Writing about food isn't usually controversial. Eggs Benedict, Buffalo wings and pot-stickers are not hot-button topics. It's not politics after all. That said, I'm still a bit nervous to write about pizza.
People have opinions about pizza. Passionate ones. Crusts, sauces, toppings and the correct way to eat a pie can all turn into fodder for heated debate. So before I begin my review of Hearth, the new artisan pizzeria in the Northern Lights Center mall in Spenard, I'd like to make a statement: When it comes to pizza, I'm strictly nonpartisan. I like an old-school, thick-crusted, pepperoni-blanketed, New York-style pie. And I like thin-crusted pies with new-wave toppings. I don't think one is pedestrian or the other is pretentious. I like it all. (But please don't get me started on the knife-and-fork issue. Can there really be two opinions on this?)
My husband and I met at Hearth for a weekend date night. The restaurant is connected to Middle Way Cafe in both location and spirit. The new space is less bohemian than the coffeehouse, with modern fixtures and fashionably spare decor, but is similarly bright and airy. The tables in close quarters create a sense of a family-style seating. It's festive and a bit noisy. Not an ideal spot for personal revelations, confessions or whispered sweet-nothings, but a great place for a celebration.
We began our meal with lamb kebab lettuce wraps ($11) and the house chop salad ($8). The lamb is kefta-style — ground lamb meatballs, not chunks of whole lamb. This is a tremendously flavorful dish, the meat is highly seasoned, with a savory and assertive undertone of cumin. My only (very minor) complaint was with the tzatziki, which was too thick to drizzle across the wrap and lacked the garlicky pop that I look for in this tangy condiment. I only noticed later that it's described on the menu as "coconut tzatziki," so perhaps I was looking for something that isn't supposed to be there. That said, there was plenty of flavor on the rest of the plate and I would order these again in a heartbeat.
The chopped salad was another winner. Soft, sweet butter lettuce, a slice or two of silky, buttery, sopressata (a variety of dry salami) and mouth-puckering-tart pickled grapes make for a fresh and interesting combination. But the real standout was the lemon-oregano dressing; citrusy and acidic with the earthy aroma of fresh oregano, this is an assertive dressing with real presence.
We decided on two pizzas — the Carmela ($17), with organic tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, caramelized onions, basil and house-made fennel sausage. We both loved this pie, which managed to be both sweet and savory. The sauce is light and fresh tasting, and the house-made sausage was fragrant with fennel. The chefs at Hearth are masterful at teasing out the full potential of distinctive herbs.
But what really won me over was the beet pizza ($16). I ordered this with some trepidation. I like beets, but find that a little of their sweetness can go a long way. But I wanted to order one of the more unique pies on the menu — one that is off the beet-en path (sorry, not sorry).
I was worried that the beets would overwhelm the dish and my palate. I shouldn't have. The beets are used in a pesto-like sauce, and the sweetness is earthy, subdued and not a bit cloying. Perfectly balancing this flavor is the pleasantly bitter kale. Whole cloves of roasted garlic rounded the pie out beautifully.
I returned with my daughters for an early dinner and was pleased when members of the staff remembered me from my first visit. This time, we started our meal with an order of mussels ($13) and pork meatballs ($10). The steamed mussels were a bit of a mixed bag. The mussels themselves were good — sweet, plump and perfectly cooked. However, roasting them (in the pizza oven, I assume) made their shells so brittle that they crumbled into the dish and onto our plates. In other words, we ate a fair amount of shell. Also, the serving bowl was deep and narrow, so it was difficult to get to the broth at the bottom. The fingerling potatoes, which should have been soaking the broth up, were perched on top and sadly dry. A shallower bowl would have made this dish tastier and easier to eat.
The meatballs were flavorful but very similar to sausage, so I wouldn't opt for them if a sausage pizza was on my agenda. These rested on a bed of spaghetti squash, which kept the rich, meaty dish light. Like a good appetizer should, this dish piques your appetite instead of satiating it.
We decided to share the Holy Cow pizza ($15) with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, provolone, Romano and house-made ricotta cheeses. This is a straightforward pie, but if I'm honest, I'm not sure it lived up to its cheesy potential. The brightness of the tomato sauce overwhelms these mild, creamy cheeses and I found myself wishing that I had ordered it with just a light brush of olive oil instead.
I was having trouble deciding on our second pie so our waiter suggested a half and half. I opted for the "Mushroom Tom" and "This Little Piggy" pies ($17). I often find that mushrooms are lost on a pizza — too delicate or overcooked so that they become more of a texture than a flavor. This is not the case here. This creamy pizza is a musty, earthy, celebration of mushroomy flavor.
The piggy portion of the pie looked like a basic cheese pie but had the pleasing and subtle piney presence of rosemary. And the Alaska-cured bacon was so thinly sliced that it almost melted into the pie, lending a salty, porky savoriness to each bite.
Service was cheerful and speedy, with plentiful refills on water and soft drinks. My only complaint was that appetizer plates didn't get cleared before the arrival of the pizzas. Each time a pie arrived we had to juggle plates, glasses and flatware. At one point, one of our pizzas was precariously balanced halfway on the table and halfway over my lap (an alarming predicament after hearing the server say "hot plate!")
I keep being tempted to describe the food at Hearth with redundancies: The mushrooms are so mushroomy! The fennel sausage is so fennely! The lemon dressing is so lemony! But that does seem to be what makes Hearth special. The ingredients are fresh, thoughtfully sourced, and married to each other with respect and creativity. In other words, the ingredients are allowed to be their best selves. And there's nothing controversial about that.
Hearth Artisan Pizza
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Location: 1200 W. Northern Lights Blvd., Suite F