Sunday, Aug 05 2012 01:57 PM

PETE TITTL: Pizza face-off: The chain vs. the independent

BY PETE TITTL Contributing columnist

There's a consistent tension in most American cities between the big franchise pizza operations and the independent pizza parlor owner. The locals say the odds are stacked against them with the big advertising budgets of the national powers. They've got to fight to get a piece of the market without the Super Bowl ads, the constant promotions, and the name recognition of the big guys.

You can see this dynamic played out in the story of two new Bakersfield pizza places: Wishbonez Pizza in Rosedale and Hungry Howie's, a national chain that recently opened two stores in Bakersfield. The difference is evident even in something as simple as the takeout menus they offer. Wishbonez's looks like it was put together on a computer with no pictures or dazzling visual graphics, an interesting font and all the information you need about what they offer.

Related Info

NEW PIZZA PLACES

Wishbonez Pizza

2701 Calloway Drive

587-6500

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Lunch buffet 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Prices: Appetizers $3.95 to $5.95, soup and salad $2.95 to $8.95, large pizza $11.99 to $19.50. Child's plate not available.

Payment: MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover accepted. Personal checks not accepted.

Dress: Casual.

Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; beer and wine served; some vegetarian options.

Food: ***

Atmosphere: **1⁄2

Service: ***

Value: **1⁄2

Hungry Howie's Pizza

2209 Niles and 1475 White Lane

322-3999, 397-3777; hungryhowies.com

Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day (10 a.m. to 11 p.m. White Lane Friday and Saturday).

Prices: Large specialty pizza $13.99 to $15.99, large regular $9.99 ($1.49 each topping), sub sandwiches $4.99 to $6.99, bread $2.99 to $4.49, wings $6.99 to $12.99, salad $3.99 to $6.49.

Payment: MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover accepted. Personal checks not accepted.

Dress: Casual.

Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; no alcohol served; some vegetarian options.

Food: **1⁄2

Atmosphere: **

Service: **1⁄2

Value: ***

Next week: J's Place

Howie's is a multi-color, professionally laid out creation with details on both sides, coupons, special offers but no prices (for longer shelf life, I'm sure).

We prefer the pizza at Wishbonez, which was previously a Mountain Mike's (chain) and then became The Pizza Place (non-chain). On a recent visit we ordered two of the specialty mini pizzas ($6.50), the vegetarian and the Wishbonez Buffalo Pizza, as well as four chicken pieces and wedges ($6.99). Someone in the kitchen knows pizza. For example, my companion's vegetarian pizza featured mushrooms, onions, olives, green peppers, artichokes and fresh tomatoes. I recently saw something on the Food Network about pizza- making and the host was explaining the problems you can have trying to bake such a creation. The moisture content of the veggies can destroy your crust. The cook at Wishbonez was smart enough to keep the tomato slices off until after baking. It was what made it, and the crust was brown on the bottom, airy and yeasty directly under the sauce and, overall, an exceptional product that my companion would order again.

The Buffalo chicken pizza also was praiseworthy with a creamy garlic sauce instead of tomato and enough Tabasco present with the chicken to add a real kick. The crowning touches were onions, bits of tomato and jalapeno. A spicy pizza that stands out from the heavily promoted chain products.

The pizza wedges and chicken were respectable, but just not on the same level as the pizzas. The chicken was simply battered and brought out crisp and moist. The battered wedges were crisp but lifeless inside. I also need to mention the wine list is pretty thin: Chablis and blush ($3.99 a glass), no burgundy or cabernet. There are about eight beers on tap, including Shocktop and Newcastle Brown Ale. There is a lunch buffet Monday through Friday ($6.99, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., including pizza, chicken, salad and drink). Karaoke on Wednesday nights is a big draw.

A different experience was found at the chain. Hungry Howie's is aiming for the same family market as Little Caesar's with a few differences: flavored crusts and a more diverse menu. You might remember a few years ago when the coated crusts were a hot thing among the chains. They'd dust the frequently discarded outsides with cheeses, herbs and butter to lure you into eating the whole thing. That practice mostly has been dropped for the newer trend of stuffing the crust with cheese, probably a bigger lure for Americans. Anyway, Howie's offers eight different crust exteriors, including garlic herb, butter, butter cheese, onion and sesame.

The menu includes salads, subs, various breads and, of course, chicken wings. When we visited we sampled the 10-piece wings ($6.99) a medium bacon cheddar cheeseburger pizza with garlic herb crust dusting ($7.99) and "Howie Bread" ($2.99). What you get is a fresh white bread crust, like Little Caesar's, that gets points for being fresh made even if it's miles from the character of a good crust typically found in an Italian restaurant (I suspect semolina is nowhere to be found). There is not an ample amount of cheese on it (at this price, it's reasonable) and the crust dusting was mostly garlic and some Parmesan cheese. You get more of the same as the topping on the Howie bread. If I went again, I'd try the three-cheese Howie Bread (cheddar, Parmesan and mozzarella). I do like that the kitchen uses actual butter. Not sure what they use at Little Caesar's, but it tastes like an oil.

The best thing we sampled were the wings, which had been baked instead of fried. A lot of restaurants such as Pizza Bob's do that, using those hot pizza ovens rather than deal with oil and fryers. And the Buffalo sauce (presented on the side) was quite alluring.

On another visit we tried one of the subs, the pizza version ($5.99), and got basically a folded up pepperoni pizza that was brown and toasty but could've used more tomato sauce. It was oozing cheese, though.

Hungry Howie's is a take-out only restaurant. We visited the one on White Lane and found it to be a clean place with lots of yellow tile and a bench to wait while our food was prepared. It took less than 15 minutes despite a flurry of business and call-in orders.

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