Category Archives: Pizza

Nut-Free Chicago: A Travel “Guide”

Last month, I spent a week and a half in Chicago, where I did just about everything I do in NYC. I wandered aimlessly. I people watched. I browsed clothes I couldn’t afford. I watched way too many late-night Cops reruns. And to my surprise, I dined out a whole hell of a lot. Last time I ventured to Chicago, I subsisted on literally nothing but McDonald’s, Subway, pretzels, Cup Noodles, and water. But that was pre-blog. Now, I’m a practiced diner-outer, and I have a much harder time settling for such a repetitive and high-trash diet. It’s probably a good thing.

But before I got there, I didn’t expect to find all that much in the way of safe restaurants. It took me months to compile even the very beginnings of the NYC-specific list that’s now my pride and joy (half-serious about the whole pride-and-joy thing), so I didn’t expect to get all that much done Chicago-wise in the 10 days I’d have there. I figured I’d bark up a bunch of wrong trees, find maybe a restaurant or two, then resign myself to a week of fast food and Airbnb-home-cooking—but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Chicago’s not at all a difficult city to eat in, and with the help of a list compiled by the No Nuts Moms Group of Chicago, I ended up with plenty of options.

So here they are—all the non-chain restaurants I ate at, and some I called, but couldn’t make it to—in brief-ish (yeah, right), because we’ve all got things to do. And please, pardon the iPhone photos. I didn’t bring my camera.

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Dona Bella Pizza

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When I wrote a few weeks back about the pizza dead zone I inhabit, I was admittedly overlooking Dona Bella. This place is ridiculously close to my apartment, and I walk by it at least a few times a week, but I’d always had this particularly strong intuition that their pizza would be dreadful. I don’t know why—Dona Bella just has the air of a terrible pizzeria, and I guess I figured I was better off without the place.

But I really do live in an unfortunate area for delivery pizza. Everything in FiDi (inexplicably) considers me too far away, as do all the places more than three or four blocks to the north of me (?!?)—and most Tribeca pizzerias are basically full-fledged restaurants, super-nutty menus and all. The night I caved and placed my first order with Dona Bella, I’d gone through the menus of literally all the pizzerias on Slice before throwing up my hands and saying “fuck it.” How bad could it be, really?

Not bad. Not bad at all! In fact, I actually like Dona Bella’s pizza, and not only because it has a flawless record of arriving in under 30 minutes. (The record so far is 9. 9 minutes. From the time I sent in my Seamless order to the time the delivery guy rang my doorbell. Offensively quick.)

And before I go on: Dona Bella is indeed nut-free. That’s what I was told via phone, at least. The guy I spoke with seemed a little thrown my by questioning, likely because nobody had ever called in to ask about nuts before. (I figured such a simple pizzeria was a shoo-in, but it would’ve been silly not to try to double-check.) I can’t be sure that the answer I got actually meant anything—it probably didn’t—but there’s nothing suspicious on Dona Bella’s menu, and I’ve eaten their pizza plenty of times now without a hint of an issue.

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Now, the pizza isn’t incredible, and I still prefer My Little Pizzeria‘s, but it definitely isn’t bad, either. At the very least, it’s worlds better than all the bad pizza I’m known to eat (Little Italy, Ben’sJoey Pepperoni’s, 2 Bros…I’m incredibly lazy, and my standards are way lower than I’d like you to believe). The crust—which is definitely a little underwhelming—is covered with those weird-ass texture-sapping breadcrumbs I so hate, but it’s still so, so much better than Little Italy’s. It’s a little on the thin side, but it’s chewy and buttery, and it does well when steeped in pizza grease, too. (Sorry…)

The cheese is good, and the sauce is all right, too. Overall, slices are about as sweet as I can handle before I start crying “sugar sauce!”—but that’s all I ask for, really. I don’t mind pizza that’s a little sweet, but I won’t eat more than a bite or two of any pizza that’s covered in syrupy-sweet tomato sauce, no matter how good the crust and cheese are. (Spoiler: If the sauce is that sweet, neither the crust nor the cheese are going to be worth your stomach space.) What I’m trying to say, I think, is that Dona Bella’s pizza is a bit sweeter than I’d like, but that it’s not nearly sweet enough to piss me off. I like it, and I’m prepared to stand behind that liking.

