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Viva Herbal Pizzeria

179 Second Avenue, New York NY 10003 (11th/12th streets; map); 212-420-8801
Pizza Style: New York–style via Berkeley and Tel Aviv
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny? The regular cheese pizza seems designed to make the vegan offering more palatable, which is not an easy feat
Price: Regular slice, $2.50; non–dairy cheese whole wheat crust slice, $3.50

I have never understood the need some vegetarians and vegans have to eat foods that mimic those their diets preclude. If the shelves of my local health food store are any indication, veggie burgers, tofu dogs and nondairy cheese are in high demand. I am not denying that tofu and vegetables can be delicious, but as a serious eater, I question why one would choose form over function (or in this case flavor).

Take soybean-based textured vegetable protein for example. Soybeans can taste a lot better than when you mash them up to form a "meat analog." And the same goes for those fake cheeses; no matter how many times over the years my vegetarian friends have tried to convince me that "it tastes just like cheese," I have never found it to even taste like food, making the promise of nondairy pizza a cruel hoax. Something I rediscovered at Viva Herbal Pizzeria.

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The rather awkwardly named Viva Herbal sounds more like a marijuana dispensary than a pizzeria. Actually I am not sure that is the full name as it is variously referred to as Cafe Viva Herbal and Kosher Dairy Viva Herbal, names that are no better, although I suppose the latter does at least describe the dietary aspects of the food. At least some of it.

As one of its names states, the restaurant is a Kosher dairy, so it doesn't offer meat; that makes it attractive to vegans and vegetarians, who can get a number of specialty pies that offer fake cheese. And for those with celiac disease, there are pizzas made with gluten-free dough (flax seed or spelt crust anyone?).

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I started off with the a slice that had nondairy cheese and sauce on a whole wheat crust. The cheese is from a company called Daiya Foods, and their website promises that it "shreds just like real cheese." That may well be, but it doesn't melt like real cheese; rather than the familiar amorphous mass, the cheese here breaks into small, oily globules. The company's claim that it "tastes" like real cheese is just as frivolous.

The crust was dense and sweet. It sort of tasted like Thomas' Honey Wheat English muffins, although without the textural lightness. Did I mention that it was dense? The crust made a deep thonk sound when it hit the table, although the inner point of the slice was rather soggy. The dough deftly manages to be both too too hard and too soft at once.

I don't doubt that whole wheat crusts can be a lot airier and lighter than this, even if they won't ever match a refined "00" flour. And for an ostensibly savory dish, the crust needs to be far less sweet than the sauce, which in this case was completely masked.

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The regular cheese slice at least looks like the real deal—blanketed in molten low-moisture mozzarella over a vibrantly colored sauce, the end crust rising up over of the plane of the toppings. Unfortunately the slice is a fa├žade, completely devoid of flavor. There was not a hint of salt (Kosher or otherwise) to be found on the slice, and the sauce lacked both acidity and sweetness.

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The crust was just as inept, leaden on the end crust and soggy and wilted in the middle. It lacked the softness and stretchability of great New York –style pizza. I wonder if this slice isn't designed to make the nondairy pizza more palatable, a near impossible feat.

Great pizza-making is at its essence great bread-making, and, unfortunately, Viva Herbal (or whatever the place is called) is more interested in satisfying dietary concerns than making great bread. What a shame, the two need not be mutually exclusive.

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