Papa Lennon’s Pizzeria
515 W. El Roblar, Meiners Oaks
“What is it with Ojai and pizza?” I pondered as I drove in the rainy, misty weather toward Meiners Oaks. With Ojai Pizza, Boccali’s, Giorgio’s, Farmer & the Cook and Jimmie’s, is there room for more?
The Papa Lennon’s sign illuminated the large picture windows, and I felt almost like a voyeur looking in. I entered the incandescent room and quickly realized there was no host to greet me, only a man singing ballads, who smiled warmly. I put my things on a sturdy wooden table and gazed at the chalkboard menu. There were pizzas, sandwiches, salads, a soup and three pasta specials.
As the “Order Here” line was growing, I jumped up. I was interested in the Thai chicken, tomato, basil and garlic and Mediterranean pizzas but craving Hawaiian ($10.50), so went with that. We also ordered the potato and leek soup and the blackened chicken Caesar roll-up ($7.25) at the cashier’s suggestion. I forewent the Heiferweisen and Stella Artois on tap and the wine list, as I had to drive home in the torrent, and got a bottle of sparkling Pellegrino instead.
I paid, was given a metal number and filed toward the shelves holding glasses, flatware, seasonings and recycling bins. This is a serve-yourself joint, though staff does help with busing and to-go containers.
The large bowl of soup arrived sprinkled with curly parsley and a large wedge of herbed focaccia. Our spoons quickly found the warm potato sludge at the bottom of the rich, creamy soup.
Just as we were savoring the flavors, fellow food critic Lisa Snider sat at the neighboring table. She told me she and her husband came last week and loved it. “This is exactly what (diners) need right now. It’s good and affordable and look at the portions,” she said as she eyed our bowl of soup.
The restaurant started to fill up and by 7:20 p.m., there was very little wiggle room to move between the tables. The roaming guitarist, now turned ukulele player, had backed against the patio doors and placed a tip jar on a high chair.
“I’ve never seen so many happy diners,” I said to my friend. It was as though lithium was sprinkled on the pizzas. Dates flirted, families visited, and adults engaged in compelling conversations.
My friend started with the blackened chicken Caesar wrap, and I with the pizza. The crust was thin and yeasty. The pineapple and Canadian bacon made for the familiar tastes. Our pizza was fine, not anything too special, but was also not as enticing as I’d hoped, considering the oohs and ahhs happening around us.
Most of the tables had ordered herbed pizzas, and the wafts of fresh basil and raw garlic smelled delicious. I wanted more zing on my pizza — a smidge more marinara, a hint of sharp, aged cheese, a peppery herb, something to cut its sweet simplicity.
I panned back to my companion, who’d stopped devouring her sandwich to check in. “It’s real unusual,” she said. She raved about the homemade Caesar dressing but said she’d “gotten a mouthful of raw garlic” that had “slowed her down.”
When I tried the sandwich, its flavors exploded in my mouth. The warm, herbed, crusty focaccia surrounded fresh, crunchy romaine and seasoned chicken breast. The thick Caesar dressing was hot on my tongue from prodigious amounts of raw garlic, but divine. I would not by any means call the chicken blackened, but it was yummy and an awful lot for one person to eat.
For dessert, there were 11 kinds of gelatos and sorbettos in a glass case. By far the most unusual flavor was the blackberry cabernet sorbetto. It was like eating frozen, sugary communion wine, and a smidge of it with a hint of the dark chocolate gelato made me remember why I always want to eat chocolate with red wine. It was sanguine, tart and grown-up.
We spoke to at least three other tables while negotiating the room for silverware or gelato, and each person, without pause, raved about the food. Two other patrons pointed out the amount of garlic on their pizza; one loved it, the other found it a bit much, so choose accordingly.
We exited with leftovers, and felt somewhat intoxicated — the lithium pizza had done its trick. Does Ojai need another pizza place? I don’t know. But it’s sure embracing this well-priced, neighborhood-vibed spot in Meiners Oaks.
DK Crawford is a freelance writer specializing in food. For more information, go to www.thefoodsavant.blogspot.com