Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint
2955 Cobb Parkway, Atlanta, GA 30339 (Map); 770-955-5223; http://unclemaddios.com/
Pizza type: Chain pizza
Oven type: Electric conveyor belt
The Skinny: DIY concept near malls and colleges bringing Chipotle/Subway/Moe's approach to chain pizza
Price: 9-inch pie w/3 toppings, $6.99; 9-inch Chicken Club Pizza, $7.99
We've already covered a few of the players in the growing genre of "Chipotlesque" pizzerias here at Slice. Places like 800 Degrees in L.A. and Pie-ology in the Anaheim area are staking out a rep at the top end of the new category, and Punch Pizza has been doing it in the Twin Cities perhaps longer than anyone. But the others seem to be in a race to see who becomes the first true mega-chain of DIY pizza. One Atlanta-based company is sure giving it a go, with over 75 locations "in development," according to their website. But while Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint hopes to bring Subway-style pies to the masses, my experience with them has leaned more toward train wreck.
There are just seven Uncle Maddio's stores now, six in metro Atlanta (where it was started by a Moe's Southwest Grill alum) and one in Louisville, KY. (Company propaganda calls out Charlotte, Jacksonville, Knoxville, Raleigh, Savannah, and Tallahassee as future sites.) The ones I'm familiar with are strip-mall tenants, often near popular retail districts or college campuses. On a recent Saturday night, the location near Cumberland Mall was doing fairly brisk business as a pit stop for harried Christmas shoppers.
As an alternative to the mall food court, Uncle Maddio's does offer a step up. Not as fussy or time-sucking as putting your name on a list, waiting for a table, and making small talk with a waiter, the visible assembly line method is certainly preferable to ordering a combo meal by number and waiting for it to unceremoniously appear from the back.
But there was something sad to me about seeing a rack of already-flattened and perfectly-shaped dough rounds wrapped in foil, waiting their turn. (Uncle Maddio's offers three varieties: white, wheat, and gluten-free.) Watching the staff at Atlanta rival Your Pie work a dough ball and give it a toss or two at the beginning of your transaction is a key moment, I believe, in making that pizza feel like a custom-made experience. The stack of ready-to-decorate crusts at Uncle Maddio's just drives home the point that you could have had a real pizza, but chose not to this time.
Even worse was watching my selected sauce and toppings get slid into a conveyor belt oven. The chain touts its "special fast-bake oven" and wants you to be wowed by the six-minute cook time. I suppose that may dazzle the uneducated, but if you're reading this column, you know that with the right equipment and under the right conditions, 90 seconds is not unusual for a serious pizza. So adjust your standards accordingly at Uncle Maddio's.
No char spots on your underside, just a precise array of raised nubbins. Both the white and wheat crusts are chewy and spongy, with a lightly-toasted outer surface but no real microbubble structure to speak of. This is commercially-produced pizza through and through and more akin to a flatbread appetizer base than true-blue pizza crust. You'd better hope you hit a home run picking from the 45+ toppings offered, 'cos that's the only thing that's going to shine.
The chain makes their own sausage and meatballs, as seen in the previous two photos. Both are good, if not quite spectacular. My six-year-old opted for mozzarella, while the nine-year-old picked cheddar. Ricotta, blue, and goat are also available, as is Daiya vegan cheese. These were basic one-topping pies and made my kids happy enough at seven bucks a pop.
I felt the need to stretch a bit. Of the six sauces offered, I went with herb pesto. Toppings: jerk chicken, red onions, and pineapple. It was tasty, but nothing that knocked my socks off. Preferable to both the food court nastiness and the Cheesecake Factory/Maggiano's wait times across the street, I suppose, but not something I'd seek out over a pie from a "real" pizzeria.
Everyone at my table went the personal pizza route, though Uncle Maddio's does offer larger pies to share. Inexplicably, the menu limits you to three toppings per 9-inch pie, with no posted option of paying more to get more. Their Signature Pizzas, of which there are about a dozen, are more loaded up, resulting in a bit more bang for your buck. That was my wife's strategy with the Chicken Club ($7.99).
With buttermilk ranch dressing sauce, mozzarella and cheddar, grilled chicken, bacon, Roma tomatoes, and lettuce, it tasted exactly like its namesake sandwich. In fact, as I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the sensation of the triangular-shaped piece in my hand, I could have sworn I was eating a chicken club sandwich and not a pizza at all. It suddenly occurred to me that Uncle Maddio's crust is nearly identical in every respect (shape, texture, taste, airiness, mouthfeel) to the round sourdough buns at Schlotzsky's. As my wife summarized, "Not bad... but not really pizza."
My guess is this will not be the official tagline as the chain attempts to take DIY pizza nationwide. You should feel free to use Uncle Maddio's as a Plan B to mall food (and there's something to be said for that alone this time of year; beer and wine and a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine help, too), but don't make the mistake of putting it in the same category as what you and I classify as genuine pizza.