A war, any way you slice it

I am a noncombatant in the pizza wars—at least in the eternal, dualistic battle of Chicago vs. New York pizza. Let others fight it out over deep-dish or thin crust, with-a-fork or foldable; I back neither side. That’s not because I prefer some newfangled “California” pizza with calamari or the like. I’m not particularly a pizza snob—unless I’m in Europe, in which case all bets are off. But real Italian pizza is something else again, a reminder that these wars are not a clash of two opposing armies but a multi-front operation.

There are so many different kinds of pizza—most good in their own way—that any attempt to construct a grand unified theory of pizza is fruitless. And that’s just fine with me; the world certainly has room for many kinds. Still, everyone has a secret favorite—the style they turn to in times of stress, lassitude or extreme hunger. I love a cracker-crisp Neapolitan-style pizza, sized for one and blistered by the heat of a wood-burning oven, but it’s not what I want when I’m heading out for a beer and a pizza on a warm, lazy spring night.

At such times, just like all those to-the-death partisans of doughy Chicago deep-dish or floppy New York slices, I want what I grew up with. And what I grew up with is plain American pizza, with a yeasty, pillowy, crunchy-bottomed crust; tangy sauce; and reasonable portions of cheese, grease and toppings. That’s what we had after my dad’s softball games when I was a kid; that’s what I want now when I’m a bit tired and more than a bit hungry. In my world, the ideal pizza slice is one you can pick up without a forklift and without all the cheese slumping off into an oily puddle on the dented aluminum pan.

Recently, I found this pizza at Roma Pizzeria II, a bustling spot tucked into a scruffy-looking, down-at-the-heels strip mall on a bleak stretch of Folsom Boulevard. It’s a friendly, crowded, unpretentious place. The smiling owner, Maria Guerrera, greets you at the door; stacks of flat, square boxes tower perilously above people milling around waiting for a to-go pie; and families squeezed into the old-school, dark-red vinyl booths argue over toppings. And—despite the restaurant’s name and faded Italian tourist posters—the pizzas are essentially new-world, with Italian touches that add a fresh spin without sending the menu into nouveau goofiness. There was no ranch dressing or shrimp in sight, though there was chicken, which I don’t hold with on pizza; pesto was available, as was pizza alla margharita and a minimalist white pizza. The usual suspects—pepperoni, olives, anchovies, linguica and so on—were amply represented, also.

Thanks to the plenitude of choices, our table was one of those with everyone haggling over toppings. Thankfully, our server was more than happy to give us a half-and-half pizza. The house salads that arrived first were old-fashioned but good, with thick dressing, pepperoni slices, pepperoncini, and tomatoes that were not only bright red but also surprisingly flavorful for this time of year.

Of course, nobody goes to a pizzeria for the salad, but the tomatoes made me glad we had taken a chance on the margharita, an Americanized version of the classic Italian margherita. It had the slices of red-ripe tomato, the drizzle of olive oil and the oven-shriveled leaves of fresh basil, but nearly raw garlic was applied with a heavy hand that you would not see in the real Roma and that unfortunately overwhelmed the otherwise delicate flavors.

The other half’s all-American combo of pepperoni and green peppers suffered no such problems. (I always like to get some vegetables on pizza. It helps me pretend I haven’t just eaten a pound of cheese for my dinner.) The pepperoni—some of it crisp, brown and almost bacon-like—was spicy, with just the right amount of grease. I also approved of the crunchy browned cheese at the crust’s edge—my favorite part of any pizza.

Roma Pizzeria II also offers pastas, which are entirely worthwhile in their own right. The ravioli, with a zippy, fresh-tasting tomato sauce and succulent, locally made sausages, would do an Italian-American nonna proud. Plus, getting pasta ensures that you’ll have plenty of pizza to take home for breakfast. We did, and I can report that Roma passes the cold-pizza test with flying colors. (Just watch out for that garlic early in the morning.)

If you’re looking for a place to take your kids after a softball game—a place that will form their ideas of what constitutes good pizza for the rest of their lives—Roma Pizzeria II might be just the thing. If you’re from Chicago or New York, of course, you’ll be too busy fighting it out amongst yourselves, but the rest of us will find in Roma a worthy veteran of the pizza wars.