On the road for pizza

In case you missed it, here is my review of Iolis’ Pizzeria that appeared in last Thursday’s Go! section of the Monterey Herald. I’ll be reposting my reviews and stories from my weekly column for the Herald here on my blog along with extra photos that didn’t appear in print.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been checking out local pizzerias with my friend Joe, a transplant from the East Coast who’s pretty picky about pizza. Together, we’re trying to find the best pizza in town.

So far, we’ve been to Allegro Gourmet Pizzeria in Carmel and Gianni’s Pizza in Monterey. This month, we took readers’ suggestions to head out to Iolis’ Pizzeria in Carmel Valley.

Joe and I continue our great pizza tour, heading out to Iolis’ Pizzeria in Carmel Valley this time.

Iolis’ Pizzeria “pays tribute to East Coast pies and bows to the West Coast’s creativity in introducing new flavor fusions.”

Their East Coast leanings seemed like a good match for East Coast Joe. Might Iolis’ finally be the one to please Joe’s picky palate?

The pizza was judged on the classic margherita (pictured) and the house specialties.

Like the other pizzerias, we judged Iolis’ Pizzeria on the classic margherita pizza, a meat pizza and a couple house specialty pies.

Iolis’ pizzas come in three sizes: 12 inches, 16 inches and 24 inches. Select flavors are also available by the slice. We opted for the 12-inch pies for our taste test.

On our first visit, we ordered the New York, New York — linguica sausage, Canadian bacon, spicy salami, pepperoni and Italian sausage ($13.99) — and the classic Margherita pizza with fresh basil, tomatoes, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese ($11.99).

The New York, New York was piled high with meat, but it fell a little flat for us both.

With a name like “New York, New York,” I figured this pizza would be the perfect match for Joe, a native New Yorker.

Joe pointed out that such a meat marvel actually wouldn’t be typical of New York pizzerias. Most stick to the basics — a pie topped with lots of sauce, cheese and tomatoes or pepperoni. For New Yorkers, less is more — and I’m starting to agree.

I’ve consistently been disappointed with meat-heavy pizzas during our Peninsula pizza tour. The New York, New York couldn’t make up its mind — my palate was torn between sweet sausage and salty salami.

Both Joe and I preferred the simpler, cleaner taste of the Margherita pizza.

The Margherita pizza was great, easily the best we tasted at Iolis’.

The tomatoes were so flavorful — impressive since it’s still a little early for good tomatoes. The basil offered a good savory contrast to the sweet tomatoes. And the light touch of garlic and pepper provided a little kick. Joe’s only complaint was the light hand with the sauce — he remarked it tasted a little “dry.”

On our second visit, we tried the Kung Pao pizza, with chicken, kung pao sauce, green onions, garlic, cashews and red pepper flakes ($12.99).

The Kung Pao pizza was a curious combination of flavors.

I was a little disappointed to take a bite and find this pizza missing that signature kung pao kick. Since I’m pretty tolerant of spicy food, I sought a second opinion from less spice-tolerant Joe. He found the pizza appropriately spicy, with a heat that stays with you.

While I didn’t find the pizza all that spicy, I did like the bold bite of garlic. We both found the cashews a curious addition to the pizza.

We also ordered a Brooklyn Deluxe pizza — meatballs, mushrooms, red onions and black olives ($12.99) — with Italian sausage substituted for the black olives.

The Brooklyn Deluxe was too cheesy, but we appreciated the touch of tangy red onion.

Both Joe and I found this pizza too cheesy. The gooey cheese masked the subtle flavors of the meat. The onions were a nice touch, with flavors punchy enough to cut through the cheese.

After our second visit, we spent the car ride back to the Peninsula scrutinizing their pizzas.

Judging on the basics, Iolis’ Pizzeria definitely scored points for their sauce. It was flavorful, striking an appropriate balance between sweet tomato and savory herbs.

But both Joe and I lamented that the cheese and toppings all too often obscured the flavorful sauce.

The garlic bread was very garlicky and very cheesy. It was the perfect vehicle for Iolis’ flavorful pizza sauce.

In fact, we only really came to appreciate the sauce when we ordered a side of garlic bread ($4.95) which arrived with a cup of unadulterated pizza sauce for dipping.

The crust was a little doughy for Joe. He compared it to flatbread more so than pizza. I liked that the crust actually had some subtle flavor — a touch that’s so often overlooked at other pizzerias.

Iolis’ Pizzeria stayed true to its promise, evolving East Coast pizza traditions for the West Coast. It might not meet the demanding palate of a diehard pizza purist, but it certainly makes for great comfort food.

And so our search continues. Stay tuned for next month’s installment of our Peninsula pizza tour!

Iolis’ Pizzeria is at 307 Carmel Valley Road in the Mid-Valley Center in Carmel Valley. 622-9463. www.iolispizzeria.com.

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