Restaurant Review - Baby’s got sauce?

Chamblee’s Vintage Pizzeria draws a crowd but lacks spice ... literally

I’m driving in circles - or squares, to be exact - trying to pinpoint Vintage Pizzeria. I know it’s on Peachtree Road, but that doesn’t much help. By the time Peachtree reaches Chamblee, it’s no longer the central thoroughfare trailing through the city’s high-profile addresses. It becomes just another brambly, industrial-tinged back road.

When I finally spot the signs for the restaurant, which is ensconced on the bottom floor of a sharp new condo building, I can’t find a parking spot. Both the small lot in front of the building and the allocated spaces across the street are chockablock. What gives?

Turns out it’s Thursday trivia night at the restaurant, and not one table or bar stool is left unoccupied. Apparently, Vintage provides exactly what the locals have been craving: pizza, beer and a shot at winning glamorous prizes for correctly guessing who had the most base on balls in his batting career.

Chamblee has the opposite problem of most communities. While the majority of us have to scour among the ever-encroaching chains to find interesting ethnic fare in our ‘hoods, this area is home to jillions of Asian and Latin eateries. It seems that many Chamblee residents, in addition to the riches of dim sum and papusas, long for a taste of good old American grub.

Mario Gonzalez and his wife, Kara Paden, opened Vintage in February. (The restaurant was originally christened Slice Pizzeria, but the name was changed after it generated a bit of friction with the folks at Slice in Castleberry Hill.) It’s a pizza joint for the new millennium - spare and dim enough to come off as edgy, yet the upbeat art on the walls was selected with a knowing eye. And kids are obviously welcome; a stack of high chairs and booster seats teeters by the door.

Of course, when I arrive late on trivia night, I find my friends camped out alone on the teeny front patio in the post-thunderstorm mugginess. The wait for a table inside was too long, and, ravenous, they’d already ordered. I land on a seat, swipe a slice of a half-eaten pizza and then spin off in a spasm of memory. Vintage’s “Carmen’s Own” specialty pizza - a riff on the classic margherita with tomato, fresh basil and cheese - invokes the gooey, salty slices I used to down each summer at Tony’s Pizza on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md. I’m suddenly giddy for no good reason.

Pizza triumphs as one of the most egalitarian dishes we consume. It’s cheap and ubiquitous, yet I think most of us instinctively know great pizza from lousy pizza - even if we continue to eat lousy pizza for convenience’s sake. And pizza is one of the most readily accessed sources of culinary nostalgia in this country. It echoes rambunctious family outings; adolescent and collegiate freedom; soulful, filling meals during times we’ve been broke; and work jags when we’ve been too busy to leave the office. Pizza so permeates our lives, we pretty much take it for granted.

And sometimes it yanks us back to the past, like Carmen’s Own (named for Gonzalez’s mother) does for me. It’s a savvy concoction that masks one major shortcoming in Vintage’s pie construction that I discover on subsequent visits.

In the holy trinity of pizza - dough, sauce, cheese - Vintage makes a likable crispy crust and blends a tangy, properly melty mix of cheese. But the sauce? Misguided. It’s a bland, watery affair with absolutely no thwack. I can find no discernible presence of garlic or herbs. The one thing I do taste is sugar - an ingredient used to temper acidity that shouldn’t be detectable on the palate.

I don’t really notice the state of the sauce on pies like the “Vintage,” a kitchen-sink combo with fresh toppings that far exceeds similar concoctions from Pizza Hut and company. But I certainly detect something amiss when the marinara is served alongside a calzone. I go to dunk a glob of dough and ... splat. No zesty punch line.

So be sure to request the slightly friskier diablo sauce when you order calamari, a nicely realized starter with slices of fried okra and jalapeno interspersed among the squid. A generous plate of bruschetta includes green olives alongside the standard commingling of tomato, garlic and basil atop grilled bread. The Caesar with pleasantly sharp dressing is a standout among the other house and Greek salad options.

But overall, the food simply needs more guts. Meatballs have no chutzpah, and since the meatball hoagie is covered with the bland marinara, the whole sandwich is a flop. If you’re in the mood for something along that line, try the sausage parmesan variation.

The barbecue pizza is perhaps the worst example of that ’80s creation I’ve ever tried: Shreds of pallid poultry and an overabundance of red onions are buried under a blizzard of cheese. O barbecue sauce, where is thy sting? It ain’t present in the thin, brown slick barely brushed over the crust, that’s for sure. California Pizza Kitchen does a better version - and believe me, it pains me to say that.

This place obviously has a ready-made audience, and the food, at the moment, is fine for a noncommittal evening out. But if Vintage hopes to become a true neighborhood classic, its gonna need to put more pow into its pies.