Monterey finally gets a late night pizza joint— and it’s family owned and upper-crust quality.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Pizza the way Nana made it. New York Italian meats– capicolla, pepperoni, salami, Italian sausage– sliced on the premises by Sean Croce, his wife Michelle and their small crew; crust shipped from Brooklyn, layered with homemade pasta sauce and whole milk mozzarella grated on the 800-square-foot grounds.
This is a wonderful thing. And it gets better.
This wedge of throwback beauty, which goes by “Godfather” and runs $3.50 a slice, is escorted to a spot overlooking Del Monte Beach by a golf cart. It’s no elite Pebble Beach Golf Links vehicle, either. It’s vastly superior.
This rig is street legal– on roads where the speed limit doesn’t exceed 35mph, making it perfect for short-range deliveries– and painted in the vivid colors of an Italian flag. With a pizza warmer box and a license plate. And custom rims.
It’s enough to make this pizzealout happy as hell (just picture the possibilities– slices on the sidewalk between sets at Monterey Live or on a walk down Cannery Row– $15 minimum, though). But no way will I be the happiest Croce’s customer of the night.
The reason for that is simple enough. Croce’s (pronounced Crow-chee’s) fills a long-cursed vacuum in Monterey’s late-night eating options. Before its arrival three months ago, it was either Denny’s, Jack in the Box or another diet pill. A barrel of drunken monkeys will be ecstatic to ply a slice come late night.
Sean Croce has known this since he first appeared on the Peninsula 15 years ago to help open and manage stores in the chain that became Bubba Gump’s (today, he also owns next-door Doc Rickett’s Lab).
“I remember it like yesterday,” he says. “It was Friday night and I had finished moving at 9, 9:30 at night. I went to grab some food, drove around for an hour, and had to get a burrito at 7-Eleven. That’s always been in the back of my mind.”
Now a legion of last-call boys and girls otherwise lost to Moons Over My Hammy can find greasy salvation until 4am Friday and Saturday (and until 3am Thursday, or midnight otherwise).
The resulting reception has been nothing short of celebratory– and not just among the post-last call partiers. Taxi drivers dig the fact that their business doesn’t peak and fizzle within a 30-minute window. Local blue suits can’t help but like that more food is splashing into tequila-pickled tummies. And local watering holes (including next-door Doc’s) and hotels love extending their patrons another option.
“A lot of other bars have kept us real busy,” Croce says. “They buy pizzas for their customers. The hotels have been great to us when room service stops at 11 and no one else delivers. And a lot of people order to the sidewalk.”
The staple foodstuff the open-late eatery would serve was determined long before Croce realized Monterey needed such a shop.
“I’ve been making pizzas for my family and friends ever since I was a little kid and my grandma taught me how,” he says, noting that the Godfather and his other signature slice styles are hers. Her lighter sauce, he says, quiets heartburn and lets the ingredients sing. “My friends said, ‘You gotta open a place.’”
The place fits the mold of the family shops Croce saw “on every corner” growing up in New York, with a small counter, a handful of stools and enough Italian mobster paraphernalia to fill the morgue. There’s also a big flat-screen TV to entertain the line that snakes around the corner after midnight.
It’s the slices, though, that truly engage. The Primavera’s ($3.25) vegetarian medley of tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and olives announces Nana’s knowledge. The Margherita ($3.25) and cheese ($2.95) do their job nobly. The Godfather is the best-seller for a reason. The Croce’s Combo ($3.50)– with all the Primavera’s princely toppings plus pepperoni and Italian sausage– is the local gold standard.
Whole “East Coast pies,” meanwhile, run about $20 to $25 and include free delivery. There are also Buffalo wings ($7.95 for 12 and celery), green and Caesar salads ($4.95-$5.95) and an admirable Italian hoagie ($6.95) that’s big enough to split and stacked with provolone, salami, capicolla, ham, pepperoni, lettuce, tomatoes, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper on a thick sesame roll.
The most entertaining possibility at Croce’s, though, isn’t on the menu. And no, it’s not the drunk antics demonstrated by the knucklehead society that assembles after 2am (“Fortunately we’ve had the benefit of being in the nightclub business for 11 years,” Croce chuckles, “so we’ve seen everything you can see.”)– or even the Buffalo chicken pizza. It would be the pink pizza– as in the three-cheese baked rigatoni pizza with a pink sauce.
I haven’t tried it yet, but like Croce’s itself, I imagine the flavor will be well worth the wait.
Croce’s Pizza 404 Tyler St., Monterey. • 11am-midnight Sun-Wed; 11am-3am Thu; 11am-4am Fri-Sat. • 375-5150, www.crocespizza.com.