As someone with a moderate lactose intolerance (and a tendency to leave helpful enzyme supplements at home), I often suffer through pizza outings with friends. How does one enjoy pizza while skimping on the cheese? You just can't.
Or so my stubborn hedonism urged me to believe. According to local vegan advocate Eleni Vlachos, who helped launch Triangle Meatless Mondays and the Bull City Vegan Challenge, you can indulge in pizza without enduring a tummy tantrum or guilty vegan conscience. Intrigued by the possibility of enjoying a solid slice of the good stuff without packing a pill box, I chose three popular pizza joints based on Vlachos' recommendations.
Vlachos quickly directed me to Mellow Mushroom, which serves Daiya brand—"delicious vegan cheese ... finally!" Vlachos wrote. As with all three Triangle pizzerias I tried, the vegan pizza options at Mellow Mushroom are build-your-own. I split a whole pie topped with tempeh, olives, roasted red peppers and basil over marinara.
The faux mozzarella cheese appeared bubbly, dense and fluid, like it wouldn't cool off too quickly. It smelled sweet, just like the suggestion of sugar you can't avoid in a soy latte. (It did have a latte-colored tinge.) For Daiya's Mozzarella Style Shreds, the company's website lists tapioca and arrowroot flour, non-GMO natural oils like safflower and pea protein among its ingredients. Daiya's cheeses are completely soy- and gluten-free.
My dining companion marveled at the way it settled over the toppings in the same way one dissects the layers of oil paint brushed and caked onto a canvas. "It sort of looks like a painting by [Jackson] Pollock," he said. And so I dubbed it Pollock paneer.
Unlike paneer, or any other type of cheese I've tried—melted or solid—Daiya really oozed. A bit slid onto my chin before I could get the slice into my gnarly grasp. I bit and did a stretch test. The elasticity made me feel like I was in a New York City pizza joint cradling a big, flat slice of greasy stuff. Except there wasn't any real grease, just a surprising nutty flavor with a smooth mouthfeel. Tempeh, olives and other toppings snuggled into the cheese just fine. It never turned into a goopy, cold lump. An odd downside: Daiya sticks to your teeth. But once you get it to the palate, it smoothly melts. One pizza joint down, and I was almost ready to trash my Lactaid pills.
(410 Blackwell St., Durham, 919-680-8500, www.mellowmushroom.com)
I revere Lilly's Pizza in Raleigh as the legendary pizza joint that no other pizzeria can mimic (not even its Durham counterpart). A great tip for the lactose intolerant: Real parmesan cheese should contain little to no lactose. If you ask, Lilly's will shave a hefty amount over your pizza and you'll feel like a normal kid again.
Although I didn't have to worry about ordering a cheese alternative at Lilly's, I still wanted to maintain my full vegan research angle. The woman behind the counter told me they served Vegan Rella brand. I ordered the Aristocrat, which normally calls for cheddar, mozzarella and parmesan. I knew it would be heavy on the cheese, and I wanted the full experience.
I happened upon an Indy Week colleague, Vernal Coleman, hanging out on Lilly's patio with a friend and a pitcher of beer. More mouths to partake in the taste test.
A waitress waltzed over with a small pizza nestled in a circle of Lilly's signature, puffy dough. Colorful, organic toppings beamed on the surface: perfectly salted potatoes, crimson cherry tomatoes, golden roasted garlic cloves and alluringly woodsy cremini mushrooms. But the Vegan Rella's color contrast was an electrifying white. Coleman raised an eyebrow.
My first bite was slow, and I concentrated on the texture. Coleman spit his out immediately. His friend remained an innocent bystander, refusing to try it. Chew after chew, the cheese barely dissolved. Play-Doh? No. Gak, it was closer to that Nickelodeon slime toy popular in the 1990s. Borderline unpalatable, we began sticking it onto every surface and, like glue, it remained on our fingers, accidentally in our hair while trying to remove it from our fingers, and all over the table. We couldn't get rid of it—not even the plastic taste in our mouths after a few bites. We stripped the rest of the pizza and had a filling, beautiful meal with the roasted organic vegetables and crust.
A woman from the kitchen arrived with a to-go box packed with an extra pizza she had made by accident. I took it home and, when cold, the melted cheese had shrunk back to its original shredded shape, like memory foam mattress padding would reform itself. Online reviews of Vegan Rella are less than favorable. Take the advice of this anonymous poster: "a runny opaque fluid that I really can only compare to forms of bodily discharge that have no place on a food blog. AVOID."
Later, Vlachos told me that Vegan Rella "is from the Stone Ages."
(1813 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, 919-833-0226, www.lillyspizza.com)
BRIXX WOOD-FIRED PIZZA
Vlachos accompanied me to Brixx for what we thought would offer Follow Your Heart brand cheese, another semi-outdated substitute. When our two pizzas arrived—the wild mushroom and the Greek—Vlachos said it didn't look or smell of plastic, like Follow Your Heart does. We asked our waitress, who revealed that the pizzeria franchise just switched over to Daiya within the last couple of months.
The crust at Brixx is thin but doughy, slightly charred at the edges. Both pizzas were without sauce and topped with raw greens—whole arugula leaves over grilled shiitake, Portobello and button mushrooms and coarsely chopped fresh basil atop the kalamata olives and tomato. Daiya was spread and melted thin underneath the heap. Such a delicate layer provided a more subtle flavor that actually tasted like real cheese, though absent of the stretch that made it feel authentic at Mellow Mushroom.
Vlachos says she became a vegan at age 18, after multiple family trips to Greece left her witnessing one too many chicken slaughters. She says animal byproduct like dairy still contributes to an animal's suffering. When asked why Daiya, something very processed, is acceptable, she praises the food science that focuses on non-GMO, plant-based ingredients to create "an amazing, filling substitute."
As for pizza, it's something she can't avoid. As a teenager, she worked at her father's Seattle-based pizzerias, popping pepperoni slices on breaks. She did continue to work there after becoming vegan. As she advocates locally for veganism, she sticks with Daiya as her go-to choice for enjoying pizza and the comfort associated with it.
"Pizza for me is comfort food, possibly due to the smell reminding me of my dad's restaurants," she says. "But it's more of a social pie in the same sense that Ethiopian dishes are round and shared at the table. For that reason, it's wonderful to have a comparable, vegan option to share that can truly be enjoyed as a pizza without compromising a life."
(501 Meadowmont Village Circle, Chapel Hill, 919-929-1942; 8511 Brier Creek Parkway, Raleigh, 919-246-0640; www.brixxpizza.com)
Correction: Mellow Mushroom's vegan pizza crust is made with molasses (not honey), which is vegan.