Who has the best pizza along the Baxter Avenue corridor?
The pizza restaurants along Baxter Avenue have identities as distinct as the Corleones and the Tattaglias. Until recently, Wick's and Spinelli's controlled the local street distribution of a highly addictive product, and each had legions of fiercely loyal customers.
But then late this winter, a challenger from New York appeared with a consistently excellent product and a lean business model.
The competition has not gone unnoticed in Baxter Avenue's smoke-filled back rooms. And while it's not as bloody as war among the Five Families, the neighborhood's pizza crews have gone to the mat in what is shaping up to be an all-out Highlands pizza war.
The Don of Baxter Avenue
Michael Wickliffe, owner of Wick's Pizza, stood on the corner of Baxter and Highland avenues, where his toppings-loaded, thick-crust pie has held dominion for 18 years. Lanky and tanned with a head of salt-and-pepper curls, Wickliffe pointed up the block.
"When I first opened up, there was nothing on this street," he said in his rapid-fire delivery. The lenses of his Prada glasses slowly changed tint in the morning sunlight.
Since it opened in 1992, Wick's has thrived, expanding from its midblock storefront eastward to the corner and outward to new locations. "You've got that weekend when mom and dad want to go out and make an evening of it and the kids love pizza, they're going to come to Wick's," Wickliffe said. "So I'm like a destination location."
Now this stretch is itself a destination. Lined with restaurants and Irish pubs, a hot dog shop, a coffee place, and a new sushi restaurant, Baxter Avenue draws college students, partiers, families and sports fans looking for a night out.
Whether you're looking for a TV to watch the Cards, or stumbling out of Molly Malone's or Phoenix Hill Tavern at 4 a.m. on a Saturday -- everyone needs a slice of pizza. In addition to Wick's, two pizza places have appeared to fulfill that need: Spinelli's and Papalino's.
Wickliffe dismissed the upstarts as lower-brow. "I'm like the Jeff Ruby's," he said, in relation to Spinelli's or Papalino's, which he called "Outback (steak house)."
He said he saw little competition from Spinelli's when it opened in 2004. With its thin-crust slices and hip-hop sensibility, Spinelli's attracted a younger crowd than the family-style, whole-pie-only Wick's. But in late February, when Papalino's New York Pizzeria opened up, Wickliffe took notice.
Like Spinelli's, Papalino's offered thin-crust pizza by the slice or by the pie. But unlike Spinelli's, Papalino's started cutting in on Wickliffe's business.
"Obviously, it thins it all out," Wickliffe said of business since Papalino's opened. Noting that "people want to get in and out" at lunchtime, Wickliffe saw his lunchtime business decline as customers opted for the faster Papalino's slice over the freshly baked Wick's pie.
So he struck back. Wick's -- which had always been a whole-pie operation, where sitting down committed you to eating, at minimum, a 10-inch pizza -- started selling it by the slice.
Now from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wick's will cut you a $3 slice from an 18-inch pizza. "I thought, 'What the hell, I can sell pizza by the slice,'" Wickliffe said. "It ain't hard.'"
Wickliffe advertised the shift in neon paint on his front window. The competition had been warned: Wick's would fight back. "I can compete and do whatever I need to do," he said.
Wooden booths line the walls of Wick's large dining room. Above them, murals depict local scenes -- on one side is a fireworks display that evokes Thunder Over Louisville, on the other, a race at the Downs.
On a recent afternoon, Wick's server Kari Linton took an order for a meatball slice. It was 2:30, close to the end of the 11-to-3 window for slices. Still, Weber said she had served only five that day.
The slice arrived piping hot, its crispy, thick crust ably holding up a payload of sweet sauce, abundant cheese and thickly sliced meatballs.
"A lot of Americans are more interested in the toppings than they are in the crust," said Marty Rosen, freelance restaurant critic for The Courier-Journal. That explains the stiff lower level of Wick's pizza: It serves its function as "a platform for an assortment of toppings."
Papalino's and Spinelli's, on the other hand, aim for a more East Coast-style thin crust.
What do the servers at Wick's think of the new competition on Baxter?
"A lot of people are threatened," said Lindsay Weber, who has worked at Wick's for five years. "They (Papalino's) had the (nerve) to set up on this block."
The Philly Kid
There's an old black Lincoln parked inside Spinelli's Pizzeria -- a booth occupies its passenger compartment, and there are tables under the hood and in the trunk. If sitting in the trunk of the quintessential mobster's ride puts you off, Spinelli's isn't the place for you.
At 1:30 on a recent morning, Plies' "Awesome" cranked on the jukebox in the front room and tattooed employees slung desultory slices at their half-drunk customers. Next door, on the table service side, a few couples sat stonily.
In the backseat of the Lincoln, Spinelli's regular John Watts reclined before a greasy paper plate and a half-empty bottle of Bud Light. "When it comes to pizza in Louisville, this place has got it all wrapped up," Watts said.
