Food: The Rose is a Rose

If you’ve seen any of Gordon Ramsay’s cooking shows, you know that running a kitchen is a difficult job. Running a kitchen and making great food is an order of magnitude harder. Visit Springfield’s Red Rose Pizzeria, and the behind-the-scenes business of running a large-scale restaurant spills right over into the enormous dining room.

Pizzas, some of them bigger than a truck tire, slide in and out of ovens visible through large windows. The stacks of pizza boxes all but disappear into the clouds. That’s just one of the kitchens. The swinging door to the second becomes more like a fan with the constant traffic of servers. Here and there, along the edges of the dining room, employees linger for a quick break. Red Rose seems to employ a small army.

That’s because the order of the day at Red Rose, a Springfield institution, is speed and efficiency. The surprisingly bright sprawl of the dining room is often packed, and the clientele ranges from workmen to teenagers, older couples, and families with a lot of kids. It seems like everybody in town has a soft spot for the place.

The night of our visit, Red Rose was at capacity, and a large group of hopefuls lined the entranceway, waiting for a shot at the menu. Nobody seemed impatient. When a group of 20 or so happy, grease-smeared kids filed out, we finally had our moment.

The Red Rose menu is streamlined and to the point: pasta, salads, sandwiches and pizza. Efficiency may be necessary, but that apparently doesn’t mean brisk treatment. Our visit to Red Rose brought an encounter with a very friendly server, the kind who uses the word “hon” often.

After we ordered, we’d barely had time to lower the water level in our glasses before a salad arrived. It was basic, just a pile of usual-suspect lettuce and accompaniments, glistening with Italian dressing. Basic is often just the ticket, but it requires ingredients that haven’t been waiting long for their chance at plated glory. The sheer scale of the Red Rose operation must require very frequent deliveries, and that paid off with wonderfully crunchy lettuce. Though I’m a reluctant devourer of salads, I found myself shovelling this one in. This was a brightly clad debutante of a salad.

When a couple of pasta dishes arrived just after, it was clear that the second Red Rose kitchen has a bead on pasta-cooking. The ravioli’s tenderness was of that variety that never seems possible at home, firm but yielding. Its ricotta filling had just enough spice to keep things interesting, and made for a perfect marriage with oil and garlic.

The eggplant rollatini offered a blast of tomato and melted cheese; the batter on the eggplant that lurked underneath was a touch soggy, but that was quite minor when paired with the toothsome and savory eggplant itself.

When a small pizza arrived, I wondered what planet a large must resemble. Jupiter seemed like a good guess. The thing took up half the table. The basic house style comes with cheese, sauce, peppers and pepperoni, and we tried it minus pepperoni.

It’s one of the main pleasures of pizza to see how it evolves, taste-wise, as it goes from molten to cooled cheese-brick. The Red Rose variety starts just south of that too-hot stage that always leaves a burnt roof of the mouth. It’s a bit floppy and gooey to start with, though the dough arrives with a near-crunchy exterior and a nicely bready interior. Even without pepperoni, the pizza offers everything a pizza needs: substantial, well-spiced sauce; crust that could stand alone on its merits; and an abundant stratum of mozarella and toppings. The first slice disappeared in record time.

The second slice came when the pizza had reached that medium temperature at which the flavors are in their heyday. It seemed to inhabit its full powers, and the result was impressive. You have to work hard to find something to criticize in a Red Rose pizza, but there is one small thing. The only item that might have made it even better was, sadly, not on the menu: garlic. Still, the rest of the flavors were so up-front it didn’t much matter.

Red Rose deserves the high praise it regularly receives. There’s a reason the place has made it for (exactly) 50 years, even persevering in the face of roof and window damage from a tornado strike in 2011. If you need a fix of pizza in Springfield, you’d be hard-pressed to equal Red Rose. And a word of caution: if you order a small for just one person, expect to get at least two, probably three meals out of it.•

Red Rose Pizzeria, 1060 Main St., Springfield, (413) 739-8510.


Author: James Heflin

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