LITTLE ROCK Pizza by the slice is the perfect fast food. Order slice, accept slice, fold it, walk away nom nom stuffing it into your face. Repeat.
This is not the way to eat a “fast slice” from Jay’s Pizza. Folding would wreck it.
Jay’s crust is as crackery as crackers, a super-thin, air-bubble-pumped tectonic plate that fractures under pressure at the rim.
The noises made by its destruction are part of the satisfaction of Jay’s fast slices, and when you stand at his counter in the Little Rock River Market, bantering about calories with a guy who used to feed Arkansas governors, soon enough James “Jay” Baxter will lay into one of his crusty pies with a rocking mezzaluna slicer, and crusty crunching will tickle your ears.
But pizza does not please by crust alone. How does Jay’s distinguish itself in the other crucial components: sauce, toppings, cheese?
The cheese is Midwestern, the taste familiar. It comes from Wisconsin, which I know from standing beside a Grande Cheese Co. distributor who was waiting to talk to Baxter.
Topping options are typical, pretty much anything anybody anywhere wants to put on a pizza, including artichokes. The tomato sauce (made in house) is not sweet, not bold, not salty but it is tasty.
Every day, Jay’s stands ready to make 12 named pies, available as 8- or 13-inchers. These can be baked while you wait (or call ahead), with prices ranging from $6 to $8.50 for the smaller size and $13.50 to $18 for the larger. The menu says baking takes 20 minutes, but I’ve seen it happen faster.
For custom pies, the basic four-cheese blend (provolone, mozzarella, parmesan and romano) costs $6 at 8 inches or $13.50 at 13. Lavish any of 18 toppings on your 8-incher at 75 cents a pop; it’s $1 per addition on a 13-inch pie.
Every day he also offers three already baked fast slices in pepperoni, sausage or the four-cheese blend. Each fast slice is one-fourth of a 13-inch pie. The meat pies cost $3.50 per slice; the cheese one is $3.25.
A featured flavor “slice of the day” costs $3.75.
I’ve eaten one of these daily special slices: It had chicken chunks, arugula, goat cheese, pesto and scallions. I walked with it back to work, and it was cold when I sat down to eat: That crust resists sogginess. Arugula was thankfully not much in evidence; pretty green minced scallions very much were. A mild goaty cheese flavor dominated, but the toppings taken together were not salty.
For cold take-out pizza it was all right. I will eat that again.
I also picked up an unambitious half-salad for $3.50: chopped iceberg, sliced canned black olives, a handful of minced mozzarella and banana peppers, with your choice of ranch or creamy Italian dressing on the side. Each salad is mixed when you order, and so you can ask to have offending items left out (thus I did not have to sprinkle my office trash can with banana peppers).
Ordering is a friendly experience; you feel you’re being fed personally by the owner, which you might be although he does have a helper.
For a second, note-taking lunch inside the River Market, I invited two buddies. They are not picky eaters, but they do pick apart what they’re eating. Call them Thing 1 and Thing 2.
Thing 1 ordered that day’s slice of the day, with artichokes, arugula, pesto and caramelized onions ($3.75) as well as a half-salad of the sort already described. “I would say the slice was very good. I liked it. As for the salad, I would judge it against Vino’s,” Thing 1 said. “It wasn’t as good as Vino’s, but it was fine. I ate every bite.”
Thing 2 spotted the Jenifer’s Pepperoni and Mushroom pizza on the menu. After Baxter explained that a Jenifer works in the booth next door, The Rock Shop,and she spells her name with one n, Thing 2 had to have an 8-inch Jenifer baked then and there.
It was ready in about 10 minutes and came loaded with sliced pepperoni, sauteed mushroom slices (the menu calls these “fresh wild mushrooms” but Thing 2 said the taste was tame) homemade tomato sauce and the four-cheese blend.
Thing 2’s verdict: “The pizza sauce is bright on the sides of the tongue and delicious, but there was too little of it. Perhaps Jay’s Pizza hesitates to spread too thick this wet sauce on a crust cracker-thin lest it burst off the palette like a ripe Georgia peach from the seat pocket of a sitting picker, but I say, let us eat sauce.”
(That might say more about Thing 2 than the pizza.)
I ordered a fast slice of sausage pizza. The crust was moistened by a thin layer of the tasty sauce, coated by a thick veneer of the mozzarella-heavy cheese blend and dotted with plenty of spicy sausage chunks. I cracked the crust into wedges, but that cheese wanted to hold my slice together. This was fun to eat.
We also ordered an 8-inch dessert pizza, sliced bananas with rum sauce for $4. Not a menu staple, such desserts are available when Baxter has the ingredients. Calling ahead would be wise. Baxter carried it on a paper plate to our table, which was as exquisitely appointed as any of the tables in the middle of the River Market.
Baked bananas are sweeter for the cooking, and this simple pie would have been an elegant dessert; but buying dessert pizza after entree pizza is a way to ensure you waste crust. I won’t do that again. I will take such desserts home.
Not counting dessert but counting our sodas (serve yourself from a dispenser, and refills are free), the three of us enjoyed lunch for $21.65.
And we will do it again.
Address: River Market’s Oppenheimer Market Hall, 400 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; downtown delivery 5-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Credit cards: V, AE, MC, D
Alcoholic beverages: Nope
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Weekend, Pages 29 on 01/10/2013
Print Headline: Jay’s has a way with pizza