Prime Pie

Grimaldi's offers up some of Tucson's best pizza--but only if you order correctly

One of the most popular pizza joints in New York City--No. 1, as a matter of fact, according to Zagat--has been on the move, as family members have expanded Grimaldi's from Brooklyn into Texas, Nevada and Arizona. One of those new locations is in Tucson, in the Sam Hughes Place spot formerly occupied by the now-defunct LaFerlita's Pizza.

The good news: The pie at Grimaldi's is much better than the stuff LaFerlita's served up--and it can be some of the best pizza in Tucson. The bad news: I wrote "it can be" for a reason. If you don't order correctly, or don't know what you're getting yourself into, your Grimaldi's experience could be less than stellar.

I encourage you: Learn from our mistakes. To help you do so, here are some tips:

1. If at all possible, don't get pizzas to go; dine at Grimaldi's instead. On our dine-in visit, our 16-inch pizza with fresh garlic, Italian sausage and mushrooms ($13 base with mozzarella, plus $2 for each of those toppings, for a total of $21) was divine. The thinner-crust pie (that's your only option; all you get to pick is the size, the sauce--red, white or pesto--and the toppings) was piping-hot and delicious, and you could eat it with your hands, as the crust had enough structural integrity to keep the slices from getting all floppy (as long as you folded the slice just a bit). However, on our takeout visit, both of our pizzas--my 16-inch pesto pie with chicken, sliced tomatoes, onions and mushrooms, and Garrett's 16-inch pie with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms and kalamata olives--steamed themselves in their pizza boxes, even though I arrived to pick them up just after the pizzas were pulled from the coal oven, and even though I live less than 10 minutes from Grimaldi's. As a result, the pizzas--while still tasty--were a bit mushy. And that made a big difference.

More motivation to dine at Grimaldi's: The service is generally good, and the atmosphere is comfortable and just a bit upscale, with jazzy music playing overhead, TVs tuned to sports and the red-checkered tablecloths nicely matching the brick walls.

2. Be prepared to pay more than you would at other area pizza places. That aforementioned 16-inch pesto pie cost a whopping $26--$15 for the base pizza, plus $2 each for the tomatoes, onions and mushrooms, and a ridiculous $5 for the chicken. Garrett's takeout pie "only" cost $21: $13 for the base, and $2 for each of those toppings. Consider yourself warned: The topping prices are the same whether you get a personal, a small or a large.

Also: Be wary of the alcohol prices. We paid $23 for two smallish Grey Goose cosmos. That's $11.50 each. And that's ridiculous.

If price is an issue, you may want to hit Grimaldi's for lunch. The restaurant offers a lunch special: 6-inch pizzas or calzones for $3.99 or $4.49 (with limited topping options, like pepperoni and sausage, or mushroom and onion), and salads for $2.99. A combo lunch deal with a pizza or calzone, a salad and a standard drink costs $8.49.

3. Ignore Grimaldi's size adjectives. Those 16-inch pizzas we ate are considered "small" ($13 base for regular; $15 base for pesto sauce, white sauce or calzones). The "small" calzone we split during our dinner visit was cut into eight 2-inch slices. That ain't small in my book. A "personal" pizza or calzone is 12 inches in diameter ($9 base regular, $10 base pesto/white/calzone), while the "large" runs 18 inches ($15 base regular, $17 base pesto/white/calzone). The "small" salads ($5-$7 small, $8-$10 large) and the "small" antipasto plate ($8 small, $12 large) are more than enough for two people, at least as appetizers.

4. Pick your toppings carefully. I recommend this for two reasons: First, the prices can be insane ($4 for sundried tomatoes, but only $2 for ham? Really?), and second, some of the toppings are, frankly, lame. Specifically, the meatballs are awful. During our dine-in visit, we ordered our 16-inch calzone with mushrooms, meatballs and kalamata olives ($15 plus $2 for each topping, for $21 total). After we dug in, we were enjoying the mushrooms and olives mixed in with the tasty ricotta cheese, but the meatballs seemed to be missing. We even hassled our waiter before realizing that the meatballs (sliced up into flat pieces) were in there, all right; they just had no flavor at all, and a consistency best described as "wrong." They were so bad that I have to wonder if that batch was prepared incorrectly.

5. Consider getting dessert. The "famous" cannoli ($4.50) with chocolate chips was quite tasty. Other options include tiramisu ($5) and a handful of cheesecakes ($5).

6. Sit on the bar side of the restaurant, if possible. The layout of Grimaldi's suffers from one serious flaw: A divider separates the bar area from the main dining area. On the bar side, diners get quite a show: They can watch the dough-tossing and the pizza-baking in the coal oven. It's quite entertaining, actually--but the view of the kitchen is completely blocked by that divider from the dozen or so tables in the main dining area.

I recommend grabbing some friends, heading down to Grimaldi's, plopping down in the bar area and (wisely) ordering some pie. If you follow my advice, you'll wind up enjoying some of the best pizza you can find in Southern Arizona. Just make sure you avoid those meatballs ...

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