You can divide pizza lovers into two groups: those who love anchovies and those who need to learn to love anchovies. Oh sure, pizza could be divided regionally -- as in New York, Chicago and California. Regional distinctions refer to the crust. Generally, folks from the New York area prefer pliable, Chicagoans like it thick and healthy Californians are partial to thin crust. New York pizza means Manhattan and its suburbs; upper New York state enjoys a different pizza. Which is best? That answer lies in your past.
Anchovy preference goes to the heart and the history of pizza. In seaside villages of southern Italy, salty anchovies topped flatbreads for eons. I acquired my penchant for anchovies there.
For most people, the preferred pizza is the one of our youth. My appreciation for pizza came during my high-school days in northern Jersey. I developed a fondness for New York-style pizza with its foldable crust and edges charred from the fast-baking, coal-fired oven. Watching the stick man (the guy who cooks the pizza) move the pizzas to different points in the oven to have them cook evenly diverted those waiting for their orders. Toppings were simple and did not envelop the surface; I never encountered pineapple or chicken tikka masala on a New York pizza.
At its best, pizza-making is an artisanal craft requiring years of apprenticeship to get it right. Doughs are prepared fresh daily, not a week at a time; mozzarella is fresh, not long-lasting factory-made; tomatoes are of the highest quality; olives and sauces do not come out of a can; and chopped onions do not sit around in a bin getting old.
Although there were many pizzerias in that Jersey town, my family became loyal to one. The idea of buying a pizza from one of the major pizza chains was out of the question. Not only were pizza chains hard to find in that area, but the locally made artisanal pies were superior in taste.
Many of Charlotte's northern transplants search for the artisanal pizzas of their taste memories. One friend from Connecticut excitedly told me about the 40-seat Upstate Pizza on Highway 51 near 485 in south Charlotte. She loves the place.
You cannot see the store or its sign easily from the road. Upstate's bare-bones interior is devoid of drama, but the mood is welcoming. On my first visit, the dining room was deserted except for a man waiting for his take-out accompanied by a his young daughter who was practicing her skipping. While waiting for my order I watched owner Roman Sarkisyan toss his pizza dough over his head and then stretch it expertly with his fingertips. This pizza looked promising.
Upstate is the product of Sarkisyan and his father, Alexander. Sarkisyan is Armenian, but he spent the first years of his life in Azerbaijan (a neighboring country). The family moved to Syracuse, NY, where Sarkisyan grew up and subsequently worked in a Sicilian pizzeria for ten years while in high school and college. Warm weather brought the family to Charlotte in 2004, and last November they opened their pizzeria. The Sicilians probably influenced the restaurant's tag line: "We gonna make you a pizza you can't refuse."
Pizza is sold by the slice or by the pie, either 14 or 16 inches. Sarkisyan uses a high-moisture mozzarella, which he distributes evenly, creating a layer of oozing cheese. The toppings on a simple pizza of cheese, anchovies and peppers near perfection since the vegetables still have texture, yet the crust was not as pliable as I had hoped. This crust was a cross between NYC-style pliable crust and the thicker Sicilian. A less impressive pizza was the Margarita, with slices of tomatoes heavily dolloped with ricotta cheese.
Better than the pizzas were the calzones. The cheese calzone, in fact, was among the best I've had. From the entrees, the densely flavored lasagna was served in a hearty portion, with a salad side but regrettably listless garlic bread.
Also on the menu are other pasta dishes including eggplant Parmesan and baked manicotti; beef, chicken and pork kabobs (the Armenian influence); Buffalo wings; subs, both hot and cold; as well as burgers. Prices for entrées are $8.
Although the anchovies are a welcome treat here, as I peered, prodded and puzzled over the crust I realized my pizza heart is still in New York City.
Heads up wine lovers: Get your tickets ASAP for Charlotte's unsurpassed wine event, the Charlotte Wine and Food Weekend April 20 through 22. This event is held biennially in the spring of even years, hosting winemakers and winery owners from all over the world and has grown into one of the largest events of its kind in the southeast. On the calendar are seventeen Vintner Dinners; a wine tasting with Philippe Melka (Bryant Family and Hundred Acre); a 1000 Point Tasting (ten 100 point wines) moderated by Kevin Zraly; Big Bottles & Blues with entertainment by winemaker Bob Foley's Purple Feet Band; and a Vintner Tasting at Symphony Park with all participating wineries, as well as a North Carolina Wine Pavilion. Visit www.charlottewineandfood.com.
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9101 Pineville Matthews Road (next to the Bi-Lo, Park Road and Highway 51), 704-540-8868. www.upstatepizza.com.
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11am until 9pm; Friday and Saturday 11am until 10pm; Sunday 12pm until 8pm. AmEx, MC, Visa. Take out and eat in.