Monster Stuff

Lefty's Chicago Pizzeria

3448 30th Street, North Park

So, I'm hoofing my way up 30th. One foot in front of t'other, heading for University. I'm supposed to be meeting up with Carla and her friend Linda around eight. But here's the rub: Linda wants to "go vegan" tonight. Hee hee. Just the thought of Carla picking through a plate of nuts and twigs keeps me sniggering for at least three blocks.

That's when I spot this little ribbon of lights, strung down a lean-to canopy that reaches out over the sidewalk at Myrtle. A whole bunch of people sit cheek by jowl, faces warmed by the light from inside. Lotsa laffs, burble of talk. The sight gives me such a, well, fillip, I go onto autopilot. Suddenly I'm part of the line of folks waiting to get in. "Lefty's," says the sign above the forest-green canopy. The sidewalk crowd is all set up with blue-and-white tablecloths, pizzas on pedestals, wine, beer -- full-on chew, chow, cheer. "Chicago-Style Pizza," the sign says. "Home of the Golden Crust."

The line shuffles nearer the door.

"Is it good?" I ask this gal Rosemary. She and her husband Allan and a couple of other friends are sitting outside, chomping away and sipping beers.

"Well, tonight was the test," she says. "We're from Chicago. We ordered a simple sausage-and-mushroom pizza to see if they measured up."


"They do," says Allan. "Next time we're going to order the deep-dish. We've tried that elsewhere here in San Diego and" -- he makes a face -- "well, we're from Chicago."

The line shuffles forward. Inside, a wide pic of Michael Jordan blasts across the back wall. Posters of Chicago's waterfront, ballparks, stadiums, players, and ex-players cover the rest of the mustard-colored walls, though I don't see the Fridge anywhere. "Welcome to the friendly confines," says a sign reproduced from Wrigley Field. Of course, Vienna brand hot dog-sponsored posters are everywhere too, picturing their dawg chock-filled with sport peppers, relish, pickle, tomatoes, all the things that would make a Yankee traditionalist see red.

Ah. A menu. "Lefty's is an independent, family-operated pizzeria," it says. I wonder if there actually is a Lefty. I can see guys doing their pastry-twirling thing in front of a rack of pizza ovens. They all seem to be right-handed. Two ceiling-mounted TVs blast a Padre game. They've got a couple of tables and a counter with long-legged chairs. A cabinet displays $2.00 slices of thin pizza and $3.00 slices of deep-dish pizza.

Now, Morals 101. Should I cheat and do a pre-fill here, just in case the celery sticks don't do it for me tonight?

I'm looking at the pizza side of the menu. They have it thin and crispy (16-inch cheese, $13.00; "specialty" -- any of eight meat 'n' veggie combos -- $17.00), Deep Dish ($18.00/$22.00), and -- I like the sound of this one -- the Stuffed. "The king of all pizzas." This is a 14-inch, eight-pound monster that needs one hour's "make and bake" time. It's $20.00 for cheese, $24.00 for specialty.

So, heck, to eat or not to eat? Then a thought: a masterstroke! A care package for Carla. She's gonna be desperate up there at the Garden of Eatin' place on University.

"Here, or to go?" says this gal Jamie behind the counter. "Yes," I say. "Uh, both." I'm looking, looking. Appetizers, salads, Lefty's Caesar with chicken, $7.25, Chicago hot dog with fries, $3.50, char burger with fries $4.75...

I ask around. "Any ideas? What's most popular?"

"The Italian beef au jus," says this guy in line, Bruce. "Or pizza by the slice," says another guy, Chris. "Or Lefty's carbonara." That's spaghetti, eggs, bacon, Parmesan, and cream ($7.25).

Maybe Lefty can help.

"So, is Lefty real or just a commercial gimmick?" I ask.

"He's real," says Jamie. "Lefty!"

She points to a guy working away on the left side of the dough line. About 30, I'd say. "Try the Italian beef," he suggests. "We roast it ourselves." I spot it: "Classic Italian Beef, $6.25."

"Fine," I say, "I'll have it for here. And to go, gimme a char burger with fries [$4.75] and a slice of thin-crust pizza [$2.00]."

Two minutes later I have a cardboard plate in my hot little hands, loaded with a long, cut bun stuffed with steaming slices of roast beef, sweet peppers, hot peppers. It's all drooling with au jus.

Au yes.

I down the first half in two minutes. The second in three.

The crowd has eased off a little. Lefty and I chat while my "to go" stuff is cooking. His wife Lauren and their two-year-old daughter Matisse come in to help. Turns out he's ex-Navy, a Chicagoan, and he's worked in kitchens since his first busing job at 11 years old. His pièce de résistance is definitely the Stuffed. "It's four inches thick," he says. "You should try it stuffed with one of the specialty combos, like 'Monster of the Midway' -- Monster's what we call the Chicago Bears -- sausage, pepperoni, hot giardiniera (pickled vegetables), elephant garlic, and a ton of Minnesota cheese. Or the Great Sausage Pie. We put a whole layer of Italian sausage in there. Good for four. You won't make it through more than two slices, guaranteed."

That I'm definitely going to try. But at $24.00, some other time. I grab my sandwich, chow down on a mouthful of the Chicago fries that come with it. Oh, Lord. Skins. Garlicky! Not crisp, but bendy and full of flavor. Exceptional.

I head out for University. Seaweed Medley, here I come.

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