California Pizza Kitchen has delusions of grandeur, but it's really just another pizza joint.

Pizza Haute 

California Pizza Kitchen has delusions of grandeur, but it's really just another pizza joint.

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My friend Ned gave the dining room the once-over before squeezing into a spacious, upholstered booth: "It's beautifully homogenized," he said. "Middle-class values in sanitary splendor."

Jim, Marie and Bob had come along for the meal, and once we all settled in, we agreed that one of the servers, dressed in a crisp, white shirt, black pants and apron, looked vaguely familiar. "That's because he's worked at every restaurant in town," Ned said, "and has had a different hair color in each of them."

Our waitress fumbled as she opened the bottle of Chardonnay, annoying Ned greatly. He was calmer after downing a glass or two, and he shocked all of us by admitting that he liked his bowl of fiery kung pao spaghetti, which was "neither Chinese nor Italian," he noted. "I guess it must be a California dish."

Disneyland is more like it. The cross-cultural creations weren't always so successful. The Thai linguini, tossed in a "spicy, Thai peanut-ginger sauce," was neither spicy nor gingery. It was surprisingly bland. "A faux pad Thai, dumbed down for middle-class American palates," Jim said.

Ditto for a ravioli that sounded so wonderful -- rosemary pasta pillows stuffed with cheese and chopped portabella mushrooms -- but which actually had little flavor, despite the intense garlic cream sauce ladled over them.

The pizza choices were somewhat better, though the dough tasted vaguely sugary. On the same note, the cushion-soft slices of bread -- which apparently are served only upon request -- were slightly sweet and had the consistency of coffee cake. If it seemed absurd to be ordering a tandoori-chicken pizza on honey-wheat pizza dough (it would have been more interesting on a crust made from roti or naan), it was culture shock to have the mildly spiced slices of chicken peeking out from a blanket of mozzarella cheese. A vegetarian pizza, artfully constructed from grilled Japanese eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted corn, was delicious to look at but boring to taste.

I do confess to having loved the Peking-duck pizza, which I ordered on a subsequent visit with Bob and the stylish Carol. Another odd Chinese-Italian creation, it was made with chunks of skinless roasted duck, shiitake mushrooms, sticky hoisin sauce and greasy wonton strips. And melted mozzarella, of course. At least that pizza arrived with the wonton strips intact, unlike the tortilla strips that were supposed to have been sprinkled on top of the soup that Carol ordered. Even without the tortilla straws -- the waiter brought them after Carol was nearly finished, but c'est la vie -- the Sedona White Corn soup was delicious, rich with tomatoes and just a hint of chiles.

For her dinner, Carol chose a half-order of the Smoked Bacon and Gorgonzola Chopped Salad, which was still nearly large enough for two: a crunchy affair of crisp bacon, cabbage, jicama and pungent cheese in a fragrant basil vinaigrette. I thought it was superb -- far superior to Bob's fettuccine in a thick cream sauce liberally laden with garlic and tender chunks of chicken breast. "It's good," Bob said. "Just like the same dish at the Olive Garden."

Let's not start comparing the chain gangs, I suggested, taking a gander at the eight sweets on the dessert list, which all sounded decadent but suspiciously familiar. Is there any corporate restaurant that isn't serving the ubiquitous tiramisu, cheesecake, Key lime pie and hot-fudge brownie? All are brought in from a bakery or commissary; the only dessert actually made in this restaurant's kitchen is the apple crisp. That sounded tasty enough, but my dining companions were eager to leave.

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