July 11 2012 12:00 AM

This new pizza place deserves a few bravos

Opening a new pizza place in town is like planting a tree in the forest: There’s plenty of competition, and even if you survive it’s tough to stand out.

With national chains, carryouts galore and local one-name favorites like DeLuca’s, Spag’s and Art’s (not to mention surprises like Paul Revere Tavern’s professional New York-style pie) already securely rooted in the pizza landscape, the new Tony Sacco’s Coal Oven Pizza, at the northwest end of the Eastwood Towne Center, won’t get by on mediocrity. 

With a 1000-degree, coal-fired oven kicking out pizzas loaded with fresh toppings, I’m betting Tony Sacco’s will find a loyal following in this area, as it has in a half-dozen states. In fact, it looks like it’s already found a fan-base here — the night I visited with two dining companions, we waited 40 minutes for a table.

The interior space is mall-like with high ceilings, little décor, tables only (no booths) and a few large screen TVs acting as wall candy. The huge coal oven in the half-open kitchen where pizzas are assembled anchors the visuals, but what hit us full force when we were being seated was the noise. With classic rock pulsing through the stereo system and the chatter of an overstuffed dining room, it took effort to maintain conversation across the table. It was more like a visit to a downtown bar after a baseball game than a quiet night out with the family.

When it comes to pizza, takeout is always an option, so atmosphere matters little to me. I’m more interested in the food.

Tony Sacco’s has my attention.

We began with the antipasto salad, which was large enough for three people. We immediately appreciated the fresh ingredients. The romaine lettuce was crisp and dark green, the vibrantly red roma tomatoes were juicy and sweet and the black and green olives were firm and packed a piquant punch. The overzealous dressing (so very acidic) and the saltiness of the olives, feta and rolled slices of cured meats kept us from enjoying the individual ingredients, and the hastiness with which the salad was prepared (huge leaves of half-cut lettuce, mangled pepperoncinis) was noticeable, but the experience had us wanting more.

Next came the Chicken Caesar Wrap. Our server apologized when bringing out our first entrée, mentioning the kitchen staff is still working on timing and the pizzas might be a few minutes longer. We couldn’t blame the crew behind the counter, busy as they were. The army of servers bustled around the room like an army of ants, refilling waters with one hand, balancing foot-an-a-half pizzas with the other.

The bulging wrap echoed the quality of the salad: The bread (which could be even better warmed) was chewy and dusted with flour; the roasted chicken’s flavor was enriched from the searing heat of the coal-oven; the lettuce was crisp and refreshing; and a Caesar dressing, one companion noted, tasted like (gasp!) it actually contained anchovies.

Next, the main event. We decided to try two 12-inch pizzas — the margherita and the vegetariana. As we suspected, the quality of the ingredients stole the show. 

The margherita is a minimalist pie with slices of what my companion believed was buffalo mozzarella, along with basil and sauce. The mildly sweet sauce tasted as if it had come from the same recently picked roma tomatoes in our salad, and the basil was fresh enough to keep its distinctive bite.

The vegetariana was a bit more traditional (in the Midwestern sense). There was much more mozzarella, of course, but Tony Sacco’s isn’t making its hay with quantity. The cheese was soft and supple, as if it had been grated by hand, not stiff and rubbery, like that processed stuff in a bag.

Large slices of veggies — zucchini, onions softened but not mushy, and mushrooms with an intensified roasted flavor from the heat of the oven — covered the vegetarina. By the time I got to the charred and chewy crust, I was nodding in appreciation of a pizza pie well done.

Tony Sacco’s has one dessert, strawberry shortcake, which is more coal-oven baked cake and thick, sinfully delicious, vanilla-flavored mousse than anything else. Since the strawberries were a bit sad and the blackberries not much better, we didn’t mind their relative absence.

We spent just over $50, which stuffed three adults and left us with a full pizza’s worth of leftovers to take home.

Turns out there is more room for a pizza joint in this town. Just be warned if you make a trip, though: Like the busy crew at Tony Sacco’s, your taste buds will need to put in some overtime. 

Tony Sacco’s Coal Oven Pizza

2328 Showtime Drive, Lansing

11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

(517) 485-2625


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