“Unless it’s Chicago-style,” my dining companion said, “I’m not generally a fan of pizza that’s so loaded you can’t pick up a slice and eat it.” We were the sole midafternoon customers at Pizza Centro’s Southside location, at least the third pizzeria to occupy this particular corner spot in the San Isidro Plaza, which serves as a kind of upscale food court for the Regal Stadium 14 cinema. My friend is a native Chicagoan, so he maintains fairly strong opinions on the subject of pizza.
But Pizza Centro’s pie is New York-style all the way, with light tomato sauce and a soft crust that is usually crisp around the edge and has a pleasant sweetness and chew. The pizzeria has a quick, efficient, order-at-the-counter setup. The menu is mounted on a wall and includes slices and whole pies, salads, sandwiches (here called “pacchetto,” Italian for packet or package), and calzones. In very-American “go big or go home” style, pizzas are available in three sizes: small, large, and extra-large. Sodas and Pellegrino are offered, as are a number of wines and a few beers on tap — including the hoppy-sweet Lagunitas IPA and Italy’s pleasantly light and mild Peroni. Employees seem friendly, and the kitchen is quick, particularly if you come at an odd hour and have the entire place to yourself.
The dining room has a fun, minimalist, contemporary feel, with a blond-wood banco running along one wall, soft red lumbar pillows, industrial metal-topped tables, and vintage-mod metal chairs. On warmer days, a small fenced-in patio beckons with cheerfully communal red picnic benches. Perhaps with those days in mind, Pizza Centro offers “sidewalk specials,” a daily pizza you can order by the slice until 2 p.m.
Since this is New York-style pizza, Centro’s signature pies are aptly named after various neighborhoods and landmarks in the boroughs of New York City. The un-pick-up-able pizza we were critiquing was Little Italy, on which sweet, fresh tomatoes and roasted red peppers meet salty prosciutto under a dusting of basil chiffonade — the pesto and Parmesan getting lost amid it all. Like cream-colored walls for showing art, fresh mozzarella provides a neutral milky background for other ingredients. Instead of the typical paper-thin slices of prosciutto, with edges that might crisp in the oven’s blazing heat, here, you get a version that’s thicker, hammier, and eraser-pink with a soft, almost boiled consistency.
Naturally, you can custom-design your pizza. If you can’t make up your mind about toppings, they’ll happily do a “half and half.” We did that, trying roasted green chile and earthy mushrooms on one half and pepperoni on the other. The quality of the meat was superior, and the kitchen doled it out liberally, but the result was an off-puttingly greasy pool, and the center of the crust was noodly soft.
Centro’s calzones are overwhelming — each is easily big enough for two. Dough is folded over an ocean of mozzarella and ricotta to form a tan half-moon, and when you cut through the crust, cheese practically floods your plate. Additional ingredients will be stuffed in generously, but even über-savory components like pepperoni and onion were no match for that sea of cheese.
Sizable salads are served in chilled stainless-steel containers resembling bento boxes or Indian handi bowls. The spinach is a hefty heap of greens, slivery ribbons of mild red onion, and sweet roasted red bell pepper. The dressing is partly composed of the fat from a tremendous hill of bacon heaped, still-sizzling, on top. Those crisp crumbles and the soft, sweet peppers created a pleasant textural contrast.
Our Caesar was supercold, and the dressing was light, refreshingly lemony, and (relatively) easy on the garlic. The romaine had been chopped into small pieces, though, which meant we had to stab-stab-stab to get a decent forkful. Sure, you could try shoveling it, but good luck keeping lettuce from fluttering off your fork as it makes the trip up to your mouth.
The pacchetto are crisp, pita-like pockets stuffed with a variety of fillings. The multicolored caprese included mixed greens, roasted red peppers, olives, soft but underripe tomatoes, and baby mozzarella. Despite the fact that these contents bear almost no resemblance to an actual caprese salad, it was an appealingly fresh and nutrient-rich combo. The stunningly cloying dressing killed it, though. I couldn’t help but wonder if the kitchen had mistaken the balsamic glaze (a standard topping choice) for the balsamic vinaigrette.
On more than one visit, Pizza Centro’s dining area was empty. At first this seemed a little sad, because the location is convenient, the space is perky, the quality of the ingredients is high, and the flavor combinations are creative and robust. I eventually realized that most customers were picking up takeout or stopping by for a quick slice before the next screening of Big Hero 6 or Mockingjay. If you don’t have a deadline, though, this is a pleasant, well-lit spot to sit and enjoy a good New York pie and some conversation, maybe with a glass of wine or a pint of beer. Whether you decide to spend that time arguing over pizza styles is up to you. ◀