No man's pie is freed from his ambitious finger," Shakespeare wrote in King Henry VIII, and though I'm not exactly sure what that means, I'm sure there are scores of you out there with digits as desirous as mine when it comes to pies layered with tomato sauce and mozzarella.
So, given that 'tis the season for pizza (October is National Pizza Month), and that 93 percent of us eat at least one pizza every month, we thought it fitting to pay a visit to a trio of the nearly 70,000 pizzerias scattered across the country.
First stop: Alfonso's Pizza & More. The once-venerable, once-independent College Park pizza joint was recently taken over by the Anthony's Pizza clan — that is, the members of the estranged family that run Anthony's Pizza Café in Thornton Park, not Li'l Anthony's on Colonial Drive, who claim to have the original family recipe for their N.Y.-style pizza. And though the name remains unchanged, Alfonso's Pizza & Less would be more apt a moniker. In the not-too-distant past, these guys served up some of the best pie in the city — just peruse the accolades adorning the brick walls if you need proof. But now, those kind words aren't worth the paper they're printed on.
Though the sauce on my cheese slice ($1.99) had an adequate zing, and the overall flavor was passable, the crust lacked any semblance of the crispness characteristic of top-notch New York-style pizza. Even if you're a folder, you'd be hard-pressed to keep your slice from flopping.
So my yearning for sustenance had me perusing the menu. The wings ($3.99), ordered "as hot as you can make 'em," couldn't rouse my tastebuds from their oral slumber and failed to elicit a single pang, pop or pow. The handful of ridiculously greasy flappers were overcooked and fried to the bone, though I will say that the three celery sticks were served the way I like them — washed. Unfortunately, the accompanying container of blue cheese dressing was already open, and half-empty, when it arrived at my table. Not sure if it was used previously or not, but our waitress was nice enough to replace it when I brought it to her attention.
Service was quick and prompt, but even that positive element was negated by the blare of Fox News on one of the dining room's two televisions. In the name of all that's good in this city, bring back the old Alfonso's.
Next, it was off to Pizza Xtreme, housed in an isolated strip mall adjacent to a Shell gas station on one of the few barren quarters of the tourist sector: Kirkman Road and Carrier Drive. Pizza Xtreme isn't new — they've been around for about six years — but they dish out a damn decent pie. The sauce is made from scratch; the dough is hand-stretched and tossed (a glove in the face of competitors using preformed crusts); and toppings, including pineapple, are cut fresh. The result is the quintessence of pizza.
You'll inhale the wondrous and inescapable waft of oregano as you sink your teeth in, though I did notice a variance between the medium traditional pizza ($7.95) and pizza by the slice ($1.35). The crust of the latter was significantly thinner and its herbaceous sauce more salty. In addition, the slices barely passed the breakfast test the following morning — they were OK, but hardly fulfilling. Circle beats the triangle here.
You can also choose to take your pizza to meaty extremes — the "Xtreme pepperoni" resembles Jessica Simpson's pre-Proactiv puss with its copious rounds of meat. As the menu says, "You'll starve to death first if you try to count them all."
An added bonus are the dirt-cheap prices on specials — $3.95 will get you a couple of fair-sized slices and a drink; a personal pizza with three toppings and a drink goes for $5.95, as does a 12-inch calzone with one topping and a soda.
Finally, it was back to College Park to sample the much-ballyhooed pies at the American Pie Pizza Company & Draft House. The concept chain plays up the whole Don McLean/classic-rock angle with concert photomurals and album covers emblazoned on the walls. Distractions are at a maximum as well, with mounted flatscreens beaming music videos and award-winning short films. Even PlayStation freaks can get their game on using the wireless controllers at every table.
The vast menu of salads, sandwiches, wings, wraps, pastas and calzones is enough to satisfy the appetites of teenagers stopping in from nearby Edgewater High, but it's the hand-tossed N.Y.-style pizzas that attract families to the former Habana Joe's location.
The more-sweet-than-spicy sauce on the medium cheese pizza ($9.99) was pleasantly redolent, and the Brooklyn-crisp crust a tad flaky. No flopping here. The American pie ($15.99) doesn't skimp on the pepperoni, sausage and olives, while whole-wheat rectangular flatbreads, a la Seasons 52, will cater to diners who are more foo-foo than Flatbush.
AP's slices also held their own the day after — the stiff boards of congealed sauce and cheese were a pleasure to chomp on. (Really.) Suggestion: Dip your slice into some habanero hot sauce for a little day- after burn.
I have to mention the American apple pie ($4.25), not because it's particularly great, but because it's a true exercise in doughy endurance. It's essentially an apple-stuffed calzone drizzled with caramel and dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon, but if you can finish it, consider yourself proud to be American.