Finding great pizza has evolved a lot over the past decade. Not that long ago, it was difficult to find any pizza beyond the white-bready soft crust offerings from chains like Domino's or Pizza Hut. While mass-produced pizza has its charms, other more "authentic" pizzas have come forward. You can get a solid Detroit style pizza in every major city, legit Neapolitan pies are baking all over America in 900-degree ovens, and the classic Trenton and New Haven tomato pies are known beyond their neighborhoods.
|New York style at 290 Locale|
But what if you are craving that soft crusted pizza, perhaps slightly elevated? If that's your sweet spot for comfort food, has anyone taken soft floppy pizza to another level? Maybe so, at 290 Locale Winery & Pizzeria, located a half-block away from Highway 290 in Johnson City, Texas.
Central Texas Hill Country has many small villages and towns that could have been places that time has forgotten, but instead have been transformed into fun day trip places due to their proximity to Austin. Fredericksburg probably leads that pack with its wineries, breweries, and distilleries to complement its German heritage. Wimberly and Dripping Springs likewise, once minor outposts in cattle country, now are home to boutique stores and restaurants and the lively local music scene.
|Pedernales Electric holiday lights display|
A little more off the radar is Johnson City, just west of Dripping Springs along Highway 290. Johnson City was the boyhood home of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was named for James Polk Johnson, a cousin of LBJ's grandfather. That home is still there and can be visited by tourists (but even better is the LBJ Ranch, just a bit further west in Stonewall, TX).
|Interior at 290 Locale|
Most Austinites drive right through Johnson City en route to Fredericksburg, but we found out that it's a worthy destination all by itself. We were drawn to the Holiday Light Show exhibit by Pedernales Electric Co-op (PEC), and we drove out there on a rainy Saturday after Thanksgiving. Waiting for the evening to see the lights, we walked through the town seeking a place to eat.
|"Detroit" pizza at 290 Locale|
The local brewpub had a 90-minute wait, and so we fortunately stumbled into 290 Locale before the crowds did. We found the host and the service team to be particularly friendly and helpful, moving two small tables together for our party of four. The restaurant, an open and comfortable space, filled up quickly as more people came into town to see the display of lights.
290 Locale offers two styles of pizza; a 12" round "New York" pie and a "Detroit" version that looked bigger than the 5" x7" size described by our server. She said that the two typles of pizza use the same dough in the same amount, and they are priced the same way.
|Nice browning underneath the NY pizza|
We ordered one New York pizza with pepperoni ($17), and a Detroit pizza with sausage and hot honey ($15 base price, not sure how much was added for the toppings). While we waited, we sampled some of the excellent draft beers on tap (starting at $6). 290 Locale also specializes in wines that pair well with pizza.
|A "Detroit" slice|
The New York pizza was beautifully assembled. It had a generous amount of cheese (mozzarella or a mozz blend) and was dotted with thin but nicely curled spicy cup pepperoni. If you want to know what good pizza tasted like in the 1980s, this is it. A soft and pliable crust, plenty of cheese, a sauce that leans sweet, and plentiful cured meat on top.
|Underneath the Detroit pie|
This pizza was not breaking any new ground, and it was "New York" only in the sense that it was round. If I could find a comparable pizza, it would be the guilty pleasure of a slice at Costco, but of course much smaller. This pizza is comfort food, not artisan food. And judging by the happy sounds from the throngs of other diners (mostly families with young children), it was fulfilling its comfort food role.
The Detroit pizza was the thinnest version of that type I've had; it was as thick as a grandma pie. The cheese did go to the edge, but not over. It sported the signature red racing stripes of sauce on top, and the sweet sauce was made even sweeter by the addition of hot honey. The pre-coooked slices of sausage got a little lost under the generous layer of sauce.
We enjoyed both pies, but the New York-ish pie hit home for me. It really felt like a meaningful upgrade to the soft pizza that was hard to avoid in the 70s and 80s. The square pie was a noble attempt but was too thin to qualify as Detroit. Still, it did feel like a nice home-made pizza. I've tried the soft-crust Detroit pizza attempts by both Pizza Hut and Little Cesar's, and this one didn't seem to get beyond them.
|Blanco County Courthouse in Johnson City|
Overall, this was a lovely small-town experience in a suddenly hot outpost. It can be nice to take a break from pursuit of hip or innovative pizza, and just indulge in a familiar pleasure. 290 Locale delivers in that way.