If you were to pile up all the pizza sold in Burlington in just one month, you'd probably have a wobbly tower taller than any of the city's buildings. Were the tower to topple into Lake Champlain, the resulting tidal wave of grease hurtling toward the Adirondacks would pose an environmental hazard of magnificent proportions. You get the point. We Americans — including Vermonters — eat tons of this stuff.
Why? Ostensibly because it is relatively cheap and convenient. Cooking for ourselves is something a lot of us can't, won't or don't have time to do, and pizza is just a phone call away. And it's everywhere: A quick flip through the Yellow Pages reveals more than two dozen pizza joints in the Burlington area alone. After tasting the offerings from nine local pizzerias that deliver into Burlington, however, I suspect that the real reasons we order it are sloth and blind habit. It only seems inexpensive to call out for pizza if you're literal-minded about money; $8 for dreck is still $8 too much.
As a professional chef, I'm well aware of the formidable challenges that come with cooking and serving food — let alone trying to please people — and I offer kudos to those who get it right. Last week, when the staff of Seven Days and I ordered pizzas to the downtown office, our standards were simple enough. Yet only four of nine pies met most of them.
The first thing we noted was telephone manners. These ranged from friendly and knowledgeable to merely competent to downright rude. The next factor was delivery time. We thought that half an hour was reasonable, but a few took closer to 45 minutes.
Other factors on the delivery end included ability of the driver to find us without getting lost (one found "corner of Church and Cherry, downtown Burlington" daunting), driver manners and even packaging. I was particularly impressed with the deft manner in which some drivers unzipped the sporty little thermal jackets used to keep the pizzas piping hot, but we decided not to count that.
We ordered a "small" pizza from everyone in the Burlington area that delivers. We learned that some places call their smallest pizza "medium," which we found confusing. We requested that each pie be half vegetarian and half "the works," and left that up to the pizza makers' imaginations.
This seemed a fair way to assess how each place deals with meat and meatless pizzas, as well as special requests.
When the savory pies arrived, the first thing we checked for was a good crust. The importance of crust to pizza cannot be overstated, since that's the basis of the whole thing. The word pizza, after all, derives from the Greek word pitta — the flat bread found in Greece and the Middle East. A pizza with pleasing toppings but a wet, gummy, greasy or bland crust makes for some awful chow.
Part of the challenge here is presented by the relatively low temperatures of American gas or electric pizza ovens, about 55QE. By contrast, ovens in the birthplace of pizza — Naples, Italy — are wood-fired and made of brick. Their extreme temperatures, in excess of 700F, make for a crisp pie in under two minutes. (For a good approximation of this lighter, more truly Italian-style pizza, check out Burlington's Sweet Tomatoes on Church Street, where $8 and change will get you a crispy, 12-inch pie that's satisfying without requiring an investment in stretch pants.)
Of the pizzas we tried, the only ones with crisp bottoms, good textures and more-than-bland flavors were Pizza Hut, Leonardo's and Kalin's.
As for toppings, we expected that most pizzerias would have very similar takes on "the works." We were right — that usually meant pepperoni, ham and sausage. Two unwelcome surprises were bacon on the pie from Manhattan Pizza and "mystery-meat" shavings on the pie from Junior's.
We were surprised, though, by the stultifying level of conformity among the vegetarian pizzas. Only three showed any sensitivity to the boundless creative potential of vegetables. Kalin's and Mr. Mike's did a reasonably good job, but the winner was Leonardo's — easily the best-looking and freshest-tasting pizza in town. (Out of 12 choices, we went for Nicole's Greek Island with spinach and feta cheese.) The rest featured a scattering of crudely chopped, unevenly cooked, uninteresting vegetables. Pizza Hut and Little Caesar's actually used canned mushrooms. Junior's included thumb-size chunks of raw broccoli, stems and all.
In the cheese department, Kalin's and Leonardo's tasted the freshest and were in best proportion to the rest of the pie. Little Caesar's was heavy with cheese and, like Domino's, tasted cheap. Ditto for the sauce. At the end of our taste-athon, we ranked the delivered pizzas overall. In descending order, here goes.
1) Leonardo's Pizza
83 Pearl St., Burlington, 862-7700. Open 11 a.m.-midnight. Price: $12. Speed: 28 minutes.
All things considered, Leonardo's was our pick as the best pie in town. The employees are informed and courteous, the pizzas creative without being far-fetched. There's obvious care taken to balance flavors, colors and textures. Generous portions, lots of veggie options, choice of whole wheat or white crust. Well worth the premium price. We also liked the nifty little foldout menu tucked into the box.
2) Kalin's Italian Gardens
191 Pearl St., Burlington, 863- 6300. Open 5 p.m.-midnight. Price: $11.88. Speed: 27 minutes.
Fresh-tasting, with that handmade, cared-for appeal. Good crust and sauce, some skill with vegetables. People are friendly on the phone and the owner, Michael Kalin, even delivers some nights. UVM students may recognize him as the guy at the Espresso Express cart over the last four years.
3) Mr. Mike's
206 Main St., Burlington, 864-0072. Open 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Price: $10.75. Speed: 45 minutes.
Burlington's equivalent of a good New York slice. Good use of garlic and a flavorful sausage with fennel. Toppings could be more generous, though. Choice of white or whole wheat crust. Long wait.
4) Pizza Hut
471 Riverside Ave., Burlington, 862-0222. Open 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Price: $10.46. Speed: 23 minutes.
Even though the service is cold and matter-of-fact, this is as good as corporate pizza gets. Nicely composed with good ingredients except for the canned mushroms. Crust is crisp on the bottom, cheese and meats are tasty. Not much effort on the vegetarian, though. Fastest delivery.
5) Manhattan Pizza and Pub
167 Main St., Burlington, 658- 6776. Open 5-11 p.m. Price: $9.67. Speed: 28 minutes.
Good crust at the pub, but the delivered version is soggy. Veggies are barely cooked, incongruent with the stewed flavors of the sauce. Bacon is weird on pizza. A good New York-style slice in-house, but the order-out variety doesn't deliver.
6) Junior's Pizzeria
6 Roosevelt Hwy., Colchester, 655-5555. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Price: $9.23. Speed: 48 minutes.
The Colchester location makes quick delivery into Burlington difficult. This is a decent pie at the restaurant, but not worth the wait at home.
7) Lee Zachary's Pizza
1234 Williston Rd., S. Burlington, 864-9817. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Price: $8.29. Speed: 38 minutes.
One of several outposts in the Zachary's empire. While other places call their small pizzas medium, Zachary's means small when it says small. Our pizza was tiny and alarmingly non-descript, except for the bouffant rim of bland crust. If we'd been really hungry, we wouldn't have known whether to laugh or cry.
8) Little Caesars Pizza
361 Shelburne Rd., Burlington, 658-9151. Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-10:45 p.m. Price: $9.17. Speed: 41 minutes.
Cheap-tasting and cheeseladen, with simple, dull flavors. Canned mushrooms and sweet sauce. No redeeming features. The clueless driver and long wait made this a total waste.
9) Domino's Pizza
485 Colchester Ave. Burlington, 658-3333. Open 3 p.m.-1 a.m. Price: $8.44. Speed: 35 minutes.
Corporate pizza at its most heinous. Gives credence to the claims of prissy pizza purists that, somewhere between Naples and New Jersey, pizza took a turn for the worse and kept right on going — downhill. Greasy, salty and soggy. Even the box is hard to open. Avoid.