Simply Successful

The folks at this longstanding northwest-side neighborhood pizza joint know what they're doing

La Madrina is one of those places that has stood the test of time—but it is so well-hidden that you've probably driven past it without even realizing that it's there.

Tucked between a home-goods store and a nail salon (why so many nail salons are next to restaurants, I'll never know), this tiny pizza joint has been in business since 1985. It's currently owned and operated by a longtime former employee.

The place has about a dozen tables and booths. The menu hangs above the counter where you order. Pizzas of all ilks dominate the menu, but there's also a nice assortment of pastas, hot and cold sandwiches, calzones and Stromboli, as well as a limited amount of appetizers, two salads and one dessert. This is a good thing: When you're running a casual place, too many items muddle the works.

There's nothing surprising on the menu. Sandwiches are all $7.95, and that includes a bag of chips. A large 16-inch cheese pizza is $14.95; the small is only $10.95. Additional toppings run the gamut from simple pepperoni or sausage to more-offbeat choices like ricotta and capicola. Of course, you'll pay extra for each item ($1.55 small, $1.85 medium, $2.10 large, $2.45 party; shrimp and extra-cheese additions range from $3.10 to $4.90). The specialty pizzas are a bit more—but you can get a cheese slice for $3 (and again, prices go up from there depending on the number of toppings).

I'm not saying the food here ranks high on the "Italianess" scale, but the items we tried were pretty good. La Madrina is not fancy, but it beats a lot of those chain restaurants that litter Oracle Road.

We ordered a meatball sandwich; the spaghetti with marinara sauce ($8.95); a large half-sausage, half-pepperoni pizza; and a slice of chocolate-chip cheesecake ($3). We were going to order the antipasti salad, but the charming counter person told us that we got a dinner salad (featuring lettuces, tomato, cukes, celery, croutons and shredded mozzarella) with the pasta, so we opted out. That was nice, because checking the menu online revealed that the antipasti salad is just a dinner salad with the addition of mushrooms, black olives and pepperoni. We decided on the Italian dressing.

The salad was surprisingly good. The dinner salad is a toss-away item on most pizza-joint menus, and dressings are usually loaded with garlic salt. Not so here. Different textures, fresh ingredients and a well-balanced dressing worked well together. I also liked the fact that the dressing was served on the side in two little cups, so we could determine just the right amount.

The sandwich contained four medium-size meatballs slathered in red sauce, with plenty of mozzarella. It had then been baked, rendering the cheese all gooey, and the Italian roll nice and crispy. The meatballs, a true measurement of Italian restaurants, were soft and full of flavor. And the roll itself was cut so that the ends were still sealed, and everything stayed in the bun.

The spaghetti was our least-favorite dish. The sauce seemed a bit undercooked and was a little too sweet.

However, I would definitely order the pizza again. The crust was appropriately chewy and crispy; the sauce was mild and didn't dominate. There was just the right amount of golden-brown cheese on top. And while the pepperoni was nothing special, the sausage was perfect: There was a touch of fennel, and the big crumbles were evenly distributed.

The cheesecake, which is advertised as the "best cheesecake ever," was interesting. The chocolate chips were evenly distributed throughout, with more on the browned top. Apparently, the cheesecake flavors change often, because they are made by the owner's mother, who has a long list of flavors in her cheesecake arsenal.

There's wine, but no wine list, and several beers on tap.

The burnt-umber walls are painted in faux exposed brick, and hung with renderings of classic Italian food posters. The window in front has a Tiffany-like stained-glass look to it. Many of the black wooden booths that line one wall are a little worse for wear, as is the carpeting, but the friendly service more than made up for the worn décor.

La Madrina knows itself and its customers—and that is perhaps its greatest strength. This is a pizza joint with good pie, and just enough other items to please everyone. Families would feel comfortable here, and I bet the after-school crowd fills up the place throughout the school year. I'd return if La Madrina was closer to home.

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