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2 Savorly, Neighborly Pizzerias Worth a Trip

AZ Central
Howard Seftel

Residents of two Valley neighborhoods can now confidently put a check mark next to pizza/pasta place. La Piazza al Forno and Pizza a Metro offer such a tempting combination of quality and value that even with gas at $4.20 a gallon, folks outside the neighborhood might consider making a trip.

What makes for a good neighborhood? Superior schools, pretty parks and low crime rates surely belong on any list.

Residents of two Valley neighborhoods can now confidently put a check mark next to pizza/pasta place. La Piazza al Forno and Pizza a Metro offer such a tempting combination of quality and value that even with gas at $4.20 a gallon, folks outside the neighborhood might consider making a trip.

La Piazza al Forno

"The pizza is good if you order takeout," chef-owner Justin Piazza assured me, "but it's amazing if you eat it here, right out of the oven."

He's right. His terrific wood-fueled-brick-oven pizza has single-handedly put downtown Glendale on the Valley's pizza map.

This is not designer pizza. The mildly chewy crust isn't fashionably ultrathin and blistered. It's got a bit of gratifying heft - enough so you can put aside fork and knife and hold a slice in your hands. And, except for arugula, you won't find any trendy toppings: no barbecued chicken, no goat cheese, no roasted sunchokes.

What you will find is one of the best white pizzas ($12, 14 inches) anywhere, handsomely laden with fresh mozzarella, ricotta, basil and enough garlic to keep your mouth happy long after you've finished chewing.

Piazza also steered me to a fabulous combination, the basic margherita ($11) crowned with prosciutto ($2) and caramelized onions ($2). What a powerhouse: sweet, meaty and salty. And how nice to find a pizza maker who doesn't stingily apply toppings with tweezers and an eyedropper.

While La Piazza al Forno shines principally as a pizzeria, several pasta dishes can make you pause over the alternatives. Linguine with red clam sauce ($10) is a real surprise, marked by a vivid marinara and a heap of tender clams. Lasagna ($9) has old-country appeal, while the rigatoni al forno ($10), generously tossed with grilled chicken, broccoli, artichokes and mozzarella, will please you not only tonight, but also tomorrow, when you eat the leftovers for lunch.

Not everything, however, inspires cartwheels. Chicken parmigiano ($10) is somewhat leathery; the mealy-textured sausage in the rigatoni Napoli ($10) is off-putting; the meatball sandwich ($6) is sabotaged by lousy bread; and pedestrian appetizers like stuffed shrimp ($7) and antipasto ($8) return little bang for your buck.

But the big-time homemade desserts get dinner back on track. How can you not smile over the dozen piping-hot zeppole ($3), Italian fritters sprinkled with powdered sugar? There's also a superb homemade cheesecake ($4), very rich and creamy. And though the exceptional Italian almond wine cake ($3) looks very plain, one moist, flavorful bite will convince you that looks aren't everything.

Set in what used to be a sandwich shop, La Piazza al Forno exudes little ethnic energy. While the room is neat and tidy, it's hard to imagine that much capital went into the wood-paneled walls, plastic-covered tablecloths and chintzy silverware. So if it's Italian atmosphere you crave, stay home and stick a candle in a Chianti bottle and put on a Dean Martin CD. But unless you can make pizza, pasta and dessert like La Piazza, it's not a trade-off that makes sense.

Pizza a Metro

There's no shortage of Italian pizzazz at Pizza a Metro. It comes in the form of Maurizio Benforte, the effervescent chef-owner, who conveys a real passion for his work.

Even though she's not physically here, his wife also is a presence. She painted one wall with a colorful mural of Benforte's hometown of Sorrento and supplied the striking, hand-painted ceramic plateware inscribed with the restaurant's name. His energy plus her touches help to make this small place - just 20 seats - way nicer than you might expect from an unlovely midcity retail-strip storefront near an Interstate-17 on-ramp.

The food does its part, too. There aren't too many wood-fired, brick pizza ovens in this part of town, and Benforte gets the most out of his.

He uses it to bake fabulous bread, served with caponata, a luscious Sicilian eggplant relish. Frankly, the bread and caponata overshadow the appetizers they're meant to supplement. You won't remember anything about the nondescript antipasto ($8.50) and Caesar salad ($4.95) two minutes after you eat them. The grilled calamari ($7.95), however, is skillfully prepared, tender and aromatic.

The pizza, too, is very well-crafted. (The "a Metro" in the restaurant's name refers to the largest size, which measures 1 meter long - 39 inches. You may need help getting the takeout box in your car.) Benforte's pizza has a moderately thin crust that could be just a touch crispier. The oven does particularly delightful things to vegetables: The topping-heavy vegetarian pizza ($13.95, about 14 inches) sends the scents of roasted eggplant, artichokes, zucchini, mushrooms, olives and peppers wafting through the air. The pizza stacked with prosciutto and arugula ($14.95) is just as fetching, aided by a sweet, deftly seasoned tomato sauce.

The oven also produces a top-notch calzone ($8.50), filled with steaming mozzarella and ricotta cheese, mushrooms, peas and bits of tomato.

Homemade pastas ($8.95) are another draw. The veal cannelloni smothered with Alfredo sauce is the kind of dish that nutritionists like to call a "heart attack on a plate." Maybe, but clogged arteries seem like a reasonable price to pay. Gnocchi, a lighter alternative, is just as tasty, brightened by a peppery tomato sauce. And although the lasagna here isn't your usual heavy Italian-American wedge, there's no stinting on the cheesy, beefy oomph.

Other dishes don't always measure up. In two instances, the kitchen simply wasn't paying attention. I adore eggplant parmigiana ($8.50), but not when the eggplant is woefully undercooked. Spaghetti with sausage ($8.50) was too salty to fully enjoy.

And sometimes, the dishes are just snoozy. Marsala-accented pollo saltimbocca topped with prosciutto, sage and mozzarella sounds like a steal at $8.95. But when the flavors don't come through, it's just a dull chicken breast.

But Benforte did whip up a nifty special on one of my visits, a New York steak draped with gorgonzola cream sauce teamed with roasted potatoes ($15.95). In this age of $30-plus steaks, it's an affordable crowd-pleaser.

So are desserts ($4.95), a worthy tiramisu and first-rate cannoli.

Benforte plans to open a branch this fall in Scottsdale, at 90th Street and East Via Linda. It's the kind of neighborhood-improvement project we can all get behind.

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