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Photograph by Erika Pino

Ten Years in the Making: Willow Street's Karen Chittenden offers up a wood-fired specialty.

Pizza-Rama

Winding the pilgrimage to three Silicon Valley pizza shrines

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

THE DISCOVERY of a great pizza is the gastronomic equivalent of finding the Holy Grail. Since my very first taste at the age of 6, I've been on a quest. Along the way, I've encountered innumerable makes and styles--some with flavors and aromas wrought from celestial sources, others of cardboard with cheese like Silly Putty.

As with any quest, it is essential to report one's findings so that others may seek enlightenment. The following three restaurants are standouts on the long road to pizza heaven.

Premier Pizza
670A River Oaks Parkway, San Jose
408.944.0664
11am-8pm Mon-Fri; Sat until 1am Sun morning

In 1985, Barry O'Halloran earned celebrity status when he won the National Pizza Spinning Contest in San Francisco. From there, he went on to win three consecutive world championships and eventually found himself spinning dough with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

Today, he and his brother, Sean, run Premier Pizza, where their ovens render moist, airy crusts perfumed with yeast and olive oil. O'Halloran adheres to the principles of classic pizza-making, which has its roots in good baking. His Ferris wheel convection oven with six shelves brings the crust through the total realm of the heat, he likes to say. Even heat dispersion produces a supple bread-dough crust that bends gently to the touch.

Sauces are made fresh every morning. Crust varies from thin to semithick. The house rave is the Creamy Garlic Chicken ($11.45, up to $22.45 for a large) assembled with spicy Alfredo-style sauce, red onions, apple-smoked bacon, mesquite-grilled chicken breasts and roasted garlic. The enduring glory, a personal favorite, remains the No. 10, made with fresh tomatoes and sprinkled with garlic.

Amici's
790 Castro St., Mountain View
650.961.6666
11:30am-10pm-ish daily

This pizzeria brings authentic East Coast pizza to downtown Mountain View. The pies are baked in traditional brick ovens, producing crispy, ethereal crusts hued gold and ebony from the intense heat. The crust is so light, in fact, I was able to lift a slice with my little finger. And it has the correct amount of "flop." This means that the tip bends (just slightly) from the fingers in a soft sloping arc.

Traditional toppings abound: pepperoni, sausage, olive and meatball. In addition, pizza without tomato sauce is offered, like the one we had with clam, garlic and bacon. On the way to the table, the pies are dusted with finely chopped parsley. Prices range anywhere from $6 for a mini-New York with just mozzarella and tomato sauce to $21.15 for a Spicy Pepper Chicken.

Amici's resides in a fresh, new corner building decked in contemporary but traditional hardware, with a lot of dark varnished wood and soft lines to soothe the nerves of the most passionate pizza addict.

Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza
1072 Willow St., San Jose
408.971.7080
11:30am-9:30pm Mon-Thu; until 10:30pm Fri-Sun
Various other locations; see www.willowstreet.com/home.html

Now celebrating its 10th year, Willow Street prepares the definitive upwardly mobile California pizza. Crispy, thin crusts breathe with accents of almond from the Italian wood-fired oven. Personal sizes, a la Wolfgang Puck, are offered exclusively, with a variety of combinations that draw from the world palette--like the improbable Thai Chicken ($10.95), made with spicy peanut sauce.

The highlight of Willow Street's clean, fashionable setting is its exhibition kitchen, where the flames of the oven can be seen dancing like chorus girls. Though inconsistency continues to trouble this kitchen, for the most part pizzas are prepared with care in the wood fire. On our last visit, we had the Four Cheese ($9.50) with Gouda, mozzarella, fontina and asiago ($9.50), and the favorite of the Rev. Scullion: Chicken with Pesto and Spinach ($11.50), with fully developed flavors.

As part of its 10th-anniversary celebration, Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza is offering a drawing. The winner will receive a free pizza a week for 10 years. Winners will be announced at the store on April 1. Proving, once again, that the road to Mecca is paved with pizza slices.

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From the February 28-March 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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