Pie A-Plenty

Brooklyn Pizza Company & Rocco's Little Chicago Spiff Up The Local Scene.

By Rebecca Cook

WHEN A HUMBLE baker tossed the first pizza pie into a brick oven in Naples back in 1889, who could have imagined he'd started a culinary trend that would conquer the New World in ways Columbus never dreamed. Raphael Esposito's creation of this simple peasant dish using flour, olive oil, cheese, tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs has now surpassed the hamburger as America's most popular food item.

It took a war to complete pizza's journey to these shores, however. Although the recipe emigrated with its Italian countrymen much earlier (the first American pizzeria opened in New York City in 1905), it wasn't until after World War II that America experienced the onset of pizza mania. Returning GIs, hungry for the dish they'd tasted in Italy during the war, spawned a powerful demand for pizza--one that doesn't seem to have let up since. Next Veteran's Day, add this to your reasons to give thanks.

Chow There's certainly no shortage of pizza purveyors in Tucson. It's the food that seems to suit all tastes. Tasty, filling and economical, pizza is the ideal foodstuff for college students, young families and people on the go. Variations range from mundane to gourmet, simple to sophisticated, personal to institutional size. You name it, Tucson's probably got it. But all pies are not created equal, and a little guidance is in order if you're in search of the best.

Transplanted New Yorkers and Midwesterners have for years bored the rest of us with near mythic tales of the pizza they enjoyed back home. Thanks to two fairly new pizza operations, we can all (finally) join in the fun. Both Brooklyn Pizza Company and Rocco's Little Chicago offer the perfect cure for homesick epicures from the frozen north. The pizza at both establishments is not only exceptionally good, it pays ample tribute to the traditions of two great pizza meccas.

Rocco's Little Chicago has taken up residence in a heavily rotated outpost on the north side of East Broadway. Owners Rocco and Elizabeth DiGrazia--who not surprisingly hail from the Windy City--are hoping their style of pizza is distinctive enough to break the pattern of failed businesses at this location, which has housed a slew of eateries over the years. If recent sampling is any indication, Rocco's is well on its way to success.

Take-out is available at Rocco's, and although the interior is not particularly atmospheric (a tattered map of the greater Chicago area and a single electric guitar comprise the decorative touches), its tables, booths and small covered patio are comfortable and inviting enough to encourage you to sit down. Also, dining in confers all those wonderful smells drifting out of the kitchen.

Rocco's specializes in two "famous" Chicago-style pizzas: stuffed and thin crust. The thin crust may look like your average pizza, but mark my words, Rocco's version is anything but. This buttery crust is delightfully crispy and chewy at the same time. The sauce is truly remarkable, containing puréed bits of tomato, minced garlic and a subtle infusion of herbs that never stampede the palate. A good quantity of melted mozzarella covers the whole, and the toppings are first-rate.

Specialty thin-crust pizzas include the basic four-cheese (mozzarella, provolone, romano and parmesan), the paisan (anchovies, asiago, oil-cured olives and the option of Italian sausage), the happy Samoan (pancetta, fresh jalapeños and pineapple) and my personal favorite, the great Chicago fire (hot Italian sausage, jalapeños, green peppers and red onion). Rocco's reportedly now serves beer (and wine), the perfect antidote for this pizza's considerable heat.

The novelty at Rocco's is the stuffed pizza, which is so far removed from the commercial variety that there's absolutely no comparison. Rocco's stuffed pies consist of two distinct crusts, one on the bottom and the other covering the top. At first, this may seem like an inordinate amount of bread to deal with, but Rocco's layers are both relatively thin and completely delicious. A selection of toppings constitutes the pie's filling, and then the whole is capped with sauce and melted cheese.

By the time the pizza arrives, it looks like a deep-dish cheese number, but once you cut into it, a marvel of abundance awaits. We sampled the "fungus humongous," which contained grilled portabella and white mushrooms, red onions and fresh garlic in dizzying surplus. The fine crust, savory sauce and addition of unmistakably fresh ingredients left us swooning, and plotting our strategy for our next visit. Other stuffed specialties include the spin city (spinach, fresh basil, four cheeses, garlic and olive oil); the heart attack (sausage, pepperoni, prosciutto, roast beef and extra cheese); the Sicilian (sun-dried tomatoes, cured olives, red onion, feta cheese and the optional addition of grilled, marinated chicken); and the veggie (grilled onions, peppers, portabella mushrooms, marinated artichoke hearts, garlic, spinach, olive oil and extra sauce). No wonder those Chicago folks rave about their pizza!

Rocco's also serves a selection of salads, sandwiches, appetizers and pastas, each with its own coy, culinary surprises. Even pasta salad is revived in DiGrazia's hands: in addition to the tangy vinaigrette-marinated fusilli pasta, you'll find flecks of red and green bell pepper, chopped red onion, sun-dried tomatoes, cured olives and shavings of sharp asiago cheese. The result is luscious.

DOWN ON FOURTH Avenue, Brooklyn Pizza Company works its own kind of magic. Open for almost two years, the eatery is the inspiration of two former UA grad students who apparently felt so strongly about eating the trademark pizza of the eastern seaboard that they were impelled to open their own business in order to satisfy their cravings. What began as a personal quest now benefits us all.

Co-owner Anthony Vaccaro snagged some recipes from his grandfather's pizzeria in New York City, added a few original touches here and there, and came up with a menu that whets the appetite of just about everyone.

The soul of a genuinely scrumptious Brooklyn-style pizza doesn't reside in fancy gimmicks or a host of bizarre toppings. The key to a New York pie is an obsessive devotion to ingredients of the highest quality and consummate freshness. When tossed together, the result is magnificent.

At Brooklyn Pizza Company it all starts with the crust, made fresh on the premises, as is the bread used in the restaurant's hero sandwiches. While on the surface this may seem merely a nice touch, rest assured: the yeasty aroma of pizza and bread in the oven is as profoundly satisfying as the finished product. Just to step inside Brooklyn Pizza and inhale deeply is to be rewarded.

The list of potential pizza toppings includes artichoke hearts, fresh basil, cilantro, broccoli, chicken, eggplant, feta, ground beef, meatballs, potato, ricotta and spinach as well as more traditional cappers like pepperoni and mushrooms. The crust is thin, yet fully detectable in its delicious simplicity. The sauce is full-bodied and flavorful, gracefully blending tomato, garlic and olive oil along with a measured hand of fresh herbs. The cheese tantalizes with its stringy-creamy texture without eclipsing the other ingredients.

It's hard to find fault with this pizza, especially considering the price for a 16-inch pie (the only size available) hovers below $15, even with five toppings. A daily lunch special of one large single cheese slice and a soda costs $1.87, making Brooklyn Pizza particularly popular with the starving student crowd.

The sandwiches are quite tasty; the lightly herbed bread is superb and the fillings once again reflect great attention to detail. At times, however, it seems the sandwiches could use a little zip. The roast beef hero, for instance, was amply stuffed with thin, lean slices of rare roast beef, romaine lettuce, ripe tomato and red onion, all of which was well and good. The promised horseradish spread, however, didn't quite appear, which left the sandwich a bit on the bland side. The Florentine sandwich, stuffed with mozzarella, spinach, tomato and fresh basil also fell curiously flat. Again, all the ingredients were top-notch, but the whole would have benefited greatly from a splash of zesty vinaigrette or several grinds of fresh black pepper. There may be a trick to Brooklyn's sandwiches that we have yet to discover, but in the meantime, they're definitely yummy enough to keep trying.

Calzones and an abbreviated pasta selection are also available.

Pizza might just be the perfect food. Rocco's Little Chicago and Brooklyn Pizza Company give us an opportunity to sample two more variations of this ultimate culinary art.

Rocco's Little Chicago. 2707 E. Broadway Blvd. 321-1860. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m. on Sunday. Beer and wine. V, MC, CH. Menu items: $2.49-$17.95.

Brooklyn Pizza Company. 534 N. Fourth Ave. 622-6868. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Beer and wine. V, MC, AMEX, DC, CH. Menu items: $1.54-$13.95. TW

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