I Survived the Metro Pulse Pizza Fiasco of 2007

Too bad others canâ't say the same

Gamut

by Pete Sur Rhea

I work with morons. No, really. Morons. Putzes. Schmucks. You, the reader, you're probably thinking, â“Oh, Metro Pulse employees. They must be smart, creative types, the kind that like to sip Chardonnay and nibble brie whilst chatting about exit strategies and Taoist lit.â” You'd think that, and you'd be oh, so wrong. Because Metro Pulse employees really aren't like that at all. They're degenerates, boozers and dope fiends and sexual deviants who couldn't find work anywhere else, at least not any place where shoes are required and the bathrooms are clean and folks speak in complete sentences rather than shambling around the office communicating via desultory farts and belches and mono-syllabic gruntsâ.

Even so, it all seemed simple enough. Someone conceived that we stage an office-wide Pizza Tasting, a gathering together of the finest pizza pies our fair city has to offer, all in service to the Higher Causes of critical analysis and stuffing our faces silly. And perhaps drumming up an advertising dollar or three.

For your chewing, er, viewing pleasure, what follows is a sampling of staff commentary for each of the 18 pizzerias that participated in the 2007 Metro Pulse Pizza Tasting.

As food critic, I undertook the responsibility of formulating a scientific approach to the evaluation, of turning the aggregate of our widely divergent opinions into some kind of cohering analysis. Everyone who participated in our tasting received a handful of questionnaires, simple evaluation forms that required only four pieces of information, eachâ"the taster's name; the name of the pizza under consideration; some capsule observations on the pizza in question; and a rating of the pizza on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing â“pizza nirvanaâ” and 5 meaning â“poop on a crust.â” It seemed simple enough, and it would have been, I'm sure, had I been working at any place other than Metro Pulse , perhaps some place where drooling is less acceptable and everyone in the office is capable of tying his or her own shoes.

This was the scene: By the time the first round of pizzas arrived at roughly 12:30 on a Friday afternoon, the office was a shambles. Snooks, one of our ad reps, had insisted on bringing and promptly tearing open two huge packs of Oreo cookies in preparation for the feastâ"â“It's to clear the palate,â” he kept insisting. When the pies came, he had already been clearing his palate for more than 30 minutes, gobbling chocolate wafers like the Cookie Monster on an especially ravenous tear.

All the better for him, perhaps, because in the throes of a terminal sugar rush, he was too ripped to notice the abominable antics of his fellow staffers, most of whom, with the better part of the work day still in front of them, were already crazed on beer. If you can imagine a pack of wild chimps jabbering drunk and covered in marinara sauce, romping through a stack of torn pizza boxes as if performing some atavistic pagan Monkey Dance, then you have some idea what our office looked like around 1 p.m.

All of which is by way of explaining that none of these people were in any shape to perform a task so complex as filling out a written questionnaire, at least not with any discernible intelligence. (Sample comments: â“Yum!â”; â“Good!â”; â“Damn Good!â”; â“Taste's [sic] like BBQâ”, for a BBQ chicken pizza; and my favorite, â“Yeeack!â” which I'm going to assume means the respondent in that particular instance wasn't at all impressed.)

And the 1 to 5 ratings scheme? Pfffffft. Like asking for proofs of Relativity from a jar full of newts. Oblivious to (or perhaps unable to read) the carefully worded instructions, many respondents got the numbering reversed (giving â“5â” ratings to their favorites, and â“1â” ratings to the least). Still more gave ratings in fractions, or in negative numbers, or in imaginary numbers, or in held-up fingers. And some gave ratings that indicated they had not even the vaguest understanding of the Arabic numeral system, and couldn't count to five if you spotted them four plus a stick. In short, the questionnaires were useless, or nearly so at any rate.

So it falls to me to make sense of this rot, to sift through the rubbish of scrawled evaluation forms, crumpled and crusted with pizza goo, and instill some semblance of order on the terrible chaos that was the 2007 Metro Pulse Office Pizza Tasting.

Fortunately, I can say with a bare minimum of dissembling that all of the 18 pizzerias that were good enough to send pies to be tested by our cracked, er, crack team of tasters fared reasonably well in the scheme of things. There were no duds in the bunch, and every pizza could lay claim to at least a couple of champions somewhere on our staff.

