It isn't often your first five minutes at a restaurant table involve a tutorial. Upon sitting down at noon sharp at Za, a Mass. Ave. Arlington eatery known for its pizza, salads and creative use of local ingredients, we received a crash course in How to Order 101 before even taking a swig of water.
Our waitress was well versed in her explanation; the pizza ingredients were fresh, she told us, picked or harvested locally that week, and changing often. She laid down two menus, one year-round and one comprised of seasonal "chalkboard specials," and explained that the two should be thought of as a collaborative experience. "For example there is no basil on the toppings list for our menu of make-your-own pizzas," she pointed out, "but since you see it on the specials, you are welcome to add it to any dish." The same, that afternoon, went for rhubarb, asparagus, bib lettuce, and strawberries.
We selected two chalkboard specials: the first, an asparagus, rhubarb, caramelized onion, cheddar, and parmigiano reggiano 10-inch round, and the second a layering of Maine Ducktrap smoked salmon, creme fraiche, caramelized onions, fontina cheese, red onions, caper, dill, and lemon vinaigrette. Other options for the day included a goat cheese and basil creation accompanied by strawberries from nearby Verril Farm in Concord, and a "Caesar's Pizza" of creamy potatoes, kalamata olive tapendade, crisp romaine, garlick croutons, and a fresh lemon-Caesar dressing.
When our pizzas emerged steaming, we each grabbed a slice of the thin, pliable dough (made, we were informed by the menu, of organic flour, honey, wild yeast, and salt). While a bite of our first selection lacked the rhubarb punch we were hoping for, the smoky flavor of the Maine cured salmon gave the second enough pizazz to cover both. The salads—mine a fresh Verril Farm bib lettuce, shaved red onion, local micro-green, and creamy mustard masterpiece and my tablemates an artistic heap of Verril farm strawberries and arugula—were better still. Dessert, a Verril strawberry covered lemon tart topped with a scoop of fresh whipped cream, sealed the deal. We left satiated and happy, hoping to return.
Still, even while Za is serving up good eats and is ahead of most competitors in using and advertising local ingredients, it didn't take the locavore premise far enough to truly blow me away. Even on the chalkboard special pizzas, the asparagus was from California (despite being in season locally) and the salmon (while smoked nearby) was a far cry from a Massachusetts fish. Certainly, not every ingredient can be sourced locally, but on a menu that comes with a tutorial in eating seasonally, I expected a bit more precision in the department of local fare.
That being said, if every menu came with a tutorial like that offered at Za's we'd be a more conscious state of eaters.