It was going on 10 pm, and I found myself hungry in the thick of North County suburbia. Which is to say, my expectations were not high. A precursory iPhone scan for still open nearby restaurants confirmed my options were few, mostly familiar sounding national chains that inspire little confidence. One name did stand out as kinda funny, and amid these slim pickings that would prove enough. It’s tough to ruin pizza, I reasoned, as I charted a course for Tony Pepperoni Pizzeria.
12165 Alta Carmel Ct, Rancho Bernardo
I would never have found this place without the technological assist. It sits off the main road, right about where a residential part of Rancho Bernardo abuts an industrial corner of Carmel Mountain Ranch. A parklet of trees partially obscures view of the small shopping center it calls home, so despite the large, backlit sign calling attention to Tony’s, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place till it was right in front of me.
Inside I found a large, TV-lined space that is half dining room, half sports bar, with assorted videogames, and lounge seating in one corner beside a pair of pool tables. The place was empty other than staff and a single customer waiting on a take-out order. It may be tough to ruin pizza, but it’s super easy to make mediocre pizza, and with so little happening here on a weekend night, my foodie sense wasn’t exactly tingling.
But the menu showed promise. Twenty different specialty pies incorporate unorthodox alternatives to tomato sauce, including ranch dressing and Frank’s Louisiana hot sauce. There’s a pizza inspired by cheeseburgers, one inspired by burritos, and one called The Attorney that combines meatballs, salami, and spinach for no discernible reason other than it sounds good. Those cost between 10 to 24 bucks, depending on size, which for every pizza ranges between 8 and 16 inches in diameter.
What really stands out, though, is a free add-on available on all pies: pizza crust flavors. Basically, they’ll add butter, cheese, cayenne pepper, garlic, or sesame seeds to your crust. They’ll add all of the above if you ask nicely.
I erred on the side of simplicity, and ordered a simple, 14-inch pie topped with pepperoni, with a sesame seed crust. When in Tony Pepperoni, right?
This pie rocked. Sesame seeds or not, it was a top rate, American style pizza. Not gourmet, not New York, not Chicago, nor brick oven Neapolitan. It has a firm, lightly crisp crust, neither overly thin nor thick, topped with a savory tomato sauce, and good ratios both of melted cheese and pepperoni. But, boy do those sesame seeds add something. Even before you get to the crust, their aroma kicks in to liven up the whole slice. Then you eat the crust and it tastes like the satisfying conclusion to a pizza eating experience.
I’m sure this was an off crowd, and most nights the sensible residents of Rancho Bernardo meet their pizza needs at this spot. If not, there’s another in inland oceanside, and new one on the way in historic downtown Escondido.