My own favorites were, in no particular order, Tomato Head, Barley's, and Mellow Mushroom. That was the case coming into the tasting, and it remains so despite a respectable showing from 30-some-odd other pizzas from 17 other vendors. I favor both Barley's and the Double M for their rich, delectable crusts, and the Head for its choice ingredients and zingy sauce, which imparts to its pies a flavor quite unlike that of any other pizza in town. If you've yet to try any one of the three, know that they are indeed the Holy Trinity of pizza in Knoxville, at least as far as this taster is concerned.

Several staffers shared my feelings here: Editress Leslie, for instance, remarked that Tomato Head pizza is her â“rocket ship to planet bliss.â” Lovely girl, Leslie, but a bit of a loon. Said the damnedest things that day, until the mescaline wore off.

But there was also a surprising undercurrent of support for a number of other pies, some of which had never crossed my pizza radar prior to that fateful Friday afternoon. Lucia's, for instance, was a heretofore little-known entry that had risen to the level of darkhorse favorite by the time our tasting ended. Offering tangy, traditional pies, Lucia's won over several tasters with its hefty, cheesy Sicilian specialty pizza.

Another unexpected frontrunner was Firedog Pizza, which fared well in the tasting despite sending pies with, shall we say, some rather unusual topping selections. Who'da thunk fried chicken and ranch dressing on a pizza? â“I thought I would hate it,â” said adman Spike, expressing a notion shared by several other staffers as well. â“But, wow. It's surprisingly damn good.â”    

Other favorites were less surprising: community standard-bearers such as Pizza Palace, Metro Pizza, Harby's and Roman's held sway over the tastebuds of many staffers. Crocked on malt liquor, head assistant VP-in-chief Johnny Wrong seemed overcome with some malignant urge to defend the honor of Pizza Palace when, halfway through the tasting, he staggered into the center of the office and declared in an angry slur that â“Pizza Palash pepperoni ish the besht in show!â” For a few wiggy moments, I thought the issue might come to blows. Then Johnny fell over a chair and yakked, and cooler heads prevailed.

One of my own personal favorites was Savelli's; the Savelli's folks were good enough to send over one of their famously meat-laden specialty pizzas, a carnivore's delight that I have affectionately dubbed the Meatza. If the closest you come to ordering a vegetable topping on your pie is â“extra cheese,â” then the Meatza is the pizza for you.

And of course, there were plenty of huzzahs for Stefano's Chicago-style pizzas. The Stefano's pie usually splits a crowd right down the middle, for the simple reason that some pizza fans aren't enamored of its distinctive wheat crust. But for those who favor it, no other crust will do.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that several restaurants sent delectable extras along with their pizza selections. Davinci's in the Old Cityâ"whose pies ranked well into the upper tier of my personal faves, by the wayâ"sent a Buffalo chicken calzone, which proved to be a surprisingly tasty treat. Adagio Pizzeria, meanwhile, sent along some excellent breadsticks.

By the time we'd finished our chore, the Metro Pulse office was not a pretty place. They say that war is Hell; so is pizza tasting, it would seem, or least that's the case with our version of it. By 2 p.m. that Friday, I could barely walk across the floor to the water cooler without tripping over a piles of beer bottles and spent pizza crusts and drunken staffers curled into pathetic little fetal shapes, gibbering madly about Mother's apron and Kilroy and where they'd hidden the bodies. My curiosity piqued, I followed a trail of broken Oreos to a far corner of the office; there lay Snooks, sprawled out like a snow angel, cookies trailing up to a small half-eaten pile on top of his stomach, his face frozen into a ghastly chocolate grin.  

In disgust, I gathered up my pathetic little stack of wadded and half-literate pizza questionnaires and sequestered myself in the back room to work.

A day later, however, there came a timid knock on my office door. Then the door cracked open, and there stood staff writer Jacque, boozy and disoriented and looking for all the world like he had just crawled up off the floor. â“I-I thought I should tell you something,â” he stammered. â“I think I have diarrhea. I'm not sure how I got it, though, because I ate a lot of different pizzas. I can't really triangulate whose fault it was.â”

Irate, I slammed the door in his face and left Jacque to fester in his misery. But his complaint was worth taking note of, I suppose, if only because it serves as a cautionary tale. Enjoy the bounty of our city's many fine pizza-vending establishments. But partake responsibly, please, lest ye reap a bitter harvest of gastric distress.

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