186 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura
Nestled in a corner of downtown that might as well be dubbed Narnia, Tony’s Pizzaria has not only survived, but thrived for the better part of six decades. Fueled by the heat of a 600-degree oven, the crispy, cheesy slices have not only satiated Venturans in the know and out-of-towners who happen to stumble upon the institution, but left them with a smile. Now, with recent upgrades that give the joint a new shine, there is no reason not to spend more time at Tony’s. After all, it may be Ventura’s best pie.
A few doors down from Tony’s, Topa Topa Brewing Company was bustling on a Friday evening. After a few pints, the sight of a pizza traveling through the tasting room, delivered from Tony’s, caught our attention. So we did as we do, we followed our noses, to the literal pizza hut on the corner of Thompson Boulevard and Figueroa Street, with its brand-spanking-new neon sign a sight to behold.
A short line stretched from the front steps to inside, where most of the room is reserved for the massive pizza oven. A small counter, behind which, sporting festive red tropical shirts, pizza makers merrily stretch dough and sling sauce. Choices are few at Tony’s, but what great pizzeria was ever made great by an overabundance?
The only choice one needs to make for a legitimately transcendent pizza experience is the Tony’s Special, a classic combination of sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, red onions and olives. We chose the medium ($18) and found it to be more than enough for two, along with a medium-sized cheese and garlic pizza ($14). Drinks are Spartan: Sodas from cans are readily available, and that in itself is classic. We were informed that the wait would be about an hour, understandable on a Friday evening, so we hopped back over to Topa Topa to work up an appetite.
Returning to Tony’s to gather our order, we sat on the patio underneath new heat lamps, a much-needed amenity for when the sun sets in Ventura. The natural beauty of the somewhat wooded area is made cozy (dare I say slightly romantic?) by illuminated trees and long, freshly painted picnic tables, adorned with a fresh coat of red. Several party games sat ready for play as well, including a giant Jenga and a cornhole board replete with bean bags for the tossing. A recently restored mural of women in bikinis delivering pizza placed us only in Ventura; Tony’s has the unique local vibe down pat.
Our attention could not be stolen from our pizzas, however, which sat hot and steaming before us. Tony’s Special was up and a slice was chosen, sprinkled evenly with Tony’s special combination of classic pizza toppings. The crust gave way to a crispy crunch yet retained a bit of chew, while the savory sausage and piquant pepperoni tiptoed through the juicy mushrooms and al dente peppers, the olives providing a gentle reassurance as if to say, “You’re going to want to wake up to this, baby.”
The cheese and garlic, enemy to the vampire, proved ally to my taste buds. The garlic, so often faked in corporate take-out or bland and overcooked elsewhere, held a definitive roasted flavor; ‘twas midnight in the Garden of Eden and I am become the tempted devourer of the cheesy allium.
As the night crept in and appetites were sated, two slices of each pie remained. Of course, we took them to go; everyone knows that pizza is the breakfast of champions, and Tony’s was fit for the breakfast table of a king.
Recently, co-owners Bruce Barrios and Tony Barrios Jr., sons of founder Johnny “Tony” Barrios, who opened the shop in 1959, purchased the property behind the shop to expand parking, a much needed addition to the location, though street parking is usually available. The counter is only a short walk from the aforementioned brewery, as well as the recently opened Ventura Coast Brewing Company and other downtown watering holes. The duo also has plans to revitalize the patio and perhaps add wine and beer service in the near future, but many upgrades have already been made, including the sign and restoration of the original murals.
Tony’s is pure Americana, the kind of pizza place that is becoming harder to find as modernity takes hold. The pizza itself even tastes like fond memories, reminiscent of pulling up to a long table to celebrate a softball victory. Now that Tony’s has a few new bells and whistles, it’s more welcoming on the surface. Good, but the reason to visit Tony’s has never changed: world-class pizza, served off the beaten path.