Lunch review: Unpretentious pizza at Zella's

Fresh ingredients and well done crust make for a near-perfect pizzeria

August 23, 2010|By John Lindner, Special to The Baltimore Sun

I can't say that Zella's Pizzeria is the hippest restaurant in Baltimore. I won't say, as has at least one reviewer, that Zella's has the best pizza in Baltimore, at least in 2007. I would, however, be astounded to learn it doesn't have the largest calzones in North America.

But applying terms like "hippest" and "best" to Zella's seems a waste of critical energy. Nevertheless, there might be one thing Zella's does do best: It's uncannily adept at shrugging off superlatives.

The one-word review that comes to mind is "unpretentious."

12:03 p.m. We enter and are offered any table we like. My 20-something dining companion who has been here often and recommended Zella's, grabs her favorite spot, a window table. Our server drops off a couple of menus and attends to our drink orders.

I take in our surroundings. Blond hardwood floor with sturdy tables and chairs that look like they were arranged neatly at one time and got shifted around based on the needs or clumsiness of customers. The bar/counter seating is neither wantonly spartan nor seductively rich. Zella's setting suggests emphasis on sufficiency over design — like they took a few hours to put a dining room together then ran back to the kitchen, where their real interests lie.

12:08 p.m. We order. Looking over the menu, I notice the pricing structure. It's as bold and simple as the decor: All 10-inch pizzas are $11.75, all 14-inchers $17.75; the five calzones are $10.50 each, and each of the 14 sandwiches costs $7.50. You have your choice of three lasagnas at $9 per. Salads are $7.50 to $8.50, with a couple smaller options for five bucks each.

12:24 p.m. Our pizza arrives. With the first bite, I got Zella's. I trade a big smile with my dining companion. Mine is the smile of discovery, hers a knowing "told-you-so" number. The fresh mozzarella, the zing of feta, spinach leaves taking the place of red sauce, the chewy crust — simple stuff. It all worked perfectly. Zella's got the foundational bread and cheese right, and that's all it needed to do. Everything else complements. And then came the Druidzilla's Chicken sandwich and the speed bump of a calzone.

The Druidzilla's tender chicken and crunchy-chewy artisanal bread echoed the care and creativity of the pizza, which alone made the price seem like a bargain. But, again like the pie, the sandwich is generous. If you eat all the "Mediterranean fries" (be sure to ask for the balsamic vinegar dressing) that accompany the sandwiches, you're likely to take half the Druidzilla home.

You'll take half or more of the calzone home, too — if you can lift it. We got the Italian, stuffed full of pepperoni, ham, salami, prosciutto, mozzarella and ricotta. It's just a bit smaller than a semi-deflated football. Wrapped in more good bread well worth eating in its own right, this thing is laughably huge.

12:50 p.m. We stop eating and continue our discussion of the experience. We agree that Zella's is about feeding you, and feeding you well. I can't say that they get every note right. With all its freshness, care, wonderful bread and mozzarella, great meats and veggies, why, for instance, do they ladle salty processed chain-pizza-joint "Parmesan" cheese over their calzones and offer a shaker of the stuff at table? I think not without some calculation.

Zella's knows its market — a large percentage of which I suspect is 20-something appetites for whom over-salty shaker cheese turns everything into comfort food. And for that market, this is a four-star establishment, hitting all the important highs and letting the less important stuff stand as a mere cut above. For the foodie, Zella's is a treat; just request Parmesan on the side.

12:58 p.m. We pay and slowly get up to leave. Another point in its hip favor: Zella's is, in many details, including location, ambience, simplicity and quality, about Baltimore. Local and sometimes student art hangs on its walls, suggesting Zella's is not just in the city, but of the city. It's art without artiness. It's Baltimore, not self-conscious, self-deprecating Bawlmer kitsch. How refreshing and fresh.

By the way: Wi-Fi — free.

Zella's

Where: 1145 Hollins St.

Contact: 410-685-6999 or zellaspizzeria.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 12:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday

Lunch entrees: $7.50-$17.75

Salads: $5-$9

Food: ✭✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]

Dining time

55

minutes

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