Amid a blizzard of trendy pizzerias, this longtime family favorite in West Portal holds its own
DINE The current pizza vogue reminds us that pizza is always in vogue. Pizza is timeless; have you ever met anyone, or even heard of anyone, who doesn't like it? Yet the welter of new and ballyhooed pizzerias, in all their worthiness, can sometimes make us overlook the older, time-tested spots like Cathy and Sal Alioto's Paradise Pizza and Pasta at the edge of West Portal.
Paradise has been "family owned and operated since 1989," according to the menu card, and that's a lot of restaurant years. (Restaurant years are even briefer and more brutal than dog years, which is saying something.) The restaurant also claims to offer the "best crust in the city." This is a complex matter in which personal taste inevitably figures, as we shall see.
But first, the setting. It's clean and modernish, with a semi-exhibition kitchen and bright green tabletops illuminated by a small spotlight in the ceiling — a mercy for those of us who were born before, oh, let's say 1989, and now have difficulty reading menus by the dim light in so many of our more au courant restaurants. The interior design does contain one oddity, and that is the large fish composed of pizza pans mounted above the kitchen. It looks like some sort of Christian symbol while implying that the restaurant is some sort of seafood house, which it isn't.
Which isn't to say there aren't glimpses of seafood on the menu. There are, including sautéed shrimp, fettuccine with shrimp, and shrimp on a pizza. Ahi even turns up occasionally, in tissue-thin flaps, almost like prosciutto — on a plate of bruschetta ($10.95) in the company of caramelized onions and juicy, late-season tomatoes.
The pizza crusts strike a nice balance between anorexic (in vogue at the moment) and foccacia-puffy, which I have always found to be bloating as well as flaccid when soggy. Paradise's crusts are thin and crisp enough to hold a firm point (with good chewiness) while flashing some well-blistered puff along the edges.
As for toppings: they come pre-bundled for your convenience, under a variety of alluring names (all containing the word "paradise"), or you can put together your own consortium, starting from $10.95 and rising in increments from $1 to $1.50 per extra topping, depending on the size of the pizza. The ingredients, although not exotic, are fresh and vivid, the Italian sausage in particular, which skillfully balances the assertiveness of its two principal players, garlic and fennel seed.
The triumph of the pizza over the calzone in this country is something of a mystery to me. Does it have to do with the comparative ease of cutting up a pizza into slices for sharing, whereas a calzone is usually too big to be a finger or hand food? Paradise's calzoni (all $12.95) are splendid to look at, each a sizable mezzaluna bulging with tasty goodies and with a subtle sheen, like that of a good (if blistered) brioche, on the outside. The salsiccia edition, filled with crumbled Italian sausage, chopped mushrooms, and mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, would pretty easily be enough for two people, especially if preceded by a starter course of some kind.
One such course we weren't impressed with was a cream of artichoke soup ($4). The soup was certainly creamy — indeed, it seemed to be nothing but creamy, as though the kitchen had poured a carton of half and half into a pan and gently heated it. We did detect a faint hint of lemon in all that unorganized richness, but of the headlining ingredient ... bupkes.