Can there truly be too many pizzerias? Perhaps only among pizzeria owners who don’t want much competition might you hear that ridiculous notion about one of America’s essential food groups. Take for example one monopoly-minded pizzeria owner in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania who had a resolute belief that there was too much competition in the area and determined to do something about it. It apparently didn’t dawn on him that by serving a better pizza or lowering prices, his business might improve. Instead, in the tradition of villainous scofflaws everywhere, he decided to sabotage his rivals.
Alas, his exploits only proved fodder for late night talk show hosts who lampoon stupid criminals. In perpetrating his nefarious misdeed, the perfidious proprietor of the poor-performing pizzeria created such a ruckus that his intended victim quickly investigated and discovered a bag full of mice had been deposited in his drop ceiling. As luck would have it, two uniformed officers were dining at the presumably palatable pizzeria at the time. They quickly apprehended the would-be rodent rapscallion and charged him with criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, harassment and cruelty to animals. There’s no indication as to whether his room mate at the local hoosegow was Mr. Murphy or whether the competitor’s pizza was served for dinner.
So, just how many pizzerias are there? With more than 65,000 pizzerias (58 percent of which are independent and 42 percent of which are chains) in the United States, pizzerias make up nearly seventeen percent of all restaurants in America and gross over 30 billion dollars per year, accounting for greater than ten percent of all food service sales. Independent pizzerias account for 52 percent of those sales totals. In 2005, the average store earnings for all pizzerias was nearly $450,000. The “big four” pizza chains–Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s and Little Caesars–represent nearly 37 percent of industry sales at nearly $11 billion per year. The top fifty pizza chains across the United States own 42 percent of all pizzerias and control greater than 48 percent of all pizza sales.
According to PMQ Pizza Magazine’s “Pizza Power Report” for 2010, Americans consume approximately 3 billion pizzas per year. That translates to a whopping 100 acres of pizza each day–an astounding 350 slices per second over each of the 86,400 seconds in each day. 93 percent of Americans eat at least one pizza per month with the most popular ingredient being pepperoni. The United States has an average of one pizzeria per 4,350 people across the fruited plain. Surveys indicate 45 percent of pizza orders are take-out, 36 percent are delivery and 20 percent are dine-in. Sixteen percent of all pizzas ordered across the country were ordered on-line.
In its 2010 Food and Wine edition, Albuquerque The Magazine chronicled its search for the best pizza in the Duke City area, reviewing and rating some 37 independent restaurants (and subjecting themselves to take-out pizza from five chains). That’s barely scratching the surface. Urbanspoon lists 151 pizza restaurants in the metropolitan Albuquerque area which translates to one pizza restaurant for every 6,012 residents (based on the 2011 census estimate of 907,775 as of 2011). That pales in comparison with the 2,070 pizza restaurants in New York City or the one pizza restaurant per 3,600 residents in Miami.
According to Slice, a Serious Eats blog, there are 21 regional styles of pizza. In the Duke City, perhaps the most prevalent regional style–or at least the one most often claimed–is New York-style (characterized by having a puffy, bread-like, outer crust which quickly tapers down to a very thin, crisp middle). When Pizzeria Luca, a locally owned company which launched in October, 2011, purported to offer a traditional “East Coast Italian pizzeria experience” in an upscale yet casual environment, it was interesting to note that the pizza itself is certainly not New York style nor does it resemble any of the East Coast pizzas with which I’m familiar. It’s only the look and feel that bears a resemblance to Metropolis.
Pizzeria Luca is ensconced in a shopping center on the far Northeast Heights not too far from the Duke City’s first Jinja restaurant and the über popular Trader Joe’s. From the outside the pizzeria is fairly inconspicuous despite the prevalence of the red, white and green colors of the Italian flag. Step inside the doors and you might indeed get the impression that you’ve stepped into a cosmopolitan setting that will tell you you’re not in Kansas any more. It’s a setting quite unlike that of any other pizzeria in Albuquerque.
