I have to confess that I have never considered Batavia to be a hotbed of culinary excellence. But my eyes were opened when I sampled some of the specialties at the newly opened Clarence branch of Pauly's Pizza, which has its roots in Batavia.
The place, formerly Phil's Charpit and ice cream stand, has a few tables near the counter and a dining area off to the side with around 20 tables. About half the tables were occupied on a Sunday evening when John, Pat, John and I stopped by. Unlike some pizzerias, there is table service, so you can sit and peruse the menu, which is good, because there are many interesting things on it.
First, the pizza crust is made fresh daily and if you choose the right corner of the dining room, you can actually watch the cooks stretching and hand-tossing the dough high in the air. It's an almost-lost art, and it's interesting to watch. The pizzas are also hearth-baked, according to the menu.
Second, the chicken fingers are different from anything you've seen. Rather than the usual, often defrosted, thin strips covered with a thick mass of breading, these are fresh-cut and hand battered, creating a light, crispy coating. More on that later.
Though the place is in Clarence, it offers Batavia prices. A medium, eight-slice pizza is $8.99; each calzone ($8.59) can have as many toppings as you want; a 12-inch hot sub is $7.99; and both the fish fry and the baked Parmesan tilapia dinner are $7.99. In an era when simple fish fries are pushing and even exceeding the Cheap Eats $10 limit, this is a refreshing development.
We ordered a bunch of food, and dishes arrived from the kitchen in rather random order. It was fine because we were chatting and not shy about sampling each other's food, but the kitchen might work on that -- or at least warn people things will be served when they are ready.
First up were the chicken fingers, $7.99 for four large fingers and a generous heap of french fries. When they were ordered, the server explained that the sauce would be served on the side because shaking the fingers in sauce would break the crispy batter, and when they arrived, we saw exactly what she meant. Dipping the fingers in the spicy sauce added flavor without shattering the thin, smooth batter. The fingers, which were thick and juicy, and the accompanying molten fries were both excellent.
Next out was a ziti dinner with two meatballs or sausages ($7.99). The ziti was al dente, the meatballs medium-sized, flavorful and yielding without being rubbery. The red sauce was balanced, neither sweet nor sharp.
Last out were two cold dishes, a small tuna sub ($4.99) and a large antipasto salad ($6.99). The medium-thick layer of tuna was nicely chilled, and the fresh roll was slightly toasted. The sub was accompanied by a large serving of fries, and we were amazed that the whole plate was less than 5 bucks.
The antipasto salad was delicious. On a bed of fresh iceberg, it contained tomato wedges, black and green olives, sliced banana peppers and a few strips of bell peppers, topped by a thick layer of fresh ham and salami and topped with more than a dozen mild pepperoni discs.
We knew we had to try a pizza and went with a simple medium cheese and pepperoni, specifying the spicier "cup and char" pepperoni.
The crust was excellent, both in taste and texture, crisp on the edges and done in the middle. The sauce was delicious, the pepperoni flavorful and the medium-thick layer of mozzarella formed classic strings when we pulled away a slice. All in all, a pie to be proud of.
PAULY'S PIZZA & PASTA
4 pennies (out of four)
"Excellent food, good prices."
WHERE: 9980 Main St., Clarence (759-7700, www.paulyspizza-clarence.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes