Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lawrence of Oregano

“Lawrence Gibbilini was born on the north side of Chicago in 1918. When the crash of '29 sent the country spiraling into the Great Depression, he, along with his six younger brothers and sisters, helped make ends meet by selling their mother's pizza door-to-door; some say the first pizza delivery ever.

Despite the tough times, the pizza business took off. Lawrence was in charge of the distribution department, but quickly tired of organizing his siblings and requested a transfer into production. His mother, a great traditional cook, taught him the secrets of her pizza and many other family recipes.

When he was eighteen, his mother sold her pizza business and decided that Lawrence should go into the bricklaying business with his father. Lawrence had a passion for cooking and refused to give it up completely. On weekends he would throw a large checkered tablecloth over the dining room table, drag up every chair in the apartment and invite all his friends, family and acquaintances over for dinner. He would serve them his variations of time-honored Gibbilini dishes as well as recipes he was developing. Most received outstanding reviews and earned him the title of 'Lawrence of Oregano'.” (Excerpts from the Oregano’s Pizza Bistro web site and menu.)

We have just arrived in Phoenix from an extended stay in Albuquerque. According to a poll appearing in the Huffington Post, Albuquerque ranks fourth in the U.S. in the category "Best Cities for Local Food." (Number One is, of course, New Orleans. Numbers Two and Three are San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.) And we can attest to the quality of restaurants in Albuquerque, but the city is lacking in one important respect. You can’t – or at least we can’t – find good pizza. So our hopes were with Phoenix.

A trip to the computer and a quick Google of “best pizza in Phoenix, AZ” brought forth a list that was headed by Pizzeria Bianco (of the “Three-Hour Wait” fame, covered in a blog entry about 10 months ago). Second on the list was Oregano’s Pizza Bistro with six outlets in the greater Phoenix region and one each in Flagstaff and Tucson. On-line reviewers raved about the thin crust pizza, the giant portions, the friendly wait staff, and the reasonable prices. How does this relate to our friend Lawrence? Oregano’s is owned and operated by Lawrence’s grandson, Mark Russell.

When we arrived at about 1:30 p.m. on a rather cold and rainy afternoon, we were told that there would be a thirty-minute wait for indoor seating or we could be seated immediately on the outdoor patio. With its umbrella tables and colorful mural, the patio would have been our choice on a better weather day. We opted to wait under the roof by the outdoor bar.

We were finally seated in the colorful bar area that had loft-like industrial duct work,

skis hanging from the ceiling,

and lamps made from catsup cans.

The fairly lengthy menu included appetizers, salads, Italian Wedding Soup, baked sandwiches, pasta entrees, calzones, stuffed pizza, pan pizza, and what we had come for: Chicago-style thin crust pizza. Don’t be fooled into thinking that all Chicago pizza is deep dish. The Midwest puts forth a mean thin crust, too.

We chose a twelve-inch sausage and a twelve-inch Bistro Classic with white garlic sauce, roma tomato slices, and basil. On the Classic, we asked that they hold the red onion and three of the four cheeses, our wanting only the mozzarella. The pizzas arrived, and we could tell by the smell alone that these were going to be exceptional pizzas.

Starting from the bottom, the crust was perfect. No more than an eighth-of-an-inch thick, the cracker-like crispness remained from first slice to last. The white garlic sauce on the Classic had just the right amount of garlic; the red sauce on the sausage pizza was slightly acidic and seasoned lightly with oregano. And there was just enough red sauce to flavor the pie without being heavy or cloying. On top of the sauces came a light application of cheese. As you know, neither Chuck nor I like a lot of cheese on our pizza and Oregano’s found what, for us, was just the right amount. The white pizza was then topped with a very generous amount of sweet, yet tart, roma tomato slices and a sprinkling of fresh basil.

Topping the cheese on the red pizza were pieces of sausage that tasted of fennel and spice. While talking with one of the managers we learned that the sausage is flown in fresh from Chicago and is applied uncooked to the pizza before baking. The sausage is sweet from the fennel, spicy from the seasonings, and slightly salty. Perfect.

We have found a worthy pizza. So worthy that a visit a week while in Phoenix is in order. And can you guess where we go after Phoenix? Yes. Tucson, where there is an Oregano’s. We are in pizza heaven. Pizza this sublime can only be rated 5.0 Addies.

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