It's a fumble born of hyperawareness, not indifference. Overall, the buoyant waitstaff is so on the ball you wonder if they're earning college credit. Instead, their tightness is likely due to DeAngelo's chain restaurant status. In well-run chain restaurants, every table placement, every ounce of cheese, every dollar earned and every cheerful utterance is calculated and accounted for. DeAngelo's is a well-run chain restaurant. The proof is also in the food. Salad dressings are made in-house, fresh basil is tossed around like salt, pizza toppings are applied in merciful moderation, tender meatballs sing with garlic and herbs, and you may order pasta "soft" or "al dente."
I'm a sucker for a heartily dressed romaine salad wherein the lettuce's watery crispness is counterbalanced by acidity, salt and some creaminess, either built into the dressing or imparted with cheese. DeAngelo's kitchen prepares four similar versions of this ideal, which is a fine way to begin a meal. The Pecorino-dusted Caesar is super, its lettuce-clinging dressing sharpened with lemon and garlic and its weightless croutons crisp as the cold romaine. Blue cheese vinaigrette works well in another composition, but beware the romaine-based Insalata Sensation's grainy Pecorino dressing.
The 14-store (and growing) chain originated in 1991, when New Jersey native Louis DeAngelo Jr. began tossing and saucing in a Baton Rouge pizzeria financed by his grandfather. Pizza is still DeAngelo's bread and butter: While every item I tried at the Metairie restaurant was at least serviceable, the pizzas were consistently above-average for our region.
DeAngelo's crust is a funny thing. Visually, it's thin and crispy -- not New York-thin, but contemporary gourmet thin, a la Charlie Trotter, with finger dappling on the surface and dark oven smudges underneath. But the experience of eating this crust bears scant relationship to its lean, snappish appearance; its heavy, oil-rich flavor and chewy, bread-like texture rather resemble Italian focaccia. Eric Brechtel, who owns the Metairie franchise with his father, Gil, told me that the crust's base is "Italian bread dough," words echoed on the menu. Cooks receive the dough pre-made and then proof, roll and bake it on site.
It's still a mystery to me how it bakes so thin and eats so thick.
Whole wheat pizza crust is an option, but it's not recommended over the standard, white-flour version. An appropriately skim quantity of sweet, fresh-tasting tomato sauce and a spare layer of mozzarella cheese dress the ultra-simple Margherita pizza. The Cortona packs on several additional high-quality ingredients -- Italian sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes -- but is no weightier. "White" pizzas come sauced with a brandy cream whose elusive sweetness is teased out by salty toppings like pancetta and sausage.
It's a common complaint regarding chain restaurants that all the food tastes the same after a few visits; DeAngelo's is no exception. The four-page menu is developing at such a clip as to necessitate an insert. Despite the appearance of abundance, however, most options taste like pizza -- pretty good pizza, but pizza. Calzones are doubled-over and sealed pizzas. Pizzettes are 10-inch pizzas. Focaccia is pizza minus sauce. In total, DeAngelo's sells more than 40 pizzas and pizza taste-alikes, not counting those you create yourself.
That said, do order the pizza-shaped, pizza-tasting Focaccia Capri, topped sparingly with dried herbs, capers, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and torn basil thrown on after baking.
There's no pizza for dessert. And though nothing sweet is made in-house, ordering the trucked-in, chocolate-dipped cannoli shell filled with chocolate cream hardly tastes like selling out.
The restaurant's look is consistent with the chain objective to offend as few people as possible while trying to muster up some personality. A lengthy dining room book-ended by a bar at one end and windows overlooking the 17th Street Canal on the other is structurally the same as when Charley G's inhabited the space. Whenever possible, hostesses seat even single diners at booths lined with soft, brushed fabric. Wheat and sage-colored ceilings suggest a Tuscan landscape, and a can of plum tomatoes ornaments each table. Such an agreeably generic atmosphere might wear on the psyches of people who love to hate chain restaurants. Agreed, we'd all rather have Louis DeAngelo Jr. tossing pies in an underground joint, earning pennies but pouring delicious love into his craft anyway; fact is, we missed that boat. Now the way to his darned decent chain pizza is an elevator in Metairie.