Naples has its artisan Margherita. New York has its thin-crust pepperoni. Chicago has its sausage deep-dish.
And if there's a storied standout that speaks to Omaha's Italian immigrant roots and Midwestern sensibility, it's the Classic Hamburger Pizza at La Casa Pizzaria.
Omahans have been eating it for more than five decades. The restaurant near 45th and Leavenworth Streets claimed the “Omaha's best pizza” title when more than 450 World-Herald readers voted in 2001. And I've devoured more than a few of La Casa's signature pizzas over the past decade.
With the recent opening of several new independent pizzerias in Omaha, I wondered whether the familiar classic still stacked up. Visits to the 57-year-old pizzeria in April and May left no doubt. Its humble hamburger pie is terrific and timeless.
It's instantly recognizable: a narrow rectangle cut into rectangles and served on a perfectly sized brown plastic tray. (Unless you order a small, which is round.) The crust is thin and toasty, crisp and browned, with a hand-twisted edge and grill marks across the bottom. It sheds its pan partway through baking and gets a grilled finish on an oven rack.
It's got a great tomato base — a loose orange-red mash of uncooked tomatoes — and a healthy helping of that most Midwestern of ingredients: ground beef.
The hamburger is cooked slowly with onions and spices before being applied to the dough, and it emerges from the oven with terrific textural range: soft and lush like a Bolognese on the tomatoey bottom and crisped like the crumbly edges of an old-school burger on top.
Cheese pools in the valleys between the largest meat crumbles. You have your choice of pungent house-ground Romano, mild shredded mozzarella, or both — a decision that may well define you.
The Romano perfumes and permeates the meat, asserting a bold flavor, adding a briny bite and speeding satisfaction: Three slices and you're content. The mozzarella hangs back in gooey puddles with an amiable mellowness that won't feel like overkill until slice No. 6.
Each piece has a slightly soft middle best eaten with a fork and a sturdier portion with some of the chewy-crisp rolled edge. The simple crust and toppings combine to form a resounding dish. A medium feeds two to four and costs a modest $13.15.
The Romano-topped version remains the top seller at La Casa, and it's hard to deviate once you've been introduced.
But other dishes on recent visits also delighted.
The Pollo Carciofi Bianco (a chicken-artichoke pizza with white sauce) was topped with a tasty garlic-cream sauce and bits of roma tomato. I loved how the artichoke hearts blackened at the tips and how the garlic-imbued chicken slices took on a smoked quality in the oven.
A build-your-own pie with multiple meats was less satisfying. My fault: The toppings muddled the flavors and overwhelmed the crust.
Most pizzas take about 20 minutes, so if you're dining in, an appetizer's a good idea.
You could do worse than the bruschetta (a saucer of zesty vinegar-spiked tomatoes, black olives and basil and broiled cheese-topped garlic bread) or the spinach-artichoke dip they call Carciofi (four halved artichoke hearts, a garlic-cream sauce, spinach, broiled cheese and a sliced dinner roll).
Onion rings looked otherworldly: wide ribbons in skinny wrinkled jackets that threatened to fall off at every bend. Toasted ravioli had a super-crisp herbed breading and came alive with a dunk in the sweet and meaty red sauce. Mozzamias, half moons of deep-fried mozzarella, were average, dipped in a slightly bitter marinara.
The house minestrone was a hot, briny, tomato-tinged broth laden with tiny red beans, big white beans, cut green beans, carrot, onion, broken spaghetti and spinach, served with Club crackers. Salads were served with Rotella's focaccia and, if you're in the Romano fan club, a creamy Romano dressing.
If you prefer to while away the wait with a drink, there's a full bar, a short list of affordable wines by the glass and some nice cocktails. Among them: the Italian Margarita, a sweet-tart on-the-rocks mixture of vodka, triple sec, amaretto and grapefruit juice that goes down easily.
I ran out of room for calzones, lasagna, eggplant Parmesan and other La Casa favorites. But I did try the special one server said people anticipate every spring: stuffed peppers.
It involved two fist-sized meatballs (hamburger, pork sausage and rice, bound with seasoned breadcrumbs and egg) nestled in hollowed-out green bell pepper halves, topped with a smooth red sauce and baked until bubbling. It came with soup or salad, a side of mostaccioli and red sauce, a dinner roll and a small plastic cup of Romano cheese grated into little cylindrical pebbles.
The tops of the meatballs were a bit singed and bitter, but the rest was very good. The sauce had a sweet-and-spicy edge. I liked it more the more I ate — until all those carbohydrates registered. Less than halfway through the first stuffed pepper, I was stuffed, too.
There are several house-made desserts. The cannoli I took home, served two to an order, were flaky baked pastry shells stuffed with a cold ricotta-free pudding (your choice of lemon, chocolate or cream cheese) and dusted with powdered sugar, as satisfying as a filled donut.
La Casa doesn't take reservations, and it tends to be busy on weekends and weeknights. But employees take your name at the host stand, and they seem to do hospitality every bit as well as pizza. Expect a warm welcome, a fair estimate of the wait and a nice little lounge to wait in, complete with a congenial bartender and appetizer service.
On our visits, table service was well-mannered and efficient. The only lapses: On two occasions, we had longish waits for beverages. The well-used dining room was cozy and familial: burgundy vinyl tablecloths, a patterned drop ceiling with ceiling fans, stained glass accents, one lit-from-within hot-pink-and-purple partition and taupe walls lined with framed local art.
The crowd was multigenerational: septuagenarian golf buddies wearing button-downs and khakis; empty-nester couples and colleagues talking politics; bejeweled middle-aged girlfriends celebrating a birthday; jeans-clad thirtysomethings, some with children.
Like me, most didn't need menus to know what they wanted: “Classic Hamburger, please. Medium. Romano.”
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