Pizza delivery in the time of television
Politics, pop culture and the five-day forecast: It's just another day at Pizza Nizza; Plus: delivery reviews of Papa John's, Pizza Hut, Gatti's and Domino's
The Survivors of "Lost" have suffered. Stranded on a tropical island after falling from the sky, cast adrift in the space-time continuum, forced to relive the 1970s without 30 years of ironic distance. Push the Button, blow the Hatch. Just get me out of here.
When "Lost" ends its run on Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC, another sinister plot twist awaits: You might have to wait longer for a pizza. Because nothing drives our appetite for pizza delivery like a big night on TV.
In 1998, the owner of Pizza Nizza learned something about that from a show about nothing. "The last 'Seinfeld,' we just got clobbered," said Mark Skiles.
It's clobbering time again. In a nine-day stretch starting today, more than 40 shows will bow out, some for good, including "Lost" and "24" (Monday at 7 p.m. on Fox). Two of the season's biggest shows also pick their winners next week, first "Dancing with the Stars" on Tuesday at 7 p.m. on ABC, then "American Idol" on May 26 at 7 p.m. on Fox.
To help you sort through delivery options, we holed up in a Central Austin apartment and ordered pizza from four national chains and five local pizzerias in one night. You'll find the national reviews below, and we'll run the local reviews on Thursday in Austin360.
And to help me understand the pizza delivery business, I worked a day at Pizza Nizza, where I stuffed flyers, washed dishes, went on delivery runs, filled some real-live pizza orders and never quite got the hang of slinging pizza dough.
The Pizza Nizza connection
I know Mark Skiles. We're soccer dads on the same team. The first time we talked on the sidelines, I was telling him how much my family likes Home Slice pizza on a good day, when it's not soggy in the middle, about how crispy and foldy and New Yorky it is. I won't say he took it personally because it was more like he was speaking for all the delivery pizzas of the world: "Let that pizza steam in a box in your front seat for 45 minutes. See how it holds up."
And I listened because among other things, Skiles is one of the founders of Whole Foods. So I did the one thing I could do as a food writer with a friend on the inside. I asked if I could work at his shop for a day, treat it like a classroom with a pizza oven.
I've ordered pies from Pizza Nizza (and liked them) back when it was on Barton Springs Road, before it moved to Rollingwood and before I knew Skiles. I've eaten his food at soccer meetings and a neighborhood block party. And the week before I worked my shift, I picked up margherita and Mediterranean pies on the sly to see if the pizza has changed. It hasn't. Still the same hardy crust, still the same bright herbs. I might know the owner, but the pizza speaks for itself.
Like a pie maker, Skiles partially bakes the empty pizza shell to bring the cooking times for the crust and the toppings more closely in line. The parbaking also gives the crust more structure. The dough is a blend of three flours, including raspy golden semolina, which stays drier in the box. All of this to help the pizza survive the ride, Skiles said.
He's tinkering constantly. "There's always a way to do it better, faster, more economically," he said. Even his pizza oven is hot-rodded, the rotating decks lined with custom-cut stone. On the day I show up for work, he's experimenting with a new recipe for pizza sauce, one with a splash of red wine, one that would put his $8,000 steam kettle to greater use.
I dip into the experimental sauce to make my first restaurant pizza, one with sausage and roasted garlic and a little red pepper for color. I like the tannic afterglow of the sauce, but its creator pronounces the batch a little watery.
The Whole story
To tell the short version of a long Austin story, Skiles left San Antonio in 1970 to attend the University of Texas. He took a grocery-store approach, picking hours from the academic aisles for about seven years. In that time he also worked as a Volkswagen mechanic and managed a couple of natural-food shops, the Hobbit Hole and the Good Food Store.
"In the early to mid-'70s there were probably, within a three-mile radius of the original Whole Foods at 10th (Street) and Lamar (Boulevard), 15 little natural-food stores," Skiles said.
But he and friend Craig Weller felt like there was room for a better one, and in 1977 they started Clarksville Natural Grocery on West Lynn Street where Galaxy Cafe is now. A man named John Mackey ran a competing store called Safer Way. He approached Skiles and Weller about combining stores, and Whole Foods was born in 1980. Maybe you've heard of the place.
