by Mike Corrigan

If it weren't for the curbside signage along Washington just north of Sprague, you'd hardly notice it. But notice it you should. I'm talking about Mootsy's North 9 -- just about the most happening little pizza-and-sandwich joint in the downtown core.

Mootsy's may be small, but the five tables and the three-stool bar along the front window offer plenty of space to park it. The interior is clean, neat and offbeat. Original paintings and framed rock posters immortalizing everyone from Billie Holiday and Elvis to the Clash and Blondie embellish the richly colored walls. A counter is plastered with an assortment of show flyers from Mootsy's Lounge, the live music venue. The kitchen in the back is tidy and functional.

"As far as decorating, we didn't know what to do at first," admits co-owner Sasha Turner. "Then a good friend said, 'Just decorate it with things that you guys both love.' So that's where the art and music design concept came from."

Mootsy's North 9 is the fine work of Turner -- daughter of Mootsy's Lounge owner Rick Turner -- and Leah Bickerton.

"We've been friends since the fifth grade," Turner says. "Somehow we convinced my dad that we could make this happen here. And so the wheels started turning last fall."

Prior to North 9's official opening last January, Turner and Bickerton spent months in the restaurant working up the menu and trying out recipes.

"We were back here experimenting with things before we actually opened to the public. It was really a lot of trial and error, making batches of pizza sauce and salsa and asking people what they liked about this one or that one."

They may be new to the restaurant gig, but somehow, they make it all look easy. That ease of operation is reflected in the no-nonsense approach to ordering (at the counter) and seating (anywhere you like) and straightforward menu layout (pizzas, sandwiches, "extras").

The sauces -- tomato or five-spice olive oil -- are handmade. The pizza dough is hand-tossed. The specialty pizzas (available in 8-inch and 16-inch sizes) feature traditional and gourmet ingredients in lively combinations. Turner says one of her personal favorites is the North 9 ($8.25 / $18.95), a spicy olive oil-based pie (no red sauce) topped with mozzarella, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, pine nuts and fresh basil. There's also the Santa Fe ($6.75 / $17.95) with mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, lime-marinated chicken, black olive and red onion, and topped with fresh tomato and fresh cilantro; the Super Veggie ($6.50 / $15.95), with mozzarella and fontina cheeses, black olive, mushroom, roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomato and red onion; and the Big Time ($8.95 / $19.95), heavily laden with mozzarella, fontina and goat cheeses, sausage, roasted red pepper, green pepper, fresh tomato, roasted garlic and fresh basil. For those with simpler tastes, the Double Pepperoni ($4.95 / $11.95) has you doubly covered. You can also make your own from a list of 22 ingredients.

For something quick anytime, consider the daily selection of four different slices (starting at $1.75 each) or the popular slice-and-salad combo ($4.95). Six sandwiches thoughtfully augment the pizza list. These range in price from the $4.75 Traditional Veggie (cheddar, Swiss, tomato, green pepper, lettuce, red onion, mayo and mustard on whole wheat) to the $5.95 hot Italian (pepperoni, ham, black olive, mozzarella and pizza sauce on a toasted hoagie).

A quick look at both the regular menu and the specials du jour yielded a plan. We ordered the 8-inch personal pan pizza of the day, with mozzarella, feta, sun-dried tomato and mushroom, for $5.95; a slice (with mozzarella, fontina, Canadian bacon, pineapple and tomato) and salad combo for $4.95; and the hot Chicken Ranch sandwich with shredded chicken, black olive, red onion, Swiss and ranch dressing on a toasted hoagie for $5.95. We also succumbed to the "No Joke Breadsticks," billed provocatively as "serious breadsticks" with "tons" of roasted garlic, Romano cheese, five-spice olive oil and a side of homemade pizza sauce, all for $3.95.

While nostalgia-tripping to the sounds of the Cure, we dug in. The finished pizza crusts had great texture -- thin and crispy, with that pleasingly homemade vibe. The toppings were uniformly fresh, flavor-balanced and artfully presented. The slice that came with the combo was way generous. Only a notch below in balance was the Chicken Ranch sandwich, which was tasty enough (with real melted Swiss) but overburdened just a tad -- for my taste, anyway -- by too much ranch dressing. The salads consisted of nice green leaf lettuce that looked freshly torn, not that scary pre-cut stuff from a bag.

We tried the ranch and Italian dressings, which, while they were out of a bottle, still had good flavor.

And those breadsticks? Hell, yes! They're deliciously savory, chewy and encrusted with huge chunks of roasted garlic, just begging to be dipped in that excellent sauce. We were all humbled before their might and agreed that they totally lived up to the hype.

Mootsy's North 9's extended weekend hours (open till 2:30 am) is especially accommodating for bar-hoppers looking to nightcap with a good nosh. Not coincidentally, it's a nice compliment to Dad's business just around the corner.

"Rick's really happy with it," says Sasha Turner. "And it fits. It's like a part of Mootsy's. We wanted to make people feel like they were kind of at Mootsy's, in a way.

"But cleaner, non-smoking and," she laughs, "not so many crazies during the day."

Publication date: 09/11/03

  • or