I have firm feelings when it comes to some restaurant franchises.
They're not all totally awful, but usually they are, and I rarely patronize any. They tend to pulse with upbeat, annoying music. Flashy branding attempts and catchy marketing phrases are everywhere you look. Worse yet, service is usually coached and disingenuous.
So, I was happy to hear that owners of one of the franchises I wanted to like—Pizzicato—had recently ended their franchise arrangement. Hot Rock Pizza is the new surviving entity, still tucked into the short strip mall near Ray's Food Place on the westside.
With the change, I feared that pizza by the slice would be gone, salad options would dwindle and the place would be stripped down into a stale skeleton of the bright and bustling place it once was, corporate influences not withstanding.
To my surprise, it seems they kept what was best and got rid of the rest. New murals, new music and new menu. Same management and mojo.
The pizza dough seemed the same—still thin and baked to a golden blonde, hand-tossed and elastic, but chewy enough to stand up to toppings. Gourmet slices are still offered from the display case.
Made-to-order pies run the gamut from classic to gourmet ($14 to $28). Six different sauces and nearly a hundred different toppings mean endless options for creating your own signature specialty.
"Figaro's Flatbread" is new to the appetizer list, spread with sweet figs, then topped with prosciutto, fresh rosemary and gorgonzola ($4.50).
Other starters include chicken wings, soups and calzones.
Paninis were also upgraded—now on house-made rosemary hoagies with house-smoked meats and homemade sauces. The chicken pesto was nearly a foot long ($8.75) and came with a salad and a drink(!).
But my favorite section of the menu is the salads. Six dressings are made from scratch including Tuscan Italian, a smooth vinaigrette which easily coats each leaf with the lightest application. There is a Greek, a garden, a wedge and a pear pecan. But the cake taker for me is the pistachio spinach salad, finished with small creamy crumbles of goat cheese.
Still the same people, but now with even better food and prices, Hot Rock Pizza serves quality food at affordable prices. Stop in for lunch or dinner and see for yourself. But don't forget to high five the management for kicking the franchise to the curb.
Hot Rock Pizza
1288 SW Simpson Ave. #1
11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Thursday
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday
12 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday
12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday