Sigma Chi - got a little roughed up looking for a spot to eat it, but definitely scrumbo.
Happy Fonso bongos away to a recorded song coming out of his car. “Working for tips,” his cardboard signs says. “Your help is needed and appreciated. Thanks!”
2707 Congress Street, San Diego
Except, since the lockdown, Old Town is pretty-much deserted. In the silence, you can hear his two-note bongos up and down San Diego Avenue. A couple of dollar bills sit in his tips bucket. “God Bless you!” it reads.
He puts on a hopeful face. “This is the first time I’ve tried playing here,”
Ooh. I get whiffs of carne asada. A couple of Mexican cafes are making tacos right out on the street. But no seats. You’ve gotta find your own space to eat them. People have to take them off to their cars, if they have them.
Hugh, Juan, remembering their recently-passed companion William.
Definitely hungry, so I carry on down Twiggs, which leads to Congress Street. It’s even more deserted. All except for that Italian place that has been here forever. Pizza Bella. Hey hey! Open for take-out! I’m in like Flynn.
I see they have a whole empty patio in the middle of the building. The counter guy, Lou, gives me a menu and says I can go into the courtyard to sit, but just to check the options.
So I’m looking at the menu.
“Our Sigma Chi was voted ‘Best pizza in America’ on ABC’s Mike and Matey Show. It was a kind of Good Morning America,” he says. Huh. Best in America! That’s impressive. I think seriously of going pizza, just to see what The Best tastes like.
They start at 13 bucks for the “personal” pizzas, and head up to near $40 for the giant size. Salads are $11-14, pastas such as spaghetti or lasagna run $17 (but you get “freshly-baked” garlic bread and a side salad as part of the deal), and main entrees such as Shrimp Alfredo go up to $21. But they do have meatball sandwiches for $11. I go for an appetizer-size spicy BBQ wings ($10.95 for eight).
Oh, and while I’m waiting, a glass of wine, $10, which Lou lets me drink at one of the tables. A nice Pinot Grigio. Couple of gents come up with a whole bottle of wine. They’re waiting for their take-out too. Wine’s a Salmon Creek Cab. “Costs $21.95,” says one of them, Joseph. Wow, so let’s say they get two glasses each, that’s half what I’m paying. Sigh.
Old School - Decor and food are traditional Italian.
“There used to be three of us,” says his buddy Geoff. “We were The Three Musketeers. But our friend William passed away.”
“Makes it hard,” says Joe. “Especially in this covid atmosphere.”
Turns out Joe is a caregiver. He looks like a strong guy. Just as well. I’m sure he has a lot of lifting to do.
“How long have you guys been going?” I ask Lou.
“Fifty years, exactly, 1970,” Lou says. “We had a whole celebration planned.”
I take my wings up to the Old Town Plaza, even though, heck, all seating has been hauled away here too. So I kinda wander from one fence post to the next, pausing to haul out one chicken wing from the box at a time. Interesting sloppy BBQ taste, though. Then, aah: you can almost lay the box down on this big stone ball in the plaza. But I don’t, because it has a plaque set into it. “On this spot the United States flag was first raised in Southern California by Lt. Stephen C. Rowan commanding sailors and marines July 29, 1846.”
I try to imagine that scene in the dusty summer plaza as I walk and chew these very tender, juicy wings. I think of the American sailors and marines, and of the Mexican citizens of the plaza who suddenly weren’t Mexican citizens any more.
The wings: super sloppy, sweet, spicy, savory, and at eight pieces, the perfect stomach-filler. I’m bloated, but super-satisfied.
And — hey hey! —I’m back next day. Because I keep remembering Lou mentioning that pizza. “Best in America.” Sigma Chi.
This time it’s Michael behind the counter. “Sigma Chi?” he says. “Sure. Our winner. Italian sausage, bacon, pepperoni, primavera veggies. What size?”
Of course I go for the “personal.” It costs $14.95. Only other quite as good, Michael says, is the “Kitchen Pizza.” (It has “everything but the kitchen sink,” menu says.) Problem: no personal size.
So, second day in a row, I’m back to the grassy plaza, under that tall mast, working on a big slice of this scrumptious pizza. Chewing, walking, contemplating all the scenes this place must have witnessed: bullfights, fiestas, parades. Easy to evoke, now nobody’s here.
Thing about the pizza is its airy, almost crunchy crust; and its tons of sausage, bacon, and pepperoni. And sautéed chunks of celery, cucumber, carrot.
“But why ‘Sigma Chi?’” I ask Michael. “It was a group of USC students from their Sigma Chi frat came in,” he tells me. “We just said ‘Put whatever you want on your pizza.’ And this is what they chose. People loved the combo.”
So do I. Parmesan sprinkles and peppers help too, even though balancing it all while walking along is not so easy. Oh man. When’s that vaccine coming!?
Best Pizza in America? Well, it is up there with the best I’ve had. Just the airy crust alone. Then the crackling combo of savory meats.
I mean yes, from the name up, the place is old-school Italian. Maybe not so cool, but one thing’s for sure: sluice it down with some house red, and this kind of food leaves you feeling warm all over.
Maybe I’ll go and see if Happy Fonso wants a slice.
- The Place: Pizza Bella Italian Bistro, 2707 Congress Street, Old Town, 619-692-4333
- Hours: 11am - 10:00pm daily (till 9pm Sundays)
- Prices: Meatball sandwich (Italian beef, meat sauce), $10.95; Philly cheesesteak sandwich, $11.95; Spicy BBQ wings (8), $10.95; regular Mediterranean salad, $10.95; pizzas, from $11.95 to $36.95; Sigma-Chi, $14.95, personal size; spaghetti, with garlic bread, salad, $16.95; manicotti (same sides), $16.95; chicken Marsala ($18.95); breaded eggplant Parmesan ($17.95), and shrimp diablo ($20.95)
- Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 88, 105,150
- Nearest Bus Stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street
- Trolley: Green Line
- Nearest Trolley Station: Old Town