Food Feature: Pies on the prize

CK's Wood-Grilled Pizza lives up to its potential

My new goal in life is to become a judge of an annual international pizza contest. What better endeavor than attending events with names like "Pizza Festiva VII" or "Pizza Expo" and sampling the world's best pies? Based on the award-winning recipes of CK's Wood-Grilled Pizza, not only do such competitions feature heavenly dishes with bold and imaginative ingredients, they expand your conception of what a pizza can be.

The "CK" stands for Craig and Karla Priebe, who for about a half-decade have been pushing the boundaries of the pizza envelope in a plain, cramped venue in Norcross.

Recently, they've moved into a space with more elbowroom at the corner of the same strip mall, creating a more comfortable setting for diners to experience the pizza's full potential.

You can have your own pie built to order based on a list of more than 30 ingredients, but you'll experience the Priebes' culinary alchemy better by ordering from the dozen or so specialty pies on the menu. Keep an eye out for yummy-sounding specials, as the Priebes never seem to tire of experimenting.

For instance, the New Orlean, first-place winner of the 1999 Pizza Festiva, features blackened crawdads, Andouille sausage, roasted bell peppers, onions, cilantro and cheeses. All of the above ingredients are plentiful and harmonize well, but two particular touches stand out: the flavor of the crisp, wood-grilled crust and an accent of apricot. The combination of sweet and smoky tastes along with the crunchy texture give the New Orlean a taste much like a fried somosa.

Your palate can be similarly expanded with the award-winning Gamberian, the pie that helped put CK's on the international pizza map. It combines shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh garlic, basil, onion and homemade pesto, with a crust that is thin and brittle. Sliced into bite-sized pieces more easily eaten with the fingers than a fork, the Gamberian suggests a highly advanced form of cracker or nacho rather than what we normally expect from pizza by the slice.

Feel free to sample pizzas that don't have fancy credentials. The Portabellan not only has luscious bits of grilled mushroom and roasted garlic, but tender, bacony morsels of prosciutto. While Biancan or white pizzas have become common at many neighborhood pizzerias, they tend to focus on garlic and cheese. CK's doesn't stint on those toppings, but also emphasizes spinach, basil and pesto. The Priebes aren't at all shy about using herbs for appearance as well as flavor. Rather than chopping or hiding the cilantro or rosemary, they top the pies in whole leaves or sprigs that look fresh from a garden. The menu also features baked Italian sandwiches, but they're often overlooked in favor of the imaginative pizzas. Who could resist the Chicagoan with sliced ribeye steak and roasted potato?

Being in the restaurant is not always as delightful as the food in your mouth. Patrons order at a counter and then pick up their items when they're ready, which can mean multiple trips and frequent traffic control issues — even a little table service would be welcome. Cheap touches like the plastic knives and forks detract from the "villa" motif sought by the restaurant's small fountain and idyllic mural. Likable but loud jazz often plays on weekends, which can be popular with big groups: On one visit, my wife and I were all but barricaded at our table by a multi-family mob.

Other items can have imperfections, like the overabundance of vinegar on the Greek salad, which is otherwise generous with feta cheese and olives. Entree salads arrive in homemade bread bowls that connote a pizza crust, or you can have side versions of the Greek or chef salads without the bread. The homemade gelato is a nice addition, with a single scoop easily offering dessert for two, but the strawberry variety we sampled proved too sugary, like a cold, semi-solid candy.

CK's also sells frozen, personal-sized versions of the Gamberian, Biancan, vegetarian Verduran and simple tomato-and-basil Margarita, which hold up well to travel and reheating. Good as gourmet but low-fuss meals at home, the frozen pizzas might be even better as finger food to impress party guests.

The pizzeria's entry in Las Vegas' "Festiva VIII 2001" is a Jamaican pie with jerk pork, mango and dark chutney. Such a concoction would frighten me at any other place, but at CK's it sounds like a winner.??

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