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Round and round ... searching for the perfect pie

Ed Levine, author of "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven," rates local offerings.

Note: This article was originally published on March 31, 2005.

The waitress at Marra's must have known something was up the moment she served Ed Levine a pizza.

He slowly keeled to his right in the creaky wooden booth at the venerable restaurant on Passyunk Avenue, carefully lifted the pizza's edge, and peered beneath its crusty bottom like a detective scrutinizing evidence at a crime scene.

"I'm concerned," he declared, "about the uniformity of darkness. This is problematic."

He shook his head, ripped off a piece of crust, and popped it into his mouth.

"I want to see a higher lip. I want more bubbles blistering around the edge. But," he added brightly, "the hole structure inside is pretty good! And it's tender. Good crust should look like great bread. That's what pizza is."

If Levine sounds a tad serious about his midday snack, he is. The New York-based food writer's latest book is Pizza: A Slice of Heaven (Universe), a chronicle of his yearlong, 1,000-slice quest for the perfect pie.

Philadelphia, where Levine recently returned for an afternoon of serious pizza prowling, appears in his tome. The book is both a guidebook and an anthology of pizza musings from dozens of other food writers, including Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount Jr., and yours truly.

We revisited and rated several local favorites and pondered one of the greatest mysteries facing Philadelphia's culinary world: Why is our pizza scene so mediocre?

It is a perplexing question, considering the city's proud Italian heritage and its geographical post as the southern tip of what Levine calls the East Coast "Pizza Belt," where pizza made its first inroads into the American diet a hundred years ago.

Levine suggests our street-food energies have simply been directed elsewhere, into cheesesteaks, pork sandwiches, pretzels and hoagies. Philly pizza has never acquired the kind of iconic status that gives it a distinctive personality.

Which is not to say one can't still occasionally find an excellent slice in town. Our adventure took us through five local pizzerias. Levine awarded each one up to four pies or slices, depending on how the restaurant serves its pizza.

Given its status as one of the oldest pizzerias in America, the 76-year-old Marra's (1734 E. Passyunk Ave.) was a logical place to start our tour. Levine was charmed by the old-world ambience of the place, the Rocky-era memorabilia and the signed John Travolta picture in the window. Our outgoing waitress was happy to oblige when Levine ordered a pie with different cheeses on the two halves.

It was like two completely different pizzas, with the typical lava flow of aged mozzarella on one half and the dappled white and red collage of fresh mozzarella on the other. The aged mozzarella made the pizza heavy and flabby on one side, while the other side was light and crispy.

"Here we have pizza in its natural state," Levine enthused about his fresh-cheese slice. It also highlighted, he said, a bright sauce that is simply strained, not precooked.

Levine gave two separate ratings for Marra's pizza as well: 2-1/2 pies for the aged mozzarella, a very respectable 3 for the fresh.

Next we headed to nearby Celebre's Pizzeria (Packer Park Shopping Center, 1536 Packer Ave.), the four-decade-old South Philadelphia institution that sits in a strip mall near the stadiums. The tidy, well-kept room had the "alternative reality" feel of a '60s time-capsule, Levine said, with its vinyl booths and mirrored walls. He was more concerned, though, about the tall stack of premade crusts waiting by the ovens.

"What are those crusts doing there?" he said incredulously. "It's built for speed . . . and that's not a good sign."

His suspicions were confirmed when the pizza arrived. The crust had a delicate crisp, but inside it had the hole-less generic look of Wonder Bread.

Our opinions diverged on Celebre's unorthodox "pizazz" pizza, a sauceless white pie that includes American cheese and rounds of pink tomato. When it was pinched into a sandwich, I saw the vague outlines of a vegetarian cheesesteak, but Levine was less generous: It was "not a bad food," he said, "and it eats better than it looks, but it's not a pizza taste. "It earned a rating of 2 slices.

On to the Reading Terminal, where I've long touted By George as one of the city's better slice places. Levine says lower-quality ingredients and the typical bank of stacked gas ovens - which never achieve the blistering heat required for superior pizza - generally distinguish a slice place from a finer emporium of whole pies. But that isn't the case with By George.

Unfortunately, we arrived past the Terminal's peak dining hours, not great timing for a true test, since George's slices had been sitting out a while. Levine was impressed by the crust's good hole structure and a nice crispness bolstered by plenty of oil in the dough. But George's hearty pepperoni stromboli roll earned Levine's seal of approval: 3 slices.

"This is a pizzalike thing," he said somewhat grudgingly, "but it's easy going down."

If Levine was cautious in his praise at our early stops, he lit up the moment we entered Lombardi's (132 S. 18th St.) near Rittenhouse Square. This is the local branch of the New York store that Levine describes as the "pizza mothership in this country," where Gennaro Lombardi began selling pizza in 1905, creating the benchmark for thin-crusted Neapolitan pizza.

It has survived the translation to Philadelphia remarkably well. "It has a really nice lip, and look at that beautiful, brownish flour-dusted look," he crowed over the pizza before us. "Look at the big holes in the crust - that's good yeast! And there's also plenty of salt."

We chewed through the heat-blistered slices adorned with bright sauce, ribbons of fresh basil, and chunks of good sausage.

"This is 4-pie pizza," he said, "and there's only six or seven of those. Wouldn't the world be a better place if every town in America had this pizza?"

Unfortunately, Philadelphia won't have it for much longer. Lombardi's plans to close for good May 15 [2005], its building set to be demolished for a new high-rise project off Rittenhouse Square. Owner Michael Giammarino has no immediate plans to reopen elsewhere. But watching his coal oven be demolished will be painful: "I built it myself," he said, "brick by brick."

If Philadelphia has a pizza icon, it would have to be Tacconelli's (2604 E. Somerset St.), the Port Richmond mainstay that has gained national fame for its cracker-crisp crusts, deep brick oven and the requirement that customers call ahead to reserve their dough. "Reserving the dough is a great marketing tool," Levine said.

But it's no guarantee of quality or prompt service. In fact, as our wait for dinner stretched to nearly an hour on a busy Thursday night and waitresses hustled past our table, refusing to make eye contact, Levine was moved to a diatribe.

"It's a fascinating thing," he said, "this devil-may-care service. And it's partial to pizzerias."

Things didn't improve markedly when the pies finally arrived. Levine admired the crispness of the crust, but wished it had more inner-tenderness to counter the crunch. Toppings didn't earn much praise either, from sauce that tasted too much like tomato paste to the copious dusting of granulated garlic that lent half our pizza a burnt flavor and sandy grit.

But the other half, white without garlic, was delicious.

"That is good," said Levine. But it wasn't enough to equal the generous 3-1/2-pie rating Levine awarded Tacconelli's Mount Laurel location in his book.

"I'd give these pizzas 2-1/2 pies."

As I said, Levine can be a tad serious when it comes to pizza.