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SLICE PIZZERIA reflects the Juan's Flying Burrito owners' fab-four model for success: moderately fresh food, economy, mass appeal and a dose of style.

Slice Pizzeria is a sliver of a place, wedged into a shotgun-narrow gap along a pocket of St. Charles Avenue that's high on new-restaurant energy. Young sweethearts stepped from the streetcar on a recent evening, apparently having trundled down from the Tulane dorms where they had dressed from a rumple of Abercrombie & Fitch, and they wondered aloud, "Should we have sushi or tacos, pulled pork or maybe hibachi?" Five years ago on this corner, such food words would have dithered in the heavy, late-summer air, moot without the current variety of restaurants. But on this night the couple capitalized on the luxury of choice by dining on an individual square of Sicilian pizza and a calzone burbling with cheese lava at Slice.

They had company. There's nothing genius, or even forward-thinking, about a pizzeria dispensing slices and whole pies equally -- in fact, an ex-New Yorker eulogized that city's pervasive custom of eating pizza from paper plates while standing along Parmesan-dusted counters even as she bit into a self-designed piece of gorgonzola, arugula and prosciutto at Slice. The propagation of slice-minded pizzerias in other cities notwithstanding, however, they are scarcer than mittens in New Orleans, and evidently in high demand. As every demographic conceivable wanders into Slice, from post-theater gentility to cops to inked-up youth, the place feels like a small town's only movie house. Inexpensive slice pizza, like the allure of Hollywood when you're bored, is a great equalizer.

Slice is the latest brainchild from the group that owns and runs Juan's Flying Burrito, two casual Cal-Mex restaurants that manage to realize four nearly incompatible restaurant ideals: moderately fresh food, economy, mass appeal and a dose of style. A pizzeria incorporating the same ideals was a logical next step for the partners, a couple of whom met while working at Atlanta's successful Fellini's pizzeria more than a decade ago.

Slice's classic Italian look -- dark leather booths, canned tomatoes and carafes, black-and-white photographs of no one in particular -- is less edgy than the somewhat punked-out Juan's, but the businesses are otherwise in philosophical accord, merging economy and quality and creating mood with more intent than architecture. At Juan's, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon sell for $1; at Slice, a bottle of smashing Oregon pinot noir is just $22. Johnny Cash and Sonic Youth tend to rile the mood at Juan's; Norah Jones and Desmond Dekker smooth it out at Slice. Open kitchens add activity to both venues. At its core, Slice is Juan's with a long-stemmed rose in its teeth and a disc of dough where the tortilla would be.

That dough is crucial. Two crust styles lay the foundation for Slice's pies, both of them hand-rolled and baked in stone-floored deck ovens. The Sicilian Square is the bon vivant of the pizza lexicon, fat and happy with a soft, thick crust that resembles Italian focaccia. As sauces and toppings are incidental against its bready bulk, carbohydrate idolatry is essential to enjoying the Sicilian Square.

The alternative is a thinner, Neapolitan-style crust that varies in its particulars, sometimes sporting a dark, crackery underside; other times a lighter, more pliant, semolina-pebbled bottom. Each of the Neapolitan's personalities has been good, especially so in the form of a whole pie outfitted with the basics: a few brushstrokes of tomato sauce and a thin sheath of melted mozzarella, Parmesan and Romano cheeses. Restraint is recommended when designing your own Neapolitan slice; toppings heap onto pre-made slices and tend to overwhelm the careful crust-tomato-cheese equilibrium when applied in excess.

The topping repertoire here is as traditional as pepperoni and as nouveau as olive pesto. White pizzas massaged with olive oil and garlic can be a fun change of pace, but not at the sacrifice of the thick, basil-refreshed red sauce, to which Chef Sean Moran adds dimension by way of slow-roasted roma tomatoes. This is a modest sauce, its virtues understated, but it raises the quality of the pizza as a whole; in this way it echoes the philosophy behind the pizzeria itself, where small details count.

Certain appetizers, salads and pastas also have merit, but only enough to be ordered in addition to the pizzas, not instead of them. Diced tomatoes bloated with olive oil and garlic glistened like rough-cut rubies on crusty bruschetta; they tasted just as precious, shaming the barely pink, firm tomatoes that constructed a stacked Caprese salad on the same evening. While broccoli, tomato and garlic made a fine penne pasta, nobody at my table of six pizza lovers even cared to try it.

Simple, perfectly fresh salads turn a slice into a meal for less than $10. Arugula is dressed with lemon and olive oil; the tossed Greek salad incorporates iceberg lettuce, chopped olives and feta cheese; and a mixed greens salad comes outfitted with goat cheese and chewy-sweet oven-dried roma tomatoes. Pizzerias by nature promise little, and so extra efforts like those tomatoes, Angelo Brocato's gelato and two pizza styles by the slice launch this one into high-praise territory. In the rare restaurant instances when economy, above-average freshness and style converge, everyone is happy.

click to enlarge A sliver under your skin: Diners aren't having much - trouble spotting the thin, shotgun-narrow space that - houses SLICE PIZZERIA. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • A sliver under your skin: Diners aren't having much trouble spotting the thin, shotgun-narrow space that houses SLICE PIZZERIA.


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