Zowie! ’Za at Za Za is a blast of Italy 

Scott McGehee changed my life.

His Boulevard Bread Company on Kavanaugh gave me the equivalent of the hunting club and golf club membership I never wanted. Now I have a pastime. Every Saturday, and sometimes during the week, I drop by for a loaf, or three, of artisanal bread to build a meal around. I might add to the bag a luxury condiment, Tuscan olive oil, exotic cheese, in-season organic produce and critical raw ingredients like duck fat, buffalo mozzarella and stock.

There are more attractions, but other Boulevard-besotted types know what I mean. Among devotees, there had been something of a frenzy about the much-delayed Za Za, the “fine salad and wood oven pizza co.” now open for lunch and dinner in Lucchesi's former space in the old Heights theater on Kavanaugh.

McGehee is partnering in the new venture with John Beachboard, the amiable former musician who learned cooking from the sink up under McGehee, much as McGehee himself went to California for on-the-job guidance from the legendary Alice Waters of Chez Panisse.

Quickly: Za Za is a five-star winner on food. But heed this warning: I don't expect any let up in the crowds for a good while and there are some service kinks yet to be smoothed. It's a sleek little space — modern but not in a harsh, techno way, with a dining loft and a scattering of patio tables (all with molded plastic chairs a bit narrow for some of us).

Your eye is immediately drawn to the tubular wood-encased chimney of the pizza oven, a 700-degree, hardwood-stoked inferno that can turn out Italian-style pizza (thin crust, modestly applied toppings) in five or six minutes.

Za Za is self-serve, confusingly arranged enough that a greeter is generally on hand to guide you to the proper station. For pizza and salad (and, at dinner, family-style grilled steak and shrimp entrees — $38.50 and $32.50 respectively — are available) you line up by the array of dozens of gorgeously fresh salad toppings — romaine, arugula, sugar snap peas, corn, olives, etc. etc. You can name your own ingredients or choose from house standards — Asian (gingery and crunchy with fried wontons), Santa Fe, Steakhouse, shrimp, spinach, Greek and Cobb. The last had the usual hard-boiled egg, blue cheese, chicken, avocado and bacon bits and it was a heaping pile of salad, mixed and dressed in a big bowl, then plated. It's a crunchy bargain for $7.50 and no wonder the Heights ladies who lunch are rushing the place.

If you've ordered a pizza, you get a number to carry to your table, a la Bonanza Steakhouse. But you won't wait long. We got the classic margherita — a smear of sweet San Marzano canned tomatoes on a perfectly thin, crispy, slightly salty, oven-blistered crust, with a few discs of fresh mozzarella, some quartered cherry tomatoes and four fresh basil leaves. It costs $9.50. It could pass for Italian, with flying colors, in any pizzeria in Naples.

Those attuned to American-style pizza, piled high with cheese and meat, might wonder, “Is that all there is?” Remember, less can be more. Still, I don't doubt a few will try Za Za and say they prefer the ranch dressing-drowned iceberg and crackery-crust pizzas at a popular pizza parlor nearby. Different strokes and all.

Pizza choices: The Perilla is a goat cheese pizza with mozzarella and prosciutto; the classic four seasons comes with mushrooms, olives, artichoke hearts and prosciutto; the Atomica, with capers, anchovies, parmesan, mozzarella and tomato, and, finally, there's this savory beauty, a house-made Italian sausage pizza that includes caramelized onions, garlic, bell pepper, arugula, fontina and parmesan. A pizza with potato and rosemary is a perfect side dish for the family-style steak and shrimp dinners, cooked on cast iron skillets in the pizza oven.



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