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Best Pizza of The Caldwells Contest: Calandra's

Second stop draws high marks; Councilman Norton: 'the pizza is a keeper.'

Since opening a couple of years ago, Calandra's Italian Village has been quite the one-stop shop for Italian food needs. It's basically a mall for Italian goodies, built on a grand scale. There's so much, management might want to consider handing out maps at the door like Disney does!

Looking at Calandra's (243 Bloomfield Ave., Caldwell) from the entrance, there's the deli and mini-cafe to the far right side. There are tables and counters where one can eat prosciutto and fresh mozzarella sandwiches (I usually do), have a cup of Lavazza espresso (I do that, too) or have a gelato (ice cream, and yes, I do). Various newspapers are not only available for purchase, but there are also some for reading without buying—although giant wooden, pole-shaped holding devices make it a little difficult.

In front of that area, there's a market, with a bank of refrigerators and freezers containing take-home Calandra's pastas, soups and more. They also have a few shelves with "dry" goods, which thankfully includes staples like Nutella.

Nearby, there's a self-serve coffee bar for folks on the run, complete with donuts and bagels—keep an eye out for combo specials there.

Then there's the main bakery. Depending on the time of day, it's a "take a number" type of operation, as there's normally a crowd of people buying. Breads, cookies and cakes are generally on offer, but in seemingly endless variations and it's almost impossible to buy one without the other.

La Cantina, a wine store, is in front of the bakery, and on sale are many productions from the Calandra family's personal vineyards in Italy, as well as "fun" drinks like limoncello.

The left side of the village features La Taverna, a "lounge and bar" that has become quite a popular spot in town—there are regular happy hours with a DJ and live entertainment on occasion. Kids aren't allowed inside the tavern area after 5 p.m.—we found that out when trying to sit there for our pizza tasting.

Finally, all the way to the left in the "village" is Il Vechhio Cafe. A full-service restaurant with a full menu of pasta, pizza, meat and fish dishes. 

There's a pizza-making station here, set apart from the main kitchen area.  

During the warm-weather months, Il Vechhio expands with some sidewalk-style dining and there's even an outside bar.

With all this to offer (remember that map idea), it was interesting to see how the pizza tastes—does it get lost in the shuffle? Does it stand out?

The second-round judges stopped by Calandra's on a Monday night to find out. The tasters included editor Mike Pignataro, contributor Ron Albanese, "The Kid" Nick Albanese and special guest—Caldwell Councilman Joseph Norton.

Ron: I was concerned about how the pizza at Calandra's would be; although I've dined there many times before, I've never eaten it, nor seen it. Of course, I've noted the steam-ship design of the wood-burning oven station in the main dining area, but I've never personally witnessed its productions. 

In the middle of all the grandeur, would an ol' basic plain pie stand out? When we ordered, a little bit of irony further confused me: For eating in (at Il Vecchio and La Taverna), the pizzas don't come in a large size. They do make large pizzas, but they're available only for takeout at the bakery, according to our waiter. Sizing us up, our helpful waiter said that two (restaurant-sized) pies would do the trick.

I was pleasantly surprised when our two pizzas came to the table fast from the steam ship piping hot. At first glance, the two pizzas looked great as they sat on a couple of those cool pizza stands. They looked to be in the "bar pie" category, slightly-less-than-large in size (about 14 inches to a usual 16, not that small at all). Cheese and sauce ran up to the the outer edges of the thin crust, of which there was just enough to grab hold of a slice. 

Many places make a separate pizza sauce; depending on their style that's generally thicker or thinner than their sugo used in other dishes. Upon first bite, my thought was that the sauce on the pizza was the exact same, if not really close to Calandra's pasta sauce. It made a difference—it was rich, tangy and almost sweet.

The amount of cheese was roughly equal to the sauce, and when biting a slice some would cling to the pizza, creating the classic pizza string between me and the slice. Very old-school and cool. The entire crust was medium-thin, and held up the sauce-and-cheese blend up top really well.

Everything tasted fresh, and the amount of each ingredient seemed to be just right. I have to say that overall, this pizza was just great.

Mi piace la pizza al Calandra's!

Mike: Similar to Ron, this was my first time eating a pie from Calandra's. However, I have stopped in on several occasions for some slices from the bakery. They were good—but the pie was impressive.

It had a thin crust, topped with the right balance of cheese and sauce. The sauce was plenty flavorful with a bit of tang and touch of sweetness to it that you tasted in every bite. The cheese was just the right amount and stayed with the slice as you bit into it.

Perhaps just as impressive as the pie itself is its pricing. According to a bakery worker, the cost for a large cheese pizza for takeout is $7.69—including tax! However, the price of the "bar-sized" pie in the restaurant is slightly more at $12.95—still a bargain for something this good!

Nick: "The Kid" is normally pretty reserved (except when having to do homework), but tonight he decorated his official 2010 Best Pizza of The Caldwells evaluation with various "it's perfect!" doodles. When I asked him to comment further, he actually hurriedly pointed to the completed form as he helped himself to another slice.

Special Guest Judge: Caldwell Councilman Joseph Norton

Joe loves pizza: "I can eat it five nights a week," he told us, and is fond of Calandra's, yet he too never had their pizza. In a night of firsts, the councilman revealed his all-time favorite pie (Star Tavern, in West Orange), and he also told us he loves the Italian Village, yet perhaps not for a typical reason. 

"They sell eggs—did you know that?" he asked us, incredulously. "That's great—I had to go out on a Sunday morning for some for the kids, and they were right here!"

The councilman certainly brought a lot energy to the table, as well as his pizza-primed palette. 

Here are his impressions:

Joe liked the sauce, saying it was "inviting and fresh" and the cheese was of "great quality." He further raved between bites that the pizza was "cooked to perfection," and on our form added: "The pizza is a keeper—any chance to have it again, I would, without a doubt." Finally he remarked that the "service was attentive as well." 

Two rounds done in our search for the Best Pizza of The Caldwells, many more to go. After the test, we noticed that Calandra's seems to be currently emphasizing the pizza end of the business. Home delivery is now offered, and frequently on special, a large pie will run just $6.99 (plus tax)—that's 1993 pricing!

Il Vecchio at Calandra's Italian Village (243 Bloomfield Ave., Caldwell)

Phone: 973-461-1308

Web site: www.calandrasitalianvillage.com

Price for cheese pizza: Eat-in—$12.95, Takeout—$6.99

Taste tasted on: Monday, March 1

If you would like to be a guest judge, please let us know or post your experiences at each pizzeria below. After visiting Forte and Calandra's, The Caldwells Patch continues up Bloomfield Avenue next week with a stop at Nicco's Italian Deli.

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