He had a theory about how to judge food quality. "Every place you go that's any good -- they're all tattooed up." Watts gestured to his own modestly inked arms.
Customers came in by ones and twos, ordering slices and eating them at the counter or outside. A young woman in a halter top played the arcade game in the corner. Red Christmas lights strung around the room cast a crimson glow that filled the room.
Rosen said that Spinelli's had succeeded through "keeping later hours" -- it delivers until 4:30 in the morning -- and "creating kind of a hipster feel."
Still, Rosen said, "I don't think that they have achieved a kind of consistently high quality that you want from a truly great pizza place."
Spinelli's counterman Tim Bruno explained that his pizzeria specialized in the after-hours crowd. "Everybody's got their little niche," Bruno said. "Ours is late-night."
"The thing I don't like about Papalino's is they stole our look," Bruno said. "That Frank Sinatra poster -- they have one of those," he pointed to the famous mug shot of the young Sinatra hanging on the wall.
Bruno had another beef: Even though it's billed as a "New York Pizzeria," Papalino's owner and chef, Allan Rosenberg is "not even from New York. He's from the south side" of Louisville.
Spinelli's proclaims itself as "Philly's Own," and its owner stands behind the claim. "I'm born and raised in Philadelphia," Spinelli's owner Brian Gaughan said.
"We make everything from scratch," Gaughan said. "Everything's been passed down to me."
What distinguishes Philadelphia-style pizza from New York? "You ask anybody from the East Coast, it's better," Gaughan said, jokingly boasting.
"But truthfully, it's similar pizza," he said. "We just like to talk a lot of smack about New York."
The interior of Papalino's, like that of Spinelli's, hews to a tradition of Italian-American kitsch that favors gangsters as a decorative motif.
At the end of the room, a gloriously tacky picture melds characters from "Goodfellas," "The Godfather" films and "The Sopranos" under an imaginary Italianate archway. Between the Godfather and Sopranos casts, Al Pacino wields an assault rife as Tony Montana (a Cuban gangster, but no matter) from "Scarface."
And, like Bruno said, Sinatra's mug hangs on one wall of the narrow, bright restaurant, right next to a photo of the Empire State Building.
On a recent afternoon, Papalino's chef and owner Rosenberg was overseeing the test run of a New Haven style white clam pie: freshly shucked clams, olive oil, a little cheese, and piles of garlic.
The stocky Rosenberg, a veteran of upscale kitchens like Danielle's, Park Place on Main and Seviche, wore a gray T-shirt and shorts. His hair was trimmed back to black stubble, and he erupted with laughter at unpredictable intervals. The name "Papalino" was a nickname his mother gave him. It used to irritate him, but it was the perfect name for a pizza place.
He explained that he had lived in New York for a time, and fell in love with pizza institutions like John's of Bleecker Street and Patsy's. Back in Louisville, he said, no one was making pizza like that.
"I don't think pizza has to be little frozen rabbit poop -- you know what I mean? That's what it looks like, the little sausage balls," he said.
Rosenberg reeled off the gourmet ingredients that he felt distinguished him from his competition on Baxter, like San Marzano tomatoes and his own cured pork and house-made sausage.
"All of our meats are pork-based," he said. "That's funny because my last name is Rosenberg and all our meats are pork-based. A good Jewish boy." Rosenberg laughed explosively, holding up a beefy forearm and pointing to his tattoo of pork cuts.
"Everyone should be allowed to eat good food," Rosenberg said. "I can offer the same quality that they're offering at a fine-dining restaurant, but you can get in and out for five bucks if you get a soda and a slice."
Rosenberg said he wanted to make sure that every slice was served fresh. "I'm like, if it looks (bad), throw it away, make a new one. It's that simple. People are a lot happier that way."
Local foodies have taken note of Rosenberg's high standards. "Their pizza outshines any pizza in the area," Rosen said. "I think it's a lot better than you'd find in a lot of New York pizzerias."
Alexis Rich, a teacher who lives in the neighborhood, said she had groaned when she heard that the new restaurant was going to be a pizzeria. "I thought, 'Oh God, not another pizza place,'" Rich said.
But after trying it out, she's changed her tune. "This place is great -- and I'm a big Spinelli's fan," she said.
On a sunny afternoon, Austin Hoffman and Scott Leathers sat with slices at one of Papalino's outdoor tables. Hoffman, 18, had a wispy beard, Leathers, 20, had a lobe-stretching earring in, and they wore matching black knit caps.
The pair said they were Spinelli's regulars. "Spinelli's has a better atmosphere," Hoffman said.
But Papalino's made "better quality pizza," Leathers said. "I heard about it and tried it and loved it."
Hoffman, who works at Spinelli's, didn't disagree with his friend.
"I eat pizza there (at Spinelli's) all the time," he said. For Hoffman, having a Papalino's slice now and then counted as a varied diet.