Bulked buffet: Cici's Pizza comes to 29N

Cici's Pizza, the most rapidly multiplying pizza franchise in the country, is coming to Charlottesville. So save your pocket change-­ and your hearty appetite.

Cici's, which was founded in 1985 by Joe Croce with a single take-out pizzeria in Plano, Texas, and now boasts 420 nationwide, specializes in a $3.99-­ yes, $3.99– all-you-can-eat buffet that includes pizza, pasta, salads, and dessert. Cici's also does individual pizzas for a fraction of the competitors' price. Watch out, pizza purveyors.

Dish found out last Thursday that Texan Buddy Celman and his partner, Gene Carter, had just signed off that morning on an extra-large space in the Seminole Square Shopping Center, next to Precision Bicycles.

Construction began on April 28, and Celman, the primary owner-operator, plans to open the doors on June 23. With 20 years of experience as a waiter, bartender, and restaurant GM under his belt (Croce was one of his regular customers before becoming his mentor), Celman felt it was time for a change.

"I was ready to get away from the alcohol and liabilities and devote myself to a more family-oriented restaurant," he tells Dish. "Cici's was a perfect fit."

The new franchise owner and soon-to-be new Virginian is just as enthusiastic about the Charlottesville area as he is about Cici's: "In Dallas, all you can do is eat and shop. Here you have the Blue Ridge Mountains, not to mention lower taxes."

Could be a lucrative match. In fact, he and Carter already have a commitment to open a second Cici's within a year. Now that's market confidence.

With Fuji, Maharaja, and China King-­ to name a few–- all within the same mile of Route 29, all-you-can-eat buffets are clearly the genre of choice on this busy commercial strip. In fact, the dizzying array of affordable eating options is rapidly transforming this road into a buffet of buffets.

Which reminds us of ice-cream.

The popularity of all-you-can-eat on 29 North could help explain why the Italian Caldo and Freddo failed at Seminole Square. The Italian gelateria closed in November (and its old space is still up for lease).

Italian gelato is meant to be savored in tiny portions. Sandwiched between bulk-sellers like Giant and Big Lots, the diminuative Caldo and Freddo didn't stand a chance.

Perhaps a space in the artisan-friendly Main Street Market would've suited them better. Kate Collier, owner of Feast!, did sell individual servings of their gelato before the home-base gelateria melted.

 Can boutique flavors and bulk prices ever meet in the middle?

"The Cheese Guy" thinks they could. Raymond Hook, an influential specialty cheese seller, educator, and all-around cheese guru was in town last week to lead a special American artisanal (handmade) cheese- and wine-tasting orchestrated by Feast! with the collaboration of local wineries Barboursville and Blenheim.

Hook (no relation to this paper), who would definitely not approve of using Everona Dairy's aged raw sheep's milk cheese or Sweet Grass Dairy's pecan chevre as a pizza topping, stresses the humble origins of cheese.

"Cheese was basically peasant food, an easy, inexpensive way to bind protein," he says. But in the U.S., spoiled milk has aged into gourmet gold. Is artisanal cheese destined to remain an upscale commodity?

Hook believes that increasing demand will lead to increasing supply, and "the price will drop," he says. It's difficult to argue with basic economics. After all, only 10 years ago, it was almost impossible to find parmesan cheese in Charlottesville– except the kind in a can.