Pizza is the ultimate comfort food: more satisfying than chocolate, more all-encompassing in gastronomic appeal than ice cream and infinitely more nuanced than any cake or cookie could ever aspire to be. Chicago-style pizza is comfort food made art. Pizza is a masterfully crafted synergy of everything that is good and right with the world, served hot and gooey and spicy on a thin crust so exquisitely balanced in texture that it could only have been crafted by some angelic alchemy aided and abetted by the Devil himself. Pizza is the alpha/omega of the triumphant history of food condensed into an 18″ circle of dazzling richness and complexity. Pizza so engages the full spectrum of senses as to simultaneously serve up a blindingly illuminating taste of creation and destruction in each bite. To know pizza is to know the appetite, if not the mind of God. To know Oregano’s pizza is to know that their takeout phone number is on a post-it on His heavenly refrigerator door.
Oregano’s Pizza Bistro $$
523 W University Dr., Tempe, AZ 85281
Open 11-10 Sun-Thur
Open 11-11 Fri-Sat
Oregano’s Pizza Bistro is a Chicago-style pizza chain restaurant with nine locations in Arizona. The theme is ’50s local pizza parlor with a full bar and Italian pasta, sandwiches and desserts like the infamous Pizza Cookie (serves 2-4). A notable departure from that ’50s theme is the inclusion of organic and vegan options. I can’t quite visualize James Dean or Fonzie ordering the Veggie Wedgie, but it does suggest a successful mix of nostalgia and progress. The green-shingled roof and peach-colored stucco exterior open to a warm and woody interior that suggest a relaxed, pub-like ambiance. A large patio is made Arizona summer friendly-er by way of copious shade and a misting spray system. Oregano’s offers dine-in, take-out, and catering service.
The inviting inside and cozy patio, for all their allure, are not for me. I am here for take-out pizza. The Tempe location on University and Roosevelt, like its 10th St. and Camelback Phoenix counterpart, are swarming hives of noise and motion. Whether it’s office workers or students, Oregano’s is always full. The parking lots are impenetrably dense portents of the capacity crowds inside, crowds that have been sustained phenomenally long past the average restaurants’ halcyon honeymoon days of novelty appeal.
So just how good is it?
Oregano’s on Camelback was the first restaurant, no less pizza restaurant that I have encountered with a three-day advance order for pizza. With all due respect to trendiness, it’s still just a pizza, not a table at Elaine’s. My first thin crust sausage pizza made it eminently clear that this is what all those food snob Chicagoans (“You can’t get no decent pizza in Phoenix!”) were raving about. Worth a three day wait? Not quite, but closer to it than any pizza, anywhere, that any diner in any state-altered or otherwise-has ever been before.
The problem with extraordinary restaurant food like this is that the end result is an extraordinarily crowded restaurant. Stellar food offerings often suffer from being served in frenetically noisy environments with compromised service and multi-media sensory distractions (music and the game on TV). Add the alcohol-fueled high-decibel sports bar one-upmanship conversational volume and trying to concentrate on what you are eating becomes as problematic as reading Shakespeare at a hockey game. Shut up and let me enjoy my meal! Fortunately, Oregano’s has takeout service and even more fortunately their finest offering pizza is eminently takeout-able.
Takeout pizza is the gastronomic equivalent of a home theater system, allowing the audience to savor every stellar facet of an extraordinary piece of art without distraction or interference. Pizza is a jealous mistress, one who does not abide large groups whose focus is more prone to infidelity. Pizza will not perform at the same level for the scattered attentions of a crowd. Pizza is a treasure best savored in a more intimate setting, a comfortable and solitary setting where everything it has to offer can be had without distraction. That setting would be at home, at rest and at ease. On the couch, feet up and free to linger in awestruck appreciation.
If I were to break from this rhapsodic waxing and provide a more critical, on-balance review of Oregano’s and especially the object of my adoration: the thin crust sausage pizza, I would list:
Crust. The Chicago-style thin crust is an exquisite juxtaposition of moist yet crispy pizza dough that eschews the saltine-like dryness of its bastard cousins.
Sausage. Spicy Italian sausage done right is unabashedly redolent of fennel and anise. Oregano’s sausage aroma roars out of the box and seduces, rather than overpowers, every molecule of the air around it.
Gastronomically succinct proportionality of ingredients. The precisely measured interplay between sausage-crust-cheese- tomato sauce makes the Chicago Style pizza more a gustatory symphony of exacting composition than a culinary jam-band concoction of inexact math and dubious pairings.
Clumping of the sausage. As good as this sausage is, it is, like most things, better savored in moderation. The complex interplay of taste and texture is too easily overwhelmed by a too large taste of this potent piece of spicy meat. Crumbling the sausage into smaller bits would make for a more even distribution that would lend to a more balanced palette.
Caller ID. Most takeout pizza parlors use Caller ID to maintain the names and numbers of repeat callers. This allows them to not only have your information at hand but to present a degree of familiarity with “regular” customers, i.e. “OK and this is John at 480-….?” Oregano’s does not provide this feature, so no matter how many times you call the same place with the same order you will still get “Yes sir and can I get your name and phone number?”
The parking lot. Oregano’s does a phenomenal amount of sit-down dining business so their parking is always problematic. Some option for a quicker in and out for their takeout customers would be a great help to both dine-in and pickup customers.
Oregano’s does what I asked them to do–provide artisan cuisine as portable art–and they do it with verve and élan. The 18″ thin crust sausage pizza is an adventure in legalized art theft at $17.50, one that never fails to leave me thinking I haven’t just picked up a pizza but pulled off a heist.