I should probably mention, though, that I can’t vouch for Dona Bella’s hours-old slices. I actually can’t vouch for much of anything but their freshly made plain pies. Those are all I order, because all I’d really wanted from Dona Bella was a quick, reliable delivery joint that’d be willing and able to bring me edible pies sans any trace amounts of nuts. They can’t seem to be nice to me on the phone, nor can they seem to cut their slices even remotely evenly, but you know what? They’re exactly what I was looking for.

(Too-sweet pizza really does make me unreasonably angry, by the way.)

Find Dona Bella Pizza at 154 Church Street, between Reade and Chambers.

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Little Italy Pizza

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I live in a pizza dead zone. There are a few places in my neighborhood, but they’re all pretty terrible, so for the most part, I abstain. I can get Joe’s through Caviar, but it takes an hour and a half, and by the time the pizza arrives, it’s always soggy and lukewarm. So when I really want pizza, I have to comb the Internet for alternatives. Can you see where this is going? Little Italy Pizza is just one of those random pizzerias I found through whatever third-party delivery website I happened to have been scouring for a nut-free pie. I claim no responsibility for this post’s existence.

Unfortunately, Little Italy is at the very bottom of my random-delivery-pizza hierarchy (which category is itself at the bottom of the pizza-in-general hierarchy). But we’ll get there. First, allergens. Before placing my first Seamless order, I gave Little Italy’s Fulton Street location a call, and the guy I spoke with assured me (through much confusion) that there are no tree nuts or peanuts used in any of their food. Whether he knew what he was talking about, I have no idea—but I’m inclined to believe what he said, given that Little Italy is just a standard-issue pizzeria, whose ilk I’ve never, ever had any (allergy-related) trouble with.

Look: I’m just going to skip over all the Fluff & Fun and cut to the chase here, because this place is so bad that I can’t even have a good time at its expense. The pizza’s so lame that I actually won’t eat it—and there isn’t much I won’t eat (or at least idly pick at) once it’s in front of me. The cheese is inoffensive, I guess, but the sauce is so sweet, and the crust is…something else entirely. It has a weird flavor, and it’s so crispy that it’s basically a cracker—plus, it’s covered with bread crumbs, which (a) give it an even less pleasant texture than it otherwise would’ve had, and (b) make for an unusually messy slice of pizza. (Seriously. I eat extra carefully and I’m still vacuuming up breadcrumbs 10 minutes after getting rid of the box.)

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For whatever reason (desperation—the reason is desperation), I’ve also tried Little Italy’s calzones, their stromboli, and their mozzarella sticks. But unfortunately, I have almost nothing nice to say about any of the above. My calzone (ham and cheese) was inedible—the cheese may as well have been made of plastic, and the ham, present only in two enormous chunks, was pretty gross, too. And the stromboli I ate (three bites of) wasn’t any better. Each and every meat inside was unequivocally bad, but it was the pepperoni that kept me from reaching bite #4. There had to have been at least 20 layers of pepperoni in that thing, and it was Hormel-quality, too. Please, no.

The mozzarella sticks were, I guess, the best of the bunch. That’s not saying much, I know. But I didn’t actually mind them in the slightest. (Maybe I just have too much of a soft spot for mozzarella sticks. But my many food-related soft spots couldn’t save the rest of Little Italy’s food.) No doubt, these were bad—the cheese was shitty, and the breading was all wrong—but I got through them, and I ordered them again (of my own free will!), too. That’s a lot more than I can say about any of the other Little Italy productions I’ve tried.

Over the last six months (which is as long as I’ve known about the place), I’ve ordered from Little Italy maybe four or five times—but that’s only because they’re open all night and they’ll actually deliver to me when no other restaurants seem to be able to. My verdict, then: There’s no excuse for giving up actual legal tender in exchange for such bad pizza in a city full of such great options…except for, you know, all those excuses I rattled off over the course of this post.

You’ve been warned.

Find Little Italy Pizza all over Manhattan.

