For a state with the lowest population density in the nation, Alaska sure has a lot of pizza. (Not a complaint.)
We have chain-pizza restaurants, with their stuffed crusts and two-fer deals. We have Italian-American pizzerias that boast fat, chewy crusts and thick layers of shredded cheese and cured meats. And we have more than our share of purveyors of nontraditional "gourmet" pies with — you name it — beets and kale? Spiced lamb and tzatziki? Bean sprouts and peanut sauce? And if I'm being honest, I like them all. (Except you, Pizza Hut. Quit stuffing your crusts with bacon and whatnot. It's just gross.)
Which is why I consider it an act of bravery to open a new pizzeria in Anchorage. In a town of near-pizza-saturation, you have to bring something new to the red-checkered-cloth-covered table. Happily, Marco T's Pizzeria has managed to do just that.
Recently, my daughter and I stopped in for a restorative post-Christmas-shopping dinner. The dining room is casual but well-appointed. We seated ourselves at a cozy booth by the window and were greeted quickly by our server with menus and an offer of a drink from the impressive list of draft beers or the well-curated wine list.
The menu is focused and simple. There are a few appetizers, a short list of sandwiches and salads, but it's mostly pizzas. Italian pizzas. No pies with Russian dressing, or Buffalo chicken or taco seasoning. And no pies that take several paragraphs to describe. These are straightforward, authentic pies with thoughtful and limited toppings.
We began with the cecina ($5), a flat Tuscan pancake made from chickpea flour, a dish that was new to us. Legend has it that a bag of chickpea flour got soaked in a storm on a ship and, in order to salvage it, they added oil and baked it as a bread. The cecina — three slim squares of it — has a moist, polenta-like texture and a mild but slightly nutty flavor. It was the perfect vehicle for the bright and grassy pesto that was served on the side.
But it was the authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza that transformed us from curious diners into loyal customers. It's in a class by itself. The crust is thin, with lots of smoky char and an airy, bubbly texture that is light yet substantive. The restaurant's signature pie — the Marco T pizza ($11) is topped with a light, bright, fresh-tasting tomato sauce (very unlike the dark red, highly reduced sauces that are the basis for most Italian-American pies). It was a cold day in December and this sauce tasted of sunshine. The pie is dotted with slices of fresh mozzarella, like creamy, buttery little islands on a sea of tomato. A few fresh leaves of basil studded the pie and lent it a bit of piney freshness. This pie was an immediate favorite with us both. In fact, Charlotte got a little stingy with it once we made it past the halfway mark.
We also enjoyed the Alaska pizza ($14) with olive oil, reindeer sausage, red onion and sweet peppers. The sausage was thinly sliced, so that it curled and crisped around the edges, lending a salty crunch to each bite. And because these thinner pies spent less time in the pizza oven, the vegetables still had their freshness and flavor. I particularly appreciated the deft handling of the red onions — they were painstakingly sliced into rosy, delicate threads — a treatment that nicely tamed their pungent flavor.
We returned a few days later (it was not difficult to persuade my daughter to join me) and this time we started with a plate of herbed, buttered strisce (breadsticks, $6) and a fagioli e rucola (white beans and arugula) salad with prosciutto ($5 for a small, $9 for a large). The salad was fine but not memorable — it seemed overly chilled, as if it had been assembled long in advance. I liked the tender beans and the abundant prosciutto, but the dressing was a bit muted for my taste and I would have liked a bit more acid.
But the breadsticks were winning. "These are too good to stuff in your purse," said my daughter (who then had to laboriously and patiently explain memes to me because apparently I am 100 years old). These golden, buttery bites of warm dough were served with a light salad and made for a satisfying (if filling) bread basket.
My daughter overruled my usual policy of ordering new dishes with each restaurant visit and ordered the Marco T pizza again. I feigned disappointment but was secretly congratulating her on her taste. I opted for a prosciutto e rucola pie ($13) for variety but had nefarious plans to steal some of the Marco T under the guise of "sharing." Happily, the ample blanket of prosciutto on my pie was appetizing enough to make for easy negotiations. The assertive saltiness of the prosciutto was beautifully balanced by the peppery bite of the arugula.
I rarely order dessert but the gelato ($4) at Marco T's deserves more than a mention. The espresso flavor was rich and subtly smoky, with strong coffee flavor. But it was the fruit-flavored gelato that blew us away. A dish of half lemon and half raspberry was sweet, tart and intensely fruity, with a luscious, creamy finish. We silently sparred with our spoons over the last few bites. The restaurant's owner dropped by as we were eating. "They're all made in-house," he said, with obvious pride. "Just cream, milk, sugar and raspberries." Every flavor is made by the same formula, he explained (including the coco-puff gelato, which will have to wait for another shopping day).
A simple menu, quality ingredients and authentic technique are why Marco T's Pizzeria stands out in the competitive crowd of Anchorage pizzerias. The food tastes special, but it also tastes wholesome. I overheard the owner sum it up nicely while chatting with another diner. "It's about returning to real food," he said, assertively. "It's all about real food."
Marco T's Pizzeria
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Location: 302 W. Fireweed Lane
Contact: marcotspizzeria.com and 907-929-3663