While we think mom-and-pop shops make the best pizza in the nation, we'd be remiss if we didn't keep abreast of what the chains are up to. Suit up, it's time for another Chain Reaction, folks.
Uno Chicago Grill (formerly Pizzaria Uno) has always had the potential to be my favorite restaurant chain, primarily because they're pretty restrained with the décor and the adjectives: There aren't too many old-timey tin signs on the walls or aggressively active descriptors on the menu. And while they don't insult you with fake ads for Farmer Jones's Magick Chicken Elixer or buckets of Boneless Ninja Anger Wings, neither do they reach too far above their natural station. Uno isn't one of those new-timey chains that regard themselves as suitable for a proper adult's first date, but it's not a pizza-packed playpen, either. Uno has found a nice upper-middle ground.
That's important, but all it guarantees is that going to Uno isn't instantly annoying. It's not as if you'd recommend a chain restaurant on the strength of the scene alone—you can't eat dark wood and understated signage. If you can't find something worth ordering, you might as well save a couple bucks at one of the lesser chains.
And that's always been my problem with Uno. I'm not a deep-dish guy, because I find it degrading to eat pizza with a fork or to wear pizza on a shirt, and I've yet to find a third way to deal with pizza casserole. I realize that Uno offers all sorts of other crust options, but since I'm turned off by their claim to fame, I've never invested much energy in finding the one that's right for me.
But last Saturday it snowed, and Uno is the closest place to my apartment where a snowed-on man can get pizza and a beer (a frustratingly rare combination in Boston), so I trudged on in to try the new Artisan Thin Crust line.
Uno has been pushing thin crust for a while now, but they've only recently gone artisanal on us, with the following options: Wild Mushroom and Cabot® Cheddar Cheese; Fig, Goat Cheese, and Broccoli; and Shrimp, Spinach, and Goat Cheese. We passed on the first because my date doesn't like mushrooms and I don't like to encourage the insidious creep of low-end brand names on restaurant menus. Cabot and Uno are free to form all the marketing partnerships they like, but I don't have to eat them. After I ranted about that over our first round of beers, we ordered both of the others with the traditional crust (five-grain and gluten-free are also available).
When the food arrived, the first thing I noticed is that it wasn't a very big pile of pizza for the price. The shrimp-spinach number set us back $13.99 and the fig-broccoli version was a dollar more. It was plenty of food for two people, but I'm accustomed to getting more gross tonnage of chain pizza for my $29. Just how much of a surcharge did I pay for the artisinality of my lunch? I'm pretty sure my pizza was prepared by the same set of humble craftsmen who assemble the cheaper menu items.
But to be fair, I had been so concerned with avoiding food-adjective inflation that I hadn't noticed all the perfectly honest nouns that indicated I was indeed ordering the premium. In addition to the titular figs, goat cheese, and broccoli, that one had pesto, roasted tomatoes, Parmesan, and a balsamic glaze. If there are two things chain-fancier than figs and goat cheese, they might be pesto and balsamic, so I guess that can reasonably add up $15 for nine inches of flatbread. The other pizza was just as noble, with shrimp, spinach, and Alfredo sauce joining the roasted tomatoes and goat cheese.
Once I got over the sticker shock, I was ready to be impressed by how well-cooked they appeared. The broccoli and halved cherry tomatoes were judiciously singed, and the goat cheese was browned in spots. This was pretty good-looking food.
It was also the best pizza I've ever had at a chain restaurant. The crust was a half shade paler than I'd have preferred and tasted like a saltine, but it was sturdy and efficient and supported the generous toppings for at least 30 minutes without succumbing to sog. And those toppings were almost universally excellent.
The fig, goat cheese, and broccoli pie was very well balanced for such an ambitiously topped endeavor. The dried figs were sweet and chewy without being Newtonian mush, the goat cheese was more creamy than grainy, and the fresh broccoli was firm and flavorful underneath the light char. The pesto sauce was mercifully restrained and light on the garlic, but the balsamic glaze might have been overkill. It wasn't bad, but I'd rather skip it and avoid the risk of an inattentive artisan leaving a slice-wrecking puddle (we got seven good pieces and one bad).
The shrimp, goat cheese, and spinach was even better. The medium-sized shrimp were halved latitudinally and cooked just right. They were faintly smoky, perfectly tender despite being lightly blackened, and better than they had any right to be. The spinach was neither slimy nor burnt and therefore a success, and though the Alfredo sauce wasn't particularly good—it tasted a bit Krafty—at least it was scarce.
Uno's artisan thin crust pizzas are fairly expensive for the environment, but they're a good deal for the quality. If god forsakes us to the extent that it ever snows again on a Saturday, I'll go back for more.