[Best of the Santa Clara Valley 1998

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High Pie Fidelity

[whitespace] Tony and Alba's Alba Seeing You: Once again, Tony and Alba's rates a top pick as the folks to see about delectable thin-crust pizza. Six locations in the area guarantee that no New York-crust aficionado need go hungry more than an hour.

Christopher Gardner

The valley's top pizza, plus five runners-up from both thick-crust and thin-crust schools of thought

By Richard von Busack

Once a caveman was chasing a small mammal of some sort, and it ran to hide underneath a brontosaurus, which stepped on it and squashed it flat. He ate it anyway. That was the birth of pizza.

Sad to say, far too many people are misled by stories like this. The following is substantially closer to the truth. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians baked toppings into their bread; centuries later, in 1889, one Raffale Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi baked a pizza for King Umberto I and Queen Margherita in the colors of the Italian flag: red for the tomato sauce, white for mozzarella and green for basil. The royals were understandably impressed, and pizza margherita can still be bought in Naples. After the Big One, American GIs occupying Italy liked pizza so much that they established it as a New York delicacy.

Years later, Americans were consuming pizza at a rate that rivals that of global deforestation. According to Smithsonian magazine, 350 slices per second are consumed in America, representing a 100-acres-a-day disappearance of pepperoni habitat. Now, the question is: Chicago pizza, fluffy as the fresh bread it is, or flat St. Louis style, crispy as a matzoh? The driving force behind Chicago pizza is the infamous climate. All the bulk is an anchor to keep from being blown into Wisconsin by the cross-winds. As a Californian, I can explain the advantage of thin crust: the best quality of all fast food is that it can be turned into a taco. (Bending a piece of pizza into a u-shape makes for easier consumption and fewer chances of damaged clothes after a cheeseslide.) Since Chicago pizza and the flat style are such different animals there's no way to compare them, which is the reason the runners-up are listed in no particular order.

And the Winner Is ...

Tony and Alba's
Generally understood to be the best pizza in the South Bay, the restaurant has been a steady winner of our readers' poll for many years. Tony and Alba's exemplifies the thin-crust pizza, the way Pizz'a Chicago exemplifies thick-crust Chicago style. The chain uses an especially succulent whole-milk mozzarella; only Giorgio's et al. (see below) is quite as good. (They also have a low-fat mozzarella for weight watchers.) Prices are steep for the gourmet pizzas ($20 for a 16-incher), but still, Tony and Alba's is pizza mecca.

The Runners Up

Pizz'a Chicago
Pizz'a Chicago is the local answer to the Windy City's Numero Uno chain, which boasts of having invented Chicago style. I prefer Pizz'a Chicago for its funk; the Chicago Diaspora decor sprawling around the place is kind of charming, though they have too much Michael Jordan and not enough Cubs. Still, the dough is fluffy and light, the sausage sweet and fresh, and the amount of garlic in the sauce warms the breath without inundating the tongue.

Checkers is almost invisible, tucked into an anonymous strip mall, but the crust, topping and sauce on the pizza make it worth ferreting out. There's no dining room to speak of, unless you mean the pair of resin chairs and a plastic cafe table out front. Checkers does a sesame seed crust that makes you wish more pizzerias would try it. The All-Meat pizza (salami, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, smoked ham, linguiça, and Italian sausage) is a major guy-bonding experience. This is superlative pizza made with fresh ingredients at a very inexpensive price.

Giorgio's Italian Food and Pizzeria
This is one of a series of fancy and immensely popular restaurants operated by the same management, including Nicolino's Garden Cafe in Sunnyvale and Frankie, Johnnie, and Luigi's (various locations, including the always-crowded Mountain View and Prospect Road locations.) While Giorgio's has a menu swollen with such finer Italian dishes as Linguini Frutti di Mare and Fettuccine Prawns Portofino, their pizza is very good--particularly the Johnnie's Favorite (roasted chicken, pesto, artichokes, black olives, bruschetta tomatoes and red bell peppers). Other intriguing toppings are gorgonzola and ricotta cheese.

Vicolo Pizza
This is simply outstanding, elegant pizza, served by the slice or the you-bake-it takeaway ($18-$22, including delivery). It's served "San Francisco style"--that is, extra crispy, on a cornmeal base with a crumbly hand-crimped crust. The basic pizzas include sun herb (with sun-dried tomato and chile pepper) and quatro formaggi ("four cheese"--mozzarella, provolone, fontina and Parmesan).

Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza
The wood-fired pizza crusts are the special draw. Wood baking gives the crusts a rich brittleness that complements the toppings on these nine-inch personal pizzas. Chicago means fat crust, St. Louis means thin, San Francisco means cornmeal--could wood-fired crust be called "San Jose pizza"? The restaurant, based in Willow Glen, has taken off into a Bay Area chain.

Pies in the Sky
Tony and Alba's, six local locations, including 619 Escuela Ave., Mountain View, 650/968-5089; and 3137 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose, 408/246-4605.

Pizz'a Chicago, 155 W. San Fernando St., San Jose, 408/283-9400; 4115 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, 650/424-9400; 1576 Halford Ave., Santa Clara, 408/244-2246; one due to open in Foster City

Checkers, 4157 Hamilton Ave., San Jose, 408/379-1700

Giorgio's Italian Food and Pizzeria, 643 E. Calaveras Blvd., Milpitas, 408/942-1292; 1445 Foxworthy Ave., San Jose, 408/264-5781

Vicolo Pizza, 473 University Ave., Palo Alto, 415/324-4877

Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza, 1072 Willow St., San Jose, 408/971-7080; also Los Gatos and Westgate

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From the September 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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