For a while now, Abby and I have been considering blogging about our dining experiences in the Lawrence area. I decided to just go ahead and do it. This will hopefully become a regular thing. The stars are awarded on a four-point scale.
Giovanni’s (Topeka) = ***1/2
The most difficult thing about making pizza is getting the crust right. Abby and I have been working on a pizza for almost three years, now. Our sauce is delicious and unique. But our crust is a constant source of frustration. It always comes out way too dense, almost like a loaf of homemade bread.
Homemade bread is delicious, obviously, it’s just that you don’t want to make a pizza out of it.
Well, Giovanni’s has mastered the crust and I am envious. It is the difference between pie with a store-bought crust and pie with a crust made by an Amish person or a grandmother who knows what they’re doing. It is the kind of crust that makes you realize you didn’t know what good crust was until now.
Giovanni’s (1001 Se Quincy Street, Topeka) makes New York-style pizza because the owner is a New Yorker named Frank Conti. He moved to Topeka in early 2009 because he wanted his young kids to grow up in a less-expensive place with better schools. He opened a pizza place that serves dinner but is probably best used for lunch or late-night grubbage. The building is small, most of the seating is outdoors, you can order by the slice and Giovanni’s doesn’t serve beer or liquor.
Conti has taken a considerable risk by implanting a restaurant that stays open until 10 p.m. (3 a.m. on Saturdays) in downtown Topeka. For a variety of reasons (most of them utterly and embarrassingly lame) Topekans don’t go downtown for dinner. They instead go to Wanamaker Road, which is a depressing and soulless strip of Chilis, Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens. And any time someone tries to do something to revitalize downtown, a segment of the population pees all over it like drunkards putting out a campfire. It’s incredibly frustrating, and I don’t even live there.
So perhaps I’m coming at this with some level of bias. I want downtown businesses to succeed, because I root for Topeka. So I suppose it’s possible I could overrate a downtown establishment because of that desire (although in fairness to myself, Giovanni’s is the only downtown restaurant I would recommend).
But, man, that crust.
It’s New York style, so it’s thin. But this is not a wafer. It’s not like Imo’s in St. Louis and it’s not like Pizza Hut’s thin crust, either. It’s slightly thicker than that, and it has a delightful chewiness. Its texture allows you to fold the slice without breaking it, if that’s how you like to do it (and that’s how New Yorkers like to do it). The dough is fresh and homemade. I knew this because it tasted like it was, and because when we walked in at 6 p.m., someone was rolling out some dough right then and there.
When you bite into it, it all holds together. Bad pizza disintegrates. The cheese slides off the crust or the toppings just go tumbling off like you’re carrying a cookie sheet full of marbles.This was harmonious.
I will say little of the cheese and sauce. They were good, but not the stars of this dish. That distinction belongs to the crust, which could be problematic for those who don’t like New York-style pizza. They will just have to be left out, I suppose, in the same way people who don’t like rap music will never enjoy Jay-Z.
If restaurant reviews were just about the food and service, I would have no problem giving Giovanni’s four stars. I am afraid, however, it will suffer because you cannot get a pitcher of beer with your pizza and because the indoor dining area is small, making winter visits a gamble.
That said, I can appreciate a place that isn’t trying too hard. Giovanni’s is not trying to make you think it is anything other than a place that serves a really good slice of pizza. To that end, it succeeds. I hope it survives and expands, and pulls a few people out of the Olive Garden.