Gary Worden had a problem.
The Parkville businessman owns the two-story building in Briarcliff Village where he moved his popular Argentinian restaurant, Piropos, in 2007. When one of his tenants, an art gallery, closed last year, Worden and his wife, Cristina, turned the small space into a piano bar.
"We thought it would be a nice place for our dinner customers at Piropos to stop in after their meal, have a cocktail or a glass of wine, and listen to live music," Worden says.
Then a retail tenant on the building's first floor vanished. "She left in the middle of the night," Worden says. That was a problem.
Worden is a man who thinks on his feet, though, and it didn't take him long to arrive at a solution. The freshly abandoned retail shop was next to the piano bar, so he tore out the walls separating the storefronts and expanded the lounge. This was fairly ambitious, but Worden decided that his idea needed something else, something unexpected: Argentinian pizza.
"The last time Cristina and I were in Buenos Aires, we couldn't believe all the little shops we saw selling pizza and empanadas," he says. "It's not really street food there. There aren't street vendors selling things, like they do in New York City. You go into these shops and get small pizzas or a dozen empanadas."
You get them and then you leave. That's part of pizza's genius on any continent. Worden needed a business that would attract steady foot traffic but wouldn't compete with his upstairs restaurant, the white-linen Piropos, even during the day.
"We do a very popular $17 lunch," he says. "If we were going to serve food downstairs, it had to be very, very simple."
Simplicity is the key ingredient at the month-old Tango Pizza, which serves modestly priced 7-inch pizzas, empanadas, soups and salads around lunchtime as well as on weekend nights, when the ivories are being worked in the piano bar. The waitress working the room on the afternoon I first dined at Tango Pizza didn't have to do much explaining about what makes these pies — cooked in a shiny Bakers Pride oven, from Texas, not Argentina — Argentinian. Everybody knows a pizza is a pizza, right?
Mostly, yes. Tango Pizza sells two varieties of its signature dish, neither of which causes you to imagine yourself on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. There's a thin and crispy flatbread version, and a more traditional, doughy crust. What's relatively exotic, Worden says, are the toppings, which are meant to pull this food from its Neapolitan roots and into the realm of Eva Perón and Manu Ginóbili. But the idea of an Argentinian-style pizza isn't necessarily much different from, say, a St. Louis–style, given that Argentina has a large Italian population. Pizza is as much in demand there as it is anywhere else; some estimates report that it's the nation's second-most-popular dish, behind the grilled meats — barbecue, if you like — known as parrillada.
Typical of Worden's minimalist approach is the pizza he has named for his wife. Cristina's has an olive-oil-brushed crust sprinkled with oregano and crushed red peppers — aji molido — and comes blanketed with onions and mozzarella. Like most of the pizzas here, it's not centered on a red sauce. (The Mexicana, one of the few pies that is, comes topped with chipotle peppers, queso fresco, sautéed beef, cheese and onions.) You want ham and pineapple? Go to Minsky's.
I've taken three friends to Tango Pizza. One loved the place, one said it was "no big deal," and the third couldn't get past the décor. "All those awful burgundy sheers at the window," she said with a shudder. "And the chairs are from a banquet hall."
Yes, it's an unappealing dining room, and it's easy to spend too much time thinking about its visual deficits when the service — usually just a single person is on duty — is this scattershot. But I'm a fan of the pizza itself, particularly a meatless creation called La Boca, with its bubbling goat cheese and mozzarella and generous array of spinach, mushrooms and onions. And the simple "Margarita" is delectable on the flatbread. That classic trio of fresh basil, tomatoes and mozzarella is a sure measure of any pizza restaurant's quality, and it's one of the better choices at Tango.
I wish the Wordens were more adventurous and served the kinds of pizza that my friends who have eaten in Argentina rave about. I'd like to try a fugazzeta, for example: a thick crust stuffed with cheese and smothered with sweet onions. The Andes pizza, topped with a brie fondue, chicken, spinach and red bell peppers, is as odd as Tango gets, but it's very good. So is the Buenos Aires, a meaty concoction with pancetta and prosciutto on a tomato-sauce base.
Adventure isn't really the point, though. Tango Pizza simply can't be compared with its fancier, more sophisticated sister restaurant on the second floor, even though both restaurants sell the same empanadas and use similar ingredients. (All of the prep work for Tango Pizza is done in the Piropos kitchen and carried down each morning.) Maybe that has something to do with why Worden hasn't done much to promote his latest venture. Of course, he's still trying to explain to customers that he also recently reopened the Piropos Grille in the old Piropos restaurant space in downtown Parkville. "People still get confused," he says. (The Piropos Grille serves a somewhat different menu from the Briarcliff Piropos and is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights only. Got it?)
I prefer Piropos, but who can argue with a less formal venue serving those golden empanadas with puffy, fragile crusts enfolding a center of bubbling cheese or seasoned beef sautéed with olives, onions and raisins. Order it with a salad or one of the house-made soups, and it becomes a satisfying meal. On one of my visits, the soup was a jade-green chilled-avocado purée as creamy as melted ice cream. Not as good was a surprisingly mild gazpacho that had been strained until it was the consistency of tomato juice, though even it offered comfort on a sweltering afternoon.
There's only one dessert offered — vanilla-bean ice cream, drizzled with thick, honey-colored dulce de leche — and it's not for me. After eating all that dough, who wants a slice of cake or a cookie? Well, I do. After paying the tab one day, I walked to the bakery a few steps away. La vida no es una pasta frola, they say in Argentina: Life is not a piece of cake.
Maybe, but what about flan?