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Best Pizza of The Caldwells Contest: Michael's

First stop in W. Caldwell offers plenty of variety, a unique way of baking.

The physical location of Michael's Pizzeria & Restaurant is of special note for a few unique reasons.

First, in an area with an exceptionally high number of pizzerias, its three doors away from another.

Second, it's on a hallowed ground of sorts. It's exact physical West Caldwell location, at 669 Bloomfield Ave., is that of the famous Sonny's Pizza, which was in business for most of the 1970s and half of the 1980s, before closing under controversial circumstances.

Third, it's the same location as Aponte's Pizzeria, which fired up it's ovens in the late '80s and was successful during the evolution of the business expanding their scope menu wise. With it's name intact, Aponte's continued with a second owner right through the 1990s.

During part of that period, this writer was a delivery guy there and ended up learning a lot about you, the pizza eaters of The Caldwells.

In addition, when it comes to its actual pizza, Michael's, which opened in April of 2001, inherited a special, unique-to-the-area oven. The model in use is a high-capacity carousel of sorts, containing a series of shelves that can hold about four pies. The shelves rotate, impacting the cooking—some swear it makes for a more even bake and better taste.

Some simply swear, literally. During busy times, it can be tricky keeping on top of the progress of the pies. Missing it as it goes around could mean the difference between cooked and burnt.

There is a stick shift on the thing, but that too came with challenges in timing.

Many times when I worked there I'd see a pie guy reaching into the 600-plus degree beast, lunging over the front shelf to get a pie in the back.

Michael: A Man Among Menus

A wide and varied menu awaits customers; definitely one of the largest in The Caldwells. The one customers can take home with them is a tri-fold, with items taking up five panels in pretty small fonts.

Here's a rundown of selected items:

On the sandwich side, there are all kinds of hot and cold crowd-pleasing offerings; roast beef, tuna and mouth-watering Italian fare like a mozzarella, arugula, roasted peppers and sun-dried tomatoes number.

There's also the "gourmet" wraps lineup, which boasts chicken parmigiana, turkey and cheese steak. A standout is the taco wrap (meat, sauce, lettuce, tomato and provolone).

If you're looking for a good add-on to the order or maybe just feel like pickin' chicken, "Cluck University" chicken wings and tenders are availble, in various amounts from small to huge along with mild and hot sauces.

In addition to pizza (more on that below), the dinners are where Michael's makes it's mark. Time-tested sellers like penne vodka, veal francesee and shrimp scampi over pasta are joined by some creative and delicious-sounding dishes that might make deciding what to order a little tricky.

In the pasta section, penne can be done up with "Amatriciana" (bacon, onions and marinara) or "Michael's'" namesake sauce (mushroom, peas and roasted bell peppers also in marina).

The dinners go on and on, with gnocchi, veal and chicken valdostana and eggplant rollatini all in the mix.

Seafood dinners may be the hidden treasures, though. Salmon is offered a few different ways; calamari is part of "linguini all tacantina" (they 're breaded and sauteed with white wine and garlic); flounder can be baked or francese-ized.

Pizza is center stage, and like everything else, is offered in many varities and sizes—all are available in peronal (9-inch), small (14-inch) and large (16-inch).

The two main categories are ambitiously called "specialty" and "gourmet."

Among the standouts include "Chicken Paradise" (pesto sauce and chopped tomatoes), "Seafood" (clams, mussels, calamari and shrimp) and the "Capricciosa." In Italian slang, that roughly means "crazy person," but at Michael's it means a pie with "artichokes, ham, b.o. and mushrooms."

I don't know for sure what the "b.o." stands for, but it's surely good.

The varieties are vast, but the plain cheese pizza is what we're after. Settling in with myself and editor Mike Pignataro at Michael's dining room were former Caldwell Council President Jeff Curley and his wife, Carolyne.

Mike: While one employee reminded me that Michael's is know for its Margherita pie, which I will go back and try sometime, the cheese pizza was good overall.

The cheese was a bit salty and a little oily but there wasn't an overwhelming amount so the taste of the sauce, which had a good flavor, soaked through. 

Unfortunately, the crust couldn't carry the weight as it sagged near the point of the slice. While the crust of my first piece had a decent crispiness to it, my second slice was a bit wet and soggy from the oil.

Overall, I liked the pie and would have it again—but first, I'm going to try Michael's Margherita.

Ron: This was a larger-than-usual large pie, and it was brought to our table piping hot and placed on a stylish serving stand. It was very uniform and photo ready. We took a picture of it, let it cool for a moment and dug in.

Cheese: There was a  smart amount of it, and it was very salty and gave off some oil—was it whole milk? I found it addicting.

Sauce: I know I've been harping on the lack of an adequate amount of sauce on some the pizzas we've tasted, but yet again, it was scant.

Having said that, what was present worked well, highlighting the taste of the cheese—I guess this was truly a "cheese pizza."

Crust: The crust was well done. Out of the whole pizza, this was what identified the pizza the most as having come from the oven it did. It tasted good, but I'd have to say that if it were a little thicker, it would have made for a more well-rounded pie. As it was, the cheese wasn't supported well, and when picked up, the slices collapsed.

Overall: I may be all retro with this test for personal reasons, but I enjoyed Michael's pizza—the crunchy and slightly smoky crust overcame any other perceived shortcomings it may have.

Our latest guest tasters were excited to join our cause; both love pizza, with Jeff saying his favorite spot in The Caldwells is Calandra's, while his wife prefers the new Tony D's.

Let's see what they have to say about Michael's.

Jeff: The crust was light and not doughy, which I enjoyed because I was able to taste the sauce. The cheese was even and not greasy, which is always a plus. The sauce was on the sweet side—I would have added a little more spice (Oregano).

Overall, I found Michael's pie to be a very good lunch time pie, because it is a lighter and tasty. If you don't take out, Michael's has a nice side room to sit for lunch.

Carolyne: I'm a huge sauce lover, much more than cheese. I really liked the flavor of the sauce, I always end up adding extra red pepper to make it zestier, but if I had to, it was tasty on it's own for me.

There wasn't too much cheese, which is a good thing, but I  like a thicker, more of a mouthful pizza. 

It was a tasty pie, but I would have liked a heartier slice. If I want thin crust, I prefer it much more thinner and crispier. So this was a little too much in between, but it tasted nice.

Michaels' Pizzeria & Restaurant

Address: 669 Bloomfield Ave., West Caldwell (Take out, dine in and delivery)

Phone: 973-226-8862

Web site: www.michaelstogo.com

Price of large cheese pizza: $12.65

Tasted on: Tuesday, April 13

If you would like to be a guest judge, please let us know or post your experiences at each pizzeria below. The Caldwells Patch has previously visited Forte, Calandra's, Nicco's, Cedar Grill and Pizza, Pizza and Sandwich Barn, Tony D's, Domino's and Papa John's.

Next week: Russillo Ristorante and Pizzeria

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