If you're like me, you enjoy a good salad with your pizza. That's why it's always perplexed me that so few pizza restaurants offer good fresh greens.
More often than not when I go out for pizza I am offered a small house salad made with iceberg lettuce — or, in exceptional cases, a salad bar with options such as cottage cheese, chilled beets or garbanzo beans.
That's why I found Hot Rock Pizza, in the Ray's Market strip mall on Bend's west side, to be such a pleasant surprise.
Hot Rock is a tiny establishment, seating just 22 patrons at seven tables. The name is reflected by a large, hand-painted mural above its south-facing windows, next to a single small corner television. Artful blackboards hang above the counter where orders are taken.
This is the place that used to be Pizzicato, the lone Central Oregon franchise of a popular Portland-based company. Four months ago, franchise owner Greg Simmons terminated his corporate contract and set out to build a pizza parlor his own way.
He expanded the choice of salads and hot panini sandwiches, introduced some of his own pizza variations, and began supplementing the menu with everything from daily soup choices to creative flatbread spreads. Now I consider Hot Rock to be one of the best of its kind in the region.
Take the salads, for instance. There are seven choices on the daily list, including a changing seasonal special, served with a half-dozen house-made dressings.
You can get all the usual favorites — a wedge salad of iceberg with bacon and blue cheese, a garden salad with fresh leaf lettuce, a tossed Greek salad with kalamata olives and pepperoncinis. I found the Caesar to be simple, but very fresh and generous, tossed with Grana Padano cheese and served with a lemon wedge.
But it was the pistachio spinach salad that really knocked my socks off. The pairing of fresh baby spinach leaves with roasted pistachio nuts was enhanced with crumbled goat cheese, rings of raw red onion and an original honey-mustard dressing. The dish was big enough that a single slice of pizza would be all one would need to complete a meal.
Also excellent was the pear pecan salad, although I would have preferred if the somewhat woody stems had been removed from leaves of chard in the spring mix. The salad also featured arugula and red leaf lettuce, thinly sliced pears, candied pecans and sweetened cranberries, along with red onions, Gorgonzola cheese and a fruity raspberry vinaigrette.
The panini sandwiches are lunchtime favorites. As with the salads, there are a half-dozen on the regular menu — meatball, chicken pesto and a smoked turkey club among them — as well as a manager's special that changes weekly.
In asked the man behind the counter — an industry professional who could bop to the classic-rock soundtrack without missing a beat of courtesy and efficiency — which panini he would recommend to me. “The Smokey Top," he said. “Without question."
It was a fine choice. Served on a hoagie roll, baked in Hot Rock's oven with Parmesan cheese and an herbal hint of rosemary, the sandwich included top sirloin sliced and layered as in a French dip sandwich. My attendant told me it had been smoked in-house. Dressed with creamy (but very mild) horseradish, the panini featured caramelized onions and provolone cheese.
A cup of chicken-dumpling soup was similarly excellent. Big pieces of chopped chicken breast were mixed into a broth with carrots, onions, celery and yeasty drops of what may have been unbaked pizza dough.
“We make our dough daily using Pendleton flour," owner Simmons tells readers in small print on the front of his menu. “We knead and double-proof it to ensure maximum elasticity when we hand-toss our thin, peasant-crust pies."
Indeed, I found the crust to be light and crispy, like good garlic bread. Fresh, whole-milk mozzarella and Grana Padano are the cheeses employed.
In a trio of visits, my dining companion and I sampled three different varieties.
With a nod to the establishment's owner, we began with “Greg's Fave." Not a heavy pie, it features an olive oil-and-garlic base, and is topped with mozzarella, arugula, prosciutto, caramelized onions and goat cheese.
“The Carnivore" was a meat-eater's delight. Spread with roasted tomato sauce, it was loaded with Canadian bacon, Italian sausage, pepperoni and smoked bacon. The meats were clearly fresh.
We balanced our meat eating with a “Veggie Supreme." Spread with the same house-made tomato sauce, it had spinach, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, roasted peppers, onions, tomatoes and black olives. Yum!
For those who don't want to consume an entire pie at one sitting, a half-dozen pizzas are offered by the slice for $2.75 to $4.
I'm not going to say these are the best pizzas I've had in Bend, but they're definitely on the upper tier.