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    Posted November 4, 2012 by
    San Diego, California
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    100 places to eat like a local

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    Culinary Adventure: Zia Gourmet Pizza


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     ShoreLover says Zia Gourmet Pizza in San Diego, CA, has excellent pizza and it's a hidden gem. "It's tucked away in an area that not many tourists really explore and if you aren't paying attention you could probably walk right by it if the delicious smell doesn't pull you through the doors first," she says. "My husband and I go roughly once a week. The atmosphere is casual and friendly, and the regulars are greeted by name. It's a family owned place and there is always someone from the family behind the counter to chat with while you place your order."
    - Anika3, CNN iReport producer

    I am a pizza snob, but it isn't my fault. I used to be a "normal" pizza consumer. I would order a pie from Papa Johns and once it arrived promptly stick it in the fridge. Why you may ask? Fear of burnt mouth roof? Yes, but also because I was not fan of processed marinara sauce. Allowing the pizza to cool solidified the sauce somewhat and I could eat it without worrying about nasty tomato chunks and large pieces of green spices such as basil and oregano (yes, I know, I was a terrible Italian). For me, room temperature, or even better, cold, was the only way to go. Once my pizza reached my preferred temperature I would happily consume my slices thinking, it can't get better than this. My eyes were opened one fateful evening, November 2003, when my than boyfriend decided to make us a pizza from scratch. He bought pizza dough and cheese. I contributed the sauce. This was not just any sauce, this sauce was homemade and the best tasting sauce I have ever had. Granted it was my sauce tailored exactly to my pallet and you better believe there were no tomato chunks in it. It was delicious. The final piece de resistance was fresh mozzarella cheese and a sprinkling of grated parmesan. This culinary masterpiece went into the oven for 13 minutes and came out bubbling and smelling heavenly. After my first slice I was ruined for all future store-bought pizza. The crust was crispy, the sauce tangy, and when you pulled away from your first bite the cheese was just stringy enough. In other words - it was pizza perfection. Over the years that boyfriend became my husband and he experimented with various pizza recipes: spinach with garlic and figs; pesto with spinach; and artichoke spread with figs, each topped with fresh mozzarella. It was pizza magic. We were not, however, completely delusional; we knew, somewhere, there must exist such a perfect pizza pie that we could not ever attempt to imitate it. It was with that thought in mind that we ventured out to Zia Gourmet Pizza in Normal Heights, searching for the holy grail of pizza. What we got was way more than we could have hoped for.

    Zia Gourmet pizza is a small restaurant located on Adams Avenue in the Normal Heights neighborhood of San Diego. The interior is eclectic to say the least. There is a center row of booths and some on either side, which extend from the front door to the back. All along the walls local artist work is on display. The artwork is a study of humanity, catching many a customer off guard when they first enter, unprepared for the stark reality that is depicted in oil paint. When we visited the place was undergoing some construction but that did not detract from the wonderful smells emanating from their kitchen. It is completely open, giving customers the opportunity to watch the chefs work their magic. In the background Bob Marley sings about peace. The overall atmosphere is relaxing bohemian and that sort of describes the clientele as well. This is a neighborhood pizza place, where the owner greets the regulars by name and they exchange pleasantries in the familiar way of a returning customer. The owner is an artist by trade and on his off days can be found in the back of the restaurant working on his latest painting. This restaurant is a true labor of love for him. He once told us that he spent three years developing the dough for his dessert pizzas. When it was completed, he liked it so much he started using it on all his other pizzas as well. If that is not dedication to your work, I don't know what is.

    On the counter sat several examples of their top selling pizzas - Potato, The New Yorker, and the Eggplant. Back in the kitchen, workers were busily rolling out dough and dicing up ingredients. In addition to the unique pizza combinations found on the menu, one could also create their own pie. Given the myriad of options, it took us a while to make our selections. After a heated debate over who will get what on their side of the pie we settled on half potato and half Papay. After placing our order we settled into a comfy booth to watch our pizza take shape.

    In no time a steaming pizza was delivered to our table and placed on a pedestal. My first slice was of the potato pie: rosemary potatoes with garlic, feta, lean cream cheese with slices of fresh mozzarella on a whole-wheat crust. I have never had a piece of pizza quite like this one. In fact, I have never had pizza with potato on it at all. I have now seen the error of my ways. The rosemary potatoes were cooked to perfection, tender and flavorful, with bursts of rosemary coming through each bite. The red sauce had a spiciness that lingered long after I polished off my second slice. Unlike most pizza places, Zia's does not ladle the red sauce on so thick that the toppings seem to float in it. They spread a light coating over the crust, just enough to compliment the toppings, not drown them. Cream cheese, another new pizza topping for me, is now welcome on any pie of mine. Though typically a fairly noticeable flavor, in this case the cream cheese played a background roll, only coming through every once and a while but with great success, pairing nicely with the potatoes and complimenting the red sauce. The whole combination made for a fascinating taste bud experience.

    The other half of the pie was the Papay: seasoned baked spinach with mozzarella, scallions, garlic, and capers, all over the same red sauce with a drizzling of yogurt sauce. I was not kidding when I said these guys were creative. The spinach and leeks combined to give the pizza a sweet and salty taste that was enhanced by the spicy red sauce and creamy yogurt.

    It was during a subsequent visit that I discovered my two most favorite pizzas in the whole world (sorry sweetie). We were just in for a few slices, nothing as serious as a whole pie, so we had to choose from what was on the counter. I chose the Vegetarian and the Sweet Southern French. It was as if both were custom made to my taste, which if you have been following this blog even a tiny bit you know my list of no-go foods is longer than the line to see the Hunger Games opening night (I bought tickets in advance so I wouldn't know anything about that). The Vegetarian was topped with olives, feta, artichoke hearts, light cream cheese and topped with mozzarella all evenly distributed over a light spread of that delicious red sauce. I am pretty sure that after my first bite my eyes rolled up into the back of my head and I blacked out from bliss. The artichokes retained their full flavor and texture; they were not dried out the way you might expect them to be after being blasted with oven heat and the same went for the olives. It was like they baked the pizza and then added the toppings afterward, instead of baking everything together, which is what they actually do. The artichokes and olives brought the salty; the cream cheese the tangy; the mozzarella and feta a smoothness; and the red sauce finished everything off with a spicy zip.

    I would go on to have a similar reaction to the Sweet Southern French pizza only with the added impulse to hug not only the pizza maker but the pizza itself. I may have muttered something about wanting to marry the pizza but I can't be sure. The Sweet Southern French had chicken marinated in a lemon garlic sauce with feta, caramelized pears, walnuts and mozzarella. The chicken was flavorful and juicy despite being cooked in an oven (how does he do these magical things?) It was the kind of chicken you wish you could make for your parents when they come to visit instead of serving them something vaguely resembling chicken with the taste and texture of a baseball mitt (this could be why we go out to eat a lot when my parents visit...). The pears remained juicy (was this pizza man a wizard?) and the walnuts crunchy. I cannot emphasize enough how wonderful this pizza tastes,
    This iReport is part of an assignment that we created with Travel + Leisure:  100 places to eat like a local
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