Mozzarella mosh pit

Tacoma's favorite pizzeria opens shop near the Kingdome.

Only a diehard local would dare to argue that Seattle is a great pizza town. Yes, there's tasty and trusty Pagliacci, whose east-meets-west approach rarely fails to satisfy even if it only inspires a de facto kind of devotion. The rest of the players are a strange breed indeed. For the last 10 years or so, city neighborhoods have been dominated by "Olympic," or Greek-style, pizza—a quasi-deep-dish, cheese-on-top creation with an inexplicably devoted following. Rock Pasta 322 Occidental S, 682-ROCK

D, MC, V; checks Granted, there are fine pizzas to be had at several Italian restaurants in town (Café Lago first springs to mind), but that is a very different experience. Where is the New York slice? And more importantly, where is the pizza joint? Nary a place in town so much as recalls the classic East Coast pizzeria. And as for anything approaching legendary joints like John's in Greenwich Village, Totonno's at Coney Island, or Pepe's in New Haven, faggeddaboudit. It is the lingering memory of the wood- and coal-fired masterworks of the east that keeps my search for pizza excellence alive, and why the arrival of Rock Pasta in January stirred hope. Rock Pasta got its start almost three years ago in downtown Tacoma, opening two doors down from the wildly successful Swiss Tavern near the new University of Washington branch campus. Within months, its wood-fired, brick-oven pizzas became the city's favorite. Capitalizing on its T-Town success, Rock Pasta took over the former site of the Pacific Brewing Company, near the Kingdome. The completely remodeled space is a sprawl of tables and large booths in front, with the bar, kitchen, and brewery tanks taking up the rear third. Along one wall is a massive WPA-style mural of a man hoisting a pizza. Elsewhere, a handful of rock-music posters adorn the walls, while a life-size, presumably papier-mâché Mariner baseball player hangs from the ceiling. No, it's not Ken Griffey Jr. It's Dave "Hendu" Henderson, who last played for the M's in 1986, suggesting his effigy was purchased at a significant discount. A few TVs are also scattered across the high ceiling, though they are outnumbered by speakers from which—you guessed it—rock music blares. Regrettably, the rock 'n' roll motif extends to the menu, where several specialty pizzas and pasta dishes carry names like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Yellow Brick Road," "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Sgt. Pepper." Ugh. Curiously, the naming convention isn't universal—onion, mushroom, and broccoli pizza is dubbed "The Veggie." There's even "Ripp's Revenge," a tomato, garlic, calamata olive, and marinated-mushroom pie named for the restaurant critic at Tacoma's News Tribune. Before the main course are several conventionally named appetizers. The sun-dried tomato/artichoke dip ($5.95) is a bit bland but goes down easy on toasty wedges of focaccia. There's also bruschetta ($4.95) and rich, marinated mushrooms topped with fontina ($5.75). Yet as one pass through the menu makes abundantly clear, Rock Pasta takes its greatest pride in strange bedfellows. Garlic bread too mundane for you? Well then, how about Garlic Brown Sugar Mozzarella Bread ($3.75)? This concoction is as odd as you might imagine—think Grandma's oatmeal au gratin. The one straightforward section of the menu are the salads. Homemade dressings (save for the raspberry vinaigrette, which belongs on a Sno-Kone) help to elevate otherwise ordinary greens. The Caesar has good bite, but is overpriced ($5.50 individual/$7.95 family style) for its size, and on one visit lacked both croutons (they were out) and Romano cheese (no explanation). Despite the restaurant's name, pasta is something of an also-ran, though the portions are huge and the combinations not as unorthodox as the those found on pizzas. "Smoke on the Water" ($9.25) drowned good noodles, plentiful chunks of smoked salmon, peas, mushrooms, and pecans in what was definitely not a "rich herb sauce," but closer to straight half-and-half. "Elvis Sighting" ($9.95), with sun-dried tomato and ricotta ravioli, tomatoes, and again pecans in a pesto cream sauce, worked slightly better, yet only served to reinforce that pizzas are the main event. Rock Pasta's signature pies (which come in two sizes: 11-inch and 15-inch) range from the simple to the scary. Along with old reliables like pepperoni ("Classic Rock" $8.95/$12.75), there's teriyaki chicken, tomato, pineapple, and almond pizza ("Saturday Night Special" $9.95/$14.95). And it just gets more peculiar from there. A kind of nondescript cream sauce replaces a tomato base on several pies, including "Bohemian Rhapsody" ($9.50/$14.25). Of all the creamy choices on the menu, this combination of chicken, roasted peppers, mozzarella, and Cajun spices sounded like it might actually work. The surprisingly bland pizza that arrived, however, had precious little chicken and was saved only by its sweet pepper strips. The dusting of Cajun spices—surely a few shakes out of a prepackaged can or jar—only served to annoy with its faint presence. "Sweet Emotions" ($8.95/$12.75), topped with spinach, caramelized onions, and mushrooms, was an improvement even as it too was off-kilter. The menu described the pizza as having a sweet red sauce; based on the taste, I'd suggest someone went a little pazzésco with the zùcchero. Same for the onions, which were too sugary, without any sign of being cooked to a true caramelized state. "The Blues" ($8.95/$12.75) is one of the few uncomplicated pizzas on the menu (for better results, I recommend building your own from the large list of available toppings), matching hot Italian sausage and spicy cherry peppers. With it, I could finally taste Rock Pasta's chunky and bright red sauce, which was pleasant if ordinary. I wish I could say as much for the crust, a thick, leaden vessel void of desirable crispness or chewiness. After trying several different pies, I came to understand that any textural appeal to the crust had been sacrificed for structural integrity. Rock Pasta's kitchen-sink approach to toppings weighs these babies down, meaning a thin layer of dough could never get the job done. And that's a pity. What's ultimately disappointing about Rock Pasta is that its pizzas have little of the telltale attributes associated with wood fires or brick ovens. Where is the wonderfully blistered, charred crust, and the smoky flavor the baking method is supposed to impart? With all the trappings of a classic East Coast pizzeria in place, Rock Pasta opts instead to spotlight heavy, over-the-top pies that bear no resemblance to their eastern cousins. These kitchen-sink tendencies extend to restaurant as a whole. Pizza should be the primary focus, but Rock Pasta is also trying to be a brewpub (several beers are crafted on premises), Pioneer Square watering hole (it has a liquor license and cigars), sports bar (with a Mariner special before every game), lunch spot (weekday buffet), and a live music venue (live blues and rock Friday and Saturday nights; no cover). Even if none of those incarnations holds appeal, its proximity to the Kingdome means thousands will someday find themselves looking for a pre- or post-game meal, and giving Rock Pasta a try. If you do, be prepared to be bewildered by the menu, and to kiss any hope of a true East Coast­style, brick-oven pizza goodbye.

 
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