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My Little Pizzeria

My Little Pizzeria's Brooklyn Heights storefront

As a direct result of my going to high school in Brooklyn (Heights), I learned: that the subway is the greatest invention of all time; that Brooklyn might just be a better borough than Manhattan; that the Chipotle on Montague Street is the best Chipotle in the city (and perhaps the world); that the plaid-skirt private schools in my (Manhattan) neighborhood are actually sort of frightening; that the stoops and rooftops of Brooklyn’s brownstones are some of the best places to hang out; that Brooklyn is most definitely a better borough than Manhattan; and that My Little Pizzeria makes some of the best pizza in this whole city.

But as I wrote in my post on Joe’s Pizza, New York City regularly participates in a rather ridiculous best-pizza circlejerk—by which I don’t mean that we all mistakenly believe that our city has the best pizza, because that isn’t a mistaken belief. What I do mean is that the pizza places everyone touts as the city’s best—Joe’s included—are only so because…well, because everyone’s constantly saying so. They’re the Best-Pizza Options, so they’re the ones everyone’s always drawing upon when it comes time to make a Best-Pizza List.

Seriously. Google “best NYC pizza” all you want; no matter how many articles you read, you’ll continue to come across the same handful of recycled names. But I refuse to accept that those same places fill each and every list simply because they’re really just the best. Certainly, there are other pizza places that are as good (or…dare I say?) better. And I hereby submit My Little Pizzeria as my first piece of evidence.

Located on Fulton Street, between a GameStop and an American Apparel, My Little (as my entire high school called it) doesn’t look like anything special. And perversely enough, I mean that as a compliment. I can’t trust a pizzeria that looks “special”—immediately, I’ll start to wonder what’s wrong with the pizza they serve. But this place is refreshingly boring. There’s a pizza counter, an ice cream counter, two dining rooms, and a stupid-looking courtyard for those who insist on dining al fresco. Come winter, there are usually string lights and some dumb-ass blow-up decorations. Oh, and there’s a bathroom. That’s literally it—and that’s fine, because their pizza calls for no compensatory frills.

(You’ll have to excuse me. Sometimes, I get carried away and forget that I’m meant to be writing about food in the context of food allergies. Rest assured, though, that My Little is pretty allergy-friendly. There are no nuts in any of their food-food—and though they do have a few nutty gelato flavors, nothing in the pizza area should ever come into contact with anything in the gelato area. They’re separate counters, as I said—so in all, I feel entirely safe eating at My Little.)

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Anyway, onto the food. The menu’s about what you’d expect from your average pizza place: garlic knots, calzones, rolls, and salads. I’ve never really considered getting up close and personal with a pizza-place salad, so I’m  moderately proud to say I have no opinions on My Little’s. With regard to everything else on their menu, though, I have plenty to say.

As with my meals, I’ll begin with the garlic knots. Like most garlic knots, My Little’s are pretty good—and at $3 for a dozen, they’re pretty cheap, too. They’re usually fresh and always warm, and they suffer from no shortage of garlic, thank God. In short, they’re fine: nothing special, but garlic knots aren’t really supposed to be special. They’re supposed to be cheap, greasy, and reliable—and these are, so I’m on board.

Now, it’s hard to bring myself to say anything negative about My Little, given how seriously attached I am to the place (and how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent within its walls)…but there’s no point in lying—including by omission—so here goes: their calzones are no good. They aren’t appalling—there’s plenty of cheese (mozzarella and ricotta), and the center’s always nice and warm—but they’re bland and boring, and the innards never quite fill out the crust. Oh well.

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Before I start in on the pizza, I should probably mention that I’m going to be talking specifically about My Little’s plain pies—that’s plain, not “cheese,” because I wasn’t raised by wolves (or people from upstate)—as I’m of the belief that plain pizza is pizza in its best form. White pie? No thanks. Sicilian? Get real. Fresh Mozzarella? Ugh. Plain or bust. Direct all hate mail here.

Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…I’m pretty confident in saying that My Little’s pizza is pretty much perfect. If you ask me, one of the marks of a good slice of pizza is that there’s very little to say about it (other than “…yep, it’s really good”), so this is going to be pretty challenging, but trust me: My Little churns out some reliably solid pies, especially around mealtimes, when they’re pretty much guaranteed to be straight from the oven.

