In the foreground is a portobello mushroom pizza ($12) at Toss.… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
If close proximity to a great pizza joint doesn't raise property values, it should. Good pizza makes a neighborhood eminently more livable.
Fortunately for the people living in and around Govans, in northern Baltimore City, Toss is a great pizza joint. The decor is bare bones and the service is casual, as befits a pizza place, but the food is terrific.
Toss's owners, Cem Ari and Murat Mercan, understand the potential that pizza, served in a welcoming space, has for a neighborhood. Before opening Toss in November 2011, Ari was one of the owners of Zella's, the much-loved pizza joint in Southwest Baltimore (Ari and his partners sold Zella's last year).
During Ari's tenure, Zella's was known for more than its pizza — it was a meeting place for the community. Ari and Mercan have the same hopes for Toss.
Toss sits on an underused stretch of York Road, with empty storefronts on both sides and across the street. One day soon, the owners hope those spaces will be filled, turning the block into a walkable, vibrant area.
Inside, Toss is industrial, with pared down design and ever-changing art lining the walls.
On a recent Sunday evening, the restaurant's dining room was quiet, with just a few families, and little warm. The day of our dinner was a steamy one, with the temperature pushing 100 degrees. Inside Toss, the windows were foggy; unfortunately, the temperature wasn't quite cool enough to be comfortable.
Though the dining room wasn't busy, the kitchen bustled, churning out orders for carry-out and delivery. The young lady at the counter was friendly and helpful; she also fielded numerous phone calls during our visit.
By the cash register, a sign explains how things work at Toss: Customers order and pay at the counter then choose a seat. When the food is ready, someone will bring it to the table — they'll clean up the empty dishes, too. (Toss is BYOB, though there are plans in the works for a beer and wine license.)
We started with the Greek salad ($8.50), an appetizer which is large enough for two or three people to share. Though not the standard romaine-and-feta mix, Toss's combination of fresh greens, ripe tomatoes, thin slices of red onion and sweet red pepper was a good one. Rough crumbles of feta cheese and a heavy handful of briny Kalamata olives added salt and earthiness. Balsamic vinaigrette gave the salad a garlicky, acidic finish.
Be warned: The garlic in Toss's balsamic vinaigrette is tasty, but intense. Think twice before ordering it on a first date.
The salad came with two slices of garlic bread. Similar to white pizza, the chewy bread, topped with a thin layer of mozzarella cheese, made a nice counterpoint to the salad's bold acidity.
The Toss menu focuses on pizza shop basics, like sandwiches, calzones and, of course, pizza. Though the categories are simple, Ari and Mercan make most of their ingredients in-house, from sauces to breads to roasted peppers.
The effort showed in the roasted eggplant sandwich ($7.50). Slices of roasted eggplant were warm and earthy on two slices of focaccia-like bread made in the Toss kitchen.
Mozzarella added creamy texture, while feta and finely chopped Kalamata olives provided a savory element.
Topped with sweet roasted red peppers and caramelized onions (that we requested instead of red onion) and smeared with fresh basil pesto, the sandwich hit all the big flavor categories.
The Toss Special pizza ($12 for a 10-inch pie; $18 for 14 inches) was equally flavorful and satisfying. Three juicy meats — pepperoni, ham and spicy Italian sausage — added heat and intensity, but sweet caramelized onions and roasted red peppers balanced the mix of toppings.
Mozzarella cheese and bright tomato sauce had good flavor, but got lost under all the toppings. The dense and chewy crust stood up, texturally, to the weight of the meat and vegetables.
Dessert was tasty, but a bit of an afterthought — it's one of the only things not made in-house at Toss. We grabbed a slice of raspberry cheesecake ($4.75) from a cooler that also held sodas. It was creamy and tart, as it should be, but paled in comparison to the restaurant's fresh and creative main courses.
From the art to the ingredients, "fresh and creative" describes just about everything at Toss. Mercan and Ari's approach is a great recipe for the restaurant and good for the neighborhood.
Back story: After selling the much-loved SoWeBo pizza restaurant Zella's in 2011, Cem Ari and new partner Murat Mercan opened Toss on an underused block in the north Baltimore neighborhood Govans. With local art on the walls and excellent food on the plates, the duo hopes their pizza will bring traffic and attention to the neighborhood.
Parking: There is a parking lot behind the building, on Bellona Avenue
Signature dish: The Toss Special pizza, a combination of several meats, caramelized onions and roasted peppers on chewy crust, is a savory and sweet treat.
Where: 5716 York Road, Baltimore
Contact: 410-433-8677, tossthepizza.com
Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: All major credit cards
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]