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(out of five)

Pitch-Perfect Pizza

Harby's Pizza & Deli
3718 Walker Blvd.
688-5657 (Delivery or Dine-in)

by Les DuLunch

Bob Dylan can't sing worth a damn, but the man's a sage. When he said, "It may be the devil or it may be the lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody," he never spoke a truer word.

I haven't worked this much since the summer before my sophomore year of college, when after pumping gas in the morning, hawking shoes during the day, and waiting tables at night so I could afford to send myself back, I vowed I would never work in the service industry again. But then a terrible thing happened. The post-graduate information age brought with it a shift to a service-based economy. Suddenly, everyone's selling something. And instead of standing across the counter from a man trying to return a pair of Weejuns, I'm sitting across the boardroom table from his more sophisticated cousin, known as "the client."

According to the old saying, you can't please everybody all of the time, but that's exactly what so many of us now spend most of our days doing. By 5:30, I often find myself tired and cranky, with food the furthest thing from my mind. So, like any other typical American male left to his own lazy food devices, I fall back on that trusty standby, pizza.

The American GIs who brought the idea back with them from Italy after World War II had immediately recognized a good thing when they saw it. And their wives, forced into quasi-Victorian June Cleaver-dom, quickly recognized the value of a fast and easy meal that could satisfy the appetites of all 4.25 members of the nuclear family. Once McDonald's came along in 1955, Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's were the next logical convenience food step.

But now, there's positively a proliferation of pizzas; you can get them everywhere, and they bear the influence of every cuisine between here and China. Sauces range from southern barbecue to Thai peanut; toppings from tofu to smoked salmon.

All that diversity isn't a bad thing, but sometimes, it does make you miss the simple pleasures of a good old-fashioned tomato sauce-covered pie. Which is why everyone who lives in North Knoxville should fall to their knees and thank their gods for Harby's Pizza & Deli.

Harby's ranks right up there with my other favorite new thing of the summer: Robinella and the C.C. Stringband's sweet jazzy bluegrass swing cover of the James Brown classic, "I Feel Good." No matter what type you try, you'll find Harby's pizza pitch-perfect; it positively sings.

The meat lover's variety ($11 for a medium, $15 for a large) is a luscious walking heart attack, and well worth the risk. A thin layer of browned Mozzarella holds all the pieces of spicy Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, ground beef, pepperoni and ham perfectly in place. Harby's veggie version is every bit as good, and even includes that most welcome of toppings—small cubes of fresh tomato—in addition to the black and green olives, onion, mushrooms, bell pepper, and jalapeno. Harby's expert crust is of a soft-on-top, lightly-crispened-on-the-bottom variety that folds with precision and keeps all the toppings aboard. Rolled and then hand-tossed, it's of just the right thickness—not too bread-like, but not too cracker-like either. And the tomato sauce is particularly zesty, with a nice pepper tang. (A note to the ultra-lazy: Harby's pizza even reheats well.)

Harby's pizza is so good, in fact, that it completely eclipses the lackluster subs ($7 for a full-length, $4 for half). The lack of success in that department is not for lack of trying though; a positively pornographic tagline—"Over 13 inches of mouth-watering taste!"—does rather grab the attention. But they're hardly the John Holmes of the sandwich realm. Your choice of white or dark brown (but relatively flavorless) rye bread is piled high with meat, cheese, and veggies and then, sadly, placed into one of those steamers that reduces much of the sandwich to mush, especially when it's wrapped up in a thin tinfoil wrapper.

But wait, there's more—and fortunately not where the sandwiches came from. Harby's homemade hummous ($5) is a particularly pleasant surprise. It comes in two varieties, both served with flatbread pizza-crust triangles and onion and tomato wedges, "bland" and spicy jalapeno, and salt. There's nothing at all plain about the bland version though; it's fluffy soft, oozing with extra-virgin olive oil, powdered with paprika, and ripe with a subtle lemony flavor.

And as if all that weren't enough, Harby's is home to a dessert counter that's as classic and rich as the Mediterranean region it represents. Several varieties of delicate and delicious baklava, gooey, pistachio-stuffed bird's nests, ballourie, bassma, burma and other homemade goodies bed down in individual paper cups and just beg to be taken home. Although they aren't made on the premises, I have it on good faith that they're speedily imported from a Michigan bakery that specializes in the Eastern-flavored desserts.

So, to borrow from Mr. Dylan once again, "You may be a preacher with a spiritual pride, you may be a city councilman takin' bribes on the side, you may work in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair, you may be somebody's mistress, may be somebody's heir. But since you're gonna have to serve somebody, thank god Harby's is there."

August 24, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 34
© 2000 Metro Pulse