534 Market Street, Downtown San Diego
E.J. Wilson sings it like he really means it. “No one can take your happiness, long as you/ Do what you gotta do.”
That’s exactly what he’s doing. What he has to do. Busking. We’re at the corner of Market and Fifth. It’s sometime after one in the mawnin’. His voice is deep, gravelly, just like Barry White or Lou Rawls.
E.J., “The Gaslamp Musicman,” as he likes to be called, sings rip-your-heart-out songs such as “Rainy Night in Georgia” to the herd bursting from bars right now like fresh-shorn sheep. And to the Turkish girls here for the summer to pedal the pedicabs, giggling and chatting outside places such as the Blarney Stone. And to the bicycle cops leaning against their bikes, waiting for the biggest surge when the bars finally close down.
“Know any decent by-the-slice pizza joint that’s open this time of night?” I ask E.J.
“The two I go to around here,” he says, “are Gaslamp and Ciro’s. Ciro’s is just up at Market and Sixth. I like their crust and sauces. I usually have the sausage-and-pepperoni. What I like about the both of them is they’re mom-and-pop. Back in DC, where I come from, it’s nothing but chains.”
“Huh. And where’s Gaslamp Pizza?”
“Just down the road.”
Two minutes later I’m there, farther down Fifth. Gaslamp Pizza’s rockin’.
“Barrett, Barrett! You don’t need a pizza!” says this woman. She’s following a guy across Fifth.
“Oh, yes I do.”
“Barrett…!” she says. “Oh, God.”
Barrett disappears into the line. I join it too, between a lotta folks standing ’round eating slices. ’Cause slices is what they mostly do here, $3 each. Bottles of pop, $2. Most end up spending a Lincoln.
“Help who’s next?”
Guy with graying hair but a young face is hyped up for the rush. The little space has white tiles on its walls, a Cardtronics ATM, red Coca-Cola clock, a schmaltzy painting of a white horse in a green glade, couple of four-lamp ceiling fans, and a TV blasting a hip-hop video. In the back, a big guy sprinkles cheese on a couple of raw pizzas, then hauls out finished products from two of the four ovens, rolls the cutters, and brings the sliced-up pies to the front cabinet.
One thing’s for sure: gotta think quick. Line’s moving fast. Guys ahead of me seem to be ordering the pepperoni, but I see they have a chicken pesto, a vegetarian, BBQ chicken, and one that has a green smear over the pastry. “Pesto,” says this kid behind the counter, Alex.
I mean, I’m peckish. I ain’t lost-in-the-desert hungry. But I need something. Just to get the ball rolling, I go for the BBQ chicken and a plastic bottle of Sprite. Five bucks. I chomp it down in five, half sitting on a stool at the stand-up counter. Pizza’s fine. Slightly sweet taste of the BBQ sauce coming out. Nice thin crust. The guy who takes my money, Hadeer, says he’s owned this place nine years. “My own favorite’s the vegetarian, but most people ask for the pepperoni.”
“They put love into their pizzas here, man,” says this well-lubricated guy. “They’re family. Only thing Ciro’s does better is their stromboli.”
I see they have non-pizza items too: chicken wings ($4.49 for five, $7.99 for ten), “halapeño peppers” ($5.99), chicken strips (five pieces for $6.99). Even a Greek salad ($5.99) or Caesar salad ($4.99). But I guess I want to know why Hadeer likes his vegetarian.
So I get one from Alex and take it outside to the park bench they have there on the sidewalk. It’s certainly got lots of stuff aboard. Then, can’t help wandering up Market, just to check out Ciro’s. Kinda boisterous crowd here too, crammed into the little fenced-off table area outside on the street.
“I’m getting too old for this shit,” this blonde in tootsie high heels is saying. “We’re not marketing Cialis anymore. Smaller territories. Mmm... Tried this pesto? It’s divine.”
The crowd here’s just as sauced, but richer, more biz-oriented. Inside, it’s small, bricky at one end with pix of old New York, old-time baseball fields, and at the other, a big 9/11 mural. “In Loving Memory of our Friends Charlie Heeran, Jimmy Riches…”In the kitchen, this one guy, Chris — turns out he’s Sicilian, and the “person in charge” — is spinning the dough above his head. Beautiful to watch. “Actually,” he says without looking down, “strictly speaking, it’s pronounced ‘Chiro’s.’ But nobody does.”
“We make our own dough,” says the other guy, Jarrett. He’s hauling out a pizza from an eye-level oven. “Flour, sugar, salt, yeast, water. That’s it.”
Huh. Simplicity. Pretty good example is the margarita slice I order. So danged straightforward — tomato slices, basil, garlic, white cheese, no sauce, yet so delish. And here, by the slice, $2.50. Heh-heh. Save 50 cents on Gaslamp Pizza. So I get that and a pepperoni-sausage. I know. Eyes bigger than stomach. It’s the thin New Yawk crust everybody raves about. Gets me too. I take it outside. Somebody’s saying how “pizza” actually means “pie” in Italian. So when you say “pizza pie,” you’re saying “pie pie.”
Most delicious pizza moment? When I go back in and Chris has chopped up a slice of pizza for free offerings. “Chicken bacon pesto,” he says. “It wasn’t moving tonight.” Wow. Can’t think why not. I take a couple of pieces and head on out, back toward the warm, distant voice of E.J. Wilson. And my last bus.
The Place: Gaslamp Pizza, 505 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp, 619-231-7542
- Type of Food: Pizza
- Prices: Pizzas by the slice, $3; full pizza pies, from $11.99 (medium cheese) to $15.99 (X-large cheese); chicken wings, $4.49 for five, $7.99 for ten; “halapeño peppers,” $5.99; chicken strips (five pieces), $6.99; Greek salad, $5.99; Caesar salad, $4.99; sodas, $1.50–$3
- Hours: 11:00 a.m.–3:00 a.m., daily (weekends till 4:00 a.m.)
The Place: Ciro’s Pizzeria, 534 Market Street, Gaslamp, 619-696-0405, and at Hillcrest
- Type of Food: Pizza
- Prices: Pizza by the slice, $2.50
- Hours: 11:00 a.m.–2:30 a.m., daily
- Buses: 3, 11, 992
- Nearest Bus Stop: Fifth and Market