99 pizzas later, they’re still chowing down

Four years ago, Andrew Connell and John Hayes set out on a quest: to eat at every pizza place in metro Atlanta.

It was a vision worthy of Don Quixote, but as they worked their way through thousands of calories and rowed across a sea of sauce, their goal seemed to recede into the mists, an elusive dream just beyond their grasp.

“It’s like Heisenberg’s Principle,” Hayes said one recent evening, sitting down at a polyurethaned tabletop in the stylish Old Fourth Ward.

The quotient is unknowable, a moving target. Or perhaps it’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Once you’ve eaten at every place from Oz Pizza in Hapeville to Big Pie in the Sky Pizzeria in Kennesaw, you have to start over because the players have changed, some of them more than once.

Now, 99 restaurants into their quest, their evanescent goal doesn’t seem any closer. On the other hand, they’ve had some darn fine pizza.

Like the wood-fired pizza at Ammazza, not far from the King Center, where, for their 99th pizza, they decide on the “carne,” with chunks of Italian sausage, bacon and pepperoni.

The crust: crispy. The sauce: a 9 for Connell, an 8 for Hayes. The ambiance: well, a little too nice. “I like a place that feels like a pizza joint, said Hayes, sipping a Pabst. Ammazza’s specialty lighting and impressive wall of stemware behind the bartender betrayed higher aspirations. “They’ve got glasses they won’t use,” he said, pointing toward the impressive display.

Connell and Hayes, both 31, were friends at Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Both married Tuscaloosa women, and though Connell attended Auburn, both remain loyal to the Crimson Tide. When both ended up in Atlanta, they renewed their acquaintance, and they began meeting once a week or so for pizza and philosophy.

Though their significant others have come along on some of the pizza excursions, it’s mostly a time for the guys to catch up.

They thought they’d knock off the full list of pizza places within the year, not realizing the vast plane of dough and toppings stretching out before them.

Both are analytical types. Connell, of Smyrna, researches estimates for a construction company, and Hayes, a computer science major who lives in Marietta, serves as a Web developer for CNN. So they approached their task methodically. They independently rate each place on six criteria, including crust, toppings and service, plus an overall pizza rating and an overall rating. Neither lets the other see his scores, but they’re rarely more than a point apart. Then they compare results and enter an average of the two figures into a spreadsheet.

The take-away: There are a few great pizza places, a host of average ones and a few terrible spots. It’s the classic bell curve. They both agree that Westside Pizzeria, where Marietta Boulevard crosses Bolton Road, is hard to beat.

But their ratings don’t necessarily line up with the judgments of the foodie elite.

A certain joint near Georgia Tech, for example, that has critics and celebrities tripping over superlatives leaves them a bit cold. They didn’t like the family-style tables, the hapless staff nor the racket of the open kitchen.

They’d rather not name names, at least not the names of the lousy places, which is an unusual stance for a food critic, but these two guys are about as anti-foodie as you can get. They don’t even post their reviews online anymore — it was a hassle. They just like pizza, and they sneak in repeat pizza from their favorite places, like DaVinci’s, between visits to spots on the to-do list.

The worst pizza they’ve had so far? They still ate the whole thing.

Now that they’ve almost reached a magic number (they’ll visit their 100th restaurant sometime later this month), they may slow down, but they probably won’t stop eating pizza.

Unless they set off on another quest.

“Why not eat at every Waffle House?” asks Connell.

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