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Uncle Joe's Pizzeria

4591 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights




There's nothing like a night discovery. Talking 9:30--10:00 p.m. I've got the munchies, but I know I'm on a losing streak. Even here on El Cajon. Every eating place is either blacked out or waiters are stacking chairs.

I resist the pull of a KFC and a Wienerschnitzel, and hey hey! Reward. A glowing little island of light up by 46th Street. It's a sidewalk canopy, red and green. Mad baskets of blue and yellow flowers hang underneath. Place looks so seductive I'm not even worried about the price, just so long as they're open. "Uncle Joe's Pizzeria," says the sign. Okay, I'm kinda in pizza burnout right now, but surely they'll have other stuff, like eggplant parmigiana, and lasagna. I could do with something like that.

'Course I get wary on the approach. Why should this place be open? But then a guy goes in with two big pizza bags, as if he intends to pick up more pizza for delivery. That's hopeful. And now I see two women chatting at one of the outside tables.

"Are they still open?" I ask.

Both get up. "We certainly are," they say. "Come in, come in."

The other surprise is the inside. It's not your average pizza-joint nightmare, with piles of greasy boxes and faded posters of Napoli. This room is new, warm and sophisticated, with salmon-colored tiling, live orchids, gilded-frame mirrors, a few photos of men and women in Navy uniforms -- and best of all, through an arch, a kind of living room with tables, black leather easy chairs, a hanging tapestry of an Italian seaport village. They have glass carriage lanterns on the wall and a huge TV projection screen in the corner. Bunch of guys sit around chatting and watching as if it's their regular club.

The lunch menu's out, more's the pity. They have a lot of sandwiches with strange names like "The Recruit Training Center, Orlando, Florida." (This is chicken breast, bacon, avocado, provolone cheese, spinach, tomato, and onion, $5.49.) Or the "North Island Dental Clinic" (turkey, ham, bacon, $5.49).

"The sandwich list is, basically, the story of my naval career," says the other woman. Her name's Marsha. She's the owner, started this whole thing in January 2005. Something different from what she'd done before. "I was 22 years in the Navy, a dental technician and corpsman with the Marines, Seabees, but mostly Marines."

We're talking, I'm scanning...The dinners are more expensive, of course. Hope I'm going to make this. Have three Lincolns in my pocket. "Half and Half" dinners, like spaghetti and lasagna, cost $12.99, with garlic bread. I think they include salad. Pasta dishes like penne with baby clam sauce go from $8.99--$12.99. Chicken Alfredo's $12.99. They have rosemary chicken with roasted vegetable ravioli for $9.99, and a bunch of $11.99 "pasta dinner specials," like eggplant parmigiana, and chicken with mushroom sauté pomadoro. Drat. Spending 12 bucks before tax, tip, drink...no can do.

So I go for the meat lasagna ($9.99). And a coffee ($1.00). The breakfast cawfee I never had.

But all my dinero distress disappears when Benelia brings first a bulging salad bowl, then the garlic bread on another dish, and then a huge white plate with a massive chunk of lasagna sitting like the Half Dome at Yosemite. "All made here. The pastry, the bread, everything," Marsha says. "Even the ground meat's kosher, for Jewish and Muslim customers. I get it from the Near East Food shop next door. They only buy halal meat."

If I didn't have to work tonight, and if I had just a little more cash, I'd get a glass of Two-Buck Chuck, that pretty-good red wine Benelia shows me -- though here it's four bucks. The whole bottle's about twice that. As markups go, it's not bad.

Meanwhile, Benelia has brought my coffee. One dollar! A huge French-style press-the-coffee-down affair that makes for mugs and mugs of really good, fresh-brewed java.

It's heading for 11 now. People are sitting around talking, while I'm still munching my fresh-tasting lasagna. Marsha's telling how, when she was in the Middle East as dental tech and corpsman, and among the first wave of Navy women to be in a combat zone, she helped comfort sailors from the USS Stark, which had been hit by Iraqi missiles. And how her husband William is still in the Navy, soon to be joining the USS Reagan, in charge of feeding...what? Five thousand crew aboard. He's a chief warrant officer.

Will, Marsha's 16-year-old son, is helping out. Benelia's watering all the hanging flowers. I decide to come back some lunchtime, sit outside, try one of those sandwiches. And, also, their "special dessert pizza." It's $8.99. Sigh. Sweet pizza! Meanwhile, I'm gonna have to take the rest of my lasagna home. I get up.

"So how come you set up your restaurant here, on El Cajon?" I ask Marsha.

"This town's changing," she says. "El Cajon Boulevard will be changing too. I don't mind being a bit of a pioneer."

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