The iconic Wonder Bar is serving up slices of history.
When the iconic Wonder Bar neon sign went dark, it seemed to signal a turning point in the history of Shrewsbury Street dining. For this was one of the originals. Long before the street underwent its renaissance and became a dining district, there was but a small handful of places to go for a slice of pizza.
Almost as soon as that neon sputtered out, rumors began to light up. Oh yeah, the WB’s been bought! The format will change! No, they can’t do that; it’s a landmark. And then, early last summer at the taste of Shrewsbury Street, the Wonder Bar’s doors opened and pizza was served, amid much commotion. The place was so packed with people that I could barely nudge my way in and felt lucky just to snag a slice of basic cheese pizza.
But that single slice tasted worthy of the Wonder Bar name.
Fast forward a few months, and the Wonder Bar has re-established its venerable reputation on the street. End of story? Hardly! For if you haven’t ventured back, you’re in for a surprise. The WB we grew fond of was hardly the attractive room it started out as back in the ’20s. Somewhere in the ’60s, it fell victim to the fervor for ‘”modernization.” In this case, ceilings were dropped, walls paneled and lighting fluoresced.
The new owners peeled back all that worn-out veneer and revealed an original stamped tin ceiling that actually extends halfway down the walls. I’ve never seen this before; it must have been a significant upgrade nearly a century ago. It’s been painted pale lemon, the lighting has been modernized and the bar restored along the wall. All this sends a message: “Welcome home.”
I realize there are purists who treasure memories of the run-down look of the place before its re-boot. My advice: Give it time; this layer of paint, too, shall fade.
All of this effusing would, of course, be just empty words if the pizza didn’t pass muster. That was the real objective of this visit: to grab a brew and split a pizza. Before that, though, we ordered the Fried Calamari. Classically prepared, the heaping dish of quarter-sized rings and squiggly tentacles came with a cup of mild marinara for dipping. Expertly fried to a light golden-brown, we gave them a few additional shakes of salt. It was an encouraging start to our meal.
The pizza menu looks much as I remember it, still containing one of my favorites, White Clam and Garlic. This evening, we went with a selection that should test most of the kitchen’s basic skills, a combination of sausage, mushroom and pepper.
First observation: the cheese. The chef used a lot of it. Real honest mozzarella, not that strange cream cheese-ish stuff that some places spread on their pizza dough. WB used so much mozzarella that when I grabbed my first slice, big stretchy strands draped from the pie across the table to my plate. This brought back happy mozzarella memories from childhood, and I twirled up all the excess on my fork. Be ready to wipe it off your chin!
Then the other toppings. Strips of fresh green peppers were soft and sweet and plentiful. Sliced brown mushrooms retained their mild flavor and a bit of firmness. But the meat really caught our attention. Each slice had several chunks of sausage that was lean and crumbly with flecks of tasty fennel. This was a combo whose ingredients were fresh, real and applied in generous measure.
Now, we get to the all-important crust. For me, dough is the heart of the pizza experience, where many fail and few prevail. Everyone has their favorite form of pizza, and I consider myself versatile – thin crust, deep dish and variations between; each are OK as long as my pizza crust provides some chewy resistance with a crusty edge, bready flavor enhanced by a deep-baked brown crust and, ideally, a dappling of near-burnt points where it was exposed to the hot stone surface in the pizza oven.
Happily, this pizza passed each one of these tests. Even though I’d just returned from pizza nirvana in Naples, Italy, I greedily enjoyed my half of our combination. The WB serves up a fairly thin crust – not cracker-thin – but pliable enough that you can fold your slice and enjoy it without using a fork. Baked deep brown on the bottom, I reckon the Wonder Bar has accomplished the classic pizza experience.
Our only advice: Dial back just a wee bit on the cheese!
The Wonder Bar Restaurant | 121 Shrewsbury Street, Worcester | 508-752-9909 | wonderbarrestaurant.com
By Bernie Whitmore