Monday, August 24, 2009

Shakespeare’s Pizza

It’s quite simple, really: College town, downtown, pizza. Shakespeare’s Pizza has been around since 1973, and by the time I was in high school in the eighties, it had already become a local institution.

I think most college towns have a beloved pizza-and-beer joint (like Mother Bear’s in Bloomington and Abo’s in Boulder), but Shakespeare’s also happens to be a top favorite all-around restaurant in Columbia.

Why? It’s because they serve excellent food there. Despite all the fun—the coupons promising “free chopsticks” with your pizza, the rock music, the cans of WD-40 in the beer case, the fun salvaged signage that decorates the place, the hand-tossing of pizzas in the front window, and so on—they’ve never lost sight of the prime directives: Pizza and beer. Pizza and beer.

“Peeet-za for . . . Hepzibah!

Yeah, they take your name when you order, then call it out over the loudspeakers when your pizza’s ready. Last time I was there and told them my name was Julie, they said, “Oh—we need an initial for your last name.” (There was already a Julie waiting for a pizza.) I told them to call out “Hepzibah” instead. I’d been wanting to try that for a while. I just wanted to hear them announce it over the loudspeaker with their usual dramatic flourish.

I think everyone in Columbia has his or her own favorite Shakespeare’s pizza. We’re partial to the veggie, on whole wheat, often with broccoli added. Thus we receive a lovely, fresh-made pizza with a substantial whole-wheat crust, double cheese (we usually ask for single, however), red onions, green bell peppers, thick-sliced mushrooms, black olives, and the broccoli florets. With that nice spicy tomato sauce.

I can’t do it justice with words. The veggies are fresh and thick-sliced. You can truly taste each topping. It almost tastes . . . healthy. I say that because the ingredients are so pure.

Which leaves you some wiggle room for deciding which beer to choose, and how much!

The meats are incredible, too. The sausage is made especially for Shakespeare’s using a recipe from The Hill in St. Louis. The pepperoni is sliced especially thick. The sausage and hamburger are lean, with no fillers. Yes, it does all make a difference.

There is no skimping on the toppings; no matter how many different ones you add, they include a full amount of each topping. There’s a reason why the to-go boxes are piled up in self-serve stacks: Unless you’re with a group, you probably can’t finish your pizza.

Shakespeare’s: The Experience

Although the evening crowd can get kind of rowdy (college students + pizza + beer), in the past decade or so, Shakespeare’s has become more kid-friendly. The dough twirlers in the front window, for instance, have developed the practice of tossing little balls of dough to kids, giving them something to knead and play with while their families order and wait for their pizzas.

There is also a second Shakespeare’s on the west side, out by the HyVee super-duper-market, which amounts to the ’burbs. It’s natural that Columbians who developed their love of Shakespeare’s in college would still crave the pizza even after marrying and having children. (But though the pizza is the same, today I’m mainly talking about the downtown location.)

Are there down sides to Shakespeare’s? Sure: It’s popular, so sometimes it’s busy and you might have to wait. They do warn you; there’s a sign board with an arrow pointing to the current wait for a pizza—it ranges from twenty minutes (“Normal”) to sixty (“We’re Hustlin’”) to an hour and a half (“Anarchy”).

One solution is to call ahead and pick up your pie at their carryout kitchen around the corner, where Lone Sock Laundry used to be. I mean, in general, think ahead: Is it dinnertime? Busy. Friday or Saturday night? Super-busy.

Lunches have their own ambience, since most people are on a schedule. Shakespeare’s has for years offered pizza-by-the-slice on weekdays, and for most people, one or two slices is p-l-e-n-t-y. And unless you’re waiting for them to bring out a particular kind of pizza, you don’t have to wait, except for the line leading up to the cash register.

Another down side is that it can get kind of loud in there, with all the people talking and the concrete floors and the metal-legged chairs scraping around. But hey, that’s part of the scene.

If I could change one thing about Shakespeare’s, I’d have them offer some kind of nonalcoholic brew at the downtown location. Something. An O’Dull’s, or Clausthaler, or Kaliber, something. I mean, if they have room in their cold case for the “joke” cans of WD-40, then why can’t they squeeze in a row of nonalcoholic beers for us pathetic clods who can’t imbibe like they used to? [Note: See comments below. 8/28/09--JS]

“Have You Had a Piece . . . Today?”

Despite the rip-roaring good times we’ve all had at Shakespeare’s—the college pals’ night out; the symphony members in their concert black deconstructing after a performance around pitchers of suds, MU Tiger fans celebrating after a victory or consoling themselves after a loss—what I remember most fondly are those times . . . when time stopped at Shakespeare’s.

The story I keep telling (to anyone who will listen) is how Sue and I first felt that “ding” of mutual interest, of attraction. Back in 1991, a friend had arranged for us three to be there together, and that afternoon Sue and I discovered, first, that we both preferred vegetarian pizza, and second, we both ordered Anchor Steam beers (yes, they have an excellent selection of brews at Shakespeare’s).

And as we sat there together with our friend (who happened to be dating Sue at the time), we discovered we have a lot of other similar likes and dislikes. We laugh at the same kinds of things. We felt we could talk to each other for hours and hours. It was kind of like a chaperoned first date—one that came off very, very well . . .

Dialing back further, another Shakespeare’s memory, where time stood still for a while: One evening when I was in college, about 1987, there was a substantial snowstorm and I was out tooling around (like a crazy college kid) alone in my ’64 Dodge (actually, I’d been out hiking). It was getting late for dinner, and business was slow for Shake’s that night.

I sat gazing out the window, enjoying my view of the snowfall as well as the pizza-flavored warm air surrounding me. The music, the spicy hot pie, the drinkers at the bar, the sense of hospitality and good cheer made Shakespeare’s into a beacon that night, a way station for me.

I suspect that most Columbians have Shakespeare’s memories like these. A special date, or a time when we were starving for something and found ourselves fulfilled as well as fed. That’s how a longtime dining establishment becomes interwoven with the lives and thus the history of the community.

It’s not the Brown Derby, but even though movie stars don’t congregate there, people flock there just the same. It’s not the Café de Flore, but accomplished artists, philosophers, scholars, historians, mathematicians, biologists, journalists, agronomists, and rural sociologists all have deep (and light) conversations around the tables. It’s not the Russian Tea Room, but the food is delicious, satisfying, unique, and memorable, prepared with affection, cheer, and pride.

There are all kinds of reasons why Shakespeare’s Pizza is one of Columbia’s favorite restaurants. So when you visit my hometown, don’t miss it.

Shakespeare's Pizza on Urbanspoon


Schyler523 said...

Speaking as a Shakespeare's employee, we used to offer an non-alcoholic option (Kaliber if I remember correctly) but it sold so poorly that we decided no to offer it anymore.

Thank you for your kind words by the way.

Julie said...

I know--and I used to enjoy the Kalibers! And I know you guys decided they weren't selling well enough. I'm just saying: I miss having a n/a beer option at Shake's. "Pizza an' beer" go together for me. Sodie pop and iced tea just don't cut it.

(Maybe not enough nondrinkers know about Kaliber, and when they didn't see the ubiquitous O'Doull's label, they didn't pursue it and just bought sodies--? Just a guess.)

And I do see you offer n/a beer at the west location. All those mommies and daddies need to stay sober! But I so rarely get to that part of town. And the vibe is different over there.

Thank you for your comment!

Just me said...

After those pics I would be very tempted to try out a pizza there. Truth told I don't like pizza but can eat it to be polite if out visiting someone and that is what they have on. BUT those look so lovely I would be happy to give it a go there. Nice post and lovely pics!

Julie said...

Thank you! I try to take flattering pictures of the food when I'm blogging about a restaurant. And regarding pizzas--there are so many different kinds "out there": minimalist, authentic, high-class ingredients, ranging to sloppy, heavy, heart-clogging; the crusts vary. It all comes down to: does a pizza joint do its type of pizza WELL? Shakespeare's pizzas are fresh and loaded--and they do that VERY WELL.