He Ate: Tastin' away in Margherita-ville

By Mark Nixon

Here is my theory about pizza.

In the days when Congress was still capable of action, it passed the obscure but life-altering Defense of Pizza Act (DOPA).

The ideological underpinnings of DOPA are that America is the true birthplace of pizza, and it’s here where you will find the real McCoy. DOPA has become a rallying point for the P Party, which loves to point out how real Americans should behave. Ergo, real Americans eat real American pizza.

Most American pizza is about wretched excess — an edible Las Vegas. Its manufacture goes like this: Heap on the dough to the thickness of a Stephen King novel. Drown it in canned tomato sauce. Smother it with processed and/or previously frozen meats (the greasier the better). Add dried spices whose aromatics expired a year ago. Top with gobs of cheap mozzarella. Bake until the cheese is stringy and the dough is kinda-sorta baked.

American restaurants and pizza joints embraced DOPA, and the hungry masses giddily dove in. We were close to losing the entire species of authentic pizza, but in quiet ways, a few renegades refused to be cowed by DOPA. The rebels insisted the old-fashioned way — thin crusts with a few simple, high-quality ingredients — made the best, most authentic pizza.

And oh, by the way, to hell with the P Party.

It’s heartening to know the rebel hideouts aren’t all in the “Little Italy” sections of Chicago or New York. You can get a good pizza right here in River City. Or, in the River City just down the road: Grand Ledge.

I would not call Cugino’s an authentic Italian restaurant. But the folks in the kitchen do implicitly understand that with pizza, less is more.

Witness their Margherita pizza: A layer of olive oil, thinly sliced tomatoes and fresh basil atop a thin wheel of dough, quickly baked to crispy perfection. Each ingredient has a taste that stands on its own.

After a recent meal at Cugino’s, one of my dinner mates offered this brief history lesson. The main ingredients of a Margherita pizza — basil, tomato, mozzarella — are the colors of the Italian flag, and thus quintessentially Italian. Italians named this particular pizza after Queen Margherita of Savoy.

I’d love to examine the rich history of Queen Margherita at length, but then I’d be as bored as you. So let’s return to the pizzas. On a separate visit, I opted for the Calabrese pizza, which is slightly less minimalist than the Margherita. Calabrese is heady with garlic and onions, then laced with capicola, mozzarella and romano cheese.

Surely these two pizzas approach what the creators of pizza had in mind. Simple. Fresh. Elegant in their simplicity.

On three visits we ate two kinds of pizza, two pasta dishes and a calzone. Cugino’s boasts pizza as its specialty, with good reason. Some of the other dishes we ordered were, at best, pedestrian, with the notable exception of the pasta carbonara, which was smoky and rich, and had fettuccine that was cooked perfectly al dente.

The penne pasta with vodka sauce — fahgedaboutit. Ditto the side salad. Mediocre side salads are a contagion that has spread coast to coast. If restaurant owners had to eat the side salads they served to customers, I bet many would hear Peggy Lee lamenting in that great song, “Is That All There Is?”

Cugino’s calzone, on the other hand, took a tip from the pizza: Don’t overdo the dough. How many calzones have overwhelmed diners with a crust so thick and dense that it subsumed whatever was hidden inside? Cugino’s finds the right balance. The spinach-and-cheese calzone we had was relatively thin and crisp on the outside, exposing the bountiful filling inside.

I was curious about the restaurant’s name, which I assumed was someone’s first or last name. Turns out that cugino means “cousin” in Italian. Indeed, the two owners are cousins, and are related to the DeLuca family, which operates that mainstay of blue-collar dining on Lansing’s west side, DeLuca’s Restaurant.

A word about the service. A number of online reviews trashed the service at Cugino’s, but I heartily disagree. During three visits, we had very good experiences with the waitstaff. Servers were attentive and polite. Diners, take note: Two of our visits were on late Friday afternoons. If you arrive at 6 p.m. on a Friday, expect to stand in line.

In summary: Cugino’s offers what I call post-DOPA pizza. Or, taking the long view, the pre-DOPA pizza. Maybe it’s not the pizza you grew up with. But it is pizza for grown-ups.