The crust is perfectly virtuous; it rests at the mean between irritatingly crispy and doughy-as-fuck. It’s chewy, but not overly so—and for some reason, that’s pretty rare. The sauce is simple and refreshingly not-sugary  (also weirdly rare), and the cheese is creamier than most pizzerias’. Slices are salty, but not overly so, and there’s more than enough grease to satisfy a grease-lover like me. (And by the way: if you’re a grease-blotter, we can’t be friends. I’m sorry—that’s just the way it is. All hate mail to the aforementioned address.)

Plus, the guys who work the counter are great. For over 6 years now, they’ve been honoring each and every one of my sometimes-very-stupid requests (à la would you mind, uhh, cutting that slice into pieces?, which was my signature request for a month or two of my fifteenth year, during which I developed a weird, weird obsession with pizza “morsels”). And even though I only stop by once or twice a month now that I pretty much never happen to be nearby, most of them still know my name, and they never fail to greet me with a smile…or a wave, if I happen to be walking by. It’s the little things.

And the pizza.

Find My Little Pizzeria at 114 Court Street, between Atlantic and State Streets.

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Ben’s Pizzeria

The storefront of Ben's Pizzeria

I’ll admit it: I never would’ve given Ben’s Pizzeria a second glance had it not been for its presence in the opening to Louie. But I go to school in the neighborhood, so I pass Ben’s all the time—and the image of Louis C.K. shoving a slice of Ben’s pizza into his mouth is so burned into my mind that I couldn’t help but give the place some attention.

Since Ben’s is an exceedingly average pizzeria—all they serve is pizza, calzones, rolls, garlic knots, salads, and heroes—I figured the place was probably a shoo-in. Still, I was really dreading making the phone call, because pizza places are fucking impossible to communicate with. Think about it: their phones ring all day, but 99.9% of callers are just calling to order a pizza. Those are the calls they’re trained to handle. So when someone calls in asking whether there might be any nut products on-site, they get confused. The usual language barrier doesn’t help—but the fact that I’m calling to ask a sort-of-unprecedented question doesn’t help, either.

But I did call, and the gist of the answer I received was that there shouldn’t be any nuts or nut products anywhere within the walls of Ben’s. And that—combined with the incredible convenience of the location, and, you know, the whole Louie thing—convinced me to give this place a try.

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Unfortunately, the pizza isn’t all that great. It’s fine—it’s not weirdly sweet or offensively doughy or anything—and it’ll certainly do in a pinch, but it definitely isn’t good. At $2.75 per slice, I’d expect this stuff to be reliably better than the dollar slices you’ll find at 2 Bros. et al., but it isn’t. In fact, it’s actually a little worse. The cheese is bland, and there’s way too much of it—and overall, slices are so flavorless that I’ve actually taken to salting them. (Who salts pizza? Not me. But Ben’s pizza needs salt.) The crust’s decent, though. I’ll give them that. And the sauce is all right, too.

Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. Maybe Ben’s has better pizza to offer. I don’t know, but I guess I’ll find out, because it’s not as if I’m about to stop eating there. Within a certain range of quality, well…pizza is pizza—and Ben’s pizza certainly falls within that range. (I definitely don’t agree with that stupid-ass adage that there’s no such thing as bad pizza. There’s bad pizza, and if you tout the aforementioned adage as some sort of universal truth, I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably one of those folks who’s into bad pizza.)

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Their stromboli, though, are certainly worth avoiding. At all costs. For real. The crust is fine, but the filling—no matter what you settle on—sucks. The meat melds together; the vegetables meld together; everything gets all slimy, and the final product verges on inedible.

Pictured immediately above is a meat stromboli (made with ham, salami, pepperoni, meatballs, and mozzarella) that I just couldn’t bring myself to finish, despite my best efforts (and despite my hunger, too). It was just too goddamn unctuous—actually unctuous—to get through. Though I did eat 100% of the crust.

But Ben’s isn’t without its pros. They have a pretty wide array of toppings (though you’ll have to order a whole pie if you happen to want a combination of toppings that isn’t already on one of their pre-made pies), and, well…there’s seating. (Joe’s has none—so although Joe’s pizza is way, way better, Ben’s wins my patronage in the winter months.) Plus, their garlic knots (pictured immediately below) are actually worth eating. They’re huge—fist-sized, almost—and they have a prominent sourdough flavor to them, which I really like.

An order of garlic knots from Ben's Pizzeria

Surprisingly enough, I’m also a fan of their calzones. They’re made with plenty and plenty (and plenty) of cheese, and the folks at Ben’s will throw whatever fillings you want in there, too. I get broccoli, which is probably a mistake—their broccoli is watery and not really worth ordering—but maybe one day I’ll get over my aversion to most pizza toppings and give something else a try. I do tend to like plain old cheese calzones, though. Ricotta is one of my favorite things in the world, and mozzarella’s an easy sell, so it’s not as if I need anything additional in my calzones. But I wouldn’t mind some better broccoli…

Oh well. Here’s a calzone:

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Anyway. Like I said, mediocre food won’t stop me from patronizing Ben’s. Maybe I’ll get around to trying the sandwiches, maybe I won’t—but I know for sure that I’ll keep eating their pizza, calzones, and garlic knots. I have to; I’m nearby every day, and that shit definitely does the trick. Again: The food isn’t bad. I just can’t, in good conscience, call it “good.”

Find Ben’s Pizzeria at at 123 MacDougal Street, between Minetta and West 3rd.

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Joe’s Pizza

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If you Google “best pizza in NYC,” you will come across Joe’s. That’s just the way it is, especially if you’re looking to purchase by the slice. And while the articles that’ll come up are all just products of a huge best-pizzeria circlejerk, there’s just no denying that Joe’s is good.

It’s places like Joe’s that give New Yorkers grounds to brag about pizza. Theirs is simple, cheap, and quick—exactly as pizza should be—and it’s good, too. As their website says (errors intact): “At Joe’s, you won’t find any pretentious concoctions nor do we serve bargain pizza made with who-knows-what.  It’s just the old-school, real deal New York Pizza.  No string-bean, asparagus covered, wild turkey surprise pizza here.” And it’s true: Joe’s is the real deal.

As far as I can tell, they’re pretty much nut-free, too. (Really, most plain old pizza places are.) At Joe’s, there’s pizza, there are toppings, and there are drinks. Sometimes, there are salads…though I’ve never actually seen one. That’s it. No nuts—that I know of.

Of course, if that isn’t enough for you (and why should it be?), I’m sure the folks at Joe’s would be happy to answer any questions you might have. I’d recommend asking in person, though. In my experience, calling pizzerias to ask about allergens typically doesn’t go all that well. (It’s near-impossible. “Nuts? No, sorry. We have pepperoni, sausage, peppers…”)

Does Joe’s offer the city’s best slice? I have no idea. My personal favorite is (and probably always will be) My Little Pizzeria‘s plain slice, which I’ve been eating regularly for half a decade now—but what do I know? (A few things, I guess. But only a few.)

In any case, I like Joe’s. A lot. For a good lunch, it’s so absurdly cheap and easy—how could I not be a fan? My preferred Joe’s is the one located at 7 Carmine Street, right off of Bleecker. It’s open till 4am (5am on the weekends), and it’s right across from Father Demo Square, whose benches make up for the lack of indoor seating at Joe’s.

There are two other locations—one by Union Square (150 14th Street, between 3rd and 4th) and one in Williamsburg (216 Bedford Avenue, between North 5th and North 6th). I’ve never been to either, but I assume they’re pretty similar to the Joe’s on Carmine—i.e. worth a try, at the very least.

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Lombardi’s Pizza

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Lombardi’s, which has been around since 1905, was America’s first pizzeria. It’s pretty well-known—and not just for its historical significance. Their pizza (always New York-style, which they more-or-less created) is known to be pretty damn good, if a bit expensive. So I was pretty excited when I saw them listed on AllergyEats a few months back. Evidently, they don’t use any nuts in anything—so I was basically obligated to give them a try.

The first time I went, I asked the host whether there were any nuts present in the kitchen and whether there might be any chance of cross-contamination. He confirmed that there were no known nuts in anything they served and went to double-check with someone else about the cross-contamination issue. A few minutes later (the wait for a table was around 20), another man showed up and told me that the only way there’d be any nut traces in anything would be if their flour was cross-contaminated, and he didn’t believe it was. Of course, he couldn’t make any promises, but overall, I was satisfied with his answer.

The first time I went to Lombardi’s, my boyfriend and I split a plain Margherita pie, which we both loved. The mozzarella was fresh and well-distributed (though I wouldn’t have minded if they’d have doubled the cheese, really), and the tomato sauce was pretty much perfect—none of that sugary nonsense you’ll find at lesser eateries. My favorite part, though, was the crust: never soggy, never burnt, and never too thin nor too doughy. Perfect, really.

I’ve since discovered that I prefer the white pizza (pictured above), which is made with mozzarella, ricotta, romano, basil, and a whole bunch of olive oil. The whole thing is incredibly rich and creamy, and I highly recommend it, especially to the sauce-averse. It can get a little sickening after too many slices, but that’s more a problem with me and my overeating than with the food itself. Really, I have no gripes with this pizza. It’s good.

Actually, I have very few Lombardi’s-related gripes at all. (Well, I have a few. It’s tourist-heavy, it gets pretty crowded around mealtimes, and it’s cash-only, with an ATM that costs almost $4 per withdrawal.) But those issues aside, Lombardi’s is pretty good. And it’s  nut-free. What more can I ask for?

Find Lombardi’s at 32 Spring Street, on the corner of Mott and Spring. Remember to bring cash, though—and come ready to watch in awe as table after table of middle-aged tourists take to their pizzas with forks and knives.

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Domino’s Pizza

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I know, I know—Domino’s is just plain bad. But it’s dependable, and it does the trick when I’m feeling extraordinarily lazy or hungry (or reclusive…or masochistic). And the ability to order from basically any device I’ll ever own is a plus, I guess. Nothing like being able to respond to a “hey, pizzas are half-off this week!” ad by whipping out my phone and ordering one of said terrible pizzas—and some wings and, regrettably, some Cinna Stix—all without ever, you know, budging.

But you know what? If eating Domino’s is the worst decision of my week, I’ve probably had a pretty good week.

My real point, though: In my experience, Domino’s is pretty allergy-friendly. According to their website, they only have one item on the menu that contains nuts (the Chicken Apple Pecan Salad) and one that’s made in a facility that also handles nuts (the Chocolate Lava Crunch Cake). Everything else, though—pizzas, sandwiches, pastas, wings, breadsticks, even the weird-ass “marbled cookie brownie”—seems to be safe.

To be sure, I reached out to Domino’s. I received the following reply:

There are no peanuts or peanut oils or tree nuts in our pizza crusts, pizza sauce, pizza cheese, core pizza toppings (beef, green pepper, ham, mushrooms, black olives, onions, pepperoni, pineapple and italian sausage), chicken kickers, chicken wings, bread side items or salads.  Soybean oil is used in all of our dough formulas. There may, however, be special promotional and/or test products present in the store. Therefore, we cannot ensure that all of the products present are completely free of peanuts/tree nuts.

Their response was about what I expected—though there is a salad on their menu that contains pecans, which informational inconsistency doesn’t exactly leave me inclined to trust them blindly. In my experience, though, their food has been safe. (Obviously, they aren’t a nut-free establishment, and you should, as always, look into what you’re eating and use your own discretion.)

Anyway, as if this post isn’t already embarrassing enough, I suppose I should probably reveal the details of my regular order, which is pictured above. I like to get a hand-tossed with white sauce, triple (yes, triple) pineapple, and light ham—because if I’m going to order bad pizza, I might as well get something shameful, right? (I’m kidding; unfortunately, I just like Hawaiian pizza. And white sauce.) I’ve also been known to gorge myself on their bread bowl pastas—though my strategy for those pretty much ends at clicking on whatever random ingredients sound tolerable at that particular inappropriate hour and hoping for the best. It never ends well—but hey, it shows up.

Seriously, though: Don’t get the Cinna Stix. They’re bad, even by Domino’s standards.

Find Domino’s…everywhere. Oh, and by the way, if can be bothered to forego delivery and carry out (or eat in, I guess), do it. Your meal will probably cost a whole lot less—and that’s not just because you won’t have a delivery guy to tip. For some reason, everything just ends up costing more when you order online. (I happen to think that’s by design, but whatever.)

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