Skiles left Whole Foods in 1985, before it skyscrapered like an organic Transformer. He took the next five years to travel Europe and the States to figure out the next step.
The next step turned out to be pizza. "I would spend days walking around Manhattan, eating pizza, going from one shop to the next," Skiles said, learning about ovens and dough and techniques. He also hit Boston, Chicago and Berkeley, Calif. "The first pizza I made wasn't very good. But the second pizza was really pretty good."
In 1990, Skiles opened Pizza Nizza on Barton Springs Road, where Austin Java is now. For 14 years, he ran a sit-down pizza place, serving his own dough and sauce recipes on tables he built himself. But the logistics of a full-service operation and the cost of that space on Restaurant Row drove him a few miles west to 2712 Bee Cave Road in Rollingwood in 2004, when Pizza Nizza dropped table service and became a catering, takeout and delivery shop.
One price fits all
One of the biggest changes in the pizza delivery business has been the one-price-any-pizza movement, at least among the chains. Papa John's, Gatti's, Domino's, Pizza Hut - each place will bring you a loaded large pizza for $10 or less.
Those are the deep-pocket guys. But Skiles has decided to bring some home-grown heat to compete: $8.99 for any pizza, any size. Just like that, my favorite Pizza Nizza pie, anchored by artichoke hearts and feta cheese, dropped to half its usual $17.99.
"Nobody likes to cut their prices in half," Skiles said. "But part of what I look at is what the 'big boys' do. I'm already at a disadvantage because there's nobody in town that can't whistle the Gatti's jingle."
He's relying on pasta, salads and sides to make up the difference. They already count for half his business, especially a penne pasta with chicken and pesto cream. "If I was just selling pizzas, I'd have been out of business a long time ago," Skiles said.
The chicken penne is serious food, luscious and herbal, with chunks of roasted chicken with housemade basil pesto and cream sauce, tossed to order in a flaming sauté pan with pasta and fresh mushrooms. The Wednesday I worked, manager Steve Foster and his crew fielded a handful of orders for that dish, plus lasagna, mac and cheese and a chicken parm that's not even on the menu anymore. There were pizzas, sure, but when the order tickets started chattering, they read like a mobile Italian bistro.
The street team
The weather presents a pizza paradox. The sloppier and more dangerous it is for the drivers who run the pies, the more we want them. Ice and snow, meet mushroom and pepperoni.
"The worse the weather, the better off we are," Skiles said. The drivers didn't have that problem the day I was there.
Jacob Borshard is an art teacher and ukulele performer. His two-tone Mazda Miata sports a wide blue stripe like a Ford GT racer with big white circles and the number 38. It's like riding in the Mach 5. On a delivery to the swim center in Rollingwood, Marla Dahlin tells us Pizza Nizza is known affectionately around her house as "pool pizza."
Greg Klein has been driving for Pizza Nizza for two years. The Albuquerque transplant says it's a good way to learn the city streets. We figured out that he was one of the sushi chefs when I reviewed the Japanese restaurant Kyoto last year. He's also a freelance magazine editor.
The drivers talk about one customer who sometimes forgets to wear pants to the front door, but otherwise their deliveries are pretty tame. In my freshman year at UT, some knuckle-draggers I knew pushed a pizza guy into an apartment pool after pulling his shirt over his head.
Not much of that happening in Rollingwood, where the biggest fear would be a resurgence of low-carb dieting. The last Atkins peak cost Pizza Nizza about 30 percent of its business, Skiles said.
Maybe they shouldn't count on a bump from "Dancing with the Stars."
Taste the franchise
I gave each of these four chains two chances to make an impression (three, in the case of Domino's). I ordered from an apartment in the 78701 ZIP code. The first pizza was a thin-crust pepperoni, the nation's most popular pizza order. The second was a freestyle pick, based on what looked good from the online menus. The chains are listed first to last in order of preference. Papa John's won the pepperoni and freestyle categories, and Domino's scored last in both categories. Pizza Hut came in second, and Gatti's took third.
www.papajohns.com. 16 locations within 20 miles of 78701.
