EatBots: zpizza Yanks Your Chain
by Christie Church
Chain pizza conjures up images of syrupy sweet tomato sauce, processed meats, and cheese that fast turns gelatinous, no matter how many times it's reheated. Chain pizza is the food of strangers; it's what you turn to when you need something inoffensive for visits from extended family, for babysitting, or for midnight snacks with half-drunk people you met just a few hours earlier. Chain pizza says, "You do not mean anything to me, and maybe you never will, so let's just get through this with as little hassle as possible."

Enter zpizza, the Laguna Beach-based chain with locations in Columbia, Rockville, and Silver Spring, and five others in northern Virginia. The fast casual store elevates takeout pizza into something sublime. zpizza's pies are made from fresh dough, certified organic tomato sauce, and MSG- and additive-free meats. Toppings range from cremini mushrooms to truffle oil to zucchini. Standard pepperoni and sausage have no place here; you'll get low-fat, remarkably non-greasy pepperoni, and thick slices of chicken sausage studded with fennel seeds. Standard house specialties such as Mexican pizza get the same treatment, with fresh cilantro and avocado slices, salsa made daily, and chicken marinated in chipotle and lime. Nearly every pizza (with the exception of those pesto-based) can be made vegan with soy cheese and optional soy protein crumbles. Because pizzas are made to order, substitutions are welcomed. Just don't ask the folks behind the counter why the Berkeley Soy Cheese pizza comes with full-dairy Parmesan along with the soy cheese--they don't take kindly to that.

At the Falls Church store, a cashier loaded me down with freebie dipping sauces in a successful bid to upsell. Very smart move. The sauces are fresh and flavorful, and could coax me into eating Just One More Slice so that I could have another shot at them. As with any chain, offerings vary by location, but I have had four sauces at local stores: basic pesto, chipotle pesto, marinara, and roasted garlic. The brilliantly green pesto perfectly balances cheese, basil, and nuttiness, while the chunky marinara is pleasantly simple. zpizza's strengths lie in their mastery of the basics.

zpizza isn't cheap; a large cheese pizza will set you back $14.95, with $1.95 for additional toppings. Specialty pizzas can run up to $19.95. And pizzas are small; on a recent visit, a friend and I shared the medium, which supposedly feeds two, but contains just five short slices. But bargains exist if you look: the annoyingly named Dip n' Stix come with five breadsticks baked with oil and mozzarella and one dipping sauce for just $2.75; for the same price, folks dining in can choose pizza by the (more decently sized) slice from a limited menu.

Perhaps the restaurant's biggest fault is its insistence on pushing the "fast casual" angle. zpizza's eating area is uncomfortable and more reminiscent of Subway than, say, Dean and DeLuca. This fast food takes twenty minutes to prepare, and considering the meal's cost, it seems odd to serve your own beverage and order at a counter. Also, as most local zpizza stores are located inside strip malls, the ambiance does not at all match the food. Opt for takeout instead, but save it for someone worth impressing.
Posted by: Christie Church

Features (December 27th, 2006)