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Pizzas of many stripes

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

Tribute Pizza can’t be stereotyped for specializing in only one style of pizza. The wood-fired pies beckon to everywhere — from one of the oldest establishments in Naples, Italy where the Margherita was supposedly invented to a joint in Brooklyn, New York that raised the ire of critics opposed to pineapple as a topping.

The “tributes” point to a dozen varieties and weekly specials based on co-owner Matthew Lyons’ travels around the globe and his longstanding love of the dish.

Before opening Tribute last year in the former North Park Post Office, he ran a pop-up pizzeria in the area, worked at Regents Pizzeria in La Jolla and served as a consulting chef for an artisan pizzeria he helped open in Nairobi, Kenya — hence his homage to the “peperonata” mantled with artichoke hearts, castelvetrano olives, pickled sweet peppers, roasted onions, mozzarella and ricotta.

There’s even a tribute to Costco’s classic pizza supreme, which Lyons put on the menu to incite “pizza nostalgia.” It’s a gussied-up rendition featuring sautéed garlic, soppressata and fennel sausage spiked with Calabrian chilies, all mingling with the usual medley of mixed veggies we’ve come to know.

The assorted pizzas are crafted and consumed within a 3,000-square-foot space marked by a warm industrial design and ample seating. With the building’s paned windows and solid bones, it reminds me a little of Liberty Station’s Mess Hall, but with an exposed oven fed here with fallen white oak wood.

The deluxe meat and cheese board

The work station fronting the flames is occupied by an army of cooks seen stretching dough and sometimes tossing the disks into the air. At one end of the line are loaves of beautifully crusted focaccia bread appearing no more than an hour old.

Those are served with various victuals as small-plate options, although we dove into one accented with stone fruit, burrata cheese and rosemary that included with the mother of all food boards serving as our appetizer.

Presented on a slab of tree trunk, it impressed with a trio of rich cheeses as well as cured meats that included duck prosciutto from a North County purveyor, roasted vegetables, cara cara oranges, seasonal cherries and a few clusters of outstanding house-made granola. A sight to behold, we became unapologetically gluttonous when plowing through it.

The “betrayal of Caesar” salad

Preceding a couple of pizzas, we also shared the “betrayal of Caesar” salad, which indeed backstabs familiar versions by combining grilled romaine with preserved lemon, Calabrian chilies and focaccia croutons. Best of all was the creamy dark-orange “Brutus dressing” that tasted tangy, sweet and peppery at the same time.

A crust studded with sesame seeds and topped with fresh mozzarella, ricotta, roasted onions and parsley defines the “Brooklyn’s Best” pizza. It’s a nod to the famous white pie served at the namesake pizzeria in Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The caramelized onions provided abundant sweetness that we counterbalanced with several pinches of red chili flakes and finely grated Pecorino Romano served alongside. Not bad, although next time I’ll request a side of olive oil to offset its dryness.

Wonderfully juicy was the “Molto Autentico” pizza, which Lyons said beckons to no particular place but rather to mom-and-pop pizza parlors across the country.

The “Molto Autentico” pizza

It’s slathered in crushed Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes that are as equally bright as San Marzano tomatoes – plus fresh mozzarella, spicy fennel sausage, garlicky mushrooms and a hint of smoked cheddar.

Except for along the edges, the charred wood-fired crust became a little wilted from the sauce. But we didn’t mind given the pie’s comforting flavors, which paired exceptionally well to a few glasses of easy-drinking cabernet from Sidekick Winery.

It may very well be this top-selling pizza that fills the dining room with aromas of cheese and tomatoes and baking dough, exactly the intoxicating smell cast by industrious pizzerias across the country.

The tiramisu here is a must, if only because of its potent measure of coffee liqueur that’s produced in collaboration by Old Harbor Distilling Co. in the East Village and Coffee & Tea Collective in North Park. If the cake’s springy layers and creamy topping don’t bowl you over, the vigorous coffee flavor will.

Tribute Pizza serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday and lunch on Saturdays and Sundays. It also offers happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday when discounts are available on Margherita pizzas, focaccia, bottles of Gragnano and pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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