The restaurant’s high-ceilings bear the popular exposed industrial-style ductwork that seem to express modernity. The height of the ceiling seems exaggerated because the back wall more closely resembles an external wall with its distressed brick and faded Pizzeria Luca signage, two vintage touches. Floors are tiled in large red and white squares not unlike nostalgia restaurants. To your left is a serpentine wine bar whose cynosure is a semi-circular wine tower sporting some 56 different wines from Italy, Washington and California (none from New Mexico as of this writing). A flat screen television seems somewhat out of place next to the wine tower. Televisions, by the way, can also be found in the pizzeria’s restaurants though if you don’t know this, you might freak out to hear the voice of the opposite gender as you walk in. Walls are adorned with movie posters. The musical stylings of Italian crooners of the 1930s are piped in via the restaurant’s sound system.
The menu offers four appetizers (referred to as “piccole piastre” or small plates) including an antipasto and littleneck clams in a white wine-based broth. Four salads (insalate) of the designer variety are also available as are five panini sandwiches available in half or full sizes. The sandwiches are crafted from house-prepared meats served on fresh baked bread. Five pasta dishes adorn the menu not including a “doggie plate” consisting of a housemade meatball with dry kibble. There are seven pizza options as well as a “build your own pie” option which starts with mozzarella and marinara. You can also have a large slice if you prefer.
The antipasto, a piccole piastre is described on the menu as an artisan cheese plate with salami, olives, fresh fruits and baked rustic bread. It’s the fresh fruits that make it some what unique for Albuquerque. Four slices of lightly toasted bread with shaved cheese and parsley flank a bed of mixed greens drizzled with a light balsamic dressing atop of which and within you’ll dig out sliced strawberries, olives, raspberries, salami slices, more shaved cheese, a whisper-thin slice or two of prosciutto and slices of hard cheese. As with all good appetizers, it serves very well to make you look forward to your entrees in hopes they’ll be as good, if not better.
The pizzas are as clever as the antipasto platter with inventive ingredient combinations festooning each twelve-inch pie. Even the Margherita, the pizza which started it all, is unique for Albuquerque in that it’s made with mozzarella di bufala, fresh water buffalo mozzarella. For turophiles, only the tasty, creamy, milky buffalo mozzarella will do on pizza in which mozzarella is called for. At my request, the accommodating pizzeria added it to the Calabria (Prosciutto di Parma, shallots, Fontina, truffle oil and marinara) I ordered. That meant two of my very favorite pizza ingredients–buffalo mozzarella and Prosciutto di Parma–in the world were available in one pie in Albuquerque.
Prosciutto de Parma is a sweet-tasting prosciutto, not as salty as the characteristic Italian bacon, and it’s bright and save for the white, flavorful fatty edges, is uniform in its rosiness. The creaminess of Prosciutto de Parma is attributed, in part, to the fact that the pigs are fed whey left over from the making of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. It’s my favorite of all prosciutto. Pizzeria Luca’s pies are generously endowed with the ingredients you order encircled by a thick, crusty rim (a good crust, no throw-away here). The pies are thin-crusted and are prepared on conventional pizza ovens (not of the brick variety). They aren’t speckled in black and white char as are some thin-crusted pizzas, but they’re also not served doughy as at one popular local pizzeria.
The Calabria is a very good pizza, its sauce reminiscent of fresh, well-seasoned tomatoes. Indeed, the sauce is made from tomatoes from Italy’s San Marzano region. Another good pie is the Modena (Italian sausage, pepperoni, crimini mushrooms and roasted garlic). Most notable is the thickness of the pepperoni and sausage. While many restaurants serve pepperoni so thin you can almost see through it, Pizzeria Luca’s pepperoni is probably the thickness of five or six of the competition’s pepperoni stacked.
Dessert options include some of the “usual suspects” such as cannoli (traditional or chocolate) and tiramisu. The tiramisu is made in-house and doesn’t really distinguish itself (remember, Albuquerque is home to several restaurants proffering truly outstanding tiramisu–Torinos @ Home and Farina Pizzeria, for example). The cannoli is similarly just okay, nothing about which to write home.
Perhaps because of the wine bar, Pizzeria Luca is most decidedly a restaurant in which young urban professionals will feel right at home, toddlers in tow. It’s the type of pizzeria which will many will call home away from home, a hang-out type, making it a good candidate for expansion–and indeed the ownership group is planning on several sites in the Albuquerque area. That’s a great thing for the Duke City because as everyone knows, you can’t have too many pizzerias!
8850 Holly Avenue, N.E., Suite J
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Antipasto, Calabria, Modena, Cannoli, Tiramisu