Pizza and beer. If civilization stagnates, one can make the argument that it was a successful venture based on the development of these two creations alone. Pizza is modern manna, beer the benignly bitter nectar from the breast of the Food Goddess. Logically, the finest pizza parlors must have ample and quality beers along with their pies. In the pantheon of San Antonio pizzerias, the pizza and beer gods smile on only one for its combination of top-notch pizza and first-class brew: Pizza Italia.
Although the number of fine San Antonio pizzerias doesn't rival the likes of New York or Philadelphia, one in particular holds its own with the East Coast competition. Pizza Italia's fare reminds me of the pies of my Philly youth: large, round, hand-tossed, filling, and tasty. While not a showy pie, nor the kind of specialty pie you try as a diversion, Italia's traditional pizza is like a friend you want to regularly invite for dinner.
Pizza Italia has the unpretentious look of a neighborhood pizza parlor: obligatory red-and-white table cloths, broad stripes of green and red around the walls, well-drawn menus on the big chalkboard that announce new items and daily specials. Hundreds of empty beer bottles line the high shelf that surrounds the main dining room, testifying to the importance of beer to the character of this restaurant. Cases of beer, full of ready, heady, vessels of frothy fun to come, sit stacked on the waist-high wall that divides the counter area from the main eating area. There is also a back room available for parties or spillover on busy days, and a small patio area in front. It's a nice, comfortable, neighborhood joint.
Terry Basore tosses a fresh dough for a pizza crust recently at the North Side Italian eatery. Photo by Mark Greenberg This is no ritzy, gourmet pizza haunt, but one for the lover of traditional pies. Sixteen toppings are available, made up of tried and true pizza add-ons like pepperoni, olives, and anchovies. You can get a Maui Mia with pineapple, but that does not qualify as extravagant these days. My favorite pile-ons are beef and mushrooms; the kids like pepperoni straight-up. The Everything, covered with 13 toppings, is also good, but not our regular fare. The vegetables are fresh-cut, except for the mushrooms, which are evidently canned.
Toppings are important, but the essence of pizza lies in three items: dough, sauce, and cheese. Here, Pizza Italia performs solidly and is the reason it ranks among SA's top pizzerias. The dough is hand-tossed, baked until the crust is firm on the outside and pleasantly chewy on the inside. The sauce is not too overpowering - like in some wannabe gourmet pizza houses - and serves as the perfect companion to the generous mozzarella.
The ingredients and the preparation hide no secrets. The kitchen is open, the mozzarella is displayed in the cooler with the desserts, and the cans of sauce rise in small pyramids in the dining room as decoration.
While the pies alone make Pizza Italia a worthy destination, the beer selection pushes it over the top. The restaurant's flier states: "We feature over 100 brands of Local, Domestic, & Import beers and wines!" On my last visit, the beer coolers held over 170 different beers, from the workaday Bud and Miller Lite to the $12.99 a bottle Chimay Grande Reserve from Belgium, brewed by Trappist monks. Reds, ambers, porters, stouts, pilsners. Experimentation is surprisingly easy on the wallet, as Italia showcases a different specialty brew each month - priced at a reasonable $2 a bottle. Make sure you look for the chilled glasses in the bottom of the cooler; beer always tastes better from a glass. Wine drinkers should not feel excluded: You can buy wine by the glass or by the bottle from a selection of 24 reds and whites.
Without exception, the service has always been outstanding, as the staff has often gone out its way to be helpful and never failed to answer any question or request. Turnover is low (a positive sign), as I have been going to Italia for years and always seem to see the same faces.
So upgrade from the national pizza chains and support your local independent pizzeria. Pizza Italia takes me back to my youth - but with beer. •