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From Traditional to Exotic, Chain Proves Anything Can Be Pizza

Alice Waters first served designer pizza at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse Cafe; Wolfgang Puck popularized it at Spago. Now it is being mass-marketed with an almost evangelical intensity. Gone are the days of having to elbow through crowds of celebrities to get at slices of pizza with sun-dried tomatoes, duck sausage and herbs that even your grandmother didn’t keep around. California Pizza Kitchen is seeing nicely to that.

This wildly successful chain has proven to be one of the hottest concept restaurants of the ‘80s. The operative idea behind the range is that anything can be pizza. If four people get together and find themselves unable to decide between Thai, Chinese, Italian or Mexican food, they can go to California Pizza Kitchen and have all four . . . on pizzas.

Somebody must like the idea. Just 4 years after it was founded, the chain boasts eight stores from Hawaii to Georgia, with plans for several more in such faraway places as Japan and Australia.

The Newport Beach Fashion Island location opened last fall and has been packed since day one. And why not? It features all the trappings that made the restaurant popular in the first place: the open kitchen; the antiseptic white tile motif; the young, good-looking staff, and a menu featuring many of the decade’s hot, exotic dishes piled atop circular platters of dough. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel young and foolish--young when you’re in the company of all the gorgeous, well-dressed couples; foolish when you’re cutting into something as absurd as a moo shu chicken calzone. But don’t worry; traditional cheese pizza is the first item on the menu.

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All the pizzas are baked in a specially designed wood-burning oven, which gives them a slightly smoky taste that lovers of conventional pizza may not be used to. Five-cheese with tomato is one of the best; it comes topped with fresh-sliced tomato, basil leaves, buffalo mozzarella, Fontina, smoked Gouda and two kinds of Romano cheeses, which all ooze and mingle brilliantly. Goat cheese pizza with bacon, red onions and sweet bell pepper also works well--no sensory overload from strange and unnatural combinations.

Of course, much of the menu is, well, non-traditional. How about a Thai chicken pizza with spicy ginger-peanut and sesame sauce, green onion, bean sprouts, carrots and roasted peanuts? Yarggh . How about Chinese, in the form of a Peking duck pizza with mushrooms, slivered green onions and an indiscriminate glob of Hoisin sauce? Not much better. And Pritikin? Yes. It’s cheese-less with grilled eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes and a bag full of shredded spinach--sort of like eating the spray from a lawn mower.

On the other hand, the original barbecue chicken pizza with cilantro and sliced red onion is really delicious. There is a finely textured mozzarella calzone with sweet cherry tomatoes, sauteed red and yellow peppers, and a layer of salty Fontina for good measure. Vegetarian pizza has a simple, straightforward appeal, with broccoli, grilled eggplant, mushrooms and lots of oregano. And the two-sausage pizza, perhaps the Kitchen’s best marriage of trend and tradition, succeeds because of excellent mild and sweet Italian sausages. Pass on the average duck and chicken sausage, incidentally.

A variety of salads and pasta dishes are available. For instance, there’s a well-mixed romaine and watercress salad in balsamic vinaigrette with walnuts for crunch and Gorgonzola for sharpness. The mixed-leaf salad in a Caesar dressing with fat croutons and shaved Romano is good too. The only salad letdown is a boring tuna salad that tastes of nothing more than canned tuna and mayo.

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Pasta here is not perfect. I sampled three: linguine with a flavorful Bolognese sauce, angel hair with a rough tomato-basil concoction, and a nondescript garlic cream fettuccine. All were on the gummy side, as if the noodles had not been properly rinsed after cooking.

Which brings me to the many lapses in service I’ve experienced. Angel-hair pasta arrived without the promised goat cheese. I asked the server to put some on. And back it came with unappetizing hunks of cheese frazzled to a charred tomato-basil coulis. I ordered a bottle of wine at the bar while waiting for my table. The bartender was too busy to open it. So how did he solve the problem? Simple. He produced a wine opener and wordlessly slid it over to me. But hey, I didn’t mind. I’m a casual kind of guy. And who knows? It might be the next big trend.

California Pizza Kitchen is moderately priced. Salads are $3.50 to $7.50. Pastas are $6.95 to $8.50. Pizzas are $5.95 to $8.95.


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