Manhattan Beach’s Union Pizza Co. marries New York to Chicago
Midwestern food gets little respect among Californians; try to explain the allure of Cincinnati Greek chili or Milwaukee frozen custard and you are most likely to get a blank look in return. There is some appreciation for Midwestern barbecue, but beyond that it’s generally neck and neck between ignorance and apathy.
This is unfortunate, because the Midwest includes one of the great dining cities in America: Chicago. Besides the celebrated ribs, the cuisines of Eastern Europeans and Greeks, and other ethnic delights, there is an Italian community that has developed something unique: the deep-dish pizza. It is distinctly different from East Coast pizzas, having a thick crust that contains both wheat flour and cornmeal, on top of which there are layers several inches tall of cheese, vegetables, sausage, and tomato sauce – with the cheese on the bottom and the sauce on top.
The South Bay once had a place where this delicacy could be obtained – Pizzeria Uno, which closed a decade ago – and it does once again since Union Pizza opened on Rosecrans. The small restaurant next to Bristol Farms is popular with people who work nearby and generally packed at midweek lunch, but except for a lively takeout business it is often deserted on weekends.
Our companions for dinner were running late and we were hungry, so my wife and I started with an appetizer of baked goat cheese with herbs in marinara sauce with breadsticks. The modest price – five bucks for the appetizer – led us to think this would be a small item. It wasn’t; there were over a dozen light, flaky breadsticks to dip into the hearty, richly herbed sauce with a thick medallion of cheese at the center. If this were paired with a salad it would have been a fine light meal for two, and we were glad when our companions showed up because otherwise we might not have had room for the rest of dinner.
We knew our friends would like to share a salad, so had already ordered one, a Caesar with a robust garlicky dressing and lots of parmesan cheese. As with everything else we ordered here, the portion was impressive, and we split it among four people.
Union Pizza doesn’t have a wine license, but allows diners who are eating indoors to bring their own. I strolled to Bristol Farms for a bottle of Lucky Star Pinot Noir, a modestly priced wine that went nicely with the big flavors offered here.
My wife had decided to try something other than a pizza to see what else the kitchen was capable of, so she ordered eggplant parmesan. It was a hit with everyone who tried it, the discs of eggplant tender and well-spiced, the sauce the same amply flavored stuff we had enjoyed with the goat cheese, and all was served atop properly al dente spaghetti.
And then it was on to the pizzas – one Chicago style, the other the thin-crust New York for contrast. One of our companions was a vegetarian, so we ordered a “the farm” thick crust, composed of sautéed mushrooms, roasted eggplant, onions, and peppers. The Chicago pizzas take a lot of time to cook – they’re very thick – and the thin crust pizza arrived first. That was a “Village” pizza, with pepperoni, Italian sausage, capicola ham, and mushrooms. The sauce was heavily herbed and spicy, which I appreciated, the crust a bit thicker than the ideal New York but still good. I wouldn’t rate this as the best thin crust pizza in the South Bay, but it’s not far out of the running.
The thick crust pizza arrived about a half hour after we ordered it, a wait time that is noted on the menu. What the menu doesn’t mention, and what nothing can really prepare you for, is how much of a meal even a small thick crust pizza is. The nine-inch pizza that is described as serving two to three people will really serve four – unless you have had nothing else for dinner, or perhaps all day, you’re not likely to finish more than a quarter of the thing. It’s a novel experience for the person who has had only the New York or Italian pizzas – a base like a thick pie crust layered with cheese, the toppings you select, and then chunky tomato sauce on top. The cheese doesn’t brown, so one of the hallmarks of a traditional pizza is missing, and the tomato sauce is chunky so it can be a tasty mess. A knife and fork approach is highly recommended unless you insist that all pizza is finger food – if so, be prepared to wash whatever you wore. I’ve had them in Chicago and this one was mighty close to the deep dish I remember from there, so they get points for authenticity. That said, I still prefer thin crust traditional pizzas – this was an interesting novelty, a reminder of fun times in the Windy City, but a bit too heavy a meal for me.
I have to give Union Pizza applause not only for bringing an American regional specialty to the South Bay, but for doing much else very well. The service was friendly and professional, the environment pleasant for a strip mall location, and there is much to like here.
Union Pizza is at 1570 Rosecrans Avenue, Manhattan Beach. Open midweek at 1 p.m., Saturday at 11:30, Sunday at noon – close 9 p.m. except Friday at 10 p.m. Children welcome, outdoor patio, no corkage. Menu at unionpizzacompany.com, phone 310-536-9888.