Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel from the road, this time in Cincinnati. —The Mgmt.
417 Madison Road, Covington KY 41011 (map); 773-275-7080; larosas.com
Pizza Style: Traditional (thin), hand-tossed (medium), and crispy pan (thick)
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Popular Cincinnati chain's success is baffling, as this is just not good pizza
Price: Large thin crust, one topping, $14.04; large focaccia-style pie, $17.14.
As with religion and sports teams, I think it’s safe to say that most people are loyal to the type of pizza on which they were raised. Given the lifelong ties so many have to their favorite pizzeria as well as my love of virtually every pizzalike food, I try to find the good in whatever pizza I try. When I planned my recent trip to Cincinnati, I did some research and learned that the 'Nati’s quintessential pizza can be found at LaRosa’s Pizzeria, which has been a local institution since 1954. While it may not be every Queen City resident's favorite, it does have an incredibly large and loyal following. LaRosa’s has grown from one shop on the city's west side to become a chain with more than 60 locations in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, so I assumed they were doing something right.
I visited the Covington, Kentucky, location late Saturday night, where I picked up the pizzas and then took them to my hotel (the dining rooms close at 10 p.m., but delivery and to-go orders are available until 11 p.m.). To order a pizza for carry-out or delivery, everyone calls the same phone number no matter which LaRosa’s they are ordering from. The pizza dispatcher takes the order and coordinates with the local pizzeria. When calling, people have the option of ordering right then or having their pizza ready at a particular time, a convenience I took advantage of. The guy I talked to, who was at the end of a long shift, could not have been more helpful in walking me through the various options (I had forgotten the online menu I'd printed out). Unfortunately, the customer service was the only thing about my LaRosa’s experience that was above average. Simply put, while Cincinnatians have plenty of food to be proud of, LaRosa's pizza is not in that category.
LaRosa’s offers pizza on three different crusts: Traditional (thin), hand-tossed (medium) and crispy pan (thick). I tried the traditional and the crispy pan. Up first was the traditional with sausage. The pizza looked promising: It had a nice thin crust, was amply topped with cheese and sausage, and had a generous layer of sauce. It does not affect the flavor, but I appreciated that it was cut in squares. I was starving and could not wait to try a piece. After one bite, I won’t say I lost my appetite, but I certainly lost all of my excitement for LaRosa’s.
The first thing I noticed was the cheese, which at first I thought was tasteless “pizza cheese” but later learned was remarkably bland provolone. The layer of cheese was about as thick as the crust, which is normally a good thing, but here not so much. In addition to the lack of flavor, the cheese was also hurt by its congealed nature. In fairness, about 15 minutes had passed between the time we picked up the pizzas and when we ate them, but even taking that delay into account, the texture was not appetizing.
The sausage may have been worse than the cheese. The chunks did not look like preformed factory-produced sausage pellets that should never be eaten, but the flavor was not far from it. The pork seemed to have no seasoning whatsoever added to it. The crust, while not terrible, was unmemorable. It held up well to the large quantities of cheese, sausage and sauce, but it added nothing to the flavor of the pizza. As for the texture, there was a little chew and no crisp—it basically served no function other than being a mediocre base for a mediocre chain-quality pizza.
The one part of the pizza that I did enjoy was the sauce, which was thick, well-seasoned, and very much involved in every bite of the pizza. To the extent that the seasoning from the sauce was capable of adding some zestiness to the rest of the pie, the traditional LaRosa’s pizza is not terrible.
While the sauce was able to slightly salvage the traditional pie, my second pizza, the Roma focaccia, did not have any of LaRosa’s regular sauce on it, and the pizza suffered because of it. LaRosa’s focaccia-style pizzas are crispy pan pies topped with a three-cheese blend, spices, and a "focaccia sauce." The Roma focaccia comes with pepperoni, sausage, ground beef, and capocolla (more commonly spelled cappicola). The ground beef was indistinguishable from the sausage, which is to say that it, too, was stunningly bland. The pepperoni was standard Hormel-quality pepperoni, which is to say it adds little more than extra salt to the pizza. The capocolla was not served in thin slices across the pizza but rather was chopped into particularly chewy little bits that were spread atop the pie. The flavor of the capocolla was, I thought, the best of the four meats, but that was not saying much.
The three-cheese blend consisted primarily of provolone, with some cheddar and a little ricotta. The cheddar added a little flavor to the blend, but I did not notice the ricotta until I basically did an autopsy on a slice as I tried to figure out where the flavor was coming from since I could not see any sauce. From what I could tell after I took the cheese and toppings off one of the long rectangular slices, the "focaccia sauce" is less a sauce and more a spicy oil. There was some substance to it—I noticed a few fennel seeds—but the sauce seemed to be little more than a mild liquid heat. The crust on the Roma focaccia, was supposed to be crisp. It was definitely thicker than the traditional pizza, but the texture was not noticeably different; the crispy pan crust was, in fact, not crisp.
In fairness to LaRosa’s and the people of Cincinnati who think their local chain serves up good pies, I will offer a couple caveats to my story. For one, I got the pizza late at night—I picked it up about ten minutes before they closed so it’s possible the guy making the pizzas was tired and off his game. Second, after picking up the pizza, we drove to our hotel, which added about 15 minutes to the time the pizza spent out of the oven before I ate it. But even if both of those detracted from the pizza, they would have affected the texture and not the flavor. Four hungry guys split the two large pizzas, and three of us are quite capable of overeating when the occasion calls for it. The biggest indictment I can give of LaRosa’s is that we did not come close to finishing our pies.