If a storm begins with a single trickle, then it's really starting to rain great artisan pizzas now in Columbus. Thus a delicious drop of Bono has shifted to a steady little downpour of Clever Crow, Yellow Brick and the sophisticated Harvest. To that list of go-their-own-way high achievers, you can now add the terrific wee Downtown outburst that is Element Pizza. Columbusites, I think we've got a full-fledged quirky-indie pizza movement on our tomato-sauce-covered hands.
Located in the old Plugged Nickel space, and visually living up to its down-to-basics name, Element is a simple looking place. Kinda dinery, it's got a no-frills bar (though alcohol service is still a ways away), some tasteful black and white Italian travelogue photographs and gleaming silver patio-like tables with (not exactly comfy) metal chairs. Tack on a CD101 (OK, 102.5)-type soundtrack, and I'd call Element's ambiance bare bones-y but with just enough amiable character. I'd call Element's food excellent and scratch-made, alluringly inexpensive and delightfully in-my-face boldly flavored. Before I get to Element's distinguished pizzas, though, I want to mention a few of their non-cliche and very worthy appetizers and salads.
Like the nifty Crispy Chickpeas ($4.50), which show garbanzo beans needn't always be pulverized into hummus to be delicious. Element's simply fried intact orbs are pleasantly salty and have brittle shells that are as entertaining to munch on as popcorn.
Element's Fried Eggplant ($5.50) surprises with its size, shape and taste. Looking like wide brown ripply wafers, they're easy-to-love chips whose paper-thin wavy sheets of vegetable matter never get in the way of pure chip enjoyment. The crispy critters are served with a potent housemade aioli to amp up the richness factor.
Speaking of riches, the Element Salad ($6.50) is an embarrassment of them. But if my face turned red when I ate it, I was also smiling. A huge pile of bibb lettuce and arugula was tricked out with housemade bacon (salty and mostly crispy), a poached egg (a bit overcooked), a garlicky and anchovy-heavy mayo-based Caesar dressing and fresh mozzarella clumps whose soft milkiness slightly lightened the ensemble.
Also extra large and interesting was the Radicchio and Spinach Salad ($6). That winner came with big, salty and crunchy homemade croutons and an unusual - in a good way - tangy-sweet and chutney-like roasted red pepper dressing.
Element's delectable pizzas feature yeasty, handsomely irregular and temptingly crackly crusts that have ranged from puffy, thickish and bready to just sturdy. They're attractively toasty on the edges and get layered with a rich, tangy and slightly sweet tomato sauce with a hint of oregano plus good toppings (some coming from Ezzo, a local Italian meat purveyor).
Those pizzas also present eye-opening deals, with a medium ($8-$10) feeding two to three and personal-sized pies that're as big as I've seen ($5-8; but like the solid panini sandwiches, only available until 3 p.m.). Here's a taste:
• Salami : Sharp and brazen flavors with a thick stack of salty and pleasantly gamey salami firing off all-too-rare oil-cured black olives • Americano : Excitingly spicy with racy, crispy and bacony pepperoni, incendiary chili flakes and a mildly cooling touch of fresh mozzarella
• House Sausage : A ton of caramelized onion played nice with made-here fennel-seedy sausage clumps • Tuna : "Sauced" by olive oil, it's a pungent pie with good canned fish complemented by oil-cured olives • Cremini Mushroom : The simplest and mildest pie I tried, but nonetheless another success.