August 26, 2010

Two Boots Finds Its Footing

The chain got its start in New York's East Village in 1987 and is named for the shoe-shaped land masses that are Italy and Louisiana. It now has several New York locations, plus one in Connecticut and one in Los Angeles.

The food (and atmosphere) is bold, fun and not even a little bit fancy. Pizzas have more than the usual allotment of spice, and toppings include crawfish, the rich Cajun ham known as tasso, barbecued shrimp and shiitake mushrooms. Cajun dishes include po'boys, jambalaya, blackened catfish and muffuletta.

Philip Hartman, one of the founders, said he's "had a lifelong crush on Baltimore" and briefly lived in Federal Hill. He and his fellow founders have a background in independent film, and an affection for quirky film and TV characters shows up in pizza names, including The Dude (from "The Big Lebowski") and Larry Tate (the silver-haired boss on "Bewitched").

That also explains why the interior looks a bit like a diner as imagined by John Waters. Floors are tiled in red and black, and the seats are red. Walls are crowded with two enormous headdresses, bright, rustic art on loan from the American Visionary Art Museum, and rows of Mardi Gras-style plastic bead necklaces. Mismatched beaded chandeliers hang from the ceiling.

Even during a weekday afternoon, a party spirit prevails, with lively jazz music playing. The many youngsters who arrive with their families after a visit to Port Discovery are given wads of pizza dough to play with, and are encouraged to stand close to the counter so they can watch the pies being made. The party heads outside Thursday through Saturday nights, when a pizza oven and bar are set up outdoors to sell slices and drinks, including frozen hurricanes, to a presumably less-juvenile crowd of revelers.

Hartman recognizes that his little restaurant has grown into a chain, but he doesn't want a cookie-cutter feel. Each restaurant in the Two Boots chain has a quirk or two that reflects its location, says Hartman. At Power Plant, that would be a pizza called the Old Bay Beast, with crab, crawfish, jalapeno peppers and andouille sausage among the toppings.

But even a plain cheese pizza is not quite ordinary. The mozzarella is a bit sharper than the norm, and the sauce carries a real hit of red pepper. Fortunately, the attentive servers return often to fill drink glasses.

An appetizer of crisp, deep-fried crawfish tails makes for an indulgent start to the meal, or a great nibble for sharing. The bite-size pieces are spicy, salty, hot and crunchy, with a small nugget of sweet, chewy seafood nestled inside each one. The platter includes a tub of spicy, thick remoulade but, truthfully, the flavor is already so strong there is no need to add to it.

A heavy hand with the spices is a defining characteristic of the Two Boots repertoire, but heat-free choices do exist. A simple house salad contains a pleasant mix of lettuces, as well as grated carrots, red onion slices and chickpeas, which add a welcome earthy undertone to the flavors. And delicious, locally made Taharka Bros. ice cream is among the limited dessert options. (The other choice is chocolate chip cookies.)

A main course of jambalaya is large enough to serve two and begins with rice that has been thoroughly infused with tomato, garlic, onion and celery. Morsels of chicken and sausage add heft. Like other entrees, it comes with two crunchy slices of garlic bread, rich with Parmesan cheese and cayenne pepper.

Two Boots has grown slowly in its 23 years, and opening two Baltimore locations in one year seems out of character. But this fun, inexpensive restaurant has already found its footing.

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