What Chipotle did for the burrito -- allow people to customize their order with fresh ingredients -- two places in the South Bay are now trying to do for pizza.

Both Pieology and Top This Pizza borrowed their layouts from the Chipotle model: You walk down a long line, and on the other side of a glass divider the restaurant employee follows your directions, putting ingredients on your order. In Pieology's case, the decor and overall vibe is very close to Chipotle (but I'm sure the lawyers cleared it).

The price for a pizza at both places is basically the same ($7.95 at Pieology vs. $8 at Top This Pizza), and the size is nearly identical as well, about 10 inches in diameter.

The pizzas from Pieology have a thin, crackerlike crust, and this one is topped with cheese, pepperoni, mushrooms and Canadian bacon, plus fresh garlic and
The pizzas from Pieology have a thin, crackerlike crust, and this one is topped with cheese, pepperoni, mushrooms and Canadian bacon, plus fresh garlic and basil. Photo by Jason Bennert. ( Jason Bennert )

When it comes to crust, neither place is going to win any fans among Chicago-style pizza lovers. The five-minute cooking time means both places produce pizzas with very thin crusts. However, at Pieology the crust is basically cracker-like and not the least bit chewy. Top This Pizza has a crispy crust, but it's slightly chewy.

Top This Pizza offers significantly more sauce options (six versus three at Pieology), including an excellent garlic alfredo and a barbecue. Pieology sticks to the traditional red sauce, olive oil and an herb butter. Top This Pizza offers slightly more variety in toppings, for example both black and Kalamata olives.

My favorite pizza at Pieology is a special: a Buffalo chicken pizza with gorgonzola and mozzarella cheese. The chicken is very spicy, but the gorgonzola and mozzarella mixture tempers the heat in your mouth, plus you get a hint of blue cheese flavor that's not overpowering.

At Top This Pizza, I like pairing their classic red sauce with the soft buffalo mozzarella and just one or two toppings -- pepperoni and mushrooms for example. The use of buffalo mozzarella reminds me of pizza I had in Italy, where this cheese is used a lot. It has a unique flavor, and creates a patchwork pattern when it melts. So you don't have the wall-to-wall cheese that's the norm on American pizza.

Top This Pizza allows you to make your own salad ($4 for a small, $8 large), while Pieology offers two premade options, a green salad with raspberry vinaigrette dressing and a classic Caesar ($3.95 for small, $7.95 large). The Pieology Caesar was excellent. It had shaved (not grated) parmesan, plenty of chicken (in the large version, the small comes without chicken), fresh, crisp hearts of romaine lettuce and a creamy Caesar dressing with just the right amount of tang. I liked the dressing so much I found myself using pizza crust to wipe up every drop from the plate.

Top This Pizza is locally owned, while Pieology is a franchise from Southern California that is expanding rapidly. Pieology has a much bigger space, and its employees are very efficient at moving large groups of people through the line quickly. At Top This Pizza, employees are very friendly and down home. There's no taking of names or giving out numbers; they just remember what your order is and bring it to you. I've never been there at the height of the lunch or dinner rush, but I worry that they would either run out of seats or get confused and misdeliver pizzas if they get really busy.

Pieology did have a major management breakdown during one visit. They ran out of forks for the salads, but didn't warn the people ordering them. When I asked how I was supposed to eat my salad, the manager said most people were just taking them to go. She then semi-reluctantly offered me a refund. What she should have done when the forks first ran out was take 20 bucks out of the register and send someone 10 minutes down the road to Costco for more forks. Chipotle would never run out of forks.

Overall, both places produced a mighty tasty pie. If they were side by side, I'd probably go to Top This Pizza 9 times out of 10, but if I'm in the North San Jose area, I would definitely choose Pieology over another chain pizza place.

Contact Jason Bennert at food@mercurynews.com.

Top This Pizza

15466 Los Gatos Blvd.,
Los Gatos, 408-884-8253
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., except closes at 9 p.m. on Thursdays
Types of food: Pizza and salads
Average meal price: $8 for 10-inch pizza
Credit cards: Major ones accepted
Parking: In shopping center lot


Pieology

1095 E. Brokaw Road,
San Jose, 408-392-8271
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., except closes at 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 9 p.m. Sunday
Types of food: Pizza and salads
Average meal price: $7.95 for a 10-inch pizza
Good choices: Caesar salad, when you can find a fork
Credit cards: Major cards accepted
Parking: Tough, even though it's in a big shopping center

Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.