A Tried and True Local Spot:

Elizabeth’s Pizza
4304 1/2 Market St.

HOLY CANNOLI: This Italian dessert from Elizabeth’s Pizza is fried upon order to crispy confection perfection, and the red clam sauce over spaghetti is light yet flavorful.
Though I arrived in wilmington a few short months ago, I am familiar with the area and some of her offerings: beaches, festivals, the film industry presence. As an undergrad from UNC-Pembroke from 2001 to 2005, it was crucial to make the quick trip to Wilmington every now and then. Elizabeth’s was embedded in my friends’ hearts and stomachs.

I’ll admit it: I don’t eat pizza that much anymore or too many heavy meaty-cheesy foods. It’s not that I don’t think it’s delicious; I just avoid it for my own health choices. Yet, I’ve been reminded of the goodness of a splurge thanks to the couple lunch bunches I’ve attended during my internship at encore. It’s been an eye-opening experience in getting to know Wilmington’s culinary scene. It’s also been a reminder about the hominess of this town, something Elizabeth’s Pizza has been a part of since 1987. They attract everyone to their tables: families, college kids, young adults and seniors. Clearly, they know their place here.

Promptly greeted by owner Shameer Lookman and guided to our table, I immediately noticed the beautiful retro postcards underneath the narrow glass tabletops, adorned by old wood. As none of us are on-the-job drinkers, we bypassed the wine and beer lists—only after much reconsideration—and ordered a round of waters and teas, sweetened and unsweetened, depending on individual “lifestyles.”

As I considered the menu, I announced I would get a Greek salad because one can never go wrong with veggies (if not fried and doused in cheese). “That’s boring,” encore editor Shea Carver said. Sigh—she was right, but with our deep fried zucchini, mozzarella sticks and calamari on the way, I felt the need to cancel out my guilty pleasures with something green.

After the appetizers came, everyone picked some interesting main courses for round two: chicken manicotti, eggplant manicotti combo (the eggplant acts as the noodles rather than serving it with pasta), spaghetti with red clam sauce, stromboli with chicken, peppers and onions, and a Neapolitan-style pizza with ricotta, basil and tomatoes. I was starting to get full and wanted to pick something exciting, yet satisfying to my own tastes and eating habits. Then I saw it: the “Create Your Own Salad” section of the menu. Seemingly, the health gods threw me a lifeline.

Our server, Lauren, also called “Lolo,” to those who have gotten to know her over the two years she’s been working at Elizabeth’s, went around the table with a smile, jotting down our orders. I started my salad with a spinach base, topped it with feta cheese and a heaping of veggies and fruits: mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers, Kalamata olives and dried cranberries. Interesting fact: I could have also had my salad topped with French fries (something Lauren said was actually popular on their “Create Your Own” menus, which is applicable to pizzas, sandwiches and strombolis as well).

Satisfied with my decision, I enjoyed the smorgasbord of appetizers before us. Kidding myself, I cut one of the mozzarella sticks in half and drug the gooey string of cheese to my plate. The other half made its way in front of me not too far after. The crispy crust of both the mozzarella and zucchini sticks were inviting, as most fried foods are, but I had to pace myself if I was going to make it through the rest of the meal. Then the fried calamari arrived, in a light batter, crumbly on the outside and slightly chewy inside, with a touch of the sweet marinara sauce tying the mouthful together.

The lighter side of our appetizers came in the antipasto salad, featuring iceberg lettuce topped with pickled vegetables—carrots, celery, cauliflower—slices of ham, salami, provolone and eggs, all drizzled with Elizabeth’s homemade Italian dressing. Though I ordered a salad, I didn’t let it deter my taste of the antipasto. Plus, I was privy to the lunch bunch protocol: We share ev-er-y-thing, so I knew my hands would be in the entrées before long, too. The pickled veggies gave a nice bite to the greens. In fact, the dressing only accentuated more a vinegar flavor, so I decided, really, it wasn’t needed.

Barely making it through the mounds of appetizers, the main dishes arrived. First of all, for anyone unaware of Elizabeth’s portion sizes, the pasta meals seemingly can feed at least three or four people—or a single ravenous gorilla. Customers definitely get more bang for their buck. As we negotiated the large platters and giant “guitar pick”-shaped plates, it was hard to tell where one dish began and another ended. Shameer was kind enough to keep adding tables to our own two. Though, we probably should have been aware of the other diners’ peering glances, we were happily engulfed in one bite after another. Judgment be damned…

The baked manicotti dishes looked like massive mounds of homemade red sauce and molten mozzarella cheese; however, it wasn’t hard to taste the differences in texture and fillings. The ground beef wrapped in eggplant was flavorful and not fatty—something I appreciated immensely. The creamy ricotta remained rich and silky, while the vegetable eggplant manicotti had as much zing as the others. The chicken in the manicotti and the stromboli was cooked to tender appeal. Rich with a mix of mozzarella, peppers and onions, the crust was baked to a golden and chewy perfection, as well as best dipped in Elizabeth’s house-made, light marinara. The chunks of tomatoes and garlic were apparent and not masked by heavy tomato paste.

At first, I passed on the pizza upon its offering. I was determined to crunch my way through all the fresh veggies piled high in my “create your own” salad. However, I love thin, crackly crusts. Plus the aroma of fresh basil and tomatoes wafted and danced around my nose. It got the best of me, so Shea happily slung a piece my way. The hot mozzarella and ricotta cheeses melted and intertwined their mild subtleties, stitched with basil shreds and fresh sliced tomatoes. It was far from rich, as I expected—even light on the palate unlike most meaty pizzas. Extra oil wasn’t accumulating on top, and again their pizza crust—simply divine.

When my personalized salad came, it was a sight to behold, large and with so much flavorful freshness, I held off the dressing once again. But for good measure, I took a spoonful—or two—of the spaghetti with red clam sauce. I’m not a fan of seafood and pasta, but I can certainly appreciate what Elizabeth’s has done with this light entrée. It truly offered a healthier version of bolognese. Chocked full of garlic and clam bits, there wasn’t a whole lot of flavor missing.

I can honestly say, as somewhat of a food snob and health-conscious person, Elizabeth’s Pizza had more to offer than just rich gooey cheese-covered plates of food; although, they most certainly have that, too (and it’s as decadent as reading the words “gooey cheese-covered”). Still, they cater to veggie lovers who simply want more than iceberg lettuce with egg, cheese and cucumbers. They note on their lengthy menu that most items can be made vegetarian style. Also, they don’t disappoint in their classic: pizza.

As a new Wilmingtonian or a returning fan, Elizabeth’s is a standard must-stop on the local dining scene. Diners should just make sure to leave room for their homemade cannolis. The mascarpone cheese, chocolate chips and faintly cinammon-tinged flaky pastry will make anyone throw their diets and “lifestyles” out the window—and boy, is it worth it!

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