Sunday, February 24, 2013

Nuke the Whales

Peace a Pizza
15 Mellor Avenue, Catonsville, MD

Let me begin this review with a mea culpa. One should never trust one's faded childhood memories over the present-day testimony of trusted friends and associates who have one's best interests at heart. Although People Who Would Know reported unfortunate incidents at the Catonsville Peace a Pizza and strongly discouraged us from trying it, I, in pursuit of a misguided nostalgia or the phantom of youthful innocence, insisted that it was a good idea to drive half an hour to Catonsville for this pizza. As a direct result of my actions, people ate pizza that was not particularly good. But that's how it is - this is the duty of Pizza Club, whose adherents bravely eat unknown pizza so that others may benefit from our experience, be it harrowing or exalted.

Some history: Peace a Pizza was founded in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, not far from where I grew up. There was some kind of vague hippie branding to it, although as far as I can discern, the business has no affiliations with the counterculture. I think they went for the hippie thing because they put green vegetables on their pies, which was novel at the time. This was probably like 1990 or so, when there was NO SUCH THING AS GOURMET PIZZA. Pizza was fast food. Pizza Hut and Dominoes were the big players. In a town like mine, there was also a crappy pizza parlor on every block, but as a kid you wanted the Domino's pizza, because they had TV commercials, and tasted like processed plasticine runoff. Peace a Pizza entered this food ecosystem with new ideas - put things like goat cheese, pesto, baked ziti, hamburgers, etc. on a pizza. It was zany! When they started opening franchise locations, the unifying theme was tie-dye and the neon sign that says, "Sorry We're Open." There was a location in Ardmore, PA, where me and my friends would hang out there and feel smarter than everyone else (unifying theme of my teen years). I remember the pizza being pretty good, but what do I know.

So they recently opened a Peace a Pizza franchise in Catonsville, which Pizza Club's Pennsylvania expatriates were keen to try out. Catonsville is pretty cool. It has a nice little main street area with music shops and bars and restaurants - would be very nice to walk around when not on a pizza mission. Peace a Pizza is positioned not on this historic main street, but around a corner in a boxy stucco building in the middle of a parking lot. It looks like a great place to take your kids after soccer. 
We ordered our pies in advance, on the advice of the Peace a Pizza staff, since they close at 8.30pm on weeknights (which seems crazy, but whatever). This may have had a negative impact on our experience, as I suspect that the pies were cooked sometime earlier and then reheated when we got there at 8. Lunch may be their optimum pizza-quality time.
discoursing on pizza networks

In an attempt to balance novelty with pizza staples, we ordered an eggplant parmesan, a vegetable primavera, an "upside-down," and a mac-and-cheese pizza. All of these will run you about $16 for a fourteen-inch or $18 for a sixteen-inch pie. This is pretty much what you'd pay in Baltimore City for actual gourmet pizza prepared by a person who has obsessively studied traditional Neapolitan pizza-making, which is very confusing. In fairness, we should note that they advertise "Gourmet-Style" pizza, rather than actual gourmet pizza, making the charade all the more consensual on the part of those who move to the suburbs and consent to pay for this stuff. The interior of Peace a Pizza was sparse and brightly-colored, full of smooth plastic surfaces. Chris said that it reminded him of high school, which is kind of the point, but why do we do this to ourselves? Some were bothered by a non-specific humming noise in the background.

The crust was somewhere between deep-dish and regular, thick and pillowy in places, with some spice to it. Moira praised it as "bread that you want to eat" as opposed to dry boring crusts on thinner pies. Others found it "aggressively doughy." It definitely had a thick skin on the bottom - we were unable to cut slices in half with a plastic knife - but this could be a reheating problem. Likewise, the cheese was pretty much solidified and didn't have anything distinctive about it. The sauce was sweet and bland, also congealed. An advantage of this pizza is that it lacks the vast pools of grease found on standard pizza parlor pies. It might be kind of healthy, who knows.

vegetable primavera
The vegetable primavera was a jumble of discarded vegetable parts from the pre-cut-and-bagged vegetable junkyard. As Moira tried a slice of this one, Chris observed, "I can see the joy draining from your face." We agreed, however, that it could be worse.
Eggplant parm

The eggplant parmesan pizza was weirdly grainy due to the breading on the eggplant. Its design seemed to have functionality in mind - it was a stout slice, solidified and not prone to bending or sliding. However, in terms of taste it was "an oil spill," according to Dan. The group was "completely underwhelmed."
"upside down"

I ordered an "upside-down" pie because this is supposed to be a wacky novelty thing that Peace a Pizza does. I never tried it in high school because why would you do that? It's pizza with the cheese under the sauce. The taste of this pizza was summarized as "Bagel Bites."

mac and cheese uggggh why
The mac-and-cheese pizza was the standout of the evening, as in, it was "the favorite of a not very inspiring bunch." Franco found it "delicious and decadent - exceeds expectations." Let's clarify: this is a pizza with white sauce and cheese, and then, on top of that, ziti pasta with more alfredo sauce and cheese. Embracing the overkill seems to be a strong point of PaP. "Gourmet" pizza is no longer the correct word for what they do, since a gourmet pizza industry has developed over the past ten years that puts vegetables on pizza in a way that tastes good. "Novelty pizza" would better capture their strengths. They're like, "heyyyyy woah let's put mac and cheese on pizza" and then they do it and it's a bad trip for the arteries but it's so loaded with cheese and starch that it can't taste bad. Maggie termed this strategy "an embracing of flavorlessness."
this pizza will not be divided

 This might be a franchise issue, I'll have to check next time I'm in suburban Pennsylvania. Because multiple people remember that pizza being much better than the pizza we ate in Catonsville. "Once Peace a Pizza leaves PA, it's not the same," Moira observed, though she attested that they still have great salads, and their partner business, Hope's Cookies, still sells good cookies out of this location.

"It's totally standard college pizza," Chris concluded. The staff were mostly high school and college-aged kids, and PaP is a pretty decent place to work during that time of life, in the suburbs, trying to save money for a car. I must make a concession to the gourmet pizza freaks who ship all their expensive ingredients from Italy and go on intensive pizza-making retreats and sing to their dough while it rises: it is not a totally mindless task to make a good pizza. This is a craft; suburban teens do not know how to make good pizza. Fortunately, if my memory is any testament, suburban teens also don't know or care what good pizza tastes like. "Good" is a relative thing. Sometimes you just need a place to hang out that's got food and some guy you have a crush on works there.
a riddle that cannot be solved

"I applaud them for their audacity," said Franco, "but this whole experience was like a riddle that I couldn't solve." Indeed. That's because there are no answers, only more mind-expanding questions and an endlessly-receding horizon of human possibility. But really, guys, could you make better pizza, like we remember it from Pennsylvania?

2/8 slices