I almost can’t believe my eyes when I walk into CHAR Pizzeria Napoletana in Peoria. There’s a sleek, clean and downright Euro feel – silvery tin tiles on the ceiling, modern black light fixtures, gleaming wood and metal chairs congregated around marble-topped tables, brown leather banquettes and booths, a contemporary wooden bench and a clean white counter.
I grew up in the West Valley and went to high school just minutes away from this pristine pizzeria at the corner of Lake Pleasant Parkway and Happy Valley Road. Let me tell you: Our pizza options were not so cosmopolitan back then. If you wanted pizza in these parts in 2005, you could choose between Hungry Howie’s, Ray’s and Sardella’s – solid venues for American-style pizza during your senior lunch break, but nothing close to the crispy, chewy, pliant pies that originated in Naples. (To be fair, Fabio on Fire has also emerged in recent years as a stellar Italian option in this area. The pizza there is also fantastic.)
Enter CHAR, which boasts certification from Italy’s revered Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN). My PR pal, Amber, suggested it when I told her I wanted to work more West Valley places into my happy hour coverage. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool West Valley gal and a food and wine enthusiast, so I put my trust in her.
For regular meals, CHAR is a counter-service operation – no full table service. From what I see, it looks like there’s a Chipotle-style system of choosing sauces, toppings and doneness levels as you walk down a line to the counter, your pie coming together right before your eyes (akin to local chain Fired Pie, but a VPN version). Happy hour deals, however, are offered exclusively at the bar, where you can place orders for drinks and food and have the latter delivered from the kitchen.
Happy hour noshes here are carb-centric, much to my delight. Bruschetta singles ($3 each) come in nine varieties, from ricotta with prosciutto, arugula and lemon oil to mascarpone with apples and fig spread. We order a trio: tomato jam, pistachio and goat cheese; diced tomato, olive oil, basil, feta and bacon; and fior di latte mozzarella with fresh basil, tomatoes, balsamic glaze and black pepper. All are scrumptious. The tomato jam packs a surprising punch of heat – almost too much for my pansy tongue. I take generous glugs of water between each bite. My favorite is the ultra-creamy fior di latte mozzarella, made with cow’s milk instead of the traditional buffalo.
Bruschetta | Photo by Leah LeMoine
Classic CHAR pizzas – margherita, pesto, bianco and cheese – are discounted to $7 during happy hour, with each additional topping priced at $1. We go for the bianca, with chopped garlic, olive oil, Pecorino, fior di latte mozzarella, ricotta and fresh basil. In a burst of seasonal whimsy, I add sweet corn. So summery and delish.
Specialty pizzas are not discounted during HH, but Amber has been curious about the Farmer’s Market ($12.99) for a while and gives it a whirl. Her tomato sauce- and mozzarella-topped pie comes loaded with mushrooms, fresh spinach, red peppers, artichokes, eggplant and Pecorino. “It has too many vegetables for my husband to want to order it with me,” she jokes. Typically, she and her fella order the sausage and peppers pizza ($12.99), with tomato sauce, shredded mozz, oregano, sausage, red onions, roasted red peppers, chile flakes, garlic and Pecorino; or the insane-sounding garlic lobster ($15.99), with crème fraîche, mozz, fresh spinach, sliced tomatoes and decadent crustacean. That is 100 percent what I am ordering the next time I come.
Drinks are positively cheap during happy hour at the bar. Domestic bottles of beer are $3 and well drinks are just $4. Sambuca and limoncello shots are $5. Wines by the glass – including some nice Italian selections – are $6. Something intriguingly named a butterball cappuccino is $7. Pitchers of craft beer are $9.
Blood Orange margarita | Photo by Leah LeMoine
I zero in on the craft cocktails, which are all too often absent from happy hour offerings. The blood orange margarita lacks the vibrant red-orange hue I expect from this particular citrus, but it’s a tasty drink nonetheless: Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur, Thumb Butte Distillery’s Western Sage Gin (yay for including a locally crafted spirit!), lime juice and agave nectar, with a fresh sage garnish. Love the herbal notes of the sage gin and garnish. Next time I might ask for extra sage and a little less agave nectar, since this was on the sweeter side. I’d also love to try the Sicilian Sparkler – Solerno Blood Orange, Aperol and prosecco. Fifteen years ago, I could never have imagined a restaurant near my school offering something as European as an Aperol spritz. Sometimes change is good.
Happy hour runs from 3-6 p.m. daily, only for dining in and only at the CHAR bar.