With lots of families looking for inexpensive meals in a city of 121,000, you'd think Concord would have more pizza restaurants than the typical chains or independent spots that offer run-of-the-mill pizza.
Pizza is one of the rare meals that everyone likes and can agree on a few toppings -- or at least a cheese pizza — and is affordable enough to make it a weekly night out for a family. I've lived in Concord for more than a dozen years, and while I enjoy the Round Tables, Straw Hats, Mountain Mikes, Skipolini's and other good pizza restaurants around, I have yet to find one place that makes me want to go there again and again.
Everyone has their favorite pizza place, most likely in a college town. For me, although I didn't go to college there, it's in St. Paul, Minn. Pizza Luce has six locations in Minnesota, but I've only eaten at the one in St. Paul. I've eaten deep dish pizza in Chicago that still makes my mouth water, but for unique taste, Pizza Luce is it. The toppings are uncommon and yummy: shrimp al pesto, smoked gouda cheese, marinated chicken breast with red onions, banana peppers and smoked apple hickory bacon.
The prices are right, although most restaurants in Minnesota charge a fair price, I've found. The closest I've found in Contra Costa County to Pizza Luce is Pizza Antica in Lafayette — but it's an expensive pizza that I can only afford occasionally.
But why isn't there something in between Pizza Antica and a boring pizza place in Concord? It's probably because while pizza is a low-cost item to produce, using fresh and quality ingredients, along with specialty ingredients, it can add up. Labor costs are also a factor.
"It takes a lot more effort to train someone to make a specialty pizza than to just throw pepperoni on there," said Jonathan Fornaci, president of San Ramon-based Straw Hat Pizza, in a telephone interview.
"There's a lot of major franchise chains, that will go unnamed, where the quality of food is terrible because it's cheap," Fornaci said.
Straw Hat Pizza restaurants are all franchised, meaning that independent owners run them. The company is opening six in the Bay Area in the next few weeks. Fornaci told me that Straw Hat makes fresh dough every morning, and is using more unique offerings such as buffalo chicken pizza, and pizzas with grilled shrimp and carmelized onions.
But to make those specialized pizzas, a larger restaurant than the 2,200-square-foot Straw Hat at 1880 Monument Blvd. in Concord is needed, he said. Besides a pizza oven, a stovetop and grill are needed in the larger space, he said.
Straw Hat has one restaurant in Concord, but with all of the families and sports teams that the company caters to, Concord could support two more Straw Hats with grills, Fornaci said.
"Concord's got the perfect demographic," he said. "It's just finding the retail site."
The shopping center at Ygnacio Valley Road and Clayton Road is a perfect site, but high rental prices make it difficult.
"That's one of our problems in California," Fornaci said. "Real estate in California is so much more expensive. In Texas it's so much easier to do that."
I've had the Straw Hat pizza, and it's good, but for me it doesn't beat Pizza Luce. In Concord, the closest I've found to a unique pizza spot is Copper Top Ovens, which doesn't even have a restaurant. It serves up great pizzas from a wood-fired oven every Tuesday at the farmer's market in Todos Santos Plaza downtown. Its toppings include prosciutto, pine nuts and dates.
While Copper Top Ovens is only in Concord one day a week, the good news is that it will expand to two days when the farmer's market increases its seasonal hours to Thursdays starting in May. I'm marking my calendar.