BY MICHAEL GRASS
Weekend Food and Drink Critic
Published September 2, 2002
It was something that had to be done.
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Sixteen pizza delivery establishments. Twelve empty stomachs. Four cell phones out and ready. One apartment. And a good amount of beer.
At 7:10 p.m. in January 2001, I, along with an adventurous group of colleagues from the Daily, set off on completing the first ever "Ann Arbor Pizza Challenge." Our goal was simple: Sample pizzas from every single delivery establishment in town. Ignoring common sense and the capacity of our stomachs, we were determined to do it and in retrospect, maybe, just maybe, we started a new college tradition.
But it's not as easy as it sounds.
"The Michigan Daily Ann Arbor Pizza Challenge" took a lot of planning and was subject to many arguments on how best to operate and accomplish the endeavor. Vegans, the small-stomached and the lactose-intolerant need not try to replicate because they will fail.
Only those with large, flexible stomachs, deep pockets and the guts to push the limits of common sense should attempt such a feat.
Here were our ground rules:
n Every establishment located within the city limits that had delivery to Central Campus were called. The Big Three - Pizza Hut, Little Caeser's and Domino's - were exempt.
n Participants had to be willing to purchase at least one pizza.
n Every order had to be a large pizza and have at least one-half cheese. The other half could be cheese as well, or a topping of the buyer's choice. No deep-dish.
n No coupons or specials.
n The buyer got the first slice. As the "Challenge" supervisor, I had to sample every single pizza to make sure evaluation was fair and objective.
n Taking ratings and comments from participants into account, along with criteria like speed of delivery, courteousness of delivery personnel, price and slice size, our group would choose the winners and bestow the honor of having the best pizza delivery in town.
Admittedly, our plan was not foolproof. For instance, getting a plain cheese pizza from Anthony's Gourmet Pizza when they are known for their excellent Chicago deep-dish was problematic.
Additionally, topping selection was not uniform and that threw in another obstacle in way of the scientific method.
Getting a cheese pizza from each place was the best measure for the Challenge in our opinion. If a place has a terrible cheese pizza, it's a good indication that quality of toppings, crust, etc. are equally as bad.
THE FIRST ROUND: Mayhem and then judgement
We decided to tackle the first four on our alphabetical list: A Hello Faz Pizza, Anthony's Gourmet Pizza, Bella Napoli and Bell's. With cell phones ready, four people called at the same time. While it doesn't seem like a big deal to order four pizzas, from four different places, to one location, all with a group of onlookers laughing, the first order degenerated into a hectic and chaotic mess.
When the round of calls finished, the orderers recorded estimated time of arrival, what was ordered and price into my notebook:
Faz: Half-cheese/half-mushroom, 35-45 minutes, $9.95.
Bella Napoli: Cheese, 35-45 minutes, $11.65.
Anthony's Gourmet Pizza: Half-cheese, half-green pepper, 45-60 minutes, $12.95.
Bell's: Half-cheese, half-Hawaiian, 30 minutes, $10.37.
At 7:35 p.m., five minutes ahead of schedule, the delivery man from Bell's pizza rang the doorbell. We opened up the box and out came the half-cheese and half-Hawaiian pie. The sauce had the right amount of spice, the crust was crisp and cheese had solidified to just the right consistency. Although Bell's was quick, something was wrong with the pizza: The Hawaiian half of the pizza had tomatoes, but no ham.
"They screwed up the order but it was still good," said Chip Cullen, an Art and Design senior and Daily cartoonist. "Overall the quality of the pizza was pretty good."
The next pizza to arrive was the large cheese pizza from Bella Napoli, the newcomer to Ann Arbor's pizza scene. The pie was huge and molten. With the cheese in a semi-liquid state, Bella Napoli's pizza specimen was a turn-off - at first. "Look at the cheese leakage, that's a faux pas," said LSA senior Nick Woomer, co-editor of the Daily's editorial page.
Even though the cheese burned the hand of one participant, the high-quality mozzarella saved Bella Napoli from ridicule. It was unlike any mozzarella I've had; it had a hint of brie. And most people agreed.
"I want that piece with the bubble, that looks awesome," said LSA junior Luke Smith, an arts editor, referring to a massive piece with a hemorrhaging mozzarella goiter.
At 7:59 p.m., A Hello Faz's pizza arrived. Then came the pie from Anthony's 11 minutes later. While Faz was the first in a series of mediocre and average pizzas to make its way past the jury, Anthony's was more distinct. A good crust and sauce, it appropriately fell under its self-proclaimed category of gourmet.
ROUND TWO: More of the same
While I'm not going to go into the specific details of every individual pizza because it'd be boring and add unnecessary length to this article, I will provide highlights. From the second round of ordering, we sampled pizzas from Cottage Inn, DaVinci's, Famous Famiglia and Hungry Howie's.
Out of this bunch, Cottage Inn reigned supreme, and the rest were average.
"Cottage Inn is way better than DaVinci's, and it's hotter," said LSA sophomore Aubrey Henretty, an associate editorial page editor.
"I think Cottage Inn is good Midwest pizza," said managing sports editor Jon Schwartz, an LSA junior from Randolph, N.J. who said he likes Cottage Inn's "tangy" sauce.
It's no wonder why Cottage Inn has been rated the best pizza in the Big Ten, according to the Sporting News. On a scale from one to 10, Schwartz rated it an 8 1/3. "It's always reliable pizza."
Moving on to Hungry Howie's, Smith complimented RC junior Andy Taylor-Fabe, the Daily's film editor, on his selection of garlic crust. "Nice call on the crust, it's a huge bonus," he said.
While the flavored crust may have given Hungry Howie's an unfair advantage over other places, other things set Hungry Howie's apart. Taylor-Fabe noted that they estimated the time of arrival exactly. "Punctuality is key," he said.
Taylor-Fabe said when he asked Hungry Howie's delivery guy his opinion on who had the best pizza in town, he said Cottage Inn comes in first, then Hungry Howie's second. The jury would later find part of this statement to be true.
ROUND THREE: Never get anchovies on pizza
Just as the third round of ordering concluded, Challenge participant Luke Smith decided leave to meet some friends at Ashley's Pub for a few pints. He decided to surprise us with his order from Mr. Pizza, half-cheese, half-anchovies.
In the midst of an excellent cheese pizza from New York Pizza Depot and average pizzas from Nikko's and Marco's, the smell of fish permeated the taste-testing area. "Luke should be euthanized," Woomer said.
Because of Smith's prank, the group wasn't able to fairly evaluate Mr. Pizza's quality. From the looks of things, it seemed like a decent pizza. Although I wasn't able to fully block the anchovy taste, the cheese seemed to be decent and the crust was crispy.
Like Bella Napoli, NYPD's pizza received high marks because of its high quality cheese. It was equally molten. The grease stains in my notebook are a testament to the eating experience; but it was quite good and most everyone agreed. The 20 minute turn-around time and courteousness of the delivery guy would garner extra points.
ROUND FOUR: The remainders
The last round was a challenge to get through. Not only were our stomachs telling us they couldn't accommodate much more cheese, two places on our list of 16 delivery places were giving us trouble. First off, we couldn't find a working telephone number for Tony Baloney's pizza inside the In and Out convenience store on East University Avenue; and when we called Backroom, (who at one time delivered pizza), all we got were rude clerks who hung up the phone. (On a side note, Jimmy John's is listed in the phone book as a place that delivers pizza.)
The final two places on our list, Pizza House and Pizza Bob's showed the extremes in Ann Arbor pizza. The delivery giant Pizza House is known for their pizza. Although I've never been a raving fan of Pizza House's pizza, other Challenge participants gave it good marks.
Then came Pizza Bob's.
As the delivery guy handed me the pizza, I opened it, started laughing and then closed it. Everyone wondered what was so funny.
I placed it on the table, opened it and at first glance, everyone found the comic humor in the pizza we were about to consume.
"This pizza is whiter than Michael Jackson," Cullen said.
While Pizza Bob's has the best shakes and subs in Ann Arbor, their pizza has major issues. Like cheap plastic surgery, the pasty-white pizza drooped to one side, showing its flaws.
"They forgot to include the pizza under the cheese," Taylor-Fabe said.
We walked the pizza down to State Street to see if any homeless people wanted it. They refused.
In a Challenge that saw a few excellent pizzas and the majority as average, Pizza Bob's pizza was hands down, by far the worst pizza creation in the city - even worse than dining hall pizza. It's no wonder on Pizza Bob's coupons, the word "more," in the phrase "more than just pizza" is underlined.
THE FINAL TALLY: Finding the best among the mediocre
After counting the votes, the following four establishments showed their superiority in both quality of pizza and delivery. Coming out on top, leading-favorite Cottage Inn, received a superior rating in the "Ann Arbor Pizza Challenge." Tying for excellent rating were New York Pizza Depot and Bella Napoli. Bell's received a very good rating.
Although there were a few abysmal pizzas, the pizzas in the middle were pretty much the same. For the price, going to average places will yield a good pizza experience. At places like NYPD and Bella Napoli, you'll pay more, but you'll get a superior pizza. During the Challenge, both Bella Napoli and NYPD had quick delivery, generous portions and the best quality mozzarella in town. Perhaps we were all just cheese-lovers, but both places get high marks for going the extra mile for quality ingredients. (Although it seems that Bella Napoli may be trying to mimic NYPD. Imitation in this case is the highest form of flattery.)
At Bell's, you'll get a great affordable pizza and as we found in a relatively short amount of time. They run a pretty efficient operation there. If it hadn't been for the half-Hawaiian screw-up, Bell's may have come in second. But to make the top three in a field of 14 is an accomplishment in itself.
Cottage Inn came out on top for a combination of quick delivery and quality of pizza. Plus Cottage Inn consistently delivers a great pizza all around. Like Bell's, their delivery operation is in tip-top shape and they deserve the highest praise.
In about three and a half hours, we had consumed 14 pizzas (well, 13 1/2, don't forget we threw out the rest of Pizza Bob's after homeless people didn't want it.) It was quite the feat. With vigilance, perseverance, teamwork and courage, we made it through the Challenge. Although all that cheese took the rest of the weekend to digest, it was worth it.