Pizza reviews in time for Final Four: Choose topping, venue and pie

Contributing Restaurant CriticApril 1, 2011 


    Village Host Pizza & Grill: 431 Old Vine St. (859) 455-3355. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., Sat. Credit cards accepted. Wine and beer. Vegetarian-friendly. Appetizers and salad bar $2.50-$8.95, soups and chili $2.15-$6.50, pizzas $4.95-$23.95, sandwiches and pastas $5.95-$9.95, desserts $2.95-$5.50.

    Naked Pizza: 561 S. Broadway, Suite 110, in The Lex. (859) 523-7600. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-midnight Sun.-Wed., 10:30-4 a.m. Thu.-Sat. Credit cards accepted. Vegetarian-friendly. Gluten-free crust available. Nutritional information available on Web site. Appetizers and salads $5.99, basic pizzas $4.99-$9.99, additional toppings $1.89 each, specialty pizzas $12.99-$16.99, delivery charge $2.

Both places under discussion today have "pizza" in their names and both are chains that entered the Lexington market during the past few months, but the similarities end there. Village Host is for eating in, Naked Pizza is only take-out and delivery. The former has a broader focus, offering soups, sandwiches and desserts, whereas the latter zeroes in on one product. The first is about good vibes; the second, good health.

Given each's respective place on the dining spectrum, they are as far apart as an arcade and an ashram in their emphasis and target audience. So, depending on your mood, you will surely be drawn more to one than the other at any given moment.

In devoted sports mode, when loaded pizzas and big mugs of beer are the norm, I would find my way to Village Host. You can't turn your head more than 10 degrees without spotting a large screen. This outlet of the California-based chain is the classic American package of television and food.

There are 24 toppings from which to choose, but if you want to get a feel for what Village Host is about, order the namesake pizza.

The Village Combination is a generous mountain of salami, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, ground beef, black olives, onion and sausage with melted cheddar cheese. All these ingredients arrive piled on a medium-thick white crust, with some, like the onion and green peppers, chilly and undercooked. They would have been better slightly charred and piping hot.

Raw vegetables are more appropriate at the abundant salad bar. Village's is a cornucopia of salad greens; condiments like pickles and olives; legumes and pastas; fresh cruciferous florets; shredded carrots and sliced cucumbers; and myriad other choices of veggies, fruits and cheeses. There are seeds and nuts, too, and several toppings, the star of which was the anomalous but delicious ginger-sesame dressing. The low point was the tough and greasy croutons.

But let's not pigeonhole Village too much. The service is outstanding, the volume is manageable, and the food tab is affordable. This casual spot's wine list even includes surprises including, believe it or not, Dom Perignon.

At the end of the day, however, pizza is really about three basics: great bread; a light and tangy pizzaiola sauce with tomatoes, garlic, onions and herbs; and restraint with good mozzarella.

The New Orleans-based chain Naked Pizza has built its reputation on these elements, plus its selection of 15 vegetable and five meat toppings. In addition, it addresses another classic American preoccupation — health — with pride of less fat, lower calories, improved digestion and "reduced glycemic response" thrown in for free.

But all this appeal to nutrition only works if the food pops. Thankfully, it does.

Naked's fame rests on its fiber-rich "Ancestral Blend" dough. The skinny crust was my favorite because it successfully fuses the suppleness of a Neapolitan crust with a slightly grainy texture and a lovely nutty flavor. And, because this recipe is the brand, the results are consistent with every pie.

I could truly eat this terrific pizza "naked" with nothing more than sauce and cheese, but variety is the spice of life. The Sonoran features onion, grilled chicken chunks, smoky red peppers and mushrooms. Vegetarians will enjoy the Mediterranean, topped with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, finely sliced red onions, black olives and feta cheese.

After the wide choice of vegetables that top the pizzas, the plastic box of spinach salad with packaged dressing seems like a forced, if healthy, afterthought.

So, with the NCAA men's Final Four this weekend — and Kentucky in it for the first time in 13 years — choose your viewing venue, choose your crust, choose your toppings, but definitely choose pizza.

Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.

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