With a couple of friends, I recently had lunch at City Grill, which opened some months ago at the corner of East Avenue and Alexander Street. I've lost count of how many restaurants have been in and out of this location in recent years, but this one might stick for a while.
What drew me there, of course, was pizza, in this case wood-fired pizza. I don't want to go into a long digression here, but before I go further, I should say a word or two about wood-fired pizza.
I have mixed feelings about the recent proliferation of local restaurants offering wood-fired pizza. Wood-fired pizza is not inherently better than pizza baked in other types of ovens. There are many factors going into any given pizza, from the ingredients to the preparation, to the attention paid to it while it's in the oven. The type of oven will certainly affect the end result, but a wood-fired oven does not by any means guarantee a better end result than a standard gas-fired pizza oven. In fact, if the pizzaiolo doesn't utilize it to its best advantage, a wood-fired oven can very easily yield a worse pizza than a more conventional oven.
But: the wood-fired trend has led to a lot more places around here offering pizza, and that's not a bad thing, from my perspective. So if I seem to be focusing recently on wood-fired pizza, it's mostly because I'm always looking for new places, and that's where most of the growth seems to be coming from lately.
OK. Back to City Grill. I don't think I'd ever been there before, under any of the restaurant's previous incarnations, because I was surprised to discover how large a space the restaurant occupies. There are two dining rooms (and an outdoor patio), and my friends were waiting for me in the back room. It's an attractive space, with a fireplace (not in use on this warm sunny day) and an open kitchen.
I ordered my usual Margherita (correctly spelled on the menu), while my two companions ordered a five-cheese pie and a "classic" pepperoni.
All three were nicely done, with some char spots underneath and a pliable crust that had some surface crispness. There was some noticeable corn meal on mine, which was a bit unusual for a wood-fired pizza, in my experience. Some of the corn meal had carbonized, in other words, blackened, which I find a little off-putting, but it wasn't too bad.
To quibble a bit more, the crusts were a tad unevenly done, with some areas along the edge quite blackened, while others were only browned. But I know that's tricky with a wood-fired oven, and none of them were over- or underdone overall. So again, not a big deal, but I bring a critical eye to my pizza, and in the interests of giving a complete description I thought it worth mentioning.
Aside from those minor issues, I liked the crust, which had a bready aroma and a chewy but not tough texture. It was thin and pliable but not floppy, and was dry underneath.
We all enjoyed our toppings. The sauce seemed to be the same on all three, and had a basic tomatoey flavor with some herbs in the background. The toppings on my pie were a little unevenly distributed, with the cheese and sauce coming close to the edge in some spots and other areas where there was a wide swath of naked crust, but this was no major cause for complaint. I would, however, have liked a bit more basil than just the few sprinkles that I got. What basil there was, though, was good, and had been added at the end, so it wasn't burnt, browned or dried out.
Pepperoni pizza is about as basic as American pizza gets, but this was a good one. The toppings were well balanced, and the pepperoni was especially tasty, with a good, meaty/spicy flavor, and just the right combination of crispness and chewiness.
The five-cheese pie was topped with mozzarella, aged provolone, Asiago, Fontina and Gruyere cheeses. While it wasn't overloaded with cheese, they combined to give it a sharp, pungent flavor and aroma. I liked it, but you've definitely got to be a cheese lover to appreciate this one.
In addition to these three pies, City Grill offers an "Italian," topped with crumbled meatballs, onions, tomatoes, cheese and parsley, a chicken-and-pesto pie with ricotta cheese and cherry tomatoes, a Greek pizza with shredded eggplant, kalamata olives, goat cheese, spinach, artichokes & roasted peppers, and the only one I would take a pass on, a wild mushroom pizza with shitake, portobello, crimini & porcinni, topped with a truffle sauce. All pies come in two sizes, which are priced at $11 and $15. The menu also features a variety of other dishes, including a wood-fired s'mores pizza with Belgian chocolate and marshmallows on a graham cracker crust. There's a full bar to boot.
So will City Grill succeed where so many others have tried and failed? I suspect that it might. I can't say what went wrong with the other establishments, but on this visit the food and service were good, business was brisk, and the atmosphere was comfortable yet - to use a word that I dislike, but that seems apt - sophisticated.
I'm not prepared to give City Grill's pizza an "A," at least not yet. (Maybe with the proliferation of wood-fired pizzas, I'm becoming more demanding, and I should probably revisit and re-rate some of the places I reviewed months or years ago.) But it's well worth a stop. For now, I'll give it a B, and I look forward to my next visit.
City Grill, 384 East Ave.
Mon. - Wed. 11 a.m. - midnight
Thu. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.
Sun. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.