David size, Goliath flavor
Tony, the sauce-slinger and namesake of Tony’s Pizza, learned his Italian grandmother's cucina skills by way of his mother. He works from a tiny kitchen on the corner of Tijeras and Seventh Street, where he pushes pies out to diners seated in one of the seven tables that make up his restaurant.
Tony's menu is sized to fit. It's small but satisfying, and nearly everything on it is made from scratch. Garlicky marinara sauce is simmered on the stove, and meatballs are hand-rolled and pan-fried. Every corner of the restaurant is saturated with the telltale aromas of home-cooking.
Coupled with a simple décor—blue gingham tablecloths covering wood booths and a smattering of Rat Pack candids—the place is a jewel box of Italian-American homeyness. Behind the counter, resting atop an icebox, is an old turntable that when spun sends Dean Martin dancing through the dining room. It's like being in your uncle's living room.
There’s nothing fancy here. No bells and whistles, no fusion cuisine: just uncomplicated pizzas and pastas prepared with simplicity in mind. The pizzas are hand-tossed from homemade dough. And while watching discs of dough fly toward the ceiling is impressive in its own right, nothing can prepare you for the experience of biting into the crust after it’s pulled from the oven. The outer shell is crisp and flaky, giving way to a center that's chewy, dense and fruity with good olive oil.
Tony may have learned a lot from his mama, but the tender dough can be credited to a friend from the Fano Bread Company. Twelve years ago, Fano owner Michael Rizzo made Tony an offer he couldn't refuse: He claimed he could make Tony's pizzas better. Rizzo turned Tony on to specially milled flour—a kind of low-gluten bread flour. The end result is a consistent, crackling crust with a thickness that calls to mind grilled focaccia.
Both the pizzas (starting at $5.50 for the smallest) and calzones ($8.95 with salad and drink) are sauced with crushed tomatoes, garlic, oregano, Parmesan cheese and olive oil, then buried in (or, in the case of the calzone, stuffed with) cut-from-the-block mozzarella.
Slightly misshapen, abundantly spiced meatballs show up on spaghetti ($8) and in the bomber-style meatball subs ($6.95). Coupled with Tony's oh-so-special sauce (that can only be described as having a tomato flavor that eludes most tomatoes), these meaty globes are beyond satisfying.
The spaghetti, in contrast, seems targeted at kids, with noodles cooked just past al dente. The ungodly amount of sauce served on it speaks to the American half of Tony’s roots.
The only other disappointment is the Caesar salad ($5). Romaine lettuce is tossed with obviously canned dressing that packs more vinegar than a dollar store bottle of wicker-wrapped Chianti. It seems strangely out of place among the more lovingly prepared choices. But, hey, the croutons are crunchy.
Though Tony strives for authenticity in his food, he's also willing to meet people halfway. When he realized most of his customers were holding the ricotta cheese on their orders of lasagna and calzones, he did away with the ingredient altogether.
“Ninety percent of them ordered it without the ricotta—they always thought it was cottage cheese,” he told me.
Tony's is an old-school neighborhood joint that's fighting to survive a new world order of corporate pizza chains. Open for nearly 16 years, loyal fans have followed it through three locations, a recent change in ownership and operating hours that defy logic. (Tony's is no longer open on Saturday and Sunday. WTF?) It's beyond ironic, but Tony has started filling the weekend void in his time and pocket by delivering pizza for—brace yourself—Pizza Hut. He says he likes comparing his superior pies to theirs and spilling their dirty little secrets.
It’s worth venturing into Downtown's twisting side streets to visit Tony. He’ll be in the kitchen wearing a stained apron, slapping tomatoes down on dough, daydreaming about a bigger restaurant and smiling over the teenaged antics of his younger staff as they make off like bandits with the female diners. Above all else, you'll be treated to genuinely friendly service and a meal that lacks slick sophistication—in a good way.