Mellow Mushroom: An Unlikely Southern Tradition
Multiple locations, mainly in the Southeast; find a branch here
Pizza Style: A thick-crusted style unto itself, with toppings that lean towards Californian
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Founded by two college roommates in 1974; serving up topping-heavy specialty pizzas ever since
Price: $13.25 for a medium pizza with two toppings; $14-$20.50 for a medium specialty pie
I have a feeling that pizza purists will frown upon Mellow Mushroom's giant garlic knot of a pizza. Its thick, yeasty crust is basted with garlic butter, dusted with cornmeal, and sprinkled with powdered Parmesan right before serving. Well, frown away, purists, because the pair of Georgia Tech roommates who started the business have been doing something right: Now in operation for 34 years, Mellow Mushroom has spread across the Southeast, with outposts in the Midwest and Arizona.
Mellow Mushroom's 1974 birth year is apparent in the chain's famously psychedelic decor. There are enough mushroom statues and mushroom references (at the branch I visited in Atlanta, Georgia, the sign to the bathrooms read "Mellow Flushrooms") to evoke, depending on your cultural background, either Lewis Carroll or Amsterdam.
Speaking of Amsterdam: For a Bible Belt chain, Mellow Mushroom's specialty pies seem suspiciously designed with "the munchies" in mind, both in name and in toppings. The "Magical Mystery Tour" and "Kosmic Karma" pizzas both feature the restaurant's signature pesto sauce, and the "House Special", which—in a madcap, hungover mood—I ordered, is piled high with pepperoni, sausage, ground beef, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, black olives, fresh tomatoes, ham, bacon and extra cheese.
Defying expectations, the alarming variety of toppings was handled with restraint. The tomato sauce was, to my palate, a bit heavy on the oregano, but everything tasted fresh, and there wasn't the tsunami of orange oil that I've come to expect from big-chain "Meat-Lover's" pies. The star of the show, though, was that garlicky, unctuous crust—thick enough to sink your teeth into, but still thin enough to eat with your hand. Yellow with butter and stuccoed with cornmeal, this is a crust to save for last, not discard.
A Brooklyn girl at heart, I wouldn't put Mellow Mushroom head-to-head with a tender-crisp cheese slice from Fornino or Di Fara. But, the next time I'm down south, I'll be glad to sample even their most excessive-sounding pies.
[It is worth noting that when some guy in a beard decided to parody, and cross-dress as, Paula Deen, he picked a Mellow Mushroom kitchen as his stage:]