Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Little Star vs. Big Zach's

Before I begin, here’s a picture of a slice of Zachary’s pizza, in case you haven’t seen this most excellent fare before, or haven’t seen it in way too long. The point of the bike computer in this photo is that I had leftover Zach’s waiting for me at home, along with my darling daughters, after an 80-mile ride. Nirvana.

The Contenders

Little Star Pizza in San Francisco has been around for about four years, but I’ve been eating at Zachary’s Pizza, in Berkeley, for almost twenty. I only heard about Little Star recently, from my friend Mike, who—inevitably—compared it to Zach’s. The comparison is predictable because both places serve a deep-dish Chicago-style pizza. The surprise was that my friend said Little Star is actually better. This struck me a bit like saying Curad is better than Band-Aid, or Puffs is better than Kleenex, or the Safeway-branded salt is better than Morton’s, or David is better than Goliath. (Okay, I guess that last one has actually been established.)

As only a Bay Area foodie can, Mike described his latest culinary observation in great detail, explaining the problem with Zach’s that Little Star has putatively overcome. “You see, Zach’s originally put the pie in the oven without the tomatoes on top,” he said, “and let the top crust bake a bit before taking it back out and adding the tomatoes. But eventually they got lazy and started adding the tomatoes right away, so the top layer of crust never actually gets baked. You don’t notice, because you think the top layer is just cheese. But this is why you always feel so bloated after eating Zach’s … the uncooked dough is, like, rising in your stomach.” Intrigued, I resolved to dissect the next Zach’s pizza I got. But when you’re eating Zach’s, or at least when I am, it’s impossible to remember to do this—the sheer sensual delight of the pizza overpowers all thought. I always remember this theory, though, when I’m getting my Zach’s hangover. The idea of pizza that’s even tastier than Zach’s, and easier on my digestive system, was highly intriguing.

I went to chowhound.com to see what its foodie readers had to say. I expected a spirited debate, because besides eating and writing about food, bickering seems to be one of the things chowhounders (and other web bulletin-boarders) like best. For example, when I looked up China Village, my favorite local Chinese spot, I happened upon the thread of a seemingly innocent question—“Do they use MSG?”—that provoked a long argument about whether MSG belonged in Chinese food. Some argued that Chinese food cannot be considered authentic unless it has MSG. Another claimed that it was the Americans who introduced MSG. Another said the Chinese use it wisely but the Americans, by overusing it, had given it a bad name. And on and on. Oddly, nobody answered the original question. I happen to know that China Village does use MSG, but can withhold it in most of the dishes. I posted this response, and got a grateful reply from the original inquirer: “Thanks, I was starting to wonder if anybody was going to answer my question!”

Oddly, nobody on chowhound disagreed with anybody else on the Little Star vs. Zach’s comparison. Also surprising was the unanimous conclusion that Little Star was actually better. Out of twenty comments on the latest “Zach’s vs. Little Star” thread, not a single person came out in favor of Zach’s. I found this both thrilling and disturbing. When you love a product like I love Zach’s, the prospect of something even better seems almost too good to be true. Which brings me to the disturbing part: could it be that the first few pro-Little-Star postings were so emphatic and imperious that the Zach’s supporters ran and hid? Is it possible that chowhound is being taken over by food Nazis? (I’ve wondered this before, having come across paranoid disclaimers like “haven’t tried it, I am ashamed to admit” and “don’t hate me but I like….” If you search on “shame” or “embarrass” on chowhound you’ll get endless hits, as though a fear of unpopular declarations has become rampant.)

I resolved to give Little Star try. It took me awhile to finally get over there. Though I work in San Francisco, Little Star isn’t open for lunch, and dinner with my family (on the East Bay) is usually the highlight of my day. Finally, a few nights ago, all the planets lined up and I met up at Little Star with some old buddies from Santa Barbara. What follows is my review of Little Star, especially as it compares to Zachary’s. Perhaps my friends from out of town, who haven’t had Zach’s, could review Little Star on its own merits; I myself could not, any more than you could describe Greg LeMond’s performance in the ’85 or ’86 Tour de France without mentioning Bernard Hinault.

