I achieved two new neighborhood milestones today: I joined a gym ($15 a month? Seriously? I can barely complain about no longer having one in my building) and finally paid a visit to the Little Caesars.
Little Caesars itself isn’t terribly motivating. (I’d like to blame its weird lack of an apostrophe à la Tim Hortons.) It’s easy to lump in with faded brands like Boston Market and TCBY that somehow persist. In fact, growing up in suburban Oregon the TCBY and Little Caesars both lived in the same strip mall.
I can say with near certainty that the last time I ate Little Caesars pizza was in 1985 at a picnic table on a weeknight at Blue Lake park, a few towns over, with my family. There was live music, but I don’t remember it. I do remember the crew of unattended kids from middle school sitting a few tables away that triggered embarrassment I tried covering with petulance.
I hoped the group of budding stoners (more methy than potty) not friendly stoners, but girls, some with big waterfall bangs, some who also wore their bangs hanging over one eye and had boots from Wild Pair but didn’t listen to the same music and had older boyfriends they skipped school with and might glare at you in the hallway, couldn’t see me being subjected to a family outing.
I could only express my unease by picking apart the slabs of rectangular pizzas and question why there was a rainbow sheen on the surface of the ham slices. I didn’t eat.
Afterwards, we decamped to the home of a co-worker of my mom’s for dessert, maybe a peach cobbler, definitely with vanilla ice cream. The co-worker had hepatitis, it turned out, type A, I’m assuming, so the next week I had to be dragged to the hospital where my mom worked in billing for a shot, despite screaming and crying that I’d rather just take my chances on developing a liver infection. There wasn’t any choice.
Now I can make all of the poor health choices I’d like for myself. The pretzel crust I’ve seen advertised for the past few months combined with the fact that I now live one tiny block from one of Queens’ only two Little Caesars locations was all the motivation I needed.
If I couldn’t initially remember what the appeal of Little Caesars was, it quickly came to me: duh, it’s cheap. This large pie was $6.50 with tax. Little Caesars is for those who think Pizza Hut is getting too uppity with its Sriracha honey and balsamic drizzles. Also, Little Caesars had the pretzel crust first. There is no online ordering, no delivery, no pick of sizes, if you want a cheese or pepperoni pie you will be handed one HOT-N-READY® from a heated case, otherwise your only other choices are more or less Hawaiian, three meat or supreme. Oh, and there are wings, bread sticks and dipping sauces. That’s it.
I was afraid the takeout restaurant was abandoned when I walked in to a nice yellow, black and white linoleum scheme and silence. I’m not the sort of person to yell for service so after what felt like a full minute I reopened and shut the door very loudly just as the 7 train was passing overhead and got a young woman’s attention from the back. She really did smile, as per the Hot-N-Ready Promise posted on the wall: “Serve every customer with a smile and a perfect pizza, in less than 30 seconds every time!” My pizza would be ready in five minutes (which wasn’t even sufficient to finish this surprisingly lengthy A.V. Club interview with Megan Amram about Cheesecake Factory.) The only other customer during this wait was an Asian man, also on the young side but probably a dad, who got two of the readymade pepperoni pizzas.
Partially because of the sudden cold wave, but mostly because I was afraid of bumping into someone I knew (even though I know almost nobody in the area and it’s not as if most of my building’s residents could give a hoot seeing me carrying the embarrassing box that was radiating the scent of popcorn butter and pepperoni) I tried to get home as quickly as possible. Please no small talk in the foyer.
The thing is, there was nothing to be humiliated about because Jackson Heights’ pizza kind of sucks, frankly. It’s not as if I’m ignorantly shunning a Lucali or Motorino here. The prosciutto and arugula pizza, one of my go-tos, I ordered recently from a nearby place I won’t name was a travesty of heavy uncooked dough and what I swear were hunks of impossible to cut country ham and mealy tomatoes.
(I’ll concede that my recent Taco Bell excursion was egregious, considering the bounty of legit tacos nearby.)
The Soft Pretzel Crust Pepperoni Pizza, on the other hand, is pretty damn good for this genre. My favorite genre: vehicles for processed cheese. What I didn’t realize is that this pizza doesn’t contain tomato sauce, but a layer of creamy cheese sauce, supposedly cheddar, that’s topped by four more cheeses, Asiago, Parmesan, Fontina and white cheddar. 100% real is used everywhere in the ad copy, but I don’t know. It’s a lot of cheesiness, regardless.
I could see this being a very divisive pizza. It’s most definitely not gross, if you ask me, even though it has all of the characteristics. The crispy-edged pepperoni padded by soft gobs of cheese really hits all the sensory neurons and then you get a salt blast as you work your way to the butter-slathered pretzel rim. The bottom of the crust is also buttery so all the little crags almost take on a fried quality, especially after re-heating. Before you can intellectualize what you just tasted, you already want a second slice.
Pro tip: a hit of Trader Joe’s ghost chile flakes adds another dimension.