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Perfect Pies

They may not be very good for you, but pizzas sure can taste like heaven

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I'm a bit winded as I write this, so forgive me. I've just watched a new exercise video and am a little spent from the contemplation. But I've also been thinking about pizza, so perhaps there is some sort of sensory caloric exchange. Even Steven, as Kramer would say.

We all have cravings which we know are bad for us. My friend Jennifer is oft seen purposely searching for dark chocolate. My late and much-lamented father-figure David used to call me regularly to make a run for hot dogs. My low-point weaknesses, in terms of bad food, include scoop-size Fritos and guacamole, crinkle-cut potato chips ... and pizza.

Hence the importance of exercise videos once in awhile.

I have neither the knowledge nor the requisite curiosity to definitively answer the age-old question of who invented pizza. Italy generally gets the credit. The Margherita, a baked pie topped with tomato (red), mozzarella (white) and basil (green) to display the colors of the Italian flag, was purportedly created in the late 1800s by one Raffaele Esposito to honor King Umberto and Queen Margherita, then visiting Naples. Suffice it to say, this concoction caught on. But the Greeks, the Turks and Semites of various stripes had been topping pieces of flat, baked, unleavened bread with all manner of things for thousands of years by that point.

It is probably safe to say that the inexplicable use of pineapple today is a fairly recent turn of events.

In any case, it's been a happy evolution for all of us. Some form of pizza is today one of the world's great consumables that bridges cultures and socioeconomic conditions. It can be expensive, for those of you in the mood for foie gras-and-truffle toppings, but it can also be cheap and simple, not to mention quick and filling.

Tucson's yellow pages list well more than 100 places where a pie may be obtained. That doesn't include various restaurants that offer some form of pizza on their menus but do NOT consider themselves a pizza joint. Three of the four regular places I go for a fix--FioRito's, Charlie's and Uno Chicago Bar and Grill--are more restaurant than anything else, and Fresco not only makes a great pie but brings it to my doorstep as well.

Fresco (which used to be Picurro before its founder/namesake was accused--not convicted, mind you, but accused--and the name was changed faster than you can grate a cup of parmesan) consistently has the best red sauce I've ever had: tangy, rich, a nice bite to it. They keep the crust crisped, even for home delivery, and it ain't bad cold for those quick fixes later in the evening.

Charlie's (which used to be the Blue Sahuaro and was famed in my household for its tortilla-thin crusts and Fred's famous tacos on Monday nights ... sigh) makes the heaviest pie I've ever had, and it's amazingly good. One slice of the Doc Holiday--red sauce, pesto, spinach, artichoke hearts, tomato, garlic and feta--is a satisfying meal. I need to try something else, but the Holiday is hard to beat.

FioRito's (which has been FioRito's for at least the last quarter-century) made its pie-fame claim early on, although it wasn't until Tess and John bought it, and now Jen and Patch, that I thought of it as more than a place to pick up a pizza that was sliced strangely but always had an awesome blend of herbs and fresh ingredients. In fact, when John and Tess bought the place, the secret pizza process was part of the deal.

Years back, when I regularly took the train from Tucson to the farm, there was always at least a four-hour interval between arriving in Chicago around noon and catching the train to Crawfordsville at 5. It was just enough time to take a cab to the Art Institute to see what was new, and then head to Pizzeria Uno for a deep-dish pizza with a crust as delish as the fillings. I'd take a frozen one to the farm for later consumption and, when I was heading back to Tucson, would pick up a cooked one for more immediate pleasuring on the train. The Uno people started franchising back in the '80s, but didn't make it to Tucson until relatively recently, and this not-to-be-missed pie can be found at the Uno Chicago Bar and Grill. Call me crazy, but there is something deeply calming about having this pie, a Newcastle Ale and a Scrabble board to contemplate.

You perhaps begin to understand the importance of these exercise videos.

The very best pizza in the entire world is to be found elsewhere, however, and I am sorry I cannot share the address. But, I will tell you about it. It's to be found in a family-friendly, expansive and warm kitchen with views of the Catalinas. On Sunday afternoons, when I am very, very fortunate, the process involves Matt and Jake rolling out at least a half-dozen circles of dough, and Noah, Ben and Deb advising on toppings: artichoke hearts and hearts of palm, garlic, olives and varied cheeses, the ripest tomatoes, turkey sausage for a quirky twist; even the odd pineapple chunk has a home. The pizzas get cooked, then sliced and, between the talk and the laughter, consumed in the course of a lazy, loving afternoon.

These pizzas taste like heaven.

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