- 1573 Bardstown Road, Louisville, KY, 40205
- (502) 454-4544
- Overall User Rating:
- (3 ratings)
- 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday: 4 to 11 p.m. Sunday
- Official Web Site:
At the University of Pennsylvania, there’s a unit called the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health. It’s headed up by a scholar named Patrick McGovern — nicknamed “The Beer Archaeologist” — who scours the world trying to figure out what people ate and drank tens of thousands of years ago.
He scrapes resins from old kitchen jars, drinking vessels and grindstones recovered from ancient sites around the world, analyzes them, and tries to reconstruct what our prehistoric ancestors drank after a hard day’s woolly mammoth hunting.
I figure there’s a good chance that tens of thousands of years from now, McGovern’s scholarly descendants may want to know what everyday Americans were eating at the turn of the 21st century. If so, I hope they find their way to ZA’s Pizza Pub, a perfect example of what a pizzeria ought to be. For one thing, when you step into the place, you smell the history of pizza in every breath. I’m pretty sure a good laboratory could analyze the dark wood panels, the cozy bar, or the tables and chairs and re-create a perfect pizza sauce — a full-flavored, perfectly balanced, zingy blend of tomatoes and herbs.
It’s a sauce that smells like the history of pizza — perhaps not surprisingly, since owner Jim Rigby is a fifth-generation pizza maker — or pizzaiolo, as the Italians say. In an email, after I’d finished my review visits to ZA’s, Rigby reported that his great-great-grandmother, Josephine Realbuto, was the first great pizza maker in the family (she hailed from Montemaggiore bel Sito in Palermo). The family held on to her lessons, and Rigby learned the craft of pizza from his mother, Cynthia. It’s a family tradition with its roots in Sicily.
When Rigby opened ZA’s in 1996, he found a Bardstown Road location that had housed restaurants since the 1940s — a space that was once home to Calandrino’s, a storied pizzeria of old.
In some ways, ZA’s is a true old-school pizzeria. The menu is exclusively given over to pizzas, calzones, subs and salads (including an Italian salad, complete with banana peppers and pepperoni, that goes nicely with the house balsamic vinaigrette, $6.95). No pastas will you find, and just three appetizers (two of them breadsticks). And yet, Rigby’s approach is a touch idiosyncratic.
From the beginning he offered an excellent whole-wheat crust (it’s still the standard of quality for whole-wheat crusts in Louisville). And though his list of toppings includes all the customary meats (pepperoni, sausage, ham, etc.), the featured centerpiece of his menu has always been a handful of meatless pizzas. His Garden ZA is as simple as can be: fresh spinach, tomato and garlic (from 10 to 16 inches, in 2-inch increments, $13, $15.50, $19, $23). That combination, baked atop the sturdy, pliable, richly flavored whole-wheat crust, is just about perfect.
But if you crave more textures — and vivid eye candy — try the Super Veggie on Rigby’s New York-style crust ($14.40, $17.25, $21, $25). It’s outstanding. The crust is thin (not wafer thin, but crisp enough to feel the crunch against your teeth), yet sturdy enough to support a generous quantity of onions, green peppers, tomatoes, black and green olives, fresh mushrooms, bright green and yellow chunks of squash and zucchini, and gemlike florets of broccoli. Consider that even after a night in the refrigerator, leftover slices remained firm and crisp.
ZA’s is one of those rare places that work equally well for family gatherings and groups of pals who want to watch a game with a beer. Service is friendly and leisurely. Seating is spaced for comfort. Lighting is usually a bit dim. Sidewalk seating is available in fine weather ( on nice days the big windows facing Bardstown Road are often open).
Pizza fans who prefer a traditional Louisville-style crust — thicker, but nicely crafted so as to bring out the flavor of the dough — will find that Rigby offers that as well. He uses it to make hefty golden calzones ($7.-95-$10.95), their exteriors dusted with garlic and spice, and artfully vented to let off steam. For omnivores, his calzone with the works ($10.95) is a piping hot treasure-trove of juice and flavor.
Likewise, Rigby’s subs are fine. There’s a meatball sub that finds meatballs, onions, marinara and mozzarella welded into a piping hot cylinder of glory ($8.50), and a classic Italian combo ($7.50).
And though I like eating at ZA’s (and nothing compares with a fresh pizza delivered hot to the table), ZA’s Pizza Pub delivers within a rectangle from Clifton to the Louisville Zoo, and from Germantown to Bowman Field.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.