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Big slices and cheap prices show that MO'S PIZZA has triumphantly risen from the ashes of its fire last year.

Moving through the meandering line at the new Mo's Pizza in Westwego, you receive an education in efficient workplace fun. Teenage employees make polite eye contact from beneath burgundy baseball caps. They slide pizzas, turnovers and sandwiches into heat-belching ovens to be warmed, and they bellow ticket numbers without relenting until someone -- anyone -- responds. No transaction conducted by this well-oiled heat-and-serve machine takes more than 45 seconds.

Beyond exhibiting a professionalism that exceeds their years, Mo's crew appears to be having a blast. In the back kitchen, one teenage boy shows another teenage boy how to stretch a ball of dough into a floury quilt; at the cash register, a girl talks her friend through a tricky order (you know they're friends because they wear matching necklaces). Teamwork here seems to be a mere byproduct of friendship. The crew is so next-door nice you almost believe that the slogan on their T-shirts -- "Italians Do It Better" -- actually refers to the pizza.

The efficiency is especially impressive in light of an electrical fire that reduced the 16-year-old restaurant to ashes last March. Owner Jeff Arcemont reopened in December, but he still hasn't found time to hang his photos or framed football clippings. He has recovered, though; the pizzeria runs through 2,600 pounds of cheese per week. Employees build 800 muffalettas, which, incidentally, must be some of the finest muffalettas on the West Bank. The Italian cold cuts are top-notch, the well-chopped olive salad is housemade and, while I'm not a warm muffaletta gal, the sandwich is heated through just enough; no cheese melts, and the olives don't lose their tang.

Mo's is the quintessential American family pizzeria in several respects. An unbroken dribble of take-out customers visits the back service station to fetch pizza boxes broader than the average diner's waist, which is saying something. There's a pinball machine near the entrance that spits out gumballs. The jukebox plays a variety of rock, country and "Pop Hitz." Pitchers of beer, tired adults and off-duty cops scatter over the picnic-style tables while children chase around them wearing each other out. And, like in every beloved pizzeria, you'll find regulars who can't imagine eating pizza elsewhere and a few outsiders like me who don't get the big deal.

Wide slices come cut in half lengthwise and folded into paper plates. The freshly made pizza dough is too thick and bready to be considered New York-style, but the crusty, oven-scorched bottom keeps it from resembling round focaccia. A few brushstrokes of sweet, orange sauce (the emphasis is on sweet) glaze the surface, and a moderate amount of flavorless white pizza cheese stretches over the top. The Supreme hosts toppings from bell peppers to black olives; I prefer plain cheese with pepperoni sizzled to a chippy crispness.

My favorite Mo's creation isn't pizza at all but rather the sausage wrap. Like a pig-in-a-blanket, shiny pizza dough envelopes a fat link of Italian sausage that's strong on the flavors of caraway and fennel. Note on fitting in: Nobody orders only a sausage wrap, just as nobody orders just one slice of pizza. Calzone-like "turnovers" are decent but messier, their dough walls collapsing under the weight of cheese and meat. My only positive comment on the salads -- including Italian salads void of green olives and garden salads served with pre-fab dressings -- is that they're big.

Bigness persists at Mo's. Officially the name is short for "mobile," as Arcemont originally served his pizza out of a mobile trailer; unofficially it's short for "more." A half portion of lasagna is an ocean of orange sauce and melted cheese that appears to have either fallen from the sky or bubbled up from the Earth's core. It would be impossible to imagine that the swelling mass met anyone's definition of "half," except that Mo's behind-the-scenes team takes pains to weigh every last spoonful. Ground beef and crumbled ricotta cheese temper the lasagna's sweet tomato sauce.

Economical generosity is another recurring theme. That lasagna cost $3.75. A slice of pepperoni pizza -- that's two slices by most standards -- costs $2.75. The sausage wrap is $2. Two people simply cannot eat $15 worth of food and drive home comfortably. And the prices didn't budge following the costly resurrection of Westwego's favorite pizza destination.

From the outside, the reincarnated restaurant looks like an aluminum storage warehouse. The inside also appears to be flame-proof. Rusty brown paint glosses the cement floor. Metallic siding wraps around the walls' lower half. Black ceiling tiles lend an ominous, night-sky effect. The canteen-like dining area, fit for 100 people, would make a great space for a barn dance, a bingo hall or a post-prom party for all those teenagers.

Enjoying a Supreme slice at Mo's, even if it wasn't exactly my style, I got the feeling that landing a job here is a rite of passage in Westwego. The workers probably grew up eating Mo's pizza and their kids probably will too. It was just a feeling, but it was based on the fact that I, like most Americans, have had a pizza joint like Mo's in my family.

click to enlarge The teenage employees act so happy while preparing the food at MO'S PIZZA that you have to wonder if they all grew up on the Westwego restaurant's food. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The teenage employees act so happy while preparing the food at MO'S PIZZA that you have to wonder if they all grew up on the Westwego restaurant's food.


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