Pizza chain messes with the mind

by Brian Clarey

As a self-described pizza snob and proponent of anything that is locally grown, owned or sourced, I am not supposed to like Donato’s Pizza, one of three pizza joints nestled into the strip-mall archipelago at High Point’s Palladium.

But I have a job to do, and as someone who considers himself fairly attuned to the Triad culinary scene, I cannot deny that chain restaurants do well here.

There are reasons for this, of course. For one, the scope of indigenous cuisine is fairly narrow, primarily including barbecue, all manner of agricultural products and certain blends of sausage, among other delicacies. For a lot of Triad diners, consumption of seafood, Italian, fine dining, sandwiches, steaks, pancakes, burritos — you name it — happens in national chain restaurants. Even the purest foodies among us have tucked into a signature Applebee’s entree or slid a tray down the runway at Golden Corral.

And for all our haughty posturing, there is something to be said for chain restaurants. For one, you know what you’re going to get — a Bloomin’ Onion is a Bloomin’ Onion is a Bloomin’ Onion. it should be noted here that consistency is one of the hardest things a restaurant can achieve. And, as my Aunt Margaret says, “They give you a lot.” Olive Garden, I’m talking to you.

But Donato’s is a pizza chain, my all-time favorite food, one I take very seriously. I’ll admit to a bit of prejudice as I pull up and go through the door. When I see the conveyor-belt pizza oven behind the counter, my expectations drop a notch.

But the menu seems promising — a long list of pizza options, including size, crust style and toppings, a fine slate of toasted subs and salads, and even a few starter options like wings and stromboli.

Stromboli! Not so easy to find stromboli, which is kind of like a baked pizza Hot Pocket, in these parts.

I’m here for the pizza, though, and I order a small lunch pie. I choose mushrooms as my complimentary topping. And as I sit in the dining room I evaluate the decor. Like in a lot of newfangled chains — Donato’s began in Colombus, Ohio in 1963 but didn’t hit the big time until years later — attention is paid to detail. The dining room is clean and sleek, with pizza-themed art and clever corporate slogans on the walls. It seats about a hundred, and at lunch hour the place is half full.

It smells pretty good in there, too. Like baking bread. Donato’s employs a few techniques to separate it from the herd of other pizza places. Offering both thick and thin crust is one of them. They also build thin-crust pizzas all the way to the edge, slice large pies in asymmetrical slants and claim that every large pepperoni pizza holds 100 slices of pepperoni — all well and good. But how does the pizza taste.

Mine comes out piping hot, delivered to my table on a tin pizza pan. Bonus points for Donato’s. It is sliced into rectangles instead of triangles, which I suppose I can deal with. But it smells great. And hey: Are those fresh mushrooms baked into my pie? Yes, they are.

At first taste, I am pleasantly surprised with the sauce, not overly sweet or acidic like at many pizza chains. Upon mastication I am struck by the crust: Thin and crispy but not burned, with a dusting of cornmeal for texture and laced with what tastes like a bit of shortening, a trick my own Italian grandmother uses for her pizzas. Also I taste real cheese, and plenty of it. I’m impressed.

If I can extrapolate from my own small lunch pie, which is exactly what I intend to do, Donato’s passes many of the small tests I apply to pizza joints I frequent. The food is good, reasonably priced and prepared quickly enough that I can shoot over for lunch. True there is neither a pinball machine nor an old Italian couple arguing behind the counter. But Donato’s passes the most important test of all: execution.

I’ll be back to try the stromboli. And perhaps I’ll put that 100-slice pepperoni rule to the test..

wanna go?

Donato’s Pizza 5872 Samet Drive High Point; 336.887.2300

Fresh toppings and unconventional slicing makes a chain-pizza convert out of a skeptic. (photo by Brian Clarey)