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Marco's has moved toward the front of the chain-pie line

Marco's Pizza and I got off on the wrong foot.

The pizza chain's Web site is somewhat lame, offering very little helpful information. When I called in my first order, a trainee answered the phone and stumbled through the transaction. When I got to Marco's, I discovered that the place offers no dine-in seating, and nobody seemed to know exactly what the restaurant's delivery-area boundaries were. Even the restaurant's slogan ("Ah!thentic Italian Pizza") is annoying.

But, damn, Marco's makes tasty pizza.

Marco's came to Tucson earlier this year, announcing plans to open 11 stores in the area. (Of course, this was before the economy went from "not so good" to "complete meltdown.") The first location, located on South 12th Avenue, has already come and gone, although the Web site annoyingly says it's "coming soon." The second location, on Golf Links and Wilmot roads, is the one I visited, and a third (or a "new" second, depending on how you look at things) is slated to soon open in Oro Valley.

The menu offers the usual toppings on pies ranging from "small" (10 inches, base $6.95 plus 95 cents per topping) to "extra large" (16 inches, base $11.95 plus $1.75 per topping), along with six specialty pizzas ($10.95 for small to $18.95 for extra large), subs ($4.99), wings ($6.99 for 10), salads ($3.99 to $4.49), cheezybread ($3.99) and, for dessert, cinnasquares ($3.99). You can get thin crust or original crust, and you can get a free dipping sauce (ranch or garlic butter) or banana peppers. You can't dine in, but you can pick up or get delivery between Broadway Boulevard and Pantano, Irvington and Swan roads. (Hold on tight to that delivery-range info; it wasn't on the Web site, and, as I mentioned before, the people working the counter--on both of my visits--didn't know it. Sheesh.)

On our first visit, Garrett ordered a medium deluxe uno, with cheese (Marco's uses a three-cheese blend), pepperoni, mushrooms and Italian sausage (12 inches, $12.95); Garrett declined the onions and green peppers that normally come on the pie. I ordered a medium chicken fresco/chicken club--it seems to have two different names, depending on where you look--with four types of cheese, grilled chicken, bacon, onions and tomatoes (12 inches, $12.95).

After Marco's dismal start (isn't knowing your delivery area kind of crucial?), our expectations were low--but even if our expectations had been normal, these pizzas would have far exceeded them. I don't necessarily believe the menu when it says Marco's sauce comes from "the same recipe that's been used in Italy for generations," but I can say the sauce is superior to that at most chain-pizza places, offering more in the way of tanginess and spiciness. The pork sausage on Garrett's deluxe uno had quite a bit of flavor, and the dough--made from scratch every day--was strong enough to support the pizza for eating by hand, but light and doughy enough to be easy on the mouth.

I was most impressed with the quality of the chicken on my pizza. Not only did it taste like it was actually grilled before going on the pizza; it was surprisingly moist. We've all eaten pizzas with meat that got dried out in the cooking process; that did not happen here. The other ingredients, led but not dominated by the bacon, all mixed well together, too. This was one of the better chicken pizzas I've had in quite some time.

On visit No. 2, we decided to try some of Marco's other offerings: The white cheesy pizza (a medium for $12.95), which comes with bacon, onions, tomatoes, butter-garlic sauce and four types of cheese including feta; a chicken club sub ($4.99), with (according to the menu) chicken-breast strips, tomatoes, bacon, mayo and cheese; the Marco's Italian salad ($3.99); and the cheezybread ($3.99).

The salad--with almost-green iceberg lettuce, four banana peppers, tomatoes, black olives, roasted red peppers, a few slices of pepperoni, cheddar cheese and feta--was the least-impressive item we tried. Nothing was wrong with the salad; it was just ... mediocre. However, the cheezybread--a big rectangle of bread covered in cheeses and garlic butter, and served with pizza sauce and ranch sauce--was a hit. The cheese and garlic were present in just the right amounts, and the dough was nice and springy.

The chicken on the sub was moist and flavorful, just like it was on the pizza, and the accompanying cheese and bacon worked just fine. However, there were no tomatoes, and there didn't seem to be that much mayonnaise, if there was any at all--even though the menu says the sandwich was supposed to include both of those items. It could have used them.

And that brings us back to the pizza, in this case, the white cheesy. While I like lots of sauce on my pizzas, this pizza effectively had none--the butter-garlic sauce seemingly evaporated, leaving behind flavor but no moisture--so I can't say it was my personal favorite. However, Garrett loved the pie, praising the interplay between the feta cheese and the not-too-overwhelming bacon.

While I am partial to local, independent places, I can't deny that Marco's offers some fantastic pizza. (And remember: These franchises do have local owners.) I am so glad I didn't let the fact that we got off on the wrong foot sour our relationship, because I'm looking forward to returning to Marco's for that splendid chicken fresco/chicken club pizza very soon.

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