5445 Transit Road, Clarence NY 14032
Web: Just Pizza
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California Chains Italian Pizza
"The one we'd stack up against any competitor in the country is the Fra Diavolo Pizza, based loosely on the classically spicy Italian pasta and seafood dish."
We do not, as a rule, lightly add new pizza parlors to our list of "favorites." To go further, perhaps 15 years have passed since we've had such a great pizza in Western New York that we'd consider it as an alternative to our local favorite, Bocce's. And on our first visit to a Just Pizza location - specifically the one on Harlem Road in Cheektowaga - we weren't really impressed. In a rush, and despite the restaurant's name, we hadn't ordered the pizza. Then we visited the location on Transit Road in Clarence, ordered a couple of different pizzas, and everything changed: we understood, finally, why there are already 14 of these places, and why some people might reasonably prefer them to even the best of the traditional Buffalo pizzerias. Just Pizza is, essentially, a Buffalonian take on California Pizza Kitchen, redefining the concept of what a pizza can be by preserving the local version's basics - crust type, thickness, and sauce - then replacing most of the other ingredients. Even with Bocce's locations nearby, we now find ourselves splitting our pizza dollars between these shops; no place else, in our view, compares to them.
The Story: In 1992, seven years after two attorneys opened the first California Pizza Kitchen in Beverly Hills, a Buffalo-area entrepreneur created Just Pizza - a pizzeria that similarly used novel ingredients to transform a familiar single item into the basis for an entire menu. California Pizza Kitchen had its famous Thai Chicken, Peking Duck, and Tandoori Chicken versions; Just Pizza developed Jamaican Jerk, Lasagna, Eggplant, and Filet Mignon and Lobster pizzas, all but the last with prices and quantities that put CPK's thin micro pizzas to shame. While not every one of the Just Pizzas will be a hit with all audiences, the sheer number of options - over 75, each baked fresh rather than just reheated to order - means that the average person will be able to find 10 or 20 to choose from. Add 15 different crust doughs to the mix, ranging from plain to onion, honey barbecue to lemon pepper, and you're in for an experience that's far more customizable than any other pizza shop in town. There are other menu options, including good wings, fine salads and subs, and even tacos and ribs, but when we visit, we go for the pizzas first and foremost. Notably, like Bocce's, Just Pizza has offered to deliver pizzas anywhere in the USA overnight, though unlike Bocce's, we haven't tried this service yet for ourselves.
Highs: Though we've had a number of very good to great pizzas at Just Pizza, the one we'd stack up against any competitor in the country is the Fra Diavolo Pizza ($14.35 medium, $17.20 large), based loosely on the classically spicy Italian pasta and seafood dish. Unlike most pizzas, which use sweet tomatoes in their red sauce, the Fra Diavolo uses spicy tomatoes, onion, garlic and olive oil for its main flavors, which combine together to deliver a rich, hot underpinning for the cheese, hot or sweet peppers, and your choice of either sirloin steak, chicken, Italian sausage, or shrimp. We're partial to the hot peppers and either the sausage or shrimp, which fit neatly with the spice and soft texture of the rest of this pizza; so accompanied, it is in our view equal to or better than the pasta original. If you want to neuter the spice and change the texture, opt for the sweet peppers and the chicken or steak.
Other very good pizzas include the Sicilian White ($12 medium, $15 large), which replaces the tomato sauce with sliced tomatoes that rest above the romano cheese, adding olive oil, garlic, onions, and hot/sweet peppers as a base, with your choice of pepperoni, sausage, anchovies or hamburger as a meat accent; this style, like many of the California Pizza Kitchen versions, dispenses with the idea that a pizza's three necessary ingredients are crust, cheese, and sauce, delivering a taste experience that is halfway between loaded garlic bread and a thin crust wood-fired pizza. A similar pizza, the classic vegetarian-friendly Margherita ($13.05 medium, $15.20 large), uses a bed of basil-flecked mozzarella as a bed for tomatoes and romano cheese. You can easily add other toppings to any of the pizzas for $1.30-$3.00, depending on whether you're looking for something as simple as eggplant or as pricey as steak or jumbo shrimp.
Lows: Not all of Just Pizza's menu items are as delicious as they sound. The Basilico Red Pizza ($12.40 medium, $14.75 large), described as offering sweet basil, mozzarella and tomato sauce with pecorino cheese, was one of several pizzas we've tested in an effort to find something comparable to the Great Northern Pizza Company's delicious fresh mozzarella and basil pizza; unfortunately, as the picture here shows, the basil was spice rack-quality rather than fresh, and unspectacular.
Similarly, though there are at least 75 pizzas to choose from, some are just variants on the same theme; most egregious are the 13 versions of the "3 Cheese White" pizza, which all are topped with mozzarella, Swiss & American cheeses, mushrooms, onions, and either hot or sweet Peppers - no sauce - then given one or two meat, seafood, or vegetable toppings. Similar sleight of hand works to transform the Parmigiana pizza into 10 different types of Parmigianas, and so on.
Our biggest gripe with Just Pizza is the quality of the dine-in experience. One of the two locations we've visited is uncomfortably hot, humid, and slow, while the other has a rough-looking dining area with an occasionally rough-looking crowd. Despite the fact that you can dine in, one gets the sense that these restaurants are either neglected or designed enough to make you want to carry food out; we've taken to doing this and haven't seen any difference in food quality as a result.
The Verdict: If you're looking for a non-traditional pizza in Western New York, Just Pizza is currently our top pick - widely available due to numerous locations, and equipped with a variety of pre-selected and customizable choices that will knock your socks off. While we have other local favorites for Buffalo- and New York-style pizzas, and would recommend take-out over dine-in, Just Pizza offers so much delicious flavor, crust, and value for the dollar that it's hard to see small, flat wood-fired and California-style competitors as comparatively overpriced. The spicy, mind-alteringly great Fra Diavolo in particular makes Just Pizza a must-try, and worthy of our high recommendation.