Monday, January 27, 2014

Arbutus: Pizza Paradise of the southwest

"The meaning of pizza is convenience"

Pizza Paradise
5411 East Dr, Halethorpe, MD

Sorrento's of Arbutus
5401 East Dr, Halethorpe, MD

It's suburban Maryland: neighborhoods, schools, nameless warehouses, seafood shacks, strip malls, installations of the security state, shining white surveillance blimps overhead. Where to get pizza? Nestled in the crook of I-95 and the Beltway is Pizza Paradise. It's a convenient drive from both UMBC and the National Security Agency's Friendship Annex.

I read some Yelp reviews of Pizza Paradise, where people claimed that the pizza poisoned them and their dogs and mutated their genes such that their offspring were born horrible frog-creatures. This isn't true. I mean, I didn't see their frog-creature offspring since Arbutus was pretty deserted on Tuesday night, but the pizza was fine.  Most of these reviewers recommended going to the Domino's Pizza across the street from Pizza Paradise, which helps us understand where they're coming from, and why we should not listen to them.

Pizza Paradise is a large open shack-style establishment with humming overhead lights, dingy booths, and gigantic maps of the delivery area taped to the walls. We drove through the deep-frozen polar vortex night to get there -- everyone else was busy plundering Safeway in preparation for an expected five inches of snow -- and it's dark out there in the suburbs, and the windows of the houses are like cold dead eyes.  The main drag of Arbutus, around the intersection of Sulphur Spring, East Dr., and Oregon Ave., was thankfully illuminated and showed signs of life.

"Sometimes the crust even sprouts bubbles, allowing for a light, flaky consistency that will have anyone coming back."
 The proprietors of Pizza Paradise were friendly and joked with us as we wavered indecisively over the menu. They offer some specialty options, but the word on Pizza Paradise is that the sauce is the most important thing they do, so we ordered a cheese pie to get a clean sample. After a few minutes wait, we were served a pizza that was crisp on the bottom, soft and chewy in crust, and topped with a subtle but spicy sauce. "I would definitely get takeout if I lived around here," Katy said. "It's a little greasy, but in the way that you'd want it to be." Layne noted that the grease seemed to emanate from the molten cheese -- i.e., naturally-occurring rather than poured on top, as some places feel compelled to do. Katy had eaten at Pizza Paradise before and remembered the sauce being spicier, but upon eating a leftover slice the next day, she reported that it increases in spice when chilled.

Among the few people we encountered in Arbutus were a gaggle of local teens who came into Pizza Paradise for chicken cheese steaks. They were confused about why we were talking to them, but expressed positive feelings about the pizza. It is not excellent pizza, but it's better than a lot of the corner take-out places in Baltimore, and the spicy sauce makes it "a little bit special."

Sorrento's veggie (L) and shrimp (R)
 Since we came all the way to Arbutus (or Halethorpe -- which is it? Different maps and signs say different things), we decided to sample another one of its pizza sources. A block down from the humble Pizza Paradise is a large, shiny, "family style" establishment called Sorrento's. Sorrento's has been around since the 1970s, and seems to be a good citizen of Arbutus, with many ye olde photos and portraits of local notables on its walls. Sorrento's is more of a hangout, with beer on tap, lots of booths, a small arcade area, and a stack of those gumball machine things with toys in them.

Gazing into the future of the past
 This was definitely a more comfortable place to hang out than Pizza Paradise, which mainly does delivery and pick-up. However, their pizza, like the establishment itself, reflected a 1970s understanding of food. Pizza Club thought that the crust was both too thin and too doughy, and was covered with too much of an "unremarkable" sweet tomato sauce. They offer many special pies overloaded with toppings, which is what American pizza does to convince the customer of its value in the absence of flavor.

"Styles, colors, and sounds."
We ordered a veggie pie, which fell into the "salad-on-a-pizza" category; all the ingredients were fresh, but the pizza underneath them was not worth eating, so why not just get a salad if you want to feel healthy. The other pie, plain cheese with shrimp, had good shrimp. Why not just eat shrimp with a piece of bread?

"Pizza is a magical thing in the hearts and minds of men, women, and children."
What would a Pizza Paradise actually look like? It seems that one person's Pizza Paradise could be another person's Pizza Hell. My understanding is that Pizza Paradise is a kind of quest, calling us ever further from safe, familiar harbors, out into the unknown, wandering blindly through the suburban night.

Pizza Paradise: 4.5/8 slices
Sorrento's: 4/8 slices