We were snookered in Asheville, North Carolina.
After several months of driving through the Deep South, we’d grown accustomed to some of the in-your-face conservatism and religiosity of the region. Obviously, no area is monolithic, but I’d never met so many complete strangers who’d start a conversation by assuming I agreed with their politics than I have in Southern states. And the abundance of scripture verse lawn signs and billboards advertising such pleasantries as “The Devil is Gonna Get You” were certainly things I haven’t seen elsewhere. So when we arrived in Asheville, via Alabama, we found the cultural differences a bit startling.
The life sized cardboard cutout of a beaming Stephen Colbert greeting us at the first shop I entered was an initial clue that things were different. The small bands of ‘hippie’ musicians and backpackers roaming the streets provided a second. By the time we stumbled upon the psychedelicly themed Mellow Mushroom pizzeria we naturally assumed it was a local, independently owned establishment. It fit so perfectly that it couldn’t be any other way. Had we known it was a large franchise with over 100 stores in 15 states we probably would have skipped it. That would have been a big mistake.
Is Mellow Mushroom’s Magical Mystery Tour pizza the best we’ve ever had? Quite possibly. It’s an unusual and totally incredible combination: a pesto based pizza with button and Portobello mushrooms, spinach, feta, mozzarella, and jalapenos. It’s a close contest between this and the more traditional meatball pie from Lombardi’s in NY. We’ll have to line them up side by side to decide a winner – if only someone offered air delivery we’d be in business.
We didn’t find out until much later that the great ‘local’ Asheville pizzeria we discovered was, in reality, part of a large chain. Our disappointment lasted only as long as it took for us find another nearby location; this time in Lexington, Kentucky.
The shop there had the same quirky, independent feel as the one in North Carolina, but the pie wasn’t as tasty as we remembered. Don’t get me wrong, it still kicked ass. It just didn’t make the same impression. The recipe was similar, but the chef went too light on the fantastic pesto sauce and it made a big difference.
We tried again in Columbus, Ohio, where they completely ditched the independent theme for a ‘Ruby Tuesday’s’ kind of look. Sure, some of the same psychedelic memorabilia hung on the walls but it was clear that a bunch of guys in suits were running the place. The other shops, meanwhile, looked like they were owned by a couple of stoners who perfected pizza making while trying to battle the munchies.
The guys in suits made a pretty mean pie, though; which just goes to show, you can’t judge a pizzeria by its hippie, drug-culture bonifides.