CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT?
Not knowing quite what to expect from Whole Foods's endeavor at the highly touted Time Warner Center, Our Leader and I journeyed to Columbus Circle for lunch last Friday. I left once again doubting that old, uneducated pizza adage: even when it's bad, it's still pretty good.
In this culture-shock mall, we headed straight to the lower level for Whole Foods (Manhattan's largest grocery store). There is little else to see in this eighty-story glass-and-steel behemoth, which seems to represent where suburban sterility meets Manhattan extravagance.
Well-intentioned as Whole Foods's efforts may be, there's something uncomfortable about a store that has uniformed employees directing shoppers from the main entrance to the store to the food court to the check-out area to the check-out clerk to the dining room. It's as if we're cattle being shuffled through the corporate turnstiles. With a little patience, we found the small pizza countertucked behind the sushi bar and prepackaged sandwiches.
The store's size isn't the only impersonal feature; everything at the pizza corner is premade. About a dozen varieties, each stretched into a six-by-eighteen-inch rectangular pie, decorated the glass-enclosed counter. Many variations here are not found elsewherered onions and zucchini, eggplant and ricottta cheese, and portobello mushrooms are but a fewand it's all made on site, with Whole Foods's stockpile of fresh ingredients. Behind the small work area is a brick oven. The results of this brick oven have me believing most of these cachet structures offer more promotion than promise.
Each slice finds its way onto a thick paper plate, then it is weighed atop a deli-counter scale before it slides into a thin, record-size bag. (Seltzerboy, what's a record?) The price range is $6.99 to $7.99 per pounda hefty sum that's compounded when one considers that you are spending the same price for each plate they serve you. Again, as this is not your grandfather's pizza place, you'll need some patience waiting on the lunchtime line that snakes through the store. Its 248 seats hardly seems sufficient; many other patrons ate while standing, and we rested our trays on our laps after finding makeshift seats.
Those are the highlights. Like the tiny trays used to carry our food, the pizza reminded me of elementary school. All Sicilian-size, the crust was thick, rubbery, and undercooked. I've had better sauce in prepackaged jars. The cheese was so bland, I hardly knew it was there. Worse, after spending $13.42 between us for four slices and four plateswe didn't buy drinks, which were difficult to locatewe left hungry. Perhaps the performance will improve. With a store stocked with some of the freshest ingredients in town, it's a wonder why Whole Foods can't produce something that's even passable.
Upon our departure, the contrasts became jarring. From a pizza perspective, surely this is not the business in mind when the opposite corner was dubbed Merchant's Gate. Staring down at us was Christopher Columbus himself, or at least the 1892 marble statue depicting the man who first brought Italian culture to these shores. With finishing touches still being applied to the Time Warner Center and its environs, I can't help but wonder if the last addition will be tears streaming from Columbus's eyes.