|Potato and Feta slice; click any image to enlarge|
Either the pizza or the salad is big enough to make a meal for one. You order at a counter where you can view the ingredients, your meal is assembled rapidly, and you either pick up your order or it is brought to your table.
|Italian sausage pizza|
We've seen this approach at the larger new chains, like MOD Pizza, and some smaller ones near Philadelphia like RapiDough and SNAP Custom Pizza. When visiting Little Rock, we saw that ZAZA (two locations, Little Rock and Conway) was getting the best reviews, so we tried it on a rainy night in March.
Despite the flash flood warnings that evening, this large, modern, attractive two-story space filled up quickly. The menu includes wood-fired personal-size pizzas, dinner-size salads, soup, soft drinks, wine and beer, and gelato. The salad options had terrific visual appeal, but we didn't try them.
|Assembly process; oven on the left|
Most of the pizzas were in the $12 - $13 range, and we chose to split two pies. The sausage pizza included house-made Italian sausage, Fontina and Parmesan cheeses, post-bake arugula, roasted bell pepper, caramelized onion, and tomato sauce.
|Italian sausage pizza, served on the peel|
|Oven wood, stacked up to the 2nd level|
After placing orders and picking up drinks ($6 for a glass of Chianti, $2.50 for iced tea), we selected a table in the loft section, overlooking the main dining room and the kitchen assembly line.
|Salad and pizza assembly areas|
ZAZA hews pretty closely to Neapolitan pizza standards, using Molino Caputo Tipo 00 flour for the crust. ZAZA's website notes that its sauce is made with five ingredients: San Marzano tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, locally grown basil, kosher salt, and cracked pepper. The pies cook in a wood-fired oven at 700-800 degrees in under 4 minutes.
Each pizza was a generous personal size, and the crust was about identical on both. It was a bit paler than a typical Neapolitan crust, but it sported some excellent leopard spotting underneath. It was sturdy enough to support each slice, and it had a wonderfully surprising crunch at the cornicione.
The sausage pie was nicely balanced in flavors and textures, but perhaps a little cheese heavy towards the center. Slices were droopy and became soggy as the thinnest part of the crust began to absorb sauce and grease from the cheese - but not a big issue.
|Perfect char underneath|
The sauce was bright and lively and worked especially well with the other ingredients. The sausage was applied in big uneven chunks and was a standout topping. The post bake arugula adhered reasonably well and added some balance as well as peppery flavor.
|Charles with the potato pie|
I enjoy caramelized onions, and the flavor of these was fine, but on both pies they were more wet and heavy than ideal. Something added a nice spicy flavor to the sausage pie - perhaps the sausage itself.
The proper star of this pie, though, was the crust. It had a superb flavor, a bit of al dente chewiness once you got past the first soggy bite on each slice, and then that wonderfully crackly cornicione.
|Crisp and crackly cornicione|
The potato pie was a winner on flavor, less so on texture. The crust, of course, was wonderful, and it stayed in better shape because there was no red sauce to moisten it. We liked the cheese blend and the plump orange cherry tomatoes on top.
|Potato pizza at ZAZA|
Where it failed, though, was its signature topping. We've had best-in-class potato-topped pizza at Sally's in New Haven. There, the potatoes are wafer thin. Some are just a thin layer of delicate flavor, but some get a crisp browning and add another textural dimension.
|Potato pizza done right, at Sally's in New Haven|
Here, however, the potatoes were in thicker "home fries" chunks, and they looked and tasted more like boiled potatoes than roasted potatoes. They added weight and moisture without materially improving the flavor or texture of the pie.
Even with that fundamental shortcoming, the crust and cheese and tomatoes made this a good pizza. It could be so much better, though, by using thinly sliced and evenly distributed potatoes.
Overall, ZAZA is succeeding in a major way. It occupies an attractive space; the serving staff is friendly and attentive; the crust and sauce are first rank and the topping choices permit construction of a wide variety of destination pizzas.
Add in the wine and beer choices, the soups and gelato and salads we didn't get to try, and it all adds up to a destination dining spot. This is the best assembly line Neapolitan pie I've had - it easily eclipses MOD, SNAP, and RapiDough, all of which are pretty good. You can't go wrong at ZAZA in Little Rock.