La Piazza Al Forno
Well, once again, we find ourselves in the Valley of the Sun. Phoenix. Visiting my lovely wife's family. She does all the packing and planning. My only responsibility is to find a great pizza place. Some time ago, we, like everyone else it seems went to see Chris Bianco. Of course, we were greatly impressed. How can you top that? Well friends, I believe we did. La Piazza Al Forno. It's located in Glendale or more accurately, Historic Glendale. This is a section of town that has a great mix of restaurants and antique stores. We were here some six or seven years ago and had a nice time. I have some fond memories of the hours spent in one of the best dive bars ever. The Thunderbird! The GPS took us straight to Justin Piazza's restaurant. It's a simple storefront that formerly housed a Quiznos. The Piazza's stationed a five foot Pizzaiolo statue at the entrance, beckoning all to come in. Also, there was a huge banner under the main sign that I did not see until later. It was one of those AS SEEN ON TV banners screaming Guy Fieri from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives ate here. There are some small outdoor tables for the adventurous, 100F alfresco diners.
And yes, those tables were filled. Inside, you are greeted immediately by a hostess and the huge wood fired oven. Man, I just live for those moments. This big WoodStone oven is against the wall facing backwards toward the kitchen and canted toward the center of the restaurant. It's entombed in dark brick square configuration and smartly surrounded by a server station and dining counter. After you get to the center on the place you see that it more than just pizza place. It's a full blown Italian restaurant, shoe-horned into some very tight quarters. Mateo 2 and Juan are manning the "back kitchen" along with other staff and family. They actually resemble the proverbial fairies dancing on the head of a pin.
We sit across from the make table but are denied a good look by the high partition. Mateo, our very friendly and accommodating waiter, takes our drink order. I already know what we are going to order so he takes that too - one margherita, one white and one meat pie. I grabbed my baby's little red camera and begin taking pictures. I'm imposing myself over other diner's tables and staff and damn near caused one chick to drop a tray. But, I get the pix. Two guys are working the pizza area. Justin Piazza, the owner, is crafting his pizzas on the make table and his very worried looking and meticulous assistant, Jim is minding the oven. After a little small talk and displaying my oven burned forearm, Justin allows me access to the crowded back area. I'm asking all kinds of questions and Justin is answering me with long, thoughtful responses. Now, mind you, he is also speaking to his staff and making all the pizzas. This guy is a machine. Did I mention it's hot as hell? No matter to Jim & Justin. They have a rhythm going and the pizzas are cranking out.
As a former detective, I'm used to asking questions. So, busy or not, if the man is answering... I'm asking. Oh yeah, I must mention the sanitation is quite good. It's the first thing I look for when I'm allowed "back stage".
The oven. As stated before, it's a big, high domed, WoodStone. It is furiously burning wood and throwing out heat. Justin tells me it has a voracious appetite for pecan and oak and one day would like to have a low domed oven built for him. I stick my arm in and can't get past three-Mississippi or Jim and his fast moving, turning peel. Fire management skills are not lacking here.
The dough. Jim tells me he uses Caputo 00, some type of awesome sea salt (his words) and Camaldoli starter. And this is where he gets off the VPN train. He mixes the dough in an 80 quart Hobart. Noting the beautiful, extensive and window paned dough, I ask about the hydration. Get this!
"..I don't really know..I go by feel. Some days more some days less..." This guy knows stuff.
I find out later why. He has been making pizza since age 13. His folks had a restaurant in New Jersey. They migrated to Arizona when Justin was in High school and ran a place here. His skills came by way of learning all things NY style and gas ovens. Not to mention the great Italian dishes.
Dressing the skins. Justin reads the order as he is forming the round. Cheese goes down first and followed by dots of San Marzano sauce. Yep, that's how he does it. He was opening #10 cans at one point when I wasn't behind the line. So, I'm not sure if he stuck anything else in the sauce pot. My guess is he doesn't. Justin was making our order as we talked. I watched him dress the aforementioned meat pie. Four meats folks. All generously applied. Once again, not the sparsely dressed VPN variety. Justin tells me he doesn't claim any of that and makes his kind of wood fired pizza. I'm going with it because so far, it is all aces. Olive oil tops it off.
The Pizza. Justin tells me my order is at the table. What? I have to go back to my table? Kinda like the realization that your summer vacation is over. At a small table for four, sits my wife and her dad. You can't see the table because there are three big pizzas and ...Hey! Who in hell ordered Bruschette? The Margherita. Simply beautifully simple, as it should be. Wonderfully puffy cornicione, blistered ever so slightly. Just a slight sag when a slice is held. Jim really was mindful of the center. Very thin bottom. The upskirt was perfectly seared. The crust had a pleasant aroma as I tore it apart to gaze at the caverns of air pockets. This is one of the very finest Margheritas’ I have ever tasted.
The White garlic pizza is addictive. The garlic butter sauce is perfect. Small dollops of ricotta here and there...some mozz, more garlic and just a little basil so you don't go snow blind. Damn fine pizza.
The Meat Pie. Justin calls it the Italian Stallion. This is where the wheels should come off the cart. This guy is meat crazy. Kinda like the old days when your buddy was working at a pizza joint and the manager was away. An eight pound pizza for eight bucks, coming up!
Maybe not that crazy. So I pull off a slice, fold it and stick it in my yap. Bingo! Just as the complex taste registers in my brain, I look at over at Justin. Oh, he was waiting for me. He knew. And now, so did I.
It works. All that meaty goodness, a little cheese, tomato and perfectly baked bread. It really works. My guess is Justin paid a lot of attention to his parents and to his food as he grew up in this business.
And no doubt about it, he made his share of those eight pound pizzas when Papa wasn’t looking.
As we were about to leave, we met Rachel. She is Justin’s hard working wife. She is just as sweet as the San Marzanos’. She filled in some information gaps for this report. It turns out Justin is not a machine after all. Word has gotten out about this little restaurant and the 12+ hours each day do take their toll. Right mindedly, Rachel, Justin and crew now enjoy Sundays and Mondays closed.
Justin comes out from behind and gives me a nice La Piazza Al Forno t-shirt. Great pizza and parting gifts! How can you beat it? Maybe we could tip a few at the Thunderbird. Nope. Justin tells me they were closed down for non-compliance with the city’s No Smoking ordinance. This is a true shame and a small blight on an otherwise wonderful day.
No pictures just yet. We left the USB cord at home. If a picture is worth a thousand words… Well, this report is 1300 plus. So naah.