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Upscale Pizza 

by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & y first memories of pizza are connected to a box -- not a pizza delivery box, but a box of Geno's Pizza mix. We'd open the bag of powdered crust mix, add water and stretch the sticky mess to fit our big round pans. Then we'd pour on the provided can of tomato sauce, sprinkle on a handful of dried herbs from the box, add our favorite toppings, pop the rounds in the oven for a half-hour and voila.





That seems pretty primitive when you consider all the different directions pizza has gone in the 30 years since: new ingredients, new sauces -- Thai peanut sauce, ick! -- have it delivered, bake-your-own, thin crust, thick crust, stuffed crust, meat lovers', vegetarian, buy-by-the-slice or whole.





But now a south Spokane pizzeria has gone back to basics, making pizzas just like they're made in Italy. The ambiance at Villaggio (the Italian word for village) is upscale: about a dozen dark wood tables and chairs, folded white cloth napkins, little red table candles, new age/fusion jazz background music. A fully stocked bar at one end serves wine, martinis and other mixed drinks. On the other end is a brick wood-fired oven. The kitchen is open. The night we visited there was a hint of pizzeria smell.





My two companions and I started with Insalata Villaggio ($10): arugula, pear slivers, caramelized onions and walnuts, gorgonzola and fig balsamic vinaigrette, served cold. Our server brought us a big plate, enough for three as an appetizer, a decent entr & eacute;e for one. This insalata is a variation of the sweet-and-tangy green salads that are popular in many restaurants, but it's the first I've tried that used caramelized onions. A nice choice. The onions provide a new texture and another layer of taste. And speaking of taste, sometimes vinaigrettes overpower a salad like this, but this one was nicely complementary.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e also had a salad -- a house version with greens, yellow and green peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, shavings of mozzarella and a vinaigrette -- with our panini, an Italian-style sandwich that's gaining popularity in the States.





We ordered the Jocelina ($10): prosciutto, mozzarella, provolone, artichoke, roasted red peppers, fresh basil leaves and tomato. There were layers of flavor and texture. The cheese was gooey. The prosciutto was slightly salty and smoky. The caramelized onion added earthiness. The peppers added sweetness. The basil brought another dimension.





My only complaint is that the bottom slice of bread didn't hold up to the ingredients inside. By the time I picked up my half of the sandwich, the bread had soaked up all of the moisture and turned into a mess -- a yummy mess, but something better eaten with a fork. If you order the panini, you're better off eating it first or attacking it with utensils.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & V & lt;/span & illaggio bills its pizzas as "artisan specialty pies" and "signature pies." I don't agree with the terminology. Our Vegetariano pizza ($15) had a thin, crispy crust. Pie, to me, signifies a pizza with a top or something with some thickness to it. This was definitely not that.





It was, though, a tasty treat: a 12-inch, irregularly shaped platform for a thin layer of tomato sauce, covered with a gardeners' feast of caramelized onions and mushrooms and roasted eggplant, peppers, artichoke, topped with millimeter-thin slices of zucchini. The taste was mild with a hint of sweetness. The tomato sauce was subtle, the cheese present but not overwhelming. Best of all the crust wasn't overdone (a little scorched on the edges, but not too burned on the bottom).





We finished with a wonderfully rich Italian dessert, tiramisu ($7). At first glance, our slice looked like a piece of cheesecake with cocoa dusted on top. Our first taste, though, was much more complicated than that, with layers of creamy filling, coffee-saturated cake and melted chocolate. It was a lovely ending to a very nice meal. One suggestion: Finish the tiramisu at the restaurant. I found the chilled leftover cake wasn't as good the next day.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's hard to place Villaggio in the Spokane pizza marketplace because different people here have different methods for evaluating pizza. I work occasionally for a local place that makes a thicker crust and bakes its pies -- yes, I think they qualify as pies -- in a traditional oven, rather than in a wood-fired environment. The prices are less expensive, the options for toppings are numerous and the results are usually pretty tasty.





Villaggio also offers a variety of pizzas, from Pomodoro e Formaggio -- an Italian version of a three-cheese (mozzarella, provolone and fontina) -- to the carnivore's delight, the Carni Italiane, with salami, pepperoni, sausage and pancetta.





If you judge pizza with a quantitative measuring stick, inches per dollar, Villaggio might disappoint you. Its offerings range from $12-$17, for what many would consider a small pizza. If your judgment is based more on quality than quantity, though, Villaggio offers a nice experience.

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