The Temple of Pizza is finished. It would've been completed last fall, but there was that mess with the sarcophagus under the parking lot and the rights of the dead and everything. Before that, it had taken three generations of scowling teen-agers, molding and cooking bricks in pizza ovens during the slow times and mortaring on smoke breaks, to erect the mammoth. But it was totally worth it. There's a huge patio! And the men's bathroom isn't outside anymore!
We razz, but with reason. When the new U.S. Pizza in Hillcrest, housed in a former neighborhood Masonic hall, first fired its ovens up several weeks back, it was more than a year after owners hoped it would open. Construction started in late 2006 and has been all but finished since May. The small parking lot and surrounding landscape needed four months.
However belabored, the move signals a new era for the flourishing chain, which now operates eight locations and owns one franchise, likely with another soon on the way. Corporate headquarters have relocated from North Little Rock; they'll share the upstairs of the building with a private dining room, which opens to a balcony. More importantly, the new location, with seating for around 100 inside and 70 outside, is probably the largest pizza restaurant in an increasingly pizza town.
It's a significant upgrade. The previous Hillcrest outlet was an old gas station that never seemed to escape that dingy association. Save the Pulaski Heights Lodge engraving in the nameplate, it's hard to see the former occupant in the new locale. Arched windows, with metal balconies, anchor the attractive brick facade on the front of the second story. Floor to ceiling windows line the lower floor, with interior shades throughout for adjusting light throughout the day. And then there's the patio, henceforth known as the patio to end all patios in Little Rock. Cozy, but fairly massive by out-door seating standards, it's enclosed by an attractive stacked rock and wrought-iron fence and fully landscaped with big trees and bushes. Tables, of varying height and size, sit under or near sleek umbrellas, which have lights under their shades like giant lamps. At night, with muted lighting and the slow steady whoosh of cars and foot-traffic, it has an intoxicating charm.
Or at least that's how it looked on a recent weeknight. It was around 7:30, and we were told it would be 45 minutes to an hour to sit outside (Maybe next spring!). Inside was busy, too, but there were seats. High ceilings and a stained concrete floor make for a sleek, modern dining room, but they amplify the bustle. Thankfully, the tables were well spaced.
The decor is fairly simple: Red and yellow hanging lights that look better outside than in. Italian wine and food posters that look like they came from Garden Ridge on the limited wall space. A brick bar area that divides a side entranceway and the kitchen from the dining room. Flat screen TVs in the ceiling corners. Above the bar, a TV captures a camera feed from a small game room adjacent to the entranceway.
Speed and service have never, in our experience, been hallmarks of U.S. Pizza. Couple that with the new restaurant rush, and we came ready to camp out for a couple of hours. But perhaps owing to the guidance of veteran restaurateur Paul Novicky, who's serving as a consultant in the transition and who directed traffic from the waiter's station, everything seemed to be moving along efficiently.
We got a frosty pitcher, which, that night only, came with a free order of pita (a tryout it seems), almost immediately. Fresh mugs and drink refills came steadily, and when our waitress noticed we'd only picked at the pita, which was cold and came with bland, whipped guacamole, she replaced the basket with a fresh batch. Our order, filled with complicated sharing options and special requests, came in normal, 20- to 30-minute pizza time.
One of our party had the gall to order the spicy chicken with broccoli without spicy chicken, and it didn't come that way. We've found that botched orders are an occasional consequence of eating pizza anywhere. Our waitress did just what we always hope for. She let the table keep the pie, put in a rush order and marked the price of the pizza down 50 percent.
Even as the pizza market has changed in recent years, with gourmet and buffet comers opening shops right and left, U.S. Pizza continues to have a lock on an oft-underestimated niche: It's comfort food.
We've never been a strict devotee of any local pizza joint. When we go to U.S. Pizza, we're after something simple and classic: that cracker-thin crust, the Italian seasoning standard on most pies, canned mushrooms (inexplicably) and the house dressing — something akin to Hidden Valley Ranch mixed with lard — that comes standard on salads.
To the chain's credit, over the years it's broadened its menu. You can now get raspberry vinaigrette on salads. There are a number of classic and Ital-ian sandwich choices, and more than a dozen “gourmet” pizzas — a margarita, a vegetable medley, several chicken options.
But give us a frosty mug of beer, a supreme pie and a turkey salad supreme heaped with house dressing and we're happy, especially in these new digs.
U.S. Pizza, Hillcrest
Before nights get too cool, plan an early or late dinner to take advantage of the large patio seating area. It's surely the nicest in town.
10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards accepted. Wine and beer.