Friday, March 15, 2019

Last Batavia Pizza Stop

Once again, I returned to Batavia and I wanted to use the opportunity to finish my quest to eat all the non-chain pizza Batavia has to offer. Technically I'm just coming close but I’m still going to call it. The signage in front of Mark Pizzeria has changed. It looks like it is now called 151 Pizza. From a quick drive by, nothing inside the store looks like it has changed so I think I’m close enough to saying I tried everywhere. I’ll be back in the area at least once more so maybe I’ll try it, but if they are still cooking on a conveyor belt, I’ll probably skip it.

The last place to visit was Big Pauly’s Pizza. First thing I noticed was big deck ovens which is a step in the right direction from the conveyor belts in my opinion. Remember those air pop popcorn makers that basically blow dry popcorn? It’s not the way to make great popcorn and I’d argue it isn’t the way to make a great pizza. I ordered a medium (listed as an 8 cut) half cup and char pepperoni and then watched my order get made. I must be getting old because the guy making the pizza looked really young. He and the other woman behind the counter were very welcoming. If you are going to leave your shop in the hands of two young people on a Wednesday night, they would be a good choice. Not the cleanest kitchen, looks like it has fallen victim to a lot of fryers running all the time but the place smelled good.

Onto the pizza. The dough ball was stored in a plastic bag. Nothing wrong with that (I do it too) I just don’t see it in many professional shops. There was no edge stretching. The dough was first pressed down on a floured stainless steel counter. It was a press and then pull hands apart technique. There was a lot of bench flour and just a final little bit of knuckle stretching before the skin went on the peel. The rim of the pizza was then kind of pressed/formed. Once the dough was on the peel a lot of sauce went on and was spread to the edges. Then there was a light dusting of grated cheese and followed by a pinch of dried herbs. Cheese and then half the pepperoni went on the sauced skin and into the oven it went.

Being a nerd, I started a timer. About 8 minutes in, the pizza got checked, a bubble got popped, a little bit of a spin and then the oven door was closed again. Total bake time was 11 minutes, 20 seconds. With that kind of time I'd guess the oven temperature was below 500F.  The pizza cost $11.89. At least I think that’s what it cost. It was just under $12, I forgot to note the final price.

Whole Pizza 

 Popped Bubble

 Crumb, I think a combination of the pressing and low oven temperature limited the oven spring.

Undercarriage. Not very dark for an over 11 minute bake. That oven couldn't be very hot.

The verdict: I thought the crust was pretty flavorless, the crumb was very tight from all the pressing.  An edge stretch would really have helped the rim. There was too much sauce and cheese so the toppings slid. I