Pizza, pizza! Top slices, personal pies, and surprises around town

WHERE'S THE GRUB?

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Pies from Tip Top, Sal's Caffe Italia, and Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard. Photo: Preston Long Pies from Tip Top, Sal's Caffe Italia, and Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard. Photo: Preston Long

The New York pizza slice, for years the pizza gold standard, inspired a lot of wasted effort and money, what with people trying to reproduce NYC pizza parlors, replete with transported ovens, in places like Kansas or Albuquerque or (gack) San Francisco. Pizza everywhere was measured against some non-specific New York City pie. If you pressed New Yorkers as to where one could go to procure this mythical slice, no two people—not even two natives of the same ’hood—would name the same place. Foodies theorize about what makes this supposed world’s-greatest-pizza so special. One compelling posit is the water argument, which runs thus: New York City tap water is divinely endowed with unnamed pizza-perfect minerals not found elsewhere, which, hence, precludes the New York slice from being replicated anywhere else. The same has been said for whatever it is that deifies the NYC bagel.

Well, it’s all a bunch of hooey. I’m writing this from New York City and I can find nothing in any New York pizza that isn’t equaled or surpassed pretty much anywhere else in the States. The water seems to have much less to do with the reputation of the NY slice than does the amount of beer consumed prior to the impossibly late hour at which it was gobbled down in three bites. And most Charlottesvillians find laughable the notion that they need look any farther than Bodo’s for a world-class bagel.

Many cities eschewed the NY pizza style from the get-go and perfected their own thing, like Chicago’s deep dish, or Detroit’s Greek-influenced, square-cut sheet pie, with a buttery crisp crust and the sauce on top of the cheese. The style doesn’t matter a lick just so long your effort produces an earnest product of the combination of the unique factors that make your town a singular entity.

Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie, out North Garden way, with its vegan and whole wheat offerings, kooky topping combos, and all-around consistently solid pizza, well represents that New Age-agrarian bent that encapsulates Albemarle’s culinary ethos. Thomas Jefferson himself would most certainly approve of a Ho’s pie, so long as it was done up with foie gras and brie.

But everybody knows Ho’s. So let’s consider alternatives.

The pie at the Tip Top on Pantops is well beyond what you would expect from a big menu diner because the College Inn owners modified their Corner classic pan pizza for a more diner-appropriate pie. The 10″ Ala Greca, decked out with feta, fresh spinach, black olives, and sun-dried tomatoes, is top-notch. If you want to build your own, they have a great list of toppings, including hot peppers.

I mention peppers because as good as the personal pizza at Sal’s Caffe Italia is, the Downtown Mall spot has a short list of fixings. Mine came with pepperoni and anchovies. And that’s about as crazy as the options run here. But the crust is stout, buttery, and fluffy. The mozzarella cuts off clean and isn’t stringy. The sauce is tasty, if not a tad conservative on the tangy scale.

Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards, another North Garden destination, serves specialty pies, with a haute touch, from a wood-fired brick oven. A couple Sundays ago, they served a limited run of small pizzas tricked out with barn sausage, sage, artichoke, some fancy cheese, and a balsamic drizzle. The juicy and delectably seasoned sausage put this thing over the top. All of these elements worked together very well without a hint of disharmony. Somebody here must know what she’s doing.

All these pies are great, but when you need a quick fix, and can’t commit to an entire pizza, the choices boil down to Christian’s and Vita Nova, both on the Mall, both New York-style. I have done repeated cold slice samplings (the only way to evaluate the true flavor) of both of these cheese pizzas. Vita Nova took over Christian’s old space, next to C-VILLE Weekly, in 1997, buying out Christian’s remaining lease with a non-compete clause, which prohibited Christian’s from re-opening until the lease expired. Vita Nova gradually morphed Christian’s recipe into its own concoction only to watch Christian’s re-emerge at its present location, in 2000, immediately after the expiration of the non-compete agreement.

Christian’s generally does a brisker business. Location, location, right? The Vita slice has a better crust. It’s dense and hearty. Christian’s sauce, especially accentuated at room temperature, has that pure tomato delicateness, very light on the condensed paste element. It’s a push, but go Vita Nova. We enjoy the company at the lonely end of the Mall.