The Ambiance

Generally, I’m not a big ambiance guy. If the food is great, I generally don’t care much about the surroundings. There are exceptions. If I have friends from out of town, eating at Skates on the Bay, with its view of the Golden Gate Bridge, is an easy call. My favorite Boulder restaurant, Café Gondolier, has suffered in every one of its many relocations, though the food has been the same at each. The Taqueria Cancun on Market Street is a bit too sketchy for me: from my table I was unpleasantly aware of the disinfectant fumes from the bathroom, mingling grotesquely with the second- and third-hand pot smoke from the dudes at the next table. (By contrast, the Mission Street Taqueria Cancun, with its long picnic-style tables and occasional live music from wandering panhandlers, is an exquisite dining environment.) I went to Little Star expecting to care only about the pizza, but right away realized that their ambiance is important, too.

Little Star (I went to the one in the Western Addition, at 846 Divisadero) feels like a neighborhood place. It’s very dark in there—not pizza-parlor-dark like Shakey’s but pub-dark. (I’m not exactly sure what the difference is.) There’s a curtain around the door to the bathroom, which seems just a bit jerry-rigged. And there’s a bar. (I was very pleased at this, because the first of my friends showed up fifteen minutes after I did, and our whole party wasn’t assembled for another hour.) I’m no expert on restaurant bars, but this one suited me fine: enough stools, good (or good enough) beer selection, and a bartender who was somehow authentic (I’m not sure how to explain this, other than he was clearly not what a TGI Friday’s waitress is). The small, crowded tables have little lamps. Like many restaurants, Little Star has low-key art on the walls, so far in the background I scarcely noticed it and cannot recall it in any detail. The overwhelming impression is of the sheer bustle of the place as crowds of people find their spots and tuck in to their food. Sitting there waiting for my friends, I could have been in any small San Francisco restaurant; only a “Little *” license plate over the bar (their star looks better than this), and a simple logo on the waiters’ t-shirts, gave the name of the place.

The upscale retail neighborhoods I’ve seen that Zach’s has restaurants in—College Ave in Rockridge and Solano Ave in Berkeley—are like clones of each other, so for Zach’s to capture a real local feel is a tricky matter to begin with. It doesn’t help that both restaurants (being almost identical themselves) suffer from a bit too much polish, especially where promotion of the Zachary’s brand is concerned. In fairness, there are only three Zach’s locations, so for corporate feel it’s a far cry from Pizza Hut. Zach’s doesn’t have its logo on every cup, napkin, and pizza box, but it does go out of its way to remind you, at every turn, where you are. Most of the walls are covered with large framed paintings, created and donated by amateur artists (many of them children) as totems of appreciation for their beloved pizzeria. While there is great variety among these paintings, they all say Zachary’s and they invariably show pictures of the product. Then there’s one wall covered with best-of awards seemingly from every magazine and newspaper in existence. Even the menu has quotations from glowing reviews, as if to prevent the diner from, at the brink of ordering, suddenly changing his mind and deciding to eat elsewhere.

This self-referential, almost solipsistic approach to décor gets a little old after a couple of decades. It reminds me a bit of the big sign on the approach to the Napa valley saying, “Welcome to the world-famous Napa Valley wine country!” Would you ever see that in Champagne, or Burgundy, or any other European wine-growing region? Of course not. Oddly, I only became fully aware of Zach’s overdone self-promotion when I looked around Little Star and saw how understated and casual it is in comparison. (That said, Zach’s, which is brightly lit, quieter, and much more spacious than Little Star, is far more kid-friendly. I imagined taking my kids to Little Star, and could envision Lindsay hiding under a table, sucking her fingers and twirling her hair.)

The Pizza

Okay, at long last let’s talk about the food. The first thing I’ll say is that Little Star has a great thin-crust pizza. We got their Italian Combo, which has white onions (sliced super thin), bell peppers (not an overwhelming amount), pepperoni, salami, and (this took a minute to figure out) pepperoncinis. It was a gorgeous pizza and I just wanted to look at it awhile before tearing in. It looked a bit like a pizza with fresh herbs I once had at Chez Panisse (which was of course even more splendid, as it had better be). I’ll say more about the thin pizza later, but it wasn’t the main attraction. I didn’t go to Little Star, nor do I go to Zach’s, for the thin crust style. To me, that’s a bit like going to a rock concert to hear the warm-up band.

