Scott McGehee changed my life.
His Boulevard Bread Company on Kavanaugh gave me the equivalent of the hunting club and golf club membership I never wanted. Now I have a pastime. Every Saturday, and sometimes during the week, I drop by for a loaf, or three, of artisanal bread to build a meal around. I might add to the bag a luxury condiment, Tuscan olive oil, exotic cheese, in-season organic produce and critical raw ingredients like duck fat, buffalo mozzarella and stock.
There are more attractions, but other Boulevard-besotted types know what I mean. Among devotees, there had been something of a frenzy about the much-delayed Za Za, the “fine salad and wood oven pizza co.” now open for lunch and dinner in Lucchesi's former space in the old Heights theater on Kavanaugh.
McGehee is partnering in the new venture with John Beachboard, the amiable former musician who learned cooking from the sink up under McGehee, much as McGehee himself went to California for on-the-job guidance from the legendary Alice Waters of Chez Panisse.
Quickly: Za Za is a five-star winner on food. But heed this warning: I don't expect any let up in the crowds for a good while and there are some service kinks yet to be smoothed. It's a sleek little space — modern but not in a harsh, techno way, with a dining loft and a scattering of patio tables (all with molded plastic chairs a bit narrow for some of us).
Your eye is immediately drawn to the tubular wood-encased chimney of the pizza oven, a 700-degree, hardwood-stoked inferno that can turn out Italian-style pizza (thin crust, modestly applied toppings) in five or six minutes.
Za Za is self-serve, confusingly arranged enough that a greeter is generally on hand to guide you to the proper station. For pizza and salad (and, at dinner, family-style grilled steak and shrimp entrees — $38.50 and $32.50 respectively — are available) you line up by the array of dozens of gorgeously fresh salad toppings — romaine, arugula, sugar snap peas, corn, olives, etc. etc. You can name your own ingredients or choose from house standards — Asian (gingery and crunchy with fried wontons), Santa Fe, Steakhouse, shrimp, spinach, Greek and Cobb. The last had the usual hard-boiled egg, blue cheese, chicken, avocado and bacon bits and it was a heaping pile of salad, mixed and dressed in a big bowl, then plated. It's a crunchy bargain for $7.50 and no wonder the Heights ladies who lunch are rushing the place.
If you've ordered a pizza, you get a number to carry to your table, a la Bonanza Steakhouse. But you won't wait long. We got the classic margherita — a smear of sweet San Marzano canned tomatoes on a perfectly thin, crispy, slightly salty, oven-blistered crust, with a few discs of fresh mozzarella, some quartered cherry tomatoes and four fresh basil leaves. It costs $9.50. It could pass for Italian, with flying colors, in any pizzeria in Naples.
Those attuned to American-style pizza, piled high with cheese and meat, might wonder, “Is that all there is?” Remember, less can be more. Still, I don't doubt a few will try Za Za and say they prefer the ranch dressing-drowned iceberg and crackery-crust pizzas at a popular pizza parlor nearby. Different strokes and all.
Pizza choices: The Perilla is a goat cheese pizza with mozzarella and prosciutto; the classic four seasons comes with mushrooms, olives, artichoke hearts and prosciutto; the Atomica, with capers, anchovies, parmesan, mozzarella and tomato, and, finally, there's this savory beauty, a house-made Italian sausage pizza that includes caramelized onions, garlic, bell pepper, arugula, fontina and parmesan. A pizza with potato and rosemary is a perfect side dish for the family-style steak and shrimp dinners, cooked on cast iron skillets in the pizza oven.
When McGehee does something at Boulevard he does it right, whether it means heirloom beans and duck confit for cassoulet or trucking out to Brenda's for the best tortillas in the state for Mexican dishes.
The standard is equally high at Za Za. Choice salad ingredients. A wood-fired oven with real Italian pizza. And then there's that gelato line, with the Italian-style ice cream served at just the right soft consistency, warm enough that the flavors sing. Getting the imported gelato machine working was one of the pre-opening holdups. I'm not sure yet they've quite achieved the ultra-smoothness that distinguishes Italian gelato (a notable exception was satiny strawberry yogurt). But they are delivering superb flavors. Raspberry stood out, also limoncello and coconut. Pistachio, chocolate, tiramisu and banana also beckon. There's cookies and cream for kids of all ages. Gelato costs $2.95 for a small and $4.50 for a large, but you can sample multiple varieties in the same cup. The chocolate-hazelnut must be good. It's been sold out every time we visited.
You fill your own soft drinks and tea, or grab a bottle of water, beer, etc. Many interesting Italian wines are sold by the glass (good for the dinner hour, when lingering seems more in order than at lunch; the wines are priced very modestly to sell) and there's also draft beer (Moretti, Fat Tire and Bud Light), positioned by the serving line for espresso, gelato and other desserts (caramel turtle brownies, blondies and lemon bars, all for $1.75). That gooey, buttery blondie? Single richest thing I've eaten just about ever.
Serving tip: If you don't want salad, just pizza, I was told you could advance straight to the cash register in front of those ordering salads or order it at the coffe/ice cream station.
After the rave, these final thoughts: Za Za couldn't live up to the impossible pre-opening buzz. (Surprisingly, given Boulevard's occasional hiccups, service has been reasonably good in the face of the onslaught of customers and the learning curve required to figure out the ordering and delivery system.) The restaurant is, after all, not exploring bold new culinary frontiers. For all the care given to ingredients, preparation and presentation, a cynic could still say, accurately, that it's still mostly pizza, salad and ice cream.
What's wrong with that, you ask? Not a thing, friends. Not a single thing.
5600 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Lunch for two: Split a big salad and pizza for $17. Dinner for three or four or more: Split a 38-ounce ribeye, a big salad and pizza with potato, around $55, not a bad deal for this quality. Gelato will tantalize you, but if you really want a rush of sugar and butter, get a blondie bar.
10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday hours of noon to 7 p.m. are expected, but not yet.
Reasonable prices. Wine and beer. Credit cards. Loft seating requires a hike up stairs if the handful of tables on the main level are occupied.