Celiacs, Rejoice!

Picazzo's is an Arizona chain that serves delicious pizzas—including healthier options

Pizza is practically religion in the United States. We have numerous major pizza chains competing for our almighty dollar. We eat it with nearly every imaginable topping, from fish to fruit. To ask a hard-core believer to change his or her views on New York thin-crust or Chicago deep-dish is to wage a holy war.

In the midst of our pizza fetish is my personal favorite—the hand-tossed, crispy-bottomed, mom-and-pop-shop pizza that falls somewhere in between the dogmas of crispy thin-crust and spongy deep-dish. Picazzo's Organic Italian Kitchen, an Arizona chain with a location in northwest Tucson, is a gem that serves that kind of pizza and others as well.

Picazzo's opened up not long ago at the southeast corner of Oracle and Magee roads, and is situated in a strip mall that has at least three other pizza-serving establishments a stone's throw away. Unfortunately for the other pizza joints, Picazzo's is something deliciously unique. With a menu focused on organic, "natural" and gluten-free items, the options can be almost overwhelming.

The highlight of the menu is, and obviously should be, the pizza. There are three sizes, six crusts and about 30 toppings to choose from, not to mention the pre-selected topping combinations on the specialty pizzas, which range from classic supreme-style toppings to shrimp scampi and Thai chicken. On our dinner visit, we opted for the large Diavola pizza ($22.50) with a garlic-butter crust, which comes topped with organic heirloom tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, red and yellow bell peppers, caramelized onions, locally produced andouille sausage, and red-chili flakes.

While we waited for our pizza, we sipped on some excellent and inventive drink creations from the cocktail menu (all $8.50 to $9, or $4 for alcohol-free versions), and nibbled on our gooey, flavorful and extremely hot baked artichoke bottoms ($9), which come stuffed with spinach and artichoke dip as well as mozzarella, and are served with gluten-free flatbread and veggie sticks. One of the things that struck me most about the Picazzo's gluten-free items is that they're actually quite tasty. The bread isn't dense and brick-like, and the pastas aren't devoid of flavor and texture. Even the gluten-free croutons in the crisp and tangy half-Caesar salad ($5.75) that we shared weren't the crunchy little tooth-breakers that I've had before.

The Diavola pizza was heavenly. The spicy toppings were metered just enough by the stringy melted mozzarella, and the sauce was rich and hearty, without that sweetness found in major chain restaurants' pizzas. The sizes are not your traditional chain-restaurant sizes, either: A small would serve one person; a medium two people; and a large would satisfy three people (or four if some starters and/or salads are thrown in). The crust was absolutely the best part, though. Soft and super-buttery with just a hint of garlic, it was a sinful ending to each slice.

My lunch visit with Ted the next weekend also sent us out the door stuffed, smiling and satisfied. Service on both visits was friendly and fast, but our lunch server was especially friendly.

We started off with the Caprese ($10), which is listed on the menu as a platter of organic tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes, topped with a fig balsamic vinegar and served with their gluten-free flatbread—but our server told us that the kitchen was feeling inventive and had decided to change it up a little by skewering the appetizer. The cherry tomatoes were perfectly ripe and popped in your mouth, and the classic combination of fresh mozzarella and large whole basil leaves was refreshing. The fig added sweetness to the balsamic vinegar and complemented the tartness of the tomatoes well.

Aside from the pizza offerings I already mentioned, Picazzo's also serves Neapolitan-style pizzas, described on the menu as free-formed 12-to-14-inch ultra-thin cracker-crust pizzas. We decided to share one of those, the Milano ($13), which comes topped with their organic heirloom tomato sauce, mozzarella, caramelized onions, fennel sausage made with locally produced ground pork, and organic basil. For our second entrée, I decided on the wild mushroom pasta ($12), which was corkscrew pasta in a cream sauce with shelled green peas, broccolini and a mix of wild mushrooms.

The pasta was fantastic, loaded with a huge proportion of mushrooms, peas and broccolini compared to the pasta. The broccolini was a bit awkward, almost requiring a knife to cut up some of the larger stalks, but all in all, the flavors blended well, tied together by the mild but slightly tangy cream sauce. The pizza was also excellent, and although the crust was a little thicker than I was expecting from the description, it was still very tasty. The fennel sausage was savory and fresh, and the caramelized onions were perfectly sweet, while the basil added a nice, bright finish.

Dessert looked too tempting to pass up, with options from organic cheesecake to organic apple cobbler ($7 and $7.50 respectively), but we chose the chocolate-chip skillet cookie ($7), which comes baked to gooey perfection in its own smoking-hot skillet, smothered in two huge scoops of vanilla or coconut ice cream (we went vanilla), and topped with a choice of chocolate, chocolate mint or chocolate raspberry sauce; it was chocolate mint all the way. The cookie was wickedly good, and was a delightful ending to a leisurely lunch.

Fresh ingredients and inventive combinations can take you a long way, but in the world of pizza, the pie has to be extra-special to win over the masses. With a multitude of options and extra attention paid to every detail, Picazzo's is certainly an antidote to the usual run-of-the-mill chain pizza that has become an opiate to the masses. And with the large selection of gluten-free options ... celiacs, rejoice!

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