Delivery time: 19 minutes
Delivery fee: $2
The deal: Any pizza, any size for $10. I 'Papa-Sized' the freestyle pizza to an extra large for $2 more.
The experience: The lack of a central ordering number means hunting through the phone book or going online to plug in your ZIP code for the store locator. The online menu was easy to follow, the order-taker was polite and efficient and the delivery driver was the most professional of the group.
Pepperoni: Not especially pretty. A little greasy and overbrowned. But the crust was crisp and sturdy with a toasty flavor, and the sauce had a sweet edge against mild pepperoni. I'm not saying it was a great pizza, just better than its competitors.
Freestyle: An extra-large, thick-crust 'The Works,' with pepperoni, ham, Italian sausage, onions, green peppers, mushrooms and black olives. The extra-large pie measured just one inch wider than the large, so at most we got 16 percent more pie instead of the promised 30 percent. But it came hot, with a well-browned crust like a crunchy pillow and a big tumble of toppings, including good ham and crisp veggies.
Delivery time: 22 minutes
Delivery fee: $2.50
The deal: Any pizza, any size for $10.
The experience: How easy is 444-4444? Call that number, and you're a ZIP code entry away from your nearest store. The website is cumbersome. The driver was in uniform, had decent people skills and was able to make change.
Pepperoni: Large Pepperoni Lover's on a 'Thin 'N Crispy' crust. The pizza was hot and uniform in appearance, the crust dry at the edges, oily in the middle with a crisp, flaky, consistency like phyllo dough. The good news is that there was lots of pepperoni. That's the bad news, too.
Freestyle: Large Chicken Supreme (grilled chicken breast, green peppers, red onions and mushrooms) on a hand-tossed crust. Ready for its closeup, among the prettiest pies of the night. A wide-collared crust, doughy and sweet. The chicken was dry and bland, but I got good sweet crunch from the onions and peppers.
459-2222, www.gattispizza.com. 28 locations within 20 miles of 78701.
Delivery time: One hour. Out of nine pizzerias, Gatti's took the longest, even though the closest location was just around the corner.
Delivery fee: $2
The deal: A 'Crave More, Save More' menu gives you a choice of seven well-appointed large pizzas for $9 each.
The experience: The order-taker saved me some money by allowing a change on one of the 'Crave More' pizzas, something the website says is a no-no. The driver was frazzled but willing to walk back down three flights of stairs to get a receipt (I thought better of that). I dare you not to hear the '459' song in your head right now.
Pepperoni: Barely warm, with a crackly crust the consistency of a flour tortilla. Plenty of pepperoni with high spice notes.
Freestyle: Large 'Treehugger' with mushrooms, bell peppers and sliced tomatoes on a multigrain crust. So this must be why cardboard is brown; it's multigrain. Generous tomato coverage and sweetness, but not much else to recommend.
Delivery time: 23 minutes
Delivery fee: $2.50
The deal: Any pizza any size for $9.99. Plus two medium two-topping pizzas for $5.99 each.
The experience: I'd rather find a delivery shop using just my ZIP code than a full address, and there's not a central phone number. The math didn't add up properly on my bill, and the driver didn't have a receipt. In fact, the driver didn't say a thing when I opened the door. He just looked at the bag, then looked at me. The rest of the transaction was up to me.
Pepperoni: A large Ultimate Pepperoni Feast on a 'Crunchy Thin' crust. The worst pizza of the 19 pies I had delivered. It smelled like feet and looked like a wound. The toppings were built out to the very edge, and it was cut into little kids'-table rectangles. The website neither shows nor mentions that kind of presentation.
Freestyle One and Two: Medium hand-tossed with Italian sausage and mushrooms. Medium deep-dish with spinach and feta cheese. If Domino's has improved its crust and flavor, I can't imagine how disappointing it must have been before. Neither pizza had enough sauce to wet the surface of the puffy crusts, one of which had been brushed with an oily spice and herb rub. Extra points for offering spinach and feta but not enough to save Domino's from a last-place finish.
- Mike Sutter