Despite the August humidity outside, it was desert-hot inside Warehouse District Pizza. With a conveyor belt oven cranked to around 700 degrees, it would take an Arctic freeze to cool the small room. Makeup melts; curls droop. It's not the place to dine when sweat marks will be problematic; most patrons do eat Mark Ridgley's pizzas within their own air-conditioned surroundings. That was my plan, but I reconsidered when I walked in on Ridgley and a customer smoking and joking about a woman eating Rocky Mountain oysters on television's Fear Factor. I joined in, sitting at the long community table and pulling out a People magazine. Aside from the extra 20-odd degrees, it was just like home, and I happily sweated out every blistery bite of duck sausage and vibrant spinach pizza.
I had another incentive for eating in the hot restaurant, with its sun-faded sign and Christmas-wreath wall hanging. The small radius of Warehouse Pizza's delivery program doesn't include my neighborhood, and I'm already familiar with the flavor of hot dough and cheese left to steam in a cardboard box. Straight from the oven, a pizza probably would survive my 20-minute drive home. But what if I hit traffic? Blew a tire? I wasn't willing to risk it. The quality of Ridgley's pies soars leagues above most take-out pizza joints, both in rustic appearance and well-seasoned taste, but so do the prices. If I'm shelling out $2 to $3 per slice for a small pie, I prefer to savor it where it has a fighting chance.
Not everyone would agree with me. While there's a cartoon drawing of a delivery truck on Warehouse Pizza's menu, Ridgley and his crew deliver most orders by bicycle, leaving an aromatic trail of Italian herbs and garlic throughout the neighborhood. One evening, a slender employee made two deliveries between serving my garlic bread and pizza courses. I don't know if Warehouse Pizza employees receive benefits, but logging up to 40 delivery miles a day, they sure save on gym membership fees.
Unlike patrons already in the area, I had yet another reason for hanging out in those Mojave conditions, where video poker machines lurked in the corner and duct tape barricaded the women's restroom. I wanted to know more about the district that had supported this one-of-a-kind pizza place for 10 years running. Like the neighborhood bartender who knows how many Dixie beers it takes regulars to mourn a Saints defeat, I imagined Ridgley could write novels about his community through studying their pizza preferences. He would know whether the industrial sector wanted a working man's crust, or if the urbane crowd I visualize inhabiting those warehouse lofts demanded a lithe New York-style pie. Then again, conventioneers with expense accounts might prefer over-priced Wolfgang Puck knock-offs with toppings like smoked salmon and truffle oil.
As it happens, his pizza is like those orange parking tickets that decorate every other vehicle on Andrew Higgins Drive -- from Dodge truck to beat-up Nova to Mercedes Benz. Ridgley's pizza joint meets every taste. Crusts did droop in the center, for example, but the bulkier edges were deliciously chewy like a soft pretzel and wheaty like a loaf of flour-dusted ciabatta bread. Ridgley ingeniously hand-crimps these edges about half an inch over the pizzas, forming a slender moat stuffed with spicy marinara and cheese all the way around. If there's one fault to the pies, it's that this canal of stuffed crust occasionally is undercooked.
Moving on up, there are regular and spicy marinara sauces, both thick and robust with garlic and dried herbs. A blend of the two also is available. But it's in the final layer that the variety, quality and cleverness of ingredients shine brightest. From okra to onions, from chicken to mushrooms: all toppings enter the oven raw and precisely sliced so that, after a 12-minute conveyor belt ride, they emerge just-cooked. Broccoli was al dente; musky rabbit sausage was plump and herbaceous; even well-done filet mignon was succulent on the Millennium Special.
If Warehouse Pizza's toppings were personified, they would belong somewhere between the traditionalist and the revolutionary. Carefully seasoning and portioning each pizza, Ridgley creates a home of rustic crust and melted cheese where even the most gourmet toppings taste like comfort food. Take my favorite of his creations, the shrimp Creole pizza. Snappy slices of green pepper, onion and celery were splayed across a bed of spicy sauce, followed by a reasonable quantity of melted mozzarella, dried herbs and loads of still-firm shrimp. Intent on having the last word, Ridgley finished this one off with a handful of chopped garlic, another ladle of sauce and a lemon whose baked juices I squeezed over the top.
Driving down narrow Andrew Higgins Drive last week, I heard Ridgley's Pink Floyd music competing with the neighborhood's familiar shrill of power tools and beeping fork lifts in reverse. It was mid-morning, and the smell of bubbling dough oozed through the restaurant's iron-barred doors, mingling with the street's fresh tar and sawdust aromas. No wonder that's where the Warehouse District's everyman gets his pizza.
- Cheryl Gerber
- WAREHOUSE DISTRICT PIZZA's Mark Ridgley has been baking it great in the neighborhood for a decade now.