I recently went on record saying that I thought Anchorage had reached critical pizza mass. Every time a new pizza joint opens, it seems like a missed opportunity for... well, something else. Something new. Don't get me wrong -- I love pizza. It's just that we have it already: gourmet pizza, thick-crusted East-Coast-style delivery pizza, chain pizza, take-and-bake joints and everything in between.
So when I went to try downtown's latest pizza venture, Fat Ptarmigan, I brought an appetite and also a bit of skepticism.
My daughters and I arrived early for a group dinner and ordered mozzarella knots ($7) and meatballs ($8) to tide us over while we waited. The knots were a savory, creamy indulgence, though they were slightly overdressed for my taste. The strong presence of the balsamic vinegar overpowered the delicacy of the fresh cheese. Also, and this is a small point, the cheese knots seemed slightly over-chilled. At least, they were firmer and less silky than I would have liked. Still, I managed, with little help, to dispatch them rather quickly. The meatballs, traditionally prepared, were flavorful and hearty in a bright, pleasantly acidic sauce. The kids were instantly clamoring for another order.
After our party arrived, we ordered a selection of pizzas for sharing: a traditional cheese to which we added the chef's popular meatballs ($12.50), the BTA with apple-smoked bacon, beefsteak tomatoes and arugula ($14.50), and the duck with leeks and arugula, topped with a soft-cooked egg ($16). The pies were nice and light, with a thin, flavorful, crispy crust and a pleasant hint of smoky char from the wood-fueled ovens. The toppings were creative and assertive -- the heap of arugula on the BTA pizza added fresh peppery notes and cut through the richness of the bacon. The earthy flavor of slow-cooked duck was balanced beautifully by the soft, buttery yolk of the egg. A round of cannoli ($7) later and our crowd left well-fed and happy.
A word about the service. Our group dinner had the potential to be a server's worst nightmare: a table for eight with no reservations and a party that arrived in fits and starts -- one or two at a time -- parched and requiring immediate beverages. Our group included a picky 8-year-old, a gluten-free diner and friends with complicated plans to share. But we didn't want to share the bill -- separate checks, please. Oh, and did we mention we have theater tickets? So we need to be done by 7 p.m. Oh, and look! Another friend has arrived! Can you turn our table of eight into a table for nine?
Our welcoming, unfazed hostess pushed tables together and had us seated quickly. Our pleasant and extremely competent server had drinks, appetizers and pizzas arriving at a steady clip with each new wave of arrivals. Complicated orders reached our table in good order and our separate, accurate checks were on the table in time for us to enjoy a leisurely stroll to the Performing Arts Center for our show. So cheers to that.
I revisited Fat Ptarmigan for an early-week lunch and splurged on the steak and Stilton pizza ($23) while my companion opted for the hot coppa pizza ($16). I loved the flavor combination of the Stilton and the sweet caramelized onions. I would have appreciated a more liberal hand with the Stilton (though I'm a well-known sucker for the stronger -- some might say stinkier -- cheeses). Also, the steak, while tender and well-seasoned, was too well-cooked for me -- unavoidable, I guess, after it had done some time in a wood-fired oven. I might have preferred it if rare steak slices were added to the pizza after the baking process in order to preserve the flavor and texture.
The hot coppa pizza ($16) arrived laden with coppa, sausage, pepperoni and red peppers -- all over a blanket of cheese and spicy red sauce. The spice on this pie really delivered. The heat wasn't eye-watering, but just powerful enough to make a cold beer taste even more delicious (and the restaurant offers a wide variety of local craft beers).
Fat Ptarmigan offers well-crafted, sophisticated and creative food and has created a unique niche for itself in the city's crowded pizza scene. I didn't think Anchorage needed Fat Ptarmigan. Happily, along with some really delicious pizza, they made me eat my words.
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent