such exotica as artichokes, pineapples and walnuts, Harrison explains.
I think of the typical New York crust as very crispy -- just like his. He's right about the ingredients, though. Hey, I'm a tolerant guy. As long as I can get a classic East Coast pie, I'm willing to forgive the presence of a few West Coast fruits and nuts. Against my better judgment, I also ordered a meat pizza from the menu so I could see how Pizza Bella's crust stands up to the typical topping overload.
"One pizza margherita and one sausage combo," echoed the counter man.
While they made my pies, I hung around the counter and watched. A young pizza maker reached for the first ball of dough. He punched it down and flattened it, then tossed it in the air, stretching it thin across his knuckles to give it shape. Then he laid the circle down and started applying the toppings. What he didn't do was just as important as what he did.
He didn't run the dough through a pizza sheeter. When a crust is flattened by one of these mechanized rollers, it develops a uniform thickness -- just like cardboard. A hand-thrown crust, on the other hand, has irregularities in thickness that give it texture, just like a deliciously lumpy loaf of artisan bread.
He didn't use a docker, either. In fact, I didn't see one of those spiky rollers anywhere in the prep area. When a docker is rolled over flattened dough, it eliminates a lot of the yeast bubbles. This is a terrible idea if you like the airy texture that yeast bubbles give a pizza. But it makes a denser crust that can better withstand the grease and moisture of too many toppings.
Pizza Bella uses a stainless-steel Blodget brand pizza oven with a brick floor, the standard for New York pizzerias. It doesn't turn out a world-class, charred-edge pizza pie like you get from an old-fashioned coal-fired oven, and it doesn't give you the smoky taste of a wood-burning oven either, but it does produce a good, honest pizza.
Compared to most of the pizzerias in Houston, Pizza Bella is making perfect pies. Frozen dough, machine sheeters and conveyor-belt ovens long ago took over the pizza business. Now there are high-tech pizza ovens that combine convection heat with microwave power to speed up the process even more. Thanks to the miracle of technology, Houston pizzerias can now turn out crappy pizzas in under five minutes!
While I have found a few mom-and-pop pizzerias with good ovens in Houston, most of them still messed up the crust with a sheeter or a docker or both. And even when I ordered only one ingredient, they put so much cheese on their pie that the grease soaked through the crust. Sure, there are a few Italian restaurants with brick ovens that do a nice job. But seldom have I seen an ordinary pizzeria in Texas with as many things going for it as Pizza Bella.
I was salivating in anticipation as I watched the pizza man slide my pies into the oven, so I ordered a salad to keep my mouth occupied while I waited.
The Caesar at Pizza Bella comes with homemade-looking croutons and a lemon wedge on top. At first, I ignored the fruit. But after a few bites of the intensely garlicky salad, I took the hint. The lemon juice toned down the creamy dressing a bit. Of course, if you love garlic, you won't mind the dressing as is after a couple of bites.
My dining companions gave me a taste of their spinach salad, which was even more delicious. The baby leaves were as tender as lettuce. They were topped with sliced mushrooms, fluffy feta cheese and well-toasted pine nuts in a Dijon vinaigrette. Normally, I wouldn't bother writing about the salads at a pizzeria, but these were exceptional.
We also took home an Italian hero and a meatball hoagie for later examination. The hero proved to have only a few skimpy slices of flaccid Genoa salami, along with some pepperoni and Canadian bacon that had escaped uncooked from the pizza-topping tubs. Lettuce and tomato dressed with mayo and mustard weakly topped it off. In a word: Fuhgeddaboutit! The oven-baked meatball sandwich, on the other hand, was outstanding. The tomato sauce melded perfectly with the soft inner part of the Italian roll, while the outer crust stayed quite crisp. The big spicy meatball was neatly cut into slices, and a cloak of melted provolone held the whole thing together.
We were still working on our salads when the sausage combo pizza arrived. Pizza Bella makes its own Italian sausage; it's mild with a trace of the licorice aroma of fennel. But the pizza was loaded up with too much sauce, too much sausage and too much other junk (mushrooms and slices of canned olives). The gooshy ingredients pushed the fabulous crust beyond the limit of its carrying capacity. By the time we had all eaten a slice, the pizza was starting to get soggy.
I chose the sausage combo from Pizza Bella's menu because it had only three ingredients besides mozzarella and tomato sauce. But even that was too many. I would never order most of the other pizzas on the menu.
Here are a few examples: The barbecue chicken pizza, with grilled chicken, onions, tomatoes, roasted peppers, cheddar, mozzarella and barbecue sauce (wouldn't this taste better on a taco?); the tropicale, with Canadian bacon, roasted onions, mozzarella, pineapple, goat cheese and tomato sauce (was this invented by a pregnant woman?); the Thai pizza, with spicy peanut sauce, teriyaki chicken, sweet peppers, green onions, mozzarella, sesame seeds and chile flakes (c'mon, it doesn't sound like pizza or Thai food); and quattro formaggi, the classic Italian pizza with four kinds of cheese, made here with additions of sausage and mushrooms (why do you need sausage and mushrooms on a pizza with four kinds of cheese?).
I fear that to a large percentage of readers, these concoctions might sound good. This is the way a lot of people eat pizza. I will never get used to it, but who cares? I may not approve of the meat lover's pizza (actually they call it a molto carne here and load it with sausage, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, black olives, mozzarella and tomato sauce), but that doesn't matter.
If Hines Harrison at Pizza Bella can satisfy people who want to order kitchen-sink pies, and yet still produce a hand-thrown crispy crust that tastes good to me, he is my hero. But I dare you "meat lovers" to try a margherita at Pizza Bella for a change. Or "create your own" using garlic and olive oil instead of tomato sauce. For toppings, get a little Italian sausage and roasted peppers with a tiny bit of mozzarella. Or try anchovies, kalamata olives and green onions with no cheese at all.
Lord knows I'm not usually a "less is more" type when it comes to food. But the handmade crust at Pizza Bella really shines if you lighten up a little.
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