Restaurant Reviews

Cheese Whiz

It would be hard to find a better metaphor for the last decade of Lower Westheimer -- a regrettable decline followed by a revitalizing and funky renaissance -- than the venerable Pot Pie Pizzeria. It's been nearly a decade since the changing realities of Montrose ended the Pot Pie of 4 a.m. breakfasts in the company of people who, well, would have been more at home in Oz than Kansas. Eliminated was the coffee-shop menu of omelets and biscuits and cheeseburgers. In its stead, reflecting the addition of the word "Pizzeria" to the name, was a new menu that reflected the owner's belief that Italian food should nurture the soul without straining the wallet. Today, a steady stream of both urban professionals and traditional Montrose weirdoes comes together in this time capsule of pinewood booths and red-checked tablecloths to affirm that vision. When weather allows, the umbrellaed tables on the patio offer front-row seats to the never-ending parade that is, and always will be -- gentrification be damned -- Lower Westheimer.

As the name indicates, the Pot Pie Pizzeria does pot pies and pizzas, though only one version of the first named dish remains. Gone are exotic variants such as beef stroganoff pot pie and chili with cheese pot pie, but defending their tradition is a chicken pot pie that bears no resemblance to the frozen bargain-brand product that sustained generations of starving slackers. The filling is a thick chicken stew, a dish done best when done simply, with vegetables remembered from childhood. Chicken stew cries out for homemade bread, and Pot Pie Pizzeria's soul-simmered filling is poured into round, delicious home-style loaves from which a large cone has been cored. Once seen and tasted, this mix is a concept that seems instantly, eminently sensible.

It's the Pizzeria part of the name, though, that more defines the current restaurant. Compliment the owner on his pizzas, and be treated to a tirade about how the decline in appreciation for a good, traditional pizza is a metaphor for the sorry state of the world today. And indeed, there's no denying that for all our wealth of neighborhood ethnic cafes, when it comes to pizza, Houston is franchised to death -- and the exceptions have a distressing tendency toward a trendy cuteness.

It's strict adherence to tradition that makes the landing of a Pot Pie pizza on the retro iron rack that adorns each of the cafe's tables all the more delightful. This is pizza of a style that, in the 1950s, first gave the hamburger a run for its money as America's favorite finger food. This is pizza that spares us from choosing between a doughy mattress and a desiccated crust that brings to mind a Ry-Crisp, and garnishes of plums and almonds and cedar-smoked quail. This is pizza with a thin and firm, yet tender and chewy, crust and a sauce made by someone who understands the simple, celestial compatibility of tomato and oregano. Toppings are limited to sensible items that hearken back to a time when Canadian bacon with pineapple chunks was the extreme edge of pizza-ordering weirdness. And this is pizza that understands that the greatest contribution America made to Naples' flatbread, basil and tomato gift to the world came from the unknown Little Italy restaurateur who first said, "What thisa pizza needs is some cheese." Pot Pie Pizzeria celebrates the genius of that visionary by making the phrase "extra cheese" obsolete.

Indeed, the Pot Pie's enthusiasm for cheese deserves trophies and awards from the appropriate agencies of the state of Wisconsin. The amount of mozzarella that adorns these pizzas is a marvel in an era when corporate bean-counters carefully calculate the absolute bare minimum of ingredients a customer will stand for. The Pot Pie, by contrast, seems to have carefully calculated how much cheese their crust will accommodate, and thrown on an extra handful for luck. It's a necessary extravagance, perhaps -- this is a kitchen that holds oregano in high regard, to the point that a rare spot of thinness in the smooth, white overlay can reveal a sauce-heavy bite that may produce beads of sweat on the diner's forehead. Without this much cheese, this would be too much spice. But what would individually be excesses, together strike a lush balance.

There were grounds for rejoicing some months back when the Pot Pie resurrected its fabled calzone. Some innovation in the kitchen drastically reduced that selection's legendary preparation time, which had resulted in an unacceptable number of walkouts and the calzone's temporary removal from the menu. That timesaving innovation, whatever it was, fortunately had no adverse effect on the end product -- this is still one of the more charmingly intimidating and challenging five-dollar handfuls of food around.

Indeed, this incarnation of the Pot Pie's pizza dough -- folded burrito-like around a prodigious quantity of ham and ricotta, provolone and mozzarella cheeses and baked to a gleaming butter-brushed brown -- almost cries out to be picked up with both hands and bitten. However, the calzone's unwieldy size mandates silverware to separate each bite and facilitate dipping into an accompanying bowl of marinara sauce.

Even with calzones a bargain at $4.99 and pizzas starting at close to the same price for a medium one-topping, the regulars at Pot Pie save their loyalty for their favorite version of the daily six-choices-of-toppings all-you-can-eat spaghetti special. There's a historical comfort to this almost-daily $3.99 special (watch the sign outside; sometimes they knock a buck off) of spaghetti and garlic bread; it's worth remembering that Anderson Fair, one of the few Montrose institutions more venerable than the Pot Pie, began as a communal spaghetti kitchen for neighborhood hippie songwriters.

Two decades later, there's still a spot in the neighborhood for a kitchen that remembers pasta isn't a recent innovation but a Mediterranean soul food that sustains and comforts us in times of financial restraint. It's not just the ambiance, nor the carefully crafted sauces that adorn the heaping beds of noodles, that so consistently draws both starving students and day-before-payday blue-collar workers; it's also the economics. The all-you-can-eat (don't even think about taking two bites from your second plate and asking for a doggie bag) approach is one that wins hearts in lean times and ensures loyalty when fortunes are restored. This isn't cheap spaghetti; it's just good, inexpensive, rib-lining fare. Certainly, you might say that the Alfredo is not nearly as complex as a white sauce you once had at Umberto's Clam House; you might even (if your name ends in a vowel) say that the meat, marinara and pork milanesa sauces aren't as good as your mom's. But Umberto's and Mom are both a long way from Lower Westheimer. These are well-crafted, if basic, sauces that will certainly satisfy hunger and a more intangible need to be comforted with pasta when we are sick of trends. There's even a Cheddar-cheese-and-broccoli version, which at first seems unorthodox but soon becomes familiar with the realization that this is just long, stringy macaroni and cheese.

And when we contemplate pushing ourselves, groaning, from the board, here comes our waiter to tempt us with the dessert tray. It's a tempting display, this array of obscenely hedonistic slices of cream-cheese and chocolate confections, but (except when at that stage in a relationship where a slice of cheesecake with two forks still seems wonderfully romantic) we must wave them away. For even if we crave dessert, the mud pies and such, while not exactly pedestrian fare, are not of this kitchen. Indeed, as the supper hour approaches, waiters can be heard debating how many slices of this and that need to be set out to thaw.

The cobbler, though, is of this kitchen, and every bit as lovingly hand-crafted and well-baked as the pizzas and calzones. As steam rises from the heat-and-sugar-jelled peaches through the golden, crumbly crust, a sense of comfort becomes pervasive. When most of Houston seems obsessed with changing at every opportunity for the sake of change, an institution that changes slowly, and even then only for good reason, becomes a calm harbor for the soul. Lingering over a bowl of Pot Pie cobbler, within these cozy, familiar walls, is to relive that moment when I knew that Montrose was one strange little neighborhood, and wherever my migrations took me, it would always be home.

Pot Pie Pizzeria, 1525 Westheimer, 528-4350.

Pot Pie Pizzeria: calzone, $4.99; chicken vegetable pot pie, $5.95; single topping medium pizza, $5.99; all-you-can-eat spaghetti, $3.99; peach cobbler, $2.50.

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Jim Sherman