by Alice Levitt
21 Lower Main Street, Johnson, 635-7626
The sign always made me curious. In tiny Johnson, the Hub's metalwork planets certainly stand out. When I saw the latest menu, featuring 50 different specialty pizzas (the largest selection of pizzas in the Northeast, according to the menu), I hightailed it to Lamoille County to see if the pies were as cool as the sign.
The walls were covered in paintings, large and small, some colorful and faux-tribal; a spooky, black-and-white face filled one wall.
The menu is huge, both physically and in scope. Whatever the toppings, specialty pizzas are a set price. A 14-inch medium was plenty for two and only $16.99, so we had money left over to try a pair of starters.
The cheddar-ale soup sounded promising. The flavor was good, with sharp cheddar and Long Trail Ale playing rough-and-ready together.
The problem was the texture. I expect cheddar-ale soup to be velvety — thick, creamy and well blended. This was somewhat thin in body, but filled with browned chunks of curd and still-crunchy onions. Not my cup of soup.
We also tried the spinach and walnut salad. I've got to remember about raspberry vinaigrette. Tangy and sweet as it sounds, I always seem to end up with a cross between pancake syrup and cough medicine. This was no different.
The spinach itself was fresh and piled high and the walnuts and cranberries were a good foil, along with shaved Parmesan. I just wish the dressing were as good as I wanted it to be.
Relief came in the form of this pie (right). Though both sides look similar, the only topping in common on the chewy crust was green apples. That's the "Pineapple Express" on the right, covered in a balsamic drizzle.
I have a habit of ordering dishes that sound like such bad combinations, I just have to see if it works. The collection on these slices included red sauce, mozzarella, apple, prosciutto, gorgonzola and, of course, pineapple.
Could that possibly work? For the most part, yes. The prosciutto was crispy and salty and simply sang when paired with the apples and balsamic reduction. In turn, the gorgonzola gave the other ingredients a bass line of deep dark flavor. Even the red sauce was light enough so as to not interfere. The one outlier was the pineapple. Sure, it gave the pie its name, but it would have been better without it.
"Vermont's Finest" struck a better balance. The red-sauce-and-mozzarella pie was a meaty assembly of all things Vermont, including Cabot cheddar, ham, sage-flavored sausage, onions, Granny Smiths and a maple-syrup drizzle. It was sweet, but not nearly as bad as one might imagine. The salty, fatty cheeses and meats tempered the onions and lightly tangy apples. The maple syrup was light, too. Just enough to give a wink of sappy flavor.
Are all 50 varieties among "the 50 greatest pizzas" as the Hub advertises them? I'm not sure yet. I still have 48 to try.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.