Friday, April 12, 2024

A weekly notebook about dining options during the Covid-19 shutdown, with a focus on quality and ease of pickup and delivery. Remember, the people serving up the food are part of the front line; keep it in mind when tipping.

A 14-inch gluten-free Margherita pizza with prosciutto from Upper Crust. (Photo: Sarah O. via Yelp)

If you’d asked me back in 2010 if I ever thought I’d be writing a positive spin about Upper Crust Pizza, I would have told you to go pound sand. The local ’za company opened on Beacon Hill in 2000 and became a word-of-mouth cult behemoth, but also something of an avaricious Trumpian self-interest-o-saur even before such a thing existed: Yes, Upper Crust grew meteorically (expanding countrywide) in the early 2000s, but its owners decided to drape themselves in the profits of collaborative toil by buying luxury items – a Cessna plane among them. They also came under labor law fire for extorting undocumented and vulnerable employees by withholding overtime pay under the duress that coming forward could invoke greater risk. The empire ultimately imploded as the result of the scandal; some socially minded folk helped launch Just Crust in the Harvard Square locale, giving the store to the former exploited employees to run collectively. That shop on Brattle Street has since closed, and the remains of the pizza empire were taken over by a private equity firm. It currently has seven locations: two in California and five in Massachusetts, including the one at 1782 Massachusetts Ave. between Harvard and Porter Squares.

“The Avenue” is a hotbed of pizza that features newcomers Stoked and Luce and old-time stalwarts including the Harvard House of Pizza, Half Shell and Newtowne Grille. The Upper Crust storefront itself was the site of a Stone Hearth Pizza – another flatbread company in economic distress and downsizing. Since moving in some five years ago, the only remaining Cambridge version of Upper Crust has proven a solid addition. It’s a crowd pleaser, as proven by Radcliffe Quadrangle and playground play dates that mean diverse palates across diverse age groups and varying dietary choices and restrictions. Upper Crust has that covered with white pizzas, veggie pizzas, plain pizzas and a sublime pepperoni. There’s a ton of signature and specialty pizzas on the menu, but for broad mixers such as ours, we just keep it simple.

The win from Upper Crust is its moniker ingredient: that thin, crisp, yet traditional doughy crust supporting zesty, fresh toppings on huge pies; four fill up the Burley Flatbed trailer I use to deliver them and are enough to feed a party of 15 with more than half a pie left over. Kids like it, and adults do too, because it feels like they’re getting a pizza cheat on the calories calculator, though whether that’s true would require a consultation with a nutritionist – and is largely besides the point. The folks who work here are also super friendly, and pack up a plate and napkin bag if asked, which is perfect for these types of outings. The shop also offers pretty good salads, and has recently added chicken sandwiches and mozzarella sticks (yum) to the menu.

Upper Crust Pizzeria (1782 Massachusetts Ave., Neighborhood 9 near Porter Square) 

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.