Yes, you read that title right. I'm reviewing school cafeteria pizza.
But not just any high school, or any school cafeteria. Let's cut to the chase - McQuaid Jesuit, a Catholic, male-only school, is not only a fine educational institution, it also has some of the best pizza around.
I discovered this through one of my readers, whose husband David DelGaudio runs the food program at McQuaid. I was skeptical, but figured, OK, why not?
It took a couple of phone calls to make arrangements - I didn't want to just show up one day and start wandering through the hallways, given our sadly necessary concerns these days about security - but I made it without too much trouble, and met both Dave and Director of Communications Sean Mullen, who guided me to the cafeteria.
I got there just before the lunchtime crush, and was very impressed by the wide variety of slices available. There were several thin-crust pies, from plain cheese to pepperoni and more, as well as a Sicilian pizza and something I hadn't run across before, panuozzo. This is basically a folded-over pizza dough with fillings inside.
But let me start with the thin slice. I went with a basic cheese slice, which was thin but not paper thin, nicely charred underneath, and supple, with just a bit of bite on the exterior of the crust. The crust was very good, but I think it was one of those that would be even better with reheating, to really crisp up the bottom.
There was some oil on the top side, from the cheese, but nothing excessive. The mozzarella was added in proportion to the thinness of the crust, and was melt-in-your-mouth creamy. A thin layer of basic, tomatoey sauce rounded things out.
Thin crust remains my go-to pizza, but the Sicilian here was a standout, with a bottom crust marked by a bubbly pattern that revealed its pan-baked character, but with no more than a slight feel of oil on the surface. The interior was chewy and breadlike, and the slice was topped with a generous helping of sauce and blistered dollops of fresh mozzarella.
Next up was the panuozzo. This cousin of a calzone is regularly offered here, but the fillings vary from day to day. On this occasion, the fillings were a basic pepperoni, sauce and cheese. The entire thing was baked as one giant loaf, and then sliced. The crust was nicely browned on top and bottom, and enclosed a steaming-hot interior, with smooth, stretchy cheese oozing out along the sides.
Dave informed me that all three of these offerings were prepared using the same dough and sauce, which made for a fascinating study of how the same ingredients can yield very different results, depending on how they're prepared and baked. And all three were baked in a large commercial pizza oven, with a gas flame in back providing some radiant heat.
My one regret is that I didn't speak to any of the students to get their take on the pizza. I got my slices at just about the time that the students swarmed into the cafeteria, locust-like, but minutes before I finished eating, they vanished just as quickly to go back to class.
But if any McQuaid students are reading this - you've got it good, at least as far as the food is concerned. I hope you know that. Not to sound like an old timer ("Why, when I was a lad ..."), but in my day, school pizza was pretty awful, although I suppose we still looked forward to it, given the alternatives. And I suspect that even today, few schools offer pizza that's even close to this good. If I were a McQuaid student, I might try to keep my grades down, in the hopes of repeating a year, just for the pizza. Something tells me it wouldn't work, but I'd consider it, anyway.
I could pick a nit here and there about this pizza. The thin-crust slice was a little pale along the edge (which also had a large bubble in it), and as I mentioned, it was a bit oily on top. But all in all, this was excellent pizza, well made, with quality ingredients, and it rates an A from me.
If you'd like to try McQuaid's pizza, it can be done. The cafeteria is generally not open to the public, but on school days you can order a 20-inch pizza to go; visit their website for details. A 20-inch pie is a lot of pizza, but I don't think you'll end up with many leftovers.
McQuaid Jesuit, South Clinton Ave. at Elmwood Avenue.
Pizza catering available on school days between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.