Carla Meyer

Dining review: Linda's stays true to Zelda's pizza formula

I still remember my first visit to Zelda's. It was 1999. It was dark. I was new in town, and I thought I knew a thing or two about great pizza.

I realized several things that night.

One, for reasons I could not fathom, Zelda's hadn't sliced my takeout pie, so there was no wolfing down a piece at a red light on the way home.

Two, a Zelda's deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza is its own kind of performance art. There it was on the passenger seat, practically smoldering. And the aroma was killing me – the sweet tanginess of the sauce, spices oozing out of the thick pieces of sausage, and the scent of a crust that was unlike anything I had known before.

In a world of cookie cutters and copycats, lightweights and pretenders, a Zelda's pizza pie had heft, flavor and flair, and its crust possessed a crackle and crunch unique to this dingy midtown joint on 21st Street.

Unique, that is, until now.

Thirty-three years after Zelda Breslin opened a dank but delightful pizzeria that would become a local haunt, we have a satellite campus.

Linda's Pizzeria on Greenback Lane in Citrus Heights is much like Zelda's, yet very different. It is suburban. The street out front is big and busy. There is a parking lot. The place actually has windows. And if you peek inside, you'll also see Zelda's pizza – lots of it. The service is not so grumbly and gruff as the original, the lighting is better, and the seats seem to be made for comfort.

Where Zelda's has decades of history on its side and a customer list that includes governors, novelists, musicians and a slew of the city's best and worst characters, on Greenback Lane there is hope that Linda's own persona will take shape. Much of that optimism rests on the shoulders of Amber Graham, a 24-year-old go-getter with a bright future in the restaurant business.

Zelda Breslin, an Illinois farm girl who grew up to be the doyenne of deep-dish and a beloved restaurateur, died in 2006. She was 67, and had suffered from heart problems. In The Bee's obituary, the first person quoted was former Gov. George Deukmejian, a longtime customer.

Linda's Pizzeria is named for Linda Ellington, Zelda's youngest sister, who worked with Zelda downtown for so long she could make that famous pizza dough in her sleep. Amber is her granddaughter and has a hand in every aspect of the business. Where Zelda was stubborn, Amber is accommodating. And she really seems to get it.

She gets that a restaurant is about more than the food, though the food has to be good. She gets that there needs to be a sense of place, an identity that emerges over time. That's why Linda's already has so many regulars. That's why it stays open on Sunday nights as sort of an impromptu party for regulars and family.

Amber worked as a server at Zelda's for five years and came to realize how special the place was. They've never weighed the ingredients or worried about how many pepperoni slices go on each pie at Zelda's, and they don't do it at Linda's.

"Food is such an intimate thing, but we suck the life out of it when we weigh and count everything," Amber told me when we chatted over the phone.

When her grandmother began scouting for a location for the new pizzeria, they settled on a former Taco Bell and did plenty of remodeling to transform the space.

"I knew we were going to make it work. I was going to make this work if (the restaurant) was in a cardboard box," Amber said.

Linda's opened just over a year ago, and sure enough, that pizza they're serving is pretty much Zelda's pizza. Sometimes, it may even be better.

One night, when we wanted to compare the urban mainstay to the suburban upstart, we ordered a Veggie Supreme from Linda's in Citrus Heights and then high-tailed it back downtown to grab a Veggie Supreme from Zelda's. The woman who rang me up didn't say goodbye, but it was OK. That rude and abrasive thing is part of the shtick.

At home, we opened the boxes side by side on the kitchen counter. The dogs gathered, too, licking their chops. The aroma was too good, too powerful, just the way it always has been.

Zelda's pizza was not sliced. Neither was Linda's. Both places will slice the pies to go – but you have to ask.

Linda's crust was slightly thicker around the edges and we had never seen such a generous covering of vegetables on one pie – considerably more than the Zelda's. Linda's poured on the oregano, too – a bit more than necessary. Zelda's was outstanding in its own way, with a sauce that had marginally more flavor and balance.

Overall, the pies – like 'em or love 'em or loathe 'em – were close enough to be sisters, if not twins.

I've always enjoyed these pizzas and I probably always will. My favorite, if I had to choose, is the sausage, then the pesto and, more than ever, this vegetable extravaganza of zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach and, yes, the artichoke hearts Zelda Breslin absolutely refused to have at her pizzeria. Linda's also is doing a Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza, which Zelda would never have endorsed.

"I'm sure my Aunt Zelda is so mad at me right now," Amber told me with a chuckle.

Linda's also diverges from big sister by adding spinach to its artichoke dip. We ordered it one night as an appetizer and it was excellent, something to enjoy as we sipped our pretty fair sangria. The dip comes to the table in a standard pie crust, which serves as a bowl. You can either use the chips to enjoy the dip or, as I eventually did, have at it with a knife and fork and eat it like a pie.

Not everything on the menu at Linda's is destined for the hall of fame. The pasta dishes are there for those not in the mood for pizza, and they're about as exciting as a Ben Bernanke discourse on interest rates.

The pasta dishes are inexpensive, but there's not enough going on for them to stand on their own. The garlic pasta ($6.50) was a dish out of sync, crying out for balance and restraint and about a handful less of those pungent little cloves. The pesto pasta was better, but it needed another element on the plate to make it better still.

We also ordered two kinds of chicken wings – spicy and something we thought was called "chili." We couldn't tell which was which. There was plenty of chicken meat for nibbling, but not enough pizazz to make me love this dish.

The service is friendly and conscientious, and we couldn't seem to get anyone in the place to show any disdain, smugness or shortness. Downtown, it's Zelda's world and the customers just live in it. But out in the burbs, that whole grouchy and gruff shtick might seem too jarring, if not too contrived.

Linda's Pizzeria is taking shape and the future seems promising. It may have Zelda's pizza, but it will never have Zelda's vibe. It doesn't need it.

With Linda Ellington's institutional knowledge, Amber Graham's youthful energy and passion, a family support system and a growing legion of regular customers, this satellite campus of the downtown legend is on its way to becoming a special little place in its own right.

Linda's Pizzeria

7815 Greenback Lane, Citrus Heights

(916) 722-2700

www.lindaspizzeriacitrus heights.com

Hours: 11 a.m to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Full bar? Beer and wine only.

Takeout? Yes (but no delivery).

Vegetarian friendly? Yes.

Overall: 3 stars (good)

Zelda's deep-dish pizza has been a coveted part of the area's culinary landscape since 1978, and this is that pizza set in suburbia. The place has a different vibe than downtown, but it is developing its own persona and deserves its loyal following.

Food: 3 stars (good)

The veggie supreme we had was outstanding – practically a salad bar in a deep-dish pie. The sausage also is excellent, and all of the pizzas here are loyal to Zelda's original methods. Some of the lesser dishes, like the pastas and chicken wings, could use some refinement.

Service: 3 stars (good)

You won't get the gruff but lovable routine here and that's OK. It was friendly and accommodating.

Ambience: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

The decor will probably emerge over time, but they've done a decent job transforming a staid Taco Bell into a locally owned pizzeria.

Value: 3 stars (good)

A large specialty pizza is about $21 and a large cheese is $16.25. These are substantial pies and well worth the money. The $7 spinach-artichoke dip is a sneaky-good bargain because it's a meal in itself.

Noteworthy: If you want a Linda's pizza at home, try the par-baked version. It comes with instructions for how to finish baking it at home. The one we tried worked perfectly.

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