Article published Aug 28, 2008 at

Dining review: Pizzalchik is no ordinary pizzeria
Atmosphere and food may be eclectic and casual, but they're both done well.

by Guy Hand

From the curb, it looks like any strip-mall chain lost in the commercial tangle of west State Street.

But the instant we step onto the patio and begin to read the outside menu board, it's clear Pizzalchik is going to be as idiosyncratic as its name (a Scrabble-stumping jumble of syllables meant to represent the restaurant's main menu items - pizza, salad, chicken). An employee who is apparently on break sidles up, and with the earnest eyes of the newly converted, begins to proselytize:

"This place is great, man. The owners are like really into it and they make everything from scratch; they marinate their own artichokes and make their own sausage and cook everything in that killer 6,000-pound pizza oven."

He points through the window at a glowing stone hearth that does indeed look killer.

"Man, you gotta try the shrimp creole pasta."

Before I can ask if they cook the pasta in the pizza oven, an eavesdropping patio customer adds, "He's right; those specials are amazing.

Inside, the place is anything but corporate. There's the searing fuzz guitar of an ancient Amboy Dukes song, walls covered in local art, cooks capped in what another enthusiastic employee calls hemp hippie hats, and, most notably, the heady scent of garlic, fresh tomatoes and roasting chicken.

At the counter we find more to consider than the namesake pizza, salad and chicken. Appetizers such as jalapeno poppers, mushroom turnovers, blackened chicken fingers, bubble bread (thick, handmade bread with prosciutto and bubbling cheese) all sound enticing. But our patio welcoming committee recommended the weekend specials, so that's what we stick with.

The grilled salmon with buttered noodles and asian pear salsa ($16.95), comes crusted with grill marks and spice rub. Its interior is moist and slightly translucent; the salsa a mix of avocado, cilantro, corn, thin-sliced pear and edamame (soy beans commonly served at sushi restaurants); all set on a mound of buttery angel hair. The contrast of crunchy sweet and savory soft is delicious.

The shrimp Creole pasta ($15.95)-a generous pile of large shrimp cooked in a chunky tomato sauce with green pepper, onion, and chili, served over the same angel hair pasta - also is good. It's a stretch, however, to call it Creole. This sauce is sweeter, Italian in taste, yet still satisfying.

Speaking of Italian, Pizzalchik makes thin-crust, hand-spun pizzas. They come in one slightly variable size: 10 to 12 inches (depending on the speed of the hand-spinner). The basic cheese pizza costs $7.99, and it's your choice to embellish with a long list of toppings, each an additional $1.10 to $2.20. Along with items such as pepperoni and green pepper, there are those house-marinated artichokes, elk sausage and smoked salmon. We go for sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella and sliced artichoke. The crust is crisp, the red sauce rich, the artichoke tissue-thin and citrusy.

On a mid-week lunch visit, the music has mellowed from '60s psychedelia to downbeat electronica, and it comes as no surprise that owner Brad Breakell is a musician.

"I've been a drummer as long as I've been a chef," Breakell says.

A formally trained cook who has been in the business for 30 years, he occasionally swaps his spatula and spoon for drumsticks and on Saturday nights jams on the patio with friends. (So much for that strip mall stereotype.)

Breakell's musical taste may be eclectic, but his chicken is totally traditional - and that's a good thing. There's nothing quite like a simply roasted chicken, and here it comes whole, half or quartered, roasted with rosemary, garlic, or garlic and mushrooms. I order a quarter with garlic and mushrooms ($8.25) and it emerges from the pizza oven with burnished mahogany skin and juicy, rosemary infused flesh. It tastes like Sunday supper.

For dessert, the proselytizing employee we'd met that first night pushed the cheesecake, and the taste of Pizzalchik's key lime version ($5.95) rolls my eyes back in my head. It's not a dense, New York style cheesecake, but has a pillowy, whipped cream texture and a sunny, Florida Keys flavor. It is - as I was so presciently warned - killer.