A moment later, the two deep dish pizzas arrived. (Yes, we ordered three large pizzas for five of us. The waiter warned us that would be much food, which would normally be good advice. What he couldn’t know is that for all intents and purposes, I can eat an infinite amount of pizza. At the end of this meal, it took all the discipline I could muster not to finish off the last two slices—one thick, one thin—that I’d promised to bring home to my wife.) I took a close look at the tomato-covered pies. So familiar, yet so other, like the bearded parallel-universe Spock on the “Star Trek” episode “Mirror, Mirror.”

As with a Zach’s deep-dish pizza, the diameter was not vast. The Little Star large is purportedly 12 inches, though this looked a bit bigger than that. The overall impression is of serious heft. As with Zach’s, these pies are thick, at least an inch deep, and seriously dense. Spread over the top you have stewed tomatoes. Below that, the cheese and everything else, like the pizza equivalent of a lasagne. One style was the Classic, which had sausage, green peppers, onions, and mushrooms (which is exactly what the Zach’s Special has on it, suggesting this pie was designed to go head-to-head with the incumbent). The other deep dish pizza was the Little Star, which (I can tell you after cheating and looking at the menu online) had spinach, ricotta, feta, mushrooms, garlic, and onions. The way these pizzas are built, of course, you couldn’t pick one or the other out of a line-up until you taste them.

As similar as Little Star’s deep-dish is to Zach’s, you could never confuse one for the other just looking at them. The color of the tomatoes is different—Little Star a bit more on the orange side of red, Zach’s more on the pink end. (Of course, it’s so dark in Little Star everything seemed more sepia than Kodachrome, which may have heightened this perception.) The rim of crust on the pizza before me was a bit darker than a Zach’s—not as though it was baked longer, but as though the dough had been darker to begin with. Not whole wheat, of course, which would have been a travesty (nutrition be damned, I’d almost rather have wheat germ as a topping than in there spoiling my crust). Cutting into my first slice confirmed that this crust was different—it sort of crunched under my fork.

So, the first bite: wow. First of all, Little Star pizza is great. Comparisons aside, nobody needs to worry about getting a good meal at either of these two pizzerias. Mozzarella, fresh sausage, green peppers, onions, garlic, tangy tomatoes—what’s not to like? Second of all, this pizza really is different. Little Star, though clearly influenced by Zach’s, obviously didn’t just try to clone its pizza and differentiate itself solely on atmosphere and location. The biggest difference is that crust. It’s crunchier, and grainier, almost gritty. Where Zach’s uses white flour and apparently lots of butter, Little Star uses corn meal and perhaps more olive oil. Little Star has a slight suggestion of Mom’s corn bread, while Zach’s is flaky, like a French pastry or a pie shell. Yet even after the countless Zach’s pizzas I’ve eaten since about 1990, this Little Star pizza didn’t seem foreign or strange—it seemed oddly familiar. It took about a second to realize what it reminded me of: Pizzeria Uno.

I’m not talking about Uno Chicago Grill, that nationwide chain that both exploits and sullies the brand of the original Pizzeria Uno in Chicago. The crust at any of the chain restaurants is more like Pizza Hut’s: airy, crispy, and greasy, sitting in a little puddle of oil in the pan. I won’t bag on it, because it’s a guilty pleasure (I love all pizza, even bad pizza, even Totino’s frozen), but the strip-mall version is of course nothing like what I had once at the original Uno in Chicago. That place seems utterly uninfluenced by what its distant, sellout cousins have wrought. It has a grainy, crunchy cornmeal crust. If the original Uno really is the authority on true Chicago-style pizza, than Little Star wins out as the most authentic, hands-down, on its crust alone.

I don’t want to give the impression that my entire focus during this meal was comparing Little Star to Zach’s. That’s not it at all—I was hanging out with old friends and drinking beer and eating pizza, and enjoying all of this. It probably wasn’t until halfway through, as my pace slowed down a bit and maybe there was a lull in conversation, that I started to ruminate (almost literally) about whether Little Star really is the new gold-standard in West Coast deep dish pizza. And my conclusion eventually dawned on me: presumed authenticity aside, I actually prefer Zach’s. The Little Star cornmeal crust, though very good, was just too dominant, like if Philip Seymour Hoffman showed up in a Vince Vaughn movie.

Maybe I’m just not that sophisticated a pizza-eater—maybe I’m too much in touch with my inner Philistine. In some regards I’m just not ready to let authenticity get in the way of base pleasures: I’ll take a San Francisco Philly cheese-steak, with its onions and peppers and Provolone, over the real Philly cheese-steak with its Velveeta and its total lack of vegetable matter. And I want my Mexican (or perhaps I should say Mexican-American) food with cheese, regardless of whether that’s the way they’d do it in Mexico. As a defense of my new-fangled, irreverent, willfully unenlightened attitude, I’ll remind you that Chicago-style pizza itself is an almost complete departure from the pizza you’d get in Italy (or so I’m told by anybody who’s been there).

Beyond the crust, there are other things about Zach’s deep dish pizza that I like better. The tomatoes are a bit less garlicky, which to my tongue means they’re just right. In other words, I think Little Star overdoes the garlic a bit. Also, the Zach’s tomatoes have a bit clearer, brighter taste (which is how my wife, who also prefers Zach’s, described it). Moving on to the toppings, the sausage at Zach’s is just tastier. Meanwhile, the combination of items in the Little Star combo was a bit too complicated (which is why I had to look at the menu to recall what all was in it). I did notice the feta, because it took the pizza from being on the verge of over-salty (like Zach’s) to perhaps just slightly over the edge.

The thin pizza at Little Star, on the other hand, was just as delicious as it looked. The pepperoncinis were a clever touch (the pulpy, seedy mess off the core had been removed) and the crust was thin, not bready, and captured the perfect combination of crispy and chewy. Though I have no problem with Zach’s thin pizza, this was clearly better. (That said, for thin crust pizza Lo Coco’s in Berkeley is better than either one, if you ask me.)

The Aftermath

You may recall, though it was awhile ago, that I mentioned my friend’s explanation—raw dough—for the uncomfortable bloat brought on by Zach’s pizza. That discomfort alone might justify switching to a new pizzeria. So it’s time to answer the question: does Little Star let you down easier when you’re trying to digest it all? Has the unfortunate deep dish hangover problem actually been solved?

In a word, no. I’m sorry to say I suffered just as much after eating Little Star as I always do after eating Zach’s. I slept terribly after that meal, getting up throughout the night to drink water, and waking up with all the skin gone from the roof of my mouth. The next morning, my gastrointestinal system wasn’t happy. I’ll probably never know whether this is a result of the salt, the garlic, the acid from the tomatoes, the sheer richness of the ingredients, the beer, or some combination of these. Of course it doesn’t help that I eat about 5,000 calories worth of pizza at a sitting. (A friend once said, “I want front-row seats at your autopsy.”)

The only way I know of to mitigate the Zach’s hangover is to eat it for lunch instead of dinner. I seem to eat a bit less this way, and have many hours of being upright and moving around to achieve the digestion-aiding peristalsis we don’t get so much when sleeping. Of course, since Little Star isn’t open for lunch, you’ll just have to pay your dues afterward, unless you’re one of those freaks of nature who can moderate his intake of really, really good pizza.

In Closing

I wonder, given Zach’s popularity, how many others actually like it and are, like me, just too timid to admit this on chowhound. I will freely confess that the scene at Little Star better matches how I’d like to see myself: young, hip, and retro. (Never mind that I’m pushing forty and appreciate a kid-friendly place.) Food aside, I have to wonder if Little Star’s style advantage exerts undue influence on the chowhounders. It’s hard for me to grasp how every single chowhound review is squarely on the side of Little Star, with many heaping vindictive scorn upon a venerable Berkeley institution that, if not actually better than Little Star, ultimately sells a very similar product.

In any event, as good as both these pizzerias are, I wouldn’t dare tout either of them as the real deal to somebody from Chicago. (I made that mistake once before and got totally schooled.) Suffice to say both restaurants are great, and who knows—maybe if I lived on the other side of the Bay I’d develop a taste for Little Star’s crunchy cornmeal crust.


  1. I've never been a deep-dish fan, but will admit to having enjoyed Zachary's the few times I've been. Now I definitely want to try Little Star.

  2. Oh, I forgot to say: Great photo!

  3. I finally got a chance to try Little Star myself last night. I always find it difficult to get over there, so I just had it delivered to me with Postmates' Get It Now last night (http://postmates.com/getitnow).

    I'm not usually a fan of deep dish (mostly because of the crust), but this is some seriously great pizza. Strangely enough the crust is my favorite part of Little Star's pizzas.

  4. Well, tastes do change ... it has dawned on me over the last couple years that I have actually come to prefer Little Star over Zach's. But I'd still eat either of them in a heartbeat!