Fast-casual pizza joint co-owned by LeBron James is a winner

Michael Jordan, Schmichael Schmordan; I wanna be like LeBron James.

Regardless of how the 2017 NBA playoffs end (I'm writing this just prior to the finals starting), no one can take away the crown that King James helped bring to championship-starved Cleveland in 2016. That, plus the generosity he bestows upon his Ohio community, convinces me that hard-working, socially conscious James is the kind of great athlete — on and off the court — that people should try to emulate.

Okay, I won't be dunking a basketball anytime soon — at least not without teetering dangerously atop a ladder. But I can eat like the King by visiting the restaurant he dines at when visiting Columbus: Blaze Pizza.

I can think of several reasons why LeBron would be a Blaze fan. But the most obvious reason is that, to a stunning skill set which already included the drop step, the spin move and the chase-down block, LeBron has added “pizzeria restaurateur.”

Yes, James co-owns California-based Blaze Pizza, one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in America. And the Blaze near the OSU campus where LeBron periodically dines (the subject of this review) is among the best fast-food operations in town.

Put simply, that shop is at the top of the Columbus heap when it comes to offering a great bang for your pizza buck: pies are $7.75 or less and are much better than they have any right to be at that price.

Unlike LeBron, Blaze doesn't look like an all-star. But its nondescript digs are functional — a modern, long-and-narrow, open-and-airy space with sturdy wooden tables, plus a few OSU-themed and industrial accents.

The most noteworthy element inside is a big, blazing-hot, wood-burning oven where pizzas cook in about three minutes and emerge with a splendid, thin-and-crisp Neapolitan-style crust. A similar but thicker, “high-rise” crust, plus a rather elastic, super-thin, gluten-free crust are both available, too.

Blaze operates a la Chipotle. Accordingly, diners can access a cafeteria-style lineup of add-ons that includes various meats, cheeses, vegetables and sauces. The toppings are solid — some more so than others — and are free whether ordering a predesigned pizza or creating your own.

Among the eight predesigned pies, the Link In is a surefire crowd-pleaser. Atop the toasty and golden-brown, crisp-edged “original” crust are zippy house red sauce, sweet sauteed onions, blistered mozzarella and the symbiotic partners of roasted red peppers plus chili-flecked, fennel-seeded Italian sausage.

The Green Stripe shows off a pesto sauce that's better than some I've had in reputable Italian restaurants. Also on the pie: red peppers, sweet-but-potent roasted garlic, mozzarella, tender if so-so diced chicken and arugula smartly applied — like the pesto — after the pizza is removed from the oven.

Blaze is also vegetarian and vegan-friendly. The appealing Veg Out let me know that flavorful roasted zucchini and pungent gorgonzola cheese are good ingredients. So are the (previously frozen) turkey meatballs, zesty pepperoni, artichoke hearts, milky ovalini cheese (aka fresh mozzarella), ricotta cheese, Canadian bacon-style ham and dollops of the not-lying “spicy” red sauce.

I suggest using the “eyeball test” on Blaze's premixed salads ($4) — if tired-looking (expect this occasionally), pass. Otherwise the kale-and-quinoa, arugula with fruit and goat cheese, and the Caesar — and their commendable house-made dressings — are all pretty good.

Only soft drinks ($2) are offered, but they include Key Lime-Mint Agua Fresca (refreshing) and a recommended Blood-Orange Lemonade.

To end on a slam-dunk, order a S'more Pie ($2) warmed up on the side of the oven. Fittingly for a business co-owned by LeBron James, it's made with a famous, cookie-like British “digestive biscuit” called McVitie's, which bills itself as the “undisputed king.”