Some things tend to become over-romanticized in our memories: childhood pets, first cars, misspent youth. I didn't realize it could happen with a pizza place.
I loved the thin, grilled crusts topped with fresh, inventive ingredients at Cambridge, 1 in Harvard Square, which opened in 2002. And I liked the simplicity of the menu: pizza, salad, Toscanini's ice cream for dessert -- and the fact that you could get half a pizza for as little as $7. The cherry-wood-paneled walls and synthetic slate tables and the view of the old cemetery out the back window made for a lovely setting, too.
So when I heard there was a new Cambridge, 1 on Boylston Street near Fenway Park, I was eager to check it out. Aside from thinking the name was a bit strange for a restaurant that was (a) not in Cambridge and (b) not one of a kind (why not Fenway, 1? Or Cambridge, 2?), I couldn't imagine not liking it.
It was surprisingly easy to walk in and get a table at 8 p.m. on a Friday, and we had barely begun nibbling on the skinny, spicy bread sticks on the table when our salads arrived; they're mostly greens, but that's pretty much what you want with pizza.
It was an under-35, after-work type of crowd, probably from nearby offices and medical centers and the ritzy 15-story Trilogy condo building the restaurant is located in. The diners were anything but rowdy, but their conversations swirled into a collective roar in the 175-seat room, which is almost twice the capacity of the original location. The menus of the two Cambridge, 1s are identical, as is the décor -- although in the boxier Boylston spot, all the wood on the walls comes off almost sauna-like.
A few young women in tank tops sat at the bar sipping wine while the TV screens above them played three sporting events, including repeated clips of the skateboarder who fell from a sickening 40 feet in the air at the X Games. In the open kitchen area just off the dining room, chefs in baseball caps sweated profusely as they cooked pizza over charcoal grills.
Ah yes, the pizza. Is it possible that it's always been this lifeless? The portobello and roasted onion offering tasted like French onion soup on a cracker; even the pizza with lobster, corn, and scallions, all cut into identical-size nibblets, didn't have much pizzazz. The thin-sliced pepperoni had a nice zip, but the soggy chunks of canned tomatoes were a downer. "All I can taste is dough and charcoal," someone said afterward.
We tried to find the bright side, discussing the low-carb content of the tortilla-like crust, but we were disappointed -- and surprised. The original Cambridge, 1 is great, we thought. How could this be so different?
So we took a trip back to the Harvard Square location for a pepperoni pizza. And guess what? It was bland and droopy, like a soft taco. I thought one diner would snap his wrist he was shaking the bottle of red-pepper flakes so hard, trying to add some taste.
Manager Ian Nurse says there hasn't been a change in ingredients or cooking methods, so why did the three of us who used to love Cambridge, 1 come away from both places with such a gloppy taste in our mouths?
Was the first location propped up by the charcoal-grilled novelty, the prime Harvard Square location? Did our palates evolve? Or has its quality really slipped? The owners have five restaurants now, including Audubon Circle, Miracle of Science, and Middlesex. Maybe they're spread too thin.
Or maybe it's just our romanticized memory playing tricks on us again.
Cambridge, 1 , 1381 Boylston St., 617-437-1111. Pizzas $13-$24, wines by the glass $6-$9.75.