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Boston's Best Pizza and Beer Bargain
Editor's note: The time has come for Serious Eats cheap booze correspondent Will Gordon to explore the chewable universe. He will begin, as an honest man must, with pizza.
Socrates' Newtowne Grille
1945 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140 (map); 617-661-0706
Pizza style: Thin crust, heavy on the cheese
The skinny: Pretty good pizza at a very good price.
Price: $11.95 for a large pizza and a pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon
Notes: A suburban spinoff of the 45-year-old original bills itself as "Billerica's Favorite Family Restaurant and Sports Bar."
I'm not a pizza-style pedant, mostly because I lack the necessary education—I'm simply not qualified to yell about regional cheesing distinctions and proprietary tomato strains, and I barely know what a gluten is, let alone why one would fuss over its stretchability. I think of myself as less of a pizza scholar and more of a moderately enlightened advocate for pizzas of all creeds, colors, and nationalities, with the following exceptions: white pizza scares and confuses me, and Greek pizza greases me out (I don't really know what creed means, so let's say I'm good with all of those).
So of course I was not the least bit surprised when Meredith, my old nemesis and new editor, chose a place with "Socrates" in the name for my first Slice assignment. She sent me to Socrates' Newtowne Grille in Cambridge, and I'm sure she was unpleasantly surprised to hear that I'm a long-time fan of Newtowne's cheap, honest, and wholly non-Greek pizza. Nice try, kid.
Newtowne's tucked just outside Porter Square in a kind of grown man's land safely equidistant from the academighetto orbits of both Harvard and Tufts. The slightly subprime location must help keep prices down a bit, but the signature pizza-and-pitcher special is notably underpriced for anywhere in Eastern Massachusetts: $11.95 gets you a (very) large pizza and a 64-ounce pitcher of PBR. The official terms of the deal are that if you buy any pitcher of beer, they'll throw in the pizza for $4, so the sign outside advertises a pitcher of Bud and a large pizza for $13.95, but now you know better.
Newtowne's not much to look at from either inside or out, but there's nothing physically wrong with the place. It's often miscategorized as a dive bar by people who are scandalized by the sight of a perfectly respectable middle-aged man with a mustache and an accent enjoying a beer or three after work. Newtowne's regulars are innocuous and the staff is downright friendly, and a couple Nascar signs tacked to laminated wood paneling never hurt anyone. Remember, we're here for the $11.95 pizza and pitcher deal, not for the thread count of the paper placemats.
The space is divided into three semi-autonomous zones: a bar with a dozen stools and half as many booths; a dining room with seating for 40; and a takeout area. The bar counter's a bit narrow for a large pizza and the bar-side booths aren't well situated for watching baseball, so cheap pizza research coordinator Emily and I usually sit in the dining room.
On our most recent visit, the pitcher arrived as cold and quickly as it always does, and the pizza took a bit longer than would have seemed strictly necessary given the sparse crowd. If I were the suspicious sort, I'd think they were giving us time to work through the first pitcher of beer, because I'd have to imagine any money they make on the $11.95 special comes from the second round of drinks. As is, I just figure the cook was out back having a smoke or yelling at his phone. Either way, I was in no rush. We had the aforementioned beer to drink and baseball to watch, plus the terrifying parlor game of "Crap, that guy looks like he's going to play Steve Miller Band on the jukebox, doesn't he?"
When the pizza did mosey on out, it was hot as hell and cooked just short of medium, and we were plenty satisfied. Newtowne pizza has a light, smooth, dry undercarriage that proves at least one Socrates doesn't subscribe to Greek pizza philosophy. The thin crust is airline-pillowy at the edges, mezza-chewy throughout, and otherwise unobtrusive. There's not a lot to say about the sauce, either. It's double-bright red and blandly sweet. Wait, considering the price, let's say it's "mildly sweet." There, that's fair.
The cheese is the dominant force. The standard industrial mozzarella is laid on thick, and even though high-cheese pizza isn't really my thing, it works here because the high-tensile crust supports it from below and there's nothing complicating it from above: You don't go to the $11.95 pizza-and-pitcher place just to upsell yourself with toppings! I've had the pepperoni and the sausage in other contexts and they're both fine, but this is a pretty gooey specimen, so I don't recommend getting too cute with the add-ons. If you're the sort of person who squeegees the top of her pizza, you might ask for extra napkins. If you're the sort of person who takes what she gets for $11.95, 4-pint pitcher of PBR included, you might just wear an old shirt.