Howie’s Artisan Pizza Delivers on the Crust

Wild mushroom pizza at Howie's Artisan Pizzeria.

It’s high and puffy on the edges, with airy, rolling caverns that provide great chew and crunch.

It’s thinner, yet still crisp, in the center. And when the wheel of a pizza cutter slices through it, there’s a distinctive “crack, crack, crackle” sound.

“The pizza talks to me now,” says Chef Howard Bulka of the just-opened Howie’s Artisan Pizza in Palo Alto’s Town & Country Village.

Indeed, it does.

After decades of running fine-dining restaurants in the Bay Area, Bulka has what he has always dreamed of — a top-notch pizzeria he can proudly call his own.

It may have opened less than two weeks ago, but Howie’s is already selling up to 250 pies a day now and packing in the crowds for his version of East Coast pizza modeled after Frank Pepe’s of New Haven, Conn., which Bulka worships.

Chef Howard Bulka talks pizza.

The Rolls Royce of New York pizza ovens.

Cheese pizza made with Grande mozzarella of Wisconsin, the cheese of choice of East Coast pies.

But dough is a funny thing. It’s a living, breathing, finicky mass that can be as unpredictable as Kanye West.

“I’ve been cooking 30 years, and I’ve never been perplexed as I have been by pizza dough,” says Bulka, who invited me in for a taste last week.

He’s still making subtle tweaks to the bread flour-dough, which takes two days to mix and proof before being turned into pies that are baked in a gas-fired brick oven at 600 degrees for 5-6 minutes.

The crust is already a winner in my book. This is a pizza crust with real character. It has that nice fermented flavor of artisan bread, and there is a variance of textures that holds your interest bite after bite.

The regular pies are 14 inches — large enough for two people to share. During the day, for the kids and teens in need of some sustenance, Howie’s offers a deal: $5 for a slice of cheese pizza and a Coke. Those huge slices come from a 22-inch pie with a more substantial crust, so youngsters can more easily hold them in their hands.

The wild mushroom pizza ($19) has the added complexity of sage, Pecorino and mozzarella. It’s earthy and satisfying with a crust that’s crisp though and through.

House-made fennel sausage pizza.

The house-made fennel-sausage pizza, which features thin coins of sausage, gooey mozzarella, tomato and broccoli raab had a pleasing bitterness from the greens. The pie arrived piping hot and crisp, but as it sat for even a minute, a curious thing happened. The very center of the crust grew a little soft, perhaps because of the higher moisture content from the toppings. No matter, the flavors were still spot-on satiating.

Bulka says he’ll continue to fine-tune that pie to ensure it stays crisper longer.

A tasting of olive oils.

Although the pies are the main attraction, the hubby and I did try a few of the other items on the menu, too, including a tasting of olive oils (California style and Greek style) along with bowls of Parmesan and ducca (a Middle Eastern blend of spices, nuts and seeds) to dip crostini into for a party of textures in your mouth.

Caesar salad

A fresh Caesar salad ($8) was tossed with a flurry of grated Parmesan and just the right amount of dressing. There were tiny bits of anchovies mixed in. I would have liked more anchovies, but then, I’m a fan of those fishy fish.

Eggplant stuffed with housemade ricotta.

“Eggplant pillows”  ($9) is a great opener. Three tender, melting slices of eggplant are rolled around creamy, house-made ricotta and dressed with pesto, basil oil and chopped green olives.

Thick, creamy soft serve with olive oil and sea salt. Divine!

Straus soft serve ice cream is a fitting finale. Howie’s offers it multiple ways: in a butterscotch praline sundae, a peppermint brownie sundae, au naturele, and my favorite — drizzled with olive oil and sea salt.

Howie’s may have opened a few months later than expected. But it was worth the wait for crust to crow about.

Pizza box with "tomato sauce splat'' logo.

More: Q&A with Chef Howard Bulka earlier this year

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