A Slice & a Spectacle

Wurlitzers, banjo assaults, and other pleasant distractions for East Bay pizza enthusiasts.

Pizza tastes better in the presence of banjos. It is our oldest, most accurate culinary truth. To see the theory work in surreal practice, kindly patronize Porky’s Pizza Palace in San Leandro, where every Thursday night, you can watch fifteen or so banjo-brandishing citizens plow through, say, “Elvira” in ramshackle unison as you scarf down prodigious pies, majestic fried zucchini, and soothing ravioli whilst trying to convince yourself you’re still in California.

The chicken wings here are small and frail-looking, but pack a surprising punch. Much like your grandma, who, if you’ve recently misplaced her, is probably hanging out here. Robust senior citizens make up a healthy portion of the Thursday Porky’s crowd — many enjoy line dancing in the narrow space between the banjo orchestra and the video games, and the gents will not hesitate to ask for a twirl should an attractive lass wander by. My friend Flo is propositioned thus within thirty seconds of our arrival, but declines, as she is completely mesmerized by a giant plate of fried chicken.

A half-hour later, her boyfriend Nate makes two observations:

1) “Everything served here could conceivably be dipped in ranch dressing.”

2) “This is maybe my favorite restaurant I’ve been to in three years.”

In the interim, we feast as the banjo orchestra plucks. A giggly “Pennies from Heaven” as we wolf down the Porky’s Combo pizza: salami, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, extra cheese, and a whole lotta olives. (Chicken-themed pizzas are a big whoop here as well, from grilled to BBQ to teriyaki to, most appealingly, buffalo.) “You Are My Sunshine” blares as we tear into a chicken dinner, greasy enough to be pleasurable, but not overzealously, stomach-ache-inducingly so. Flo raves about the accompanying coleslaw. The fried zucchini, meanwhile, tastes more of “fried” than “zucchini,” which suits my needs perfectly. To create the illusion of healthiness, consider a pasta option: The half-ravioli/half-spaghetti is pretty basic (though the beets on a side salad are a nice touch). But fancy, showoffy grub wouldn’t exactly fit the vibe here — this is the ultimate post-softball victory joint. If you’re weirded out, just hit the bar. Turns out there’s actually a beer called “Rejection.”

For the banjo-averse, the East Bay offers other pizza/live music options. For example, those seeking something a bit higher in concept might trek out to Bella Roma in Martinez and bow down before the Mighty Wurlitzer, a monstrous and hilariously elaborate beast straight out of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse or The Addams Family. Every square inch of this Ô70s-suburban-den-lookin’ joint seems to connect to the immense organ in one corner — the accordion, the gong, the disco ball. “I kind of feel like I’m caught in a crazy guy’s basement,” my girlfriend murmurs, “but I like it.” We also greatly enjoy the garlic bread, little nuggets of sin, burned onto a sheet of tin foil.

Foil figures heavily into food presentation here (threatening to snare the succulent skins of the chicken wings); the grub itself is generally a bit, ah, lo-fi. A few sandwiches are on the menu, but alas, this evening, they’re out of bread! The salad bar is a bit disquieting (the broccoli looks especially wizened), but such things are largely a matter of lighting. We also order a couple of pizzas. A formidable five-meat/multi-vegetable concoction is again somehow dominated by olives, which also figure heavily on the Ranch Pizza, featuring garlic and chicken coasting on a substantial ranch sauce. Not exactly South Beach Diet fare. North Beach, maybe. But the Wurlitzer itself is profoundly healthy food for the soul. Three different guys have mastered it — tonight we get Dave Moreno, who merrily buzzes through a little bossa nova number he calls “Girl from Emphysema” and seems to have thousands of corny jokes of that caliber. Dave’s a good guy. He spurns my request for “Let It Be” but offers “Norwegian Wood” as a consolation, while wielding a startling array of Looney Tunes sound effects, nightclub-worthy lighting schemes, and carnivalesque bells and whistles at his immediate disposal, as if a jaunty version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” isn’t stimulating enough.

This place has got to be absolute heaven to a five-year-old, right down to the model train setup. Maybe bring your own bread, though.

If you’d like a little atmosphere but a significant jump in food quality, Mission Pizza & Pub in Fremont will inundate you with splendidness while bluegrass or country or Americana bands serenade you politely, always on weekends, often on weekdays. Briarwood has the gig on this particular Friday night, a coed quintet lamenting I’m too far away from my beer/It’s way over there and I’m way over here as you weigh your pizza options. The shrimp and linguica powering the Portagee Surf Ôn’ Turf? The self-explanatorily titled ’55 Bacon Cheeseburger and its headstrong but not overpowering mustard sauce? Corned beef and cabbage? Artichoke hearts and pesto? It’s tough to go wrong, but save some love particularly for Gabriel’s Fire; its peanut sauce, shrimp, and sun-dried tomatoes get as close to gourmet as pizza joints of this type tend to get. The double-chili pepper icon on the menu suggests a scorching hotness that doesn’t quite materialize, but it’s still the best thing we’ve eaten on the pizza joint-music circuit.

The supporting cast is considerably better, too. A much better-lit salad bar offers convincing shades of green. The garlic bread, though not packed into foil-addled little nuggets, comes armed with an enormous side of marinara sauce for manual dipping adventures. The Italian breaded chicken wings induce much involuntary salivating, and rib tips (drowning peacefully in BBQ sauce) break up the appetizer monotony. Toss it all down with a readily accessible beer (or some RC Cola, always a nice arcane touch for the teetotaling members of your party) and Briarwood can sound like the Rolling Stones for an hour or so. They even pull out a banjo on occasion.

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