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Slice of Life 

Pies lean toward perfection at Metairie pizzeria.

Maybe it is yearning for simpler times that has me regressing to some of the bad habits I picked up during my college days. Or maybe it's the college-esque presence of a squat little dorm-style fridge that still stands in for a respectable, adult-sized appliance in my storm-wrecked kitchen. Or, perhaps, it could just be that really good pizza still tastes really good even after it has chilled overnight.

In any case, recent mornings have found me eating really good pizza left over from the previous night while standing in the shell of my kitchen, one hand funneling the slice into my mouth, the other hand holding open the door of that mini dorm fridge. As bad habits go, this one at least has a research component. A pizza's day-old condition, after all, is a key indicator of the skill and quality ingredients that went into its preparation.

The morning-after report is mighty impressive for Tower of Pizza, the Metairie pizza parlor where the pies are so good that a few slices of each deserve to see the light of another day. Of course, that might require intentional over-ordering, since there is a strong urge to clean the clock of any pie set down hot and aromatic on the red and white-checked plastic tablemats.

The pizza is of the thin-crust style, though not quite of the floppy New York-style ideal that requires folding. The sauce is light, smooth and slightly sweet and the cheese is tangy and applied with a restrained hand to keep grease levels minimal. And the cooks have precious little else to distract them from their task of making sure the pies come out perfectly. Certainly, there is no danger of filling up on appetizers.

Red and green neon in the restaurant's broad front windows spell the words "pizza" and "spaghetti" and that just about covers the entire menu. There is also a choice between three slight variations on the same salad of chopped iceberg lettuce and vinaigrette laced with more black pepper than the bottom of a bloody Mary. But otherwise, the entire menu is pizza and spaghetti -- the latter dish offered with or without meatballs. As good as the pizza is, the kitchen turns out quite a few orders of spaghetti each night. Part of the appeal has to be the price, which is $6.50 with meatballs, $5 without. The sauce -- perhaps the same used on the pizza -- is rather plain on its own, but the baseball-sized meatballs are pleasingly tender and laden with garlic.

There are only 12 topping choices for the pizzas, which is limiting but also refreshingly straightforward. There is no agonizing over whether red or white sauce would go better with arugula, pine nuts and goat cheese. Chopped jalapeno peppers qualify as the most exotic item, and the five house special pies are just combinations of some or most of the meats and vegetables on the topping list.

Drinks follow the same thread. There are three domestic beers on tap and small glasses of them go down for $2 each. There is no wine, but the wait staff encourages people to bring their own from the racks at Byblos Market a few strip-mall doors away. A soda will come in a towering, red plastic cup, an icon of this type of restaurant that says pizza as clearly as the neon lettering in the window.

Just about everything at Tower of Pizza harkens back to the glory days of the simple neighborhood pizzeria. True, the jukebox has more than its fair share of Britney Spears and Garth Brooks albums now, but it also belts out plenty of the tunes that were chart-toppers when the place first opened more than 40 years ago by the Forschler family, which still runs it.

Tower of Pizza in Metairie is bustling with post-storm normalcy and crawling with children. On some nights, so many are attired in their softball or soccer uniforms that the restaurant practically needs a referee to sort them out. Fortunately, the eatery provides a premier distraction with its glassed-in kitchen, and kids can climb on chairs to peer in at the cooks making their pizzas.

Their work is entertaining to watch -- after all, it's like watching someone play with food. But it is also the key to why the pizza is so distinctive and why, even on the second go-round the next day, delicious.

To begin, the cooks knead and shape the dough like the kids themselves might do with clay in art class. Then they toss it, propelling disks of the stuff into the air and catching them on their fists. The gee-whiz factor relents when the pizzas disappear into the oven, but this is when the cooks' skills are most usefully applied. The pies must be revolved periodically to keep one side from burning. Air bubbles need to be pricked, lest the sauce and toppings slide off their domes, but a few small ones are allowed to persist to add texture near the rim of the crust. And finally, using something that resides between timing and intuition, the cook must take the pie from the oven during the slim window of opportunity when crust, cheese and toppings have all been rendered properly.

The modern conveyor belt-style of pizza cookery can never achieve this type of crafted quality, and at Tower of Pizza the cooks do it all while third graders in pink camouflage jumpsuits smear their smiling faces against the kitchen window glass, wave frantically and pull each others' pigtails.

click to enlarge Tower of Pizza has a simple menu of pizza and spaghetti. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Tower of Pizza has a simple menu of pizza and spaghetti.
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