With each passing year, I am less and less enamored with stuff at Christmas time. I don’t need a plasma TV or a picture phone. I don’t need a Porsche or the latest Palm Pilot. Nope, all I really want for Christmas is a pizza—a great one.
A great pizza begins with a brick oven, preferably wood fired. That’s half the battle.
When I speak of great pizzas, I’m talking about the thin, crispy crust pizzas you find in places like Naples and New York. They’re slightly irregular in shape, with charred spots on the crust here and there, and taste much better than they look.
I’m thinking specifically of places like John’s Pizzeria on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, a dive of a place that attracts the likes of Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone and Frank Sinatra (when he was alive) to the best pizza in the universe. Arturo’s on Houston Street bordering on New York’s SoHo is another favorite, and the only pizza joint I know of besides Shakey’s with a living, breathing piano player in the corner working for tips. Unlike Shakey’s, this guy plays Monk and Tom Waits. Then, there are the amazing brick-oven pizzas from Pizzeria Regina’s in Boston’s North End (their secret is the sourdough starter) and a couple places in New Haven, the names of which I’ve forgotten, but might be called Sally’s or Pepe’s or both.
Making really good pizza isn’t rocket science or even kitchen science. It’s easier than making a soufflÃ©. There are really just three keys: the crust, the toppings and heat. The crusts should be almost wafer thin and crispy. The toppings should be of high quality (fresh mozzarella and San Marzano Roma tomatoes come to mind) and not piled on with abandon. Since a good pizza is as much about the crust as anything else, why bury a great crust with massive amounts of cheese, pepperoni, and such? But probably the most important element in making a world-class pizza pie is heat, and lots of it. Commercial brick ovens cook pizzas at temperatures around 700 degrees, considerably hotter than you can achieve at home. That additional heat makes all the difference.
When I travel back East for visits, John’s, Arturo’s, Regina’s and the like are always on my hit list, just ahead of hoity-toity restaurants like The Four Seasons, Daniel and Aureole. But when I haven’t visited the East coast in a while, I start Jonesing for brick-oven pizza. That’s when I head down to Provo. Yes, I go to Provo for pizza.
When what is now Provo’s Brick Oven opened in 1956, it was called Heaps of Pizza. Over the years, Heaps of Pizza grew and morphed into Brick Oven, but it still retains some of the small-town charm it must have had in 1956. Especially when it comes to service, which is about as friendly as you’ll find.
Brick Oven doesn’t just serve pizza. In fact, there’s a terrific pasta bar ($5.95) where guests can select from a dozen or so types of pasta—from fettuccine and farfalle to fusilli—as well as numerous sauces. I especially enjoy Brick Oven’s homemade meat sauce, a rich thick red sauce swimming with chunks of Italian sausage. It’s great on top of the homemade lasagna ($5.95) at Brick Oven. Another Brick Oven attraction is baked calzones. I’m especially partial to the sausage and pepperoni calzone ($5.25), a crispy baked dough shell stuffed with sausage, pepperoni, mozzarella and ricotta cheese, tomato, onion, green bell pepper, mushroom and black olives. They’re not small; I’ve never been able to eat an entire Brick Oven calzone in one sitting.
I don’t know what Brick Oven looked like when it was Heaps of Pizza. But I’ll bet it didn’t have the all-too-generic look that the restaurant sports today. Brick Oven tends to look like a franchise restaurant—Applebee’s or Chili’s perhaps—even though it’s individually owned. The abundance of green in particular in the restaurant gets nauseating, which is why I get my Brick Oven pizzas to go. There’s free parking directly in front of the take-out counter at Brick Oven, so dashing in and out for a pizza pickup is quick and easy. If you happen to live in Provo, Brick Oven also has home delivery.
As I said, the pastas and calzones and even the salads at Brick Oven are better than you might expect. But the real attraction—and the only reason I’d drive all the way to Provo for dinner—is the pizza. Pizza prices range from $4.85 for a six-slice 10-inch single topping pizza to $17.85 for an extra-large four-topping pie. By the way, with each large or extra-large pizza, Brick Oven throws in a free 2-liter bottle of its homemade root beer. Pizza toppings include staples like Italian sausage, mushrooms, Canadian bacon, and fresh or cooked tomatoes, but you can also choose to garnish your pizza pie with more exotic items like almonds, pineapple, banana peppers and sun-dried tomatoes.
Personally, when it comes to pizza, I believe less is more. Again, I don’t want to bury that delicious Brick Oven crust. So I usually order a pie with nothing more than cheese and perhaps red-onion slices. If I’m really feeling wild and crazy, I might add ground beef. By the way, for heathens, Brick Oven also offers deep-dish Chicago-style pizzas. For reasons I can’t understand, though, Brick Oven doesn’t make a classic Margherita pizza—which is a shame. So sometimes I just order a gigantic cheese pizza to go and apply my own fresh basil at home. Thankfully, Brick Oven pizzas travel well.
BRICK OVEN, 111 E. 800 North, Provo, 801-374-8800, Lunch & Dinner, Monday-Saturday