The Pieology counter induces performance anxiety.
Ingredients are laid out, Chipotle-style, for workers to customize pizzas according to patrons’ tastes. But there are a lot more ingredients than at Chipotle. Choices start at dough (traditional, whole wheat or gluten-free), run to sauces (red, alfredo, etc.) and vegetables and finish with meats. Each 11.5-inch personal pizza costs $7.95, regardless how many ingredients one piles on it.
Pizza assembly is not new to me. I worked at a pizza place in college. But those were simpler, mozzarella-on-every-pie days. Pieology also offers Parmesan, gorgonzola, ricotta and feta.
These cheeses are not exotic. But it’s still surprising, and a bit intimidating, to see them displayed at a fast-casual restaurant’s counter, with the latter reaction partly due to the speed element involved.
The line behind me at the 16th Street Pieology (its late 2014 opening, as the chain’s first local spot, preceded the June opening of a Rancho Cordova location; a Roseville branch is coming soon) ran 15 people deep. Not wanting to slow down my fellow customers or Pieology’s famously quick service – enabled by a stone oven that cooks pies in fewer than five minutes – with indecision, I quickly picked a standard crust, red sauce, mozzarella, ricotta, basil, grape tomatoes and sausage.
The thin crust is perfectly crisp, with char visible on bottom, and tastes just salty enough to be memorable. There’s not enough material here to compare it with local craft pizza houses’ crusts, which tend to be larger. But crust crispiness remained consistent through the 10 Pieology pizzas we tried.
The red sauce offers a welcome spicy kick. But something – perhaps the basil or ricotta – threw off the flavor on that first pie. I knew I could do better with more time to prepare. And with help.
For my second visit, I assembled a crack team of friends, chosen for their cooking expertise and/or strong opinions. We came up with what we considered surefire combinations and also took chances (like pairing Canadian bacon with gorgonzola).
We did not do what Pieology founder Carl Chang, in a phone interview, said most customers do at first, which is ask for “50 toppings on every pizza.” Most people eventually learn flavor combinations matter more than bulk, he said.
Chang, brother of, and one-time business manager for, tennis star Michael Chang, opened the first Pieology in 2011 in Orange County. He started the chain, now at 67 locations, partly in response to the economic downturn, he said. He wanted the place to be affordable but also fun, since he’d noticed that going out for pizza had become more functional than celebratory for families.
The 16th Street Pieology feels fun. The space looks a bit cold, with its concrete floors and metal chairs. But the crowds of young people who flock to it – groups in their teens and early 20s, and slightly older parents with young kids – warm it up.
Strategizing ingredients with other people is fun, too, partly because it’s such a low-risk proposition. Failures only cost $7.95. But most pies we tried, whether conceived by us or ordered from the in-house “Pieologist’s Favorites” list, were decent, at least.
A customized whole wheat pie, with alfredo sauce, ricotta, kalamata olives, mushroom and artichoke, tasted hearty without being heavy. The gorgonzola, Canadian bacon and red sauce we requested for another custom pie seemed as if they might compete but did not, partly because the bacon was more savory than anticipated.
The pesto on our mozzarella, feta, grape-tomato and meatball pie alternated nicely between sharp and earthy, but there was not enough of it (next time, we’ll ask for more), and the pizza suffered from its meatball component. The meatballs tasted as if they were plucked from a can of Chef Boyardee, sprayed down with a firehose, verbally belittled Army bootcamp-newbie style, then plopped in the oven to have their last shreds of dignity burned away.
But again, combination is key. The meatballs’ taste was less noticeable on the satisfying “Mad to Meat You” house pie, on which they shared space with sausage and pepperoni.
As one might imagine with a chain that sells loaded pies for $7.95, Pieology does not appear to use the same level of ingredients as local craft-pizza places. But the chain uses “all-natural” chicken, and organic greens in its “Classic” salad.
There was a vast difference between Pieology’s grape and full-size tomatoes. The smaller tomatoes were red and juicy, but the larger ones – sliced and served on a gluten-free margherita pizza – were light pink and lacking in flavor. The gluten-free crust was worse. It was flavorless, apart from an aftertaste reminiscent of Sweet ‘n’ Low. Yet it cost $2 extra.
The best pies, over three visits, were the whole-wheat vegetarian we crafted and a modified “Mad to Meat You” I ordered on my final visit. I added olives, mushroom and green bell pepper, resulting in greater flavor dimension and a boost in the red sauce’s spikiness.
A degree in Pieology, or at least a certificate of course completion, is achievable through planning, teamwork and guidance from the Ph.Ds behind the house menu.
1020 16th St., Sacramento, www.pieology.com, 916-447-1695
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Fountain sodas. Bottled beer. Steelhead chardonnay and merlot.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes, and vegan mozzarella is available.
Gluten-free options: Yes, but the gluten-free crust tastes odd.
Noise level: Moderate to loud.
Ambiance: The Sacramento Pieology’s decor is industrial and a bit chilly, but a mostly young crowd lends it a convivial feel.
The pizza is decent-to-tasty, comes out fast and costs a bargain $7.95 for a 11.5-inch personal pizza. It’s fun coming up with different combinations, and the place is exceptionally family-friendly.
The thin-crust pies are consistently crispy, and the red sauce is a good bet. The flavor of the regular and whole-wheat crusts are right on, but the gluten-free crust is a washout.
Fast and friendly, but minimal. This is a “fast casual” restaurant in which pizzas are served to tables, but customers fetch their own napkins and utensils.
One need not even finish a $7.95 pie to fill up.