For some time I'd been hearing about great pizzas on Watt Street, and was planning to investigate them. Watt Street isn't that far from where I live, but Pizza 21st Century has saved me even that relatively short drive by opening a branch on Academy Road, on the site of a previous pizzeria, for takeout and delivery only. And now River Heights can join Elmwood in enjoying some of the best pizzas the city has to offer.
There is almost every style of crust imaginable -- not just thick, thin or regular, with white flour crusts, but also whole-wheat, multi-grain, gluten-free, yeast-free and even crusts that are stuffed with cheese or with ham and cheese, topped by fresh, quality ingredients. The house combos range from $15.90 for 10 inches to $25 for 16 inches, plus three listed as "premium," at $19.50 to $28 -- one features barbecued chicken, another shrimp and the third an abundance of everything. Alternately, you can build your own, starting with a cheese pizza from $9.69 to $16.93.
In the past my preference was for medium-thick, rather than thin crusts, and I have often disliked those made of whole-wheat flour. Not any more, not after trying the Zagreb with an ultra-thin and crisp yet pliant whole-wheat crust, and a superb topping of tomato sauce, mushrooms, ham and asiago, liberally sprinkled with herbs (lots of oregano) and spices -- so good I could have eaten the whole pie myself (but had to share it, alas). I also tried the more traditional Classic Italian, on a regular crust -- thicker, but not too thick, nicely chewy, topped with ham, Italian sausage, mushrooms and mozzarella.
There are a few house-made fresh pastas as well, among them a big-flavoured and big-enough-for two lasagna. The bi-coloured spaghetti (white and pale green) had a good texture, but the arrabbiata sauce -- with bacon, onions and a real jolt of hot pepper -- tasted too strongly of tomato paste ($13.50 each).
But back to the Zagreb pizza. Why Zagreb, I wondered -- hardly an Italian reference, since it is the capital of Croatia (all the more intriguing since also on the menu are the wonderful house-made Croatian chevaps -- skinless, garlicky, all-beef sausages). The answer, it turned out, was that the owner is from Croatia. The chevaps turn up in profusion between thin, crisp slices of what is probably pizza dough, fleshed out with raw onions (too strong for me) and a few pieces of tomato. It made for a dryish combination, but I liked them so much I was happy enough to just eat them on their own ($10.50).
Open from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and until 11:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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For me dog days are deli days, days of no-cooking, and feasting on the kind of meats that supply the salt one sometimes needs when the temperature soars. The city is blessed by a host of butchers who cure their own meats, the majority of them Eastern Europeans, who also prepare some crossover products -- it's a rare Ukrainian smokehouse that doesn't also make Italian pepperonis.
They are wonderful, one and all, but there are also German cured meats -- at Ellice Meats, for instance, which has been in existence for 60 years, and under the same ownership for the past 40. It too offers many crossover items, covering the European map of cured meats, and some of their meats are prepared by others (Schneider's, for instance).
But I had come to try their own, house-made German cold cuts, which seemed leaner than their Eastern European counterparts, and less garlicky. And they, too, were wonderful, one and all.
The selection is intimidating, and choosing even just among the hams presents difficulties since there are at least seven varieties. None I tried leaked liquid like those commercially packaged hams, and all had more interesting flavours, among them cold or hot smoked black forest hams, the delicately flavoured baked ham and lean cooked ham -- and that's not counting such ham-based wursts as the coarse-grained schinkenwurst flecked with mustard seeds.
Other excellent wursts are jagdwurst (a.k.a. hunting sausage), with or without mustard seeds; garlicky bierwurst (not made with beer, but to go with it); and the garlicky Bavarian loaf (alternately known as leberkase, but containing neither liver nor cheese). Little studs of pimento create a jewel-like mosaic in the headcheese of vinegar-flavoured aspic. If pork isn't your meat, try the fabulous, wafer-thin slices of scarlet smoked beef or the moist and slightly spicy corned beef.
Although there is also a fresh meat section (including already-rolled rouladen) most of what I bought was ready to eat. However, if you're up to a minimal amount of cooking, the smokies are excellent, and the bratwurst superb. They do a great potato salad, flecked with bits of pickles, and you can also pick up such other local products as sunflower seed-covered buns from Crusty Bun Bakery, perogies from Mom's and meat pies from Molly's.