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Starters: Blaze Pizza sparks buzz on the boulevard

Founded in Pasadena, Calif., in 2011, Blaze Pizza is a rapidly expanding fast-casual restaurant that’s just opened its doors on Niagara Falls Boulevard near the entrance to the 290.

Famously funded in part by NBA superstar spokesperson LeBron James, Blaze has big plans to grow to over 500 restaurants by 2020. It’s become abundantly clear their “Fast Fire’d” ultra-customizable pizza menu is proving a worthy concept that’s taking the category by storm and giving competitors a run for their money.

A “walk up and walk through” order format not unlike that of fast-casual giant Chipotle (one of many similarities you’ll notice), fresh ingredients are prepared, laid out and labeled under a glass hood to be chosen during specific stages of the preparation.

In a quick synopsis, a pizza is topped, fired and given the finishing touch, ideally in under four minutes. Tack on a short wait in a fast-moving line and you’re theoretically sitting down to a personal pizza prepared to your liking in 10 minutes flat. But is that how it actually plays out?

The birth of your personal pizza with dough made fresh in-house every day. (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

The process begins when you select the dough, either regular or the thicker high-rise (+$2).

From there you can either choose either one- or two- topping options ($6.85/$7.85) or a limitless build-your-own pizza that’s line priced with their “signature pizzas” at $8.65.

I ordered two pizzas trying to hit as broad a variety as possible, one high-rise dough, one regular. The Green Stripe on regular dough is a pesto drizzle over grilled chicken, roasted red peppers, chopped garlic, mozzarella and arugula. My second was the Veg Out, loaded with zucchini, mushrooms, red onion, mozzarella, gorgonzola and dollops of red sauce.

One of the four stations in the Blaze Pizza process where you select your ingredients. (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

Here’s where Blaze earns their keep. If you order a specialty pizza or the unlimited build-your-own option you can add any of the available ingredients at no additional cost. Whatever your crazy pizza-loving heart desires, they’ll throw it on until you say when and fire it up no questions asked, even if you’re going for the ol’ artichoke and barbecue sauce.

Unless you’re seriously strapped for cash, shell out the extra $2. This is the crux of the experience and as soon as it was explained to me I understood the phenomenon.

On the Green Stripe, I added Kalamata olives, extra chopped garlic, and bacon. On the veg out I tacked on a healthy dose of roasted garlic and swapped out the dollops of classic red sauce for spicy red sauce. The process culminates at a finishing station where a variety of sauces and sprinkles can be added to your pizza when it lands ripping hot after it’s brief stint in the oven.

Both were hit with a sprinkle of oregano and salt, and the green stripe got a drizzle of pesto. Asking for a well-done pie was also a common order, but I didn’t want to tempt fate on my first run.

The green stripe with peppery arugula and pesto laid over savory chicken and a a slew of my added ingredients. (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

The Green Stripe was excellent. The peppery arugula was a welcome contrast to the salty fattiness I admittedly brought on myself with my additional bacon, olives, and my salt sprinkle. The generous pesto drizzle dripped off the razor-thin crispy slices providing a great depth of flavor that matched perfectly with the juicy grilled chicken they also cook in the massive pizza oven. A filling and flavorful lunch with a lot of value at $8.65.

Crisp, clean flavors in the Veg Out with a spicy sauce that delivers on its name. (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

The Veg Out was also delicious. As a seasoned spicy food eater, I was thrilled to find the sauce actually packed a punch. The veggies maintained a slight crunch throughout their short bake and were at the forefront of each bite. Though it didn’t detract from the pizza, the thick high-rise dough for $2 didn’t add much to the party.

I also realized too late that the gorgonzola had been forgotten. Although a great pizza, the blue funk would have rounded out the bright and fresh-flavored pie.

A refreshing refreshment selection for a fast-casual restaurant. (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

A detail that struck a chord with me was the alternative beverage options at Blaze. A little steep at $2.25 for a fountain drink (they also serve beer & wine for $4.50), the price was well worth it considering the variety of unique options, such as orange-mango soda from Blue Sky sodas and all-natural blood-orange lemonade.

Blaze also offers a variety of appealing simple salads as sides or entrees ($3.95/$6.95) if you’re looking for even more variety in this evergreen lunch.

A variety of fresh simple salads if you're not thinking pizza, or you just want a little greenery on the side (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

Admittedly I was skeptical of Blaze pizza to say the least. I expected a forgettable chain pizza experience, but the business concept was captivating. The ingredients are fresh, the prices are reasonable, and most importantly the product is delicious and infinitely customizable.

I don’t know if I’ll become a regular customer any time soon, but I’ll certainly be thinking twice next time I’m considering a quick lunch on the Boulevard.

INFO: Blaze Pizza, 1595 Niagara Falls Boulevard, Suite 900, Amherst. Phone: 422-2366. Hours: 11 a.m to 10p.m, Daily.

*Read Phil Wagner's last Starters post, on Sonny Red's:

Starters: Neapolitan pizza with unabashed Buffalo roots at Sonny Red's

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