Character Counts

If you're looking for a pie-and-drinks hangout, Arizona Pizza Company will do

In a recent review, I mentioned that AriZona Iced Tea has nothing at all to do with Arizona; it's a company based in New York. Similarly, there's a chain of restaurants called Arizona Pizza Company that has absolutely nothing to do with our state (other than one location in Glendale); it's an East Coast outfit.

It happens that there are two Arizona Pizza Company locations in Tucson, but I don't think they're part of that East Coast franchise operation; judging from the corporate Web site (which doesn't mention any activity here), those eastern Arizona Pizza Company locations employ a completely different logo, have a more extensive menu and boast a nicer atmosphere.

Whereas the Arizona Pizza Company on Broadway Boulevard across from Park Place strikes me as a bar with a pizza oven. (There's another one near Sabino Canyon, which I have not visited.)

My informants tell me that the Broadway location (next to Pier 1 and Linens 'n' Things, and two doors up from a fabulous little Lebanese restaurant called Shish Kebab House) has been in business about five years, and last year expanded into the space which is now Arizona Pizza Company's bar. But it really looks like the bar concept came first: a concrete floor (fortunately, your feet don't stick to it), industrial metal tables and stools, wall décor with a beer motif (Fat Tire, Miller Lite and other Old Masters), an exposed-beam-and-pipe ceiling, a floor fan working hard to improve circulation on excruciatingly hot June days, pool tables set out by the large bar, and wall-mounted TVs at which patrons stare, looking eerily like the Children of the Damned having a pizza party.

The menu options are a bit limited by contemporary pizza standards, but they cover all the bases. There are about 10 varieties of pizza at 14 and 16 inches ($17.25 to $18.50 for the smaller, $19.50 to $21.25 for the larger, with basic cheese at $14 plus $1.50 per topping for the smaller, $15.75 plus $1.75 for the larger). Combos include a cheeseless variety (artichoke hearts, mushroom, zucchini, tomato and garlic) and two veggie options. You can also get pizza by the slice for $5 plus 50 cents per topping, 20-ounce fountain drink included. There are three salads (Greek and chef's for $6.75, garden for $5.75), chicken wings by the pound ($7), calzones ($7, plus 75 cents for each extra ingredient stuffed inside) and three sandwiches (Italian sub, turkey and Swiss, ham and Swiss) at $6.25 for 7 inches, $9.25 for double length.

Perhaps the pizza seems like a sideline to the bar operation because it's rather ordinary: It's not bad, but characterless. There is a problem with the crust, which is thin and utterly flavorless. I'm no fan of the flavored pizza dough at other joints, which seems like a scam to squeeze more money out of hapless patrons, but there's no reason that breadstuffs can't have some inherent flavor of their own. The crust at Arizona Pizza Company has none. It's just texture in the mouth, supporting the toppings, and the unadorned edging isn't good for anything but taking home to your dog.

Now those toppings are of good quality. The Popeye pizza, with spinach (of course), basil, feta, garlic, tomato and mozzarella, was a nicely balanced mélange of ingredients, except that the crust deadened the flavor to some extent. The single slices are quite generous, nearly a foot long at the outer edge, and are certainly superior to, for example, the lukewarm, greasy slices on offer at Papa John's at the UA Student Union.

My friend Carrie ordered a calzone, pronouncing it with the proper three syllables and momentarily confusing the teenager behind the counter. What she was served seemed to be missing a syllable; it was not quite as flavorful as she'd hoped. In fact, her final pronouncement was monosyllabic: "bland." The calzone dough was actually fairly tasty, but the innards didn't add anything. Now, ricotta and mozzarella are never going to constitute a flavor bomb--they're about the dullest cheeses in existence unless you pay the price for their artisanal incarnations--but there could have been something else stirred into the filling (besides the perfectly adequate chicken that Carrie requested) to help it along. At least the dipping marinara on the side wasn't too sweet or otherwise objectionable.

On one visit, I ordered the wings without specifying whether I wanted them medium or hot. What I got didn't taste too spicy on the tongue, but left a pleasant little vinegary afterburn on the lips and uvula. On principle, I avoided the ranch dressing served on the side. Can't anybody eat anything without slathering ranch dressing on it anymore? No wonder Americans are fat.

What I did enjoy without reservation was the Italian sub, a good medley of ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone and greenery on very lightly toasted French bread. There was a decent balance of meat, cheese and lettuce, and the sandwich was not dripping with excessive Italian dressing. Everything was in the right proportion, with satisfying flavor.

Let me make it clear that there is nothing bad about Arizona Pizza Company, but not much about it is interesting, either. It might be an agreeable drinks-and-pizza hangout if you live in the vicinity, but the next time I eat in that neighborhood, I'll be more inclined to patronize the more characterful Lebanese place nearby.

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