A pint-sized joint offers impeccable pizza

Zagi's Pizza Ristorante is a "joint" in almost every sense of the word. It's small, it's intimate, it feels urban but with a neighborhood vibe, and from the kitchen, at just the right volume, comes a constant soundtrack of music ranging from reggae to blues to rock. Best of all, Zagi's is turning out what is arguably some of the best pizza in Seattle, resulting in a significant following from locals to fans all over the city, who happily make the trek off the beaten path to this tiny Ballard eatery.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the restaurant is adjoined to Robertino's Italian Specialties, an espresso/gelato shop owned by Roberto Tucci and run primarily by his father, Alfonso. A "joint" in its own right, Robertino's has garnered a loyal following over its more-than-17 years. Serving Lavazza espresso drinks, pastries and gelato made on the premises and a variety of prepackaged Italian beverages and foods, Robertino's is a small treasure. Particularly wonderful are the homemade, sweet, biscuit-y scones, stuffed with raspberry jam, and the biscotti, heavy on the lemon zest, just a tad bitter and perfect for dunking into early-morning cappuccino.

Notably, it was Alfonso's sister who previously operated a lovely little Italian restaurant in the storefront where Zagi's is currently located. A couple of years ago, she returned to her native Calabria, and the Tuccis have awaited the next lucky tenant ever since. Enter Steve Stehlik and Ryan Weber, who settled in earlier this year to an area that has rewarded their decision with a steady stream of business.

Prior to landing in the Crown Hill section of Ballard, Zagi's was a restaurant-on-the-move. It operated as a mobile pizzeria, the pizza made in a portable oven and sold at various festivals and markets around the state since 2001. Back then, you could only buy it by the slice. Fortunately, Zagi's has continued this practice, a luxury in the Seattle pizza world, and offers a slice of cheese from a 21-inch pie for a mere three bucks, with specialty slices for just a dollar more.

Whole pies are sold in three sizes, from 14 to the enormous 21 inches. You can enhance your pizza with any of the several regular toppings that are offered at most pizzerias, in addition to a few special treats such as breaded or roasted eggplant, Cascioppo Brothers' sausages, meatballs and free-range chicken. You may also choose from one of Zagi's specialty pies, including Vegan, Cajun or the delicious Spuds, which boasts Guinness-caramelized onions, Yukon Gold potatoes, two kinds of cheese and pesto.

Zagi's crust is the best part about the pizza: thin, a little salty, with a crisp exterior that's slightly chewy on the inside. There's a lot of hubbub these days about "New York-style pizza" and which local establishment comes closest to that of the Big Apple. After more than 15 years in that city, many of them lean years when every lunch was a "regular slice," my money is on Zagi's crust for first prize. I also like that they go easy on the sauce, cheese and toppings, com-plementing rather than overloading the light crust.

Zagi's serves a few salads, all of them good-sized. A small salad, at around $5, will certainly serve two, and a large, which is about $10, is good for four. There are a variety of fine pastas, not the least of which is Pasta al Gorgonzola, made with Gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and fresh oregano. An antipasto plate, fresh breads and various Parmigiano dinners round out the menu and provide the non-pizza eater (is there really such a person?) with some alternatives.

My only problem with Zagi's happens to be rooted in one of its most charming attributes: it's incredibly undersized, with only five tables and a couple of stools at a bar. As such, it would be perfect for takeout if only the pizza would stay hot during the long ride back to Queen Anne. Unfortunately, it doesn't. To me, the best cold pizza is the greasy kind, thick with cheese and laden with sauce and toppings. That's not Zagi's, whose lovely, thin version is best when eaten blisteringly hot. So, if you order to-go, I advise you to keep the oven on high and reheat your pie when you arrive home.

Better yet, eat in at this kid-friendly restaurant. The employees are upbeat and efficient -from the waitress to the heavily staffed kitchen; everyone was more than accommodating each time I've been there. The restaurant is awaiting its liquor license, expected soon, whereafter they'll serve wine and beer.

Of course, eating at the restaurant has the added benefit of allowing you to finish you meal by walking a few steps into Robertino's, where delicious, homemade gelati - including nocciola (hazelnut) and limone - await you for only $1.50 a scoop. That, and a shot of espresso, leaves both kiddies and parents with smiles on their faces.[[In-content Ad]]