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[Photographs: Todd Brock]

Westside Pizzeria

2341 Marietta Boulevard NW, Atlanta, GA 30318 (Map); 404-355-3636; www.westsidepizzeria.com
Pizza type: "Gourmet" thin crust
Oven type: Electric conveyor belt convection oven
The Skinny: Unexpected hidden gem can be hit-or-miss, but the hits are worth a special trip
Price: Margherita, $13.95; Cajun, $14.75 (prices reflect medium pies)

At first glance, Westside Pizzeria sure didn't look like one of the better pizza joints in Atlanta. Hell, sitting in the parking lot, I wasn't even positive it was a pizza joint. And to be truthful, after my first slice, I was pretty sure I'd been punked into going there at all.

But this blink-and-you'll-miss-it spot redeemed itself mightily with its second offering, restoring my faith in the idea that sometimes the unexpected surprise of a hidden gem is worth more than the shining jewel. When it comes to popularity, Westside may never be on the same level as the Anticos and Ammazzas of the Atlanta pizzascape, but if you order the right pie, it may well be among the city's tastiest.

I'd heard the Westside name a few times, but it was a recent article in the local newspaper that finally cemented a plan. The paper spotlighted two buddies who had made a pact to try every pizzeria in Atlanta. With four years and 99 expeditions under their belts, the pair described Westside as "the kind of place you sort of hate to tell people about."

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With a near-total lack of signage, the restaurant itself seems to share that hush-hush mentality. Inside, it's more sports bar than pizza shrine—to the point that I started seriously tempering my expectations.

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The first pie up, the Margherita ($13.95 for a 14-inch medium), did little to assuage my concerns.

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The sauceless white pizza is topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella, Roma tomatoes, basil, and aged balsamic vinegar. Owner Ryan Ferrara outlines the Margherita's construction in terms of clearly defined layers. "The basil goes on first, and then the mozzarella cheeses, ensuring that all of the basil is covered so it doesn't dry out in the cooking process," he explains. "Then very thinly sliced large tomatoes are placed side-by-side, covering the entire pizza. We next apply a generous amount of aged balsamic vinegar that soaks into the tomatoes. The balsamic cooks and evaporates in the oven, leaving a glaze on top of the pie."

All great...in theory. In reality, the supersized ingredients are far from a cohesive entity. Those huge Roma slices certainly make for a pretty picture; they also guarantee a wet pie. Excess water from the tomatoes bled through our pizza almost instantly, turning the underside soggy before we even grabbed a slice. My teeth often pulled away more tomato or basil than intended, leaving me with difficult, uneven bites. The overall effect was like trying to solve a faulty mathematical equation; all those discrete parts simply didn't add up to a whole.

Ferrara's Italian-style dough is made fresh daily and stretched into his signature thin-crust pies. A first glance at the pie's undercarriage showed no signs of spotting, and the edge had virtually no rise or microbubbles. So imagine my surprise when I found the cracker-like texture and dense chew of the crust to be a real treat.

Balancing these delicate crusts with the menu's heavy topping combinations is a challenging endeavor. Ferrara has settled on par-baking his hand-tossed pies before adding toppings, using a conveyer belt convection oven to firm up the base. Westside's pizzas cook at just 420°F for at least 10 minutes to get that crust cooked firm enough to hold up under the weight of combos like this:

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That's the Cajun ($14.75), the pie that completely turned me around on Westside Pizzeria. Breathtakingly gorgeous, this thing turned out to be even better than it looked.

The sauce is thick and flavorful, and sparingly applied (the mix that marinates overnight for maximum zest). Plentiful chunks of blackened chicken breast and thin slices of smoked Andouille sausage deliver a subtle, smoky heat to the party. My tablemate and I picked at the Margherita out of a sense of polite obligation; we devoured the Cajun with unbridled pizza lust.

For me, Westside was definitely a tale of two pies. Had I stopped after the Margherita, this would be a very different kind of post. I'd wonder what my friends and neighbors had been thinking when they recommended Westside, not to mention how those two dudes could eat so much pizza with such terrible palates. Thankfully, I stuck with it and found the Cajun. I'll most definitely be back for more.

About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.

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