There were some simple truths that were working in Alto Grado Pizzeria's favor before I even had my first taste from there.
For starters, even the most basic wood-fired pizza is not going to disappoint if it is made with fresh, interesting ingredients. And when you get to sit outside on a cool autumn evening along the bustling Landing where everyone strolling around the impressive downtown city center is smiling and having a good time, it is hard to not enjoy what you are doing.
Everything about Alto Grado fit its milieu perfectly. It has a clean, modern look that is inviting and attractive without be distracting, the menu is clever with fun names like the “Fun Guy” for the pizza with mushrooms – i.e. fungus – and explanations for some like the Chicken Bacon Ranch that simply describes it as “OMG, this pizza!!” There was a nice variety of beers as well as wine slushes – even non-alcoholic slushes for the kids or those who abstain – to keep you from sneaking to one of the nearby breweries.
And, yes, I had a couple of items there that are must-haves that I must go back for. But, in an odd twist, neither was what one might expect to have at a wood-fired pizza place.
The Detroiter was one of the best Motor City-inspired pies I have had in Fort Wayne, and the wood oven had little to do with it. This Detroit-style pizza's thick crust was almost blackened around the edges thanks to the square pan that is a signature part of this kind of pie. That crust was super flavorful with burnt cheese and a shiny film of buttery, oily scrumptiousness all over it.
The toppings – pepperoni, Italian sausage and peppadew peppers – were in chorus with each other so you got a little heat when the pepperoni and peppers dominated a bite, but not so much that I would call it a fiery pizza by any means. The sausage added another level of zesty goodness. All of it played well with the slightly sweet crushed tomato sauce and the artfully piped dollops of ricotta cheese sitting on top.
I also will be going back to try more grinders because my Buffalo chicken was amazing. It was the bread that made it that way, of course. The rather flat, house-made mini loaf resembled a pita or naan, and it was perfectly baked with little bubbles creating air pockets throughout the tender, chewy inner part of the split loaf and blackened char marks here and there. Incidentally, it was that dough that also made the simple breadsticks appetizer a winner.
The sauce-soaked chicken on my grinder was super-tender and surprisingly juicy with a stringy consistency as if it had been slow-cooked and pulled. This grinder was also served open faced which I thought was very thoughtful and had me harkening back to the old McDonald's McDLT – the hot side (chicken and cheese) stayed hot and the cool (lettuce, peppers and ranch) stayed cool. I was intimidated a bit when I saw all of the chopped jalapeños and banana peppers, thinking it would be a spicy affair, but the Buffalo sauce was on the mild side and the mix of peppers was just right to give me heat here and there without destroying my palate.
That chicken was just as tasty on the Chicken Bacon Ranch pizza, which, like all of the regular pizzas I tried, were good, but left me wanting more – as in more toppings. They were all there and they were evenly distributed, but I felt like it and the others needed more. The CBR and the standard Margherita, dubbed the “Plain Pie” were even falling short of my expectation for cheese, and the Fun Guy needed more fungi to fulfill the promise of its name.
The best of the regular pies was the Bianca. This white pizza had goat cheese along with mozzarella and grated Pecorino Romano, arugula and prosciutto. There was a generous amount of prosciutto, too, which broke the norm, but I struggled to differentiate the scant amount of goat cheese, which is what excited me most.
There was even more prosciutto on my half Roman salad, which was pretty large for being half-sized as it covered a standard paper plate. It was also pretty pricey at $6.99. If I was able to get half of that half at half the price, I would get one every visit, but not at this price. And I didn't even get everything I paid for because it was missing the promised red peppers, along with the prosciutto, croutons, cheese and Kalamata olives.
The best crust I had during my visits came on my wonderful fruit du jour dessert pizza. It, and the Bianca, were the only standard pizzas with crusts crisp enough to hold the weight of their toppings. The slices of the other pies sagged which made them clumsy to handle and seemed to need a few more minutes in the oven.
My fruit pizza was topped with thinly sliced, skin-on peaches, strawberries and a sweet creamy sauce. Given all of the juices coming from the fruit, I was impressed how well the crust stood up and my group gladly devoured the entire pie before leaving the Landing.
Not that we wanted to leave the Landing or the restaurant. I could hang out on the patio all night sipping drinks and snacking away. Even though Alto Grado is an order-at-the-counter-first place with plenty of take-out orders awaiting customers, the food is brought to your table and the staff checked on my party regularly to clear plates and just make sure everything was OK.
Restaurant: Alto Grado
Address: 111 W. Columbia St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Parmesan breadsticks ($6.12), grinder ($10.84), Detroiter ($16.50), Chicken Bacon Ranch ($12.62), Bianca ($13.55), Fruit du Jour ($9.98)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★ 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @DiningOutDuVall.
Out of a possible five