...Only Accent The Easygoing Near Perfection Of This East Side Pizza Institution
Matthew's Pizza (3131 Eastern Ave.,  276-8755) doesn't wear its institutional mantle self-consciously. Sure, the walls are lined with framed copies of laudatory newspaper and magazine articles, along with various "best of" proclamations (not a few of them from City Paper), but customers aren't twisted into submission holds until they cry, Yes, we love you.
The spare rectangular dining room, a few steps up from the awning midblock entrance, tells new patrons not much else than the food here is inexpensive. The freshness of the ingredients, from the homemade sauces and imported cheeses to the vivid vegetables and quality meats, reveals itself over the course of the sweet paper-plate evening to come.
New patrons are even free not to love Matthew's signature thick crust. Made fresh on premises, the crust rises nearly an inch from its crisp, oily bottom to its surface. It's best just out of the oven, when heat still thoroughly fills the crust's interior pillows and pockets, which, when the pizza cools, begin to taste underbaked and yeasty. (Matthew's pizza has the distinction of not tasting better for breakfast, cold out of the refrigerator.)
This was most true of the margherita pizza ($8.50 small, $8.95 large), the first slices of which were prime pleasure, the tricolor toppings of red chopped tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green strips of fresh basil warmly melding with the crust, all flavors and textures peaking. But as the pie cooled, the toppings began to detach from the crust and separate, like the chocolate stuff on a Berger cookie. This was less true of the crab pizza ($11.50 large), maybe because it had been kept in the oven longer, the better to fuse together its Old Bay-dusted blanket of backfin, caramelized onions, and hand-grated mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. The crab pizza is one of Matthew's house specialties, and it's something to wait in line for.
The other house special, Anna's stuffed pie ($8.95/$9.95), is the kind of nearly senseless and decadent spectacle, like French fries on a hoagie, or a baby-sized cinnamon bun, that carb-cravers dream about. Basically two slices of crust baked together, with a choice of prosciuttini, capicola, or salami stuffed with provolone in between, all of this topped with tomatoes and cheese. It works as such things do by being ridiculous, and its astonishing effects wane by the slice, as though it's a joke that someone keeps repeating.
There are other things on the menu. Spaghetti, served plain with Matthew's fresh and thick tomato sauce ($4.95), or topped with sausage, veal, chicken, or homemade meatballs ($7.50), or shrimp ($8.95), is artlessly good, perfect takeout fare. Salads are served with that gritty-cheesy Italian dressing that Baltimoreans love so much-a version with antipasto toppings ($5.95), ordered when a table finally opens up, comes flying out of the kitchen. Garlic bread ($2.95) rocks-it's just butter and garlic on soft, soft bread.
Even if it occurred to the waitresses here to give off some attitude, they're too busy refilling fountain sodas and bundling up half-eaten pies in heavy paper to pull it off. If there's a quirk here, the kind of mysterious and logic-defying detail that contributes to a reputation, it's that a large pie is only 50 cents more, typically, than a small one. Weird but true.