Travels in South Bay: Cicero's Pizza and Dairy Belle (long)
I've decided to put my recent visits to these local places together because they both kind of fit into some throwback traditions.
First, we had lunch today at the Dairy Belle on Mathilda right off the 101. We had tried to go to the one in Los Altos on San Antonio, and it is not a Dairy Belle anymore (sign says "Burger Town" and it was not open, people were inside, so not sure what is going on there). The tradition that Dairy Belle fills is the kind of drive in/burger stand/soft serve place that you can still find in a lot of small towns. What these places generally mean to me are having some of the following:
1) Soft serve and shakes, and hopefully malteds.
2) Midwestern/In N' Out style thin patty fried burgers in the lettuce/tomato/special sauce griddle-toasted bun variety, served in paper and cooked to order. Variations include maybe a ranch sauce, or a canadian bacon burger, or perhaps a special burger with onion rings on it.
3) Picnic tables.
4) Obviously, fries, and hopefully Onion Rings, but maybe something fun like fried zucchini or tater tots as well.
5) A walk up order window.
Dairy Belle on Mathilda has the first 4 attributes, and as many that read this board they know that Dairy Belle has a couple of special kinds of french fries, the most discussed being the Sour Cream and Chive fries. These are a standard lightly battered style fry that has some chive and seasoning in the batter, then it is served with a sour cream and chive dipping sauce. Our fries were piping hot and fried to order and the very light seasoning on the fry went nicely with the dipping sauce. They were pretty good. Obviously these are not bistro pomme frites, and I was actually expecting the seasoning to be a sour cream and chivey flavoring powder (I have had this style other places) but they were definitely a nice detour.
The best way to compare the burger is a direct comparison with In and Out. I would say the two junior burgers (1/8 pound patty) I had today compare favorably. In and Out has great quality control and the ingredients are always fresh, and nobody toasts a bun to such perfection for a 2 dollar burger. Sometimes you get this huge wad of iceberg lettuce at I/O that unbalances the burger. The Dairy Belle burger was the same asn an In and Out, standard is lettuce, tomato and sauce (sauce is similar to In and Outs but a little lighter, or perhaps a little less on each burger, and it contained no relish). Sauce works really well on this kind of burger because the thin patties are never going to be super juicy so the best way to kill the dryness is a mayo based sauce. Dairy Belle has pickles and onions on request, and I like a the occasional pickly/saucy bite on this kind of burger, and this is a plus over In and Out which just has a little relish in the special sauce. I am not sure if the onions are grilled or not that they offer, I assume not, but I passed this time. DB's buns were nicely toasted, not quite to the perfection of an In and Out, but I wouldn't drive past DB to get to In and Out, especially if I didn't want to feel like I was waiting in line for Pirates of the Caribbean or something at Disneyland (In and Out can be crowded, even though they are fast)
We didn't get any ice cream, but noticed several people getting dipped cones. We totally would have hit that, but it was kind of cool today, so we didn't even eat at the picnic tables, we did that sit in the car and eat to get some sun, but stay toasty. We have had to go this approach lots of times when it has been too crowded to eat in OR out at In and Out.
Dairy Belle (a number of locations)
736 N. Mathilda Ave.
Sunnyvale, CA 94087
Hours I believe are 10-8, not sure about days
Cicero's reminds of me of pizza parlors from when I was a kid. Basically no frills, plastic cups, family restaurant, basically beer and pizza on the menu and packed with families on a Friday night. I am going to try and accurately describe it, because pizza is basically impossible to discuss on this board without talking about specific attributes and what I mean by "good." For example, I wouldn't say that Pizza Hut is "good" on this board and then get my pants flamed off, what I would say is that I occasionally have a taste for "American style fluffy, pan-browned focaccia-style crusted sweeter-sauced with appropriated browned cheese" (I'm looking at you disgusting Pizza-my-Heart and mediocre at best Round Table who don't know how to cook a pizza long enough) pizza. With that caveat in mind I will now discuss the delights of Cicero's thin crusted pie.
We actually went to Cicero's after our original plan for the Los Altos Dairy Belle fell through and then when we couldn't find another Dairy Belle because I forgot the addresses of the other locations. Cicero's serves a thin crust pizza that fits into an extensive Midwestern tradition. Meaning this is not NY style thinner-than-pizza hut, but instead a quite thin and crispy crust style. I will come out right now and say that I love their pizza because it fits are particular niche/tradition in my mind. It will not excite anyone with foodie tendencies in the "best ingredients" sort of way. The crust is thin and crisp, yet not in the crackery style that many Chicago-style thin crust (Chicago's OTHER pizza) places serve. If you are familiar even with Zachary's (Berkeley/Oakland) Chicago deep dish pizza, you will understand this "crackery" taste, even if you have only had the thicker crusted stuffed pies.
Cicero's crust is mostly crisp from the edge to the middle, with the occasional softer spot where there was a bubble of air between the crust and the pan. They do not over-sauce or over-cheese the pizzas, and the cheese is nicely browned. From our one pizza, I would expect many to feel like there wasn't enough cheese at all. I had sausage and olives on my half, and the sausage was kind of that finely ground "veneer" of sausage you'll find on a cheap frozen pizza, with the black olives being the standard canned kind. Cicero's would have really wowed me if they had even just used big chunks of sausage, or my absolute fave, sliced Italian sauasge.
If you read negative reviews of Cicero's, you will find people comparing it to a good version of a bad frozen pizza. I can't really argue with that, except the crust is just so nice, with a slight buttery taste. The pizza being so light you just don't feel greasy or gross afterwards, I could have easily eaten an entire large myself. Pizza comes pretty fast, but the dining room is pretty loud (very open space so even half full seems full, and lots of kids).
So if you are feeling for a little throwback, or retro, Cicero's might work for you.
6138 Bollinger Road
Cupertino, CA 95129
Wow, this is a throwback. Long ago, I used to live in the south bay and would travel a good distance to go to Cicero's for just the reason you are citing - the nostalgia of an old time pizza parlor. I always recall the pizza being excellent, very thin and light, some of the best in the south bay. Glad to hear the place is still around.
re: P. Punko
I rather like their ground sausage versus big chunks or sliced Italian sausage. I equate the chunky sausage with pizza hut, and frozen pizza that my elementary school served ages ago.
The thin "crackery" crust is awesome. I tend to prefer two mediums to one large pie to maximize the crust enjoyment =)
I think my taste buds need a bigger size, once they get too small, my clunky mouth can't detect the flavor. Nice call on the two mediums- I forgot to mention that the outer rim really (naturally) is the height of the crunch and allows one to just isolate the crust- you know if you like it or hate it of you start at that end. If that bite doesn't do it for you, nothing else on the pie is gonna swing you to the thin crust.
re: P. Punko
Wow, that is a shame. I vaguely thought I recalled someone telling me that the place was gone but perhaps they did not know of the relocation. The old place was great, single identity old pizza parlor, couple of pinball machines, a bit dirty, I even remember the old man who owned the place had these real fat fingers when taking your cash. It was the quintessential pizza parlor. I remember a friend and I used to get their and put down a large between the two of us and marvel at how easy it was to eat it all.
My first job in California was up the street from that Dairy Belle. The only thing is that Clark's is just up the street which is a nice char-broiled burger with a nice condiment tray. However, if looking for an In-n-Out type of burger fix, dairy belle is the better choice.
I swear those chive fries are relatively recent because I don't remember them being served there over a decade ago.
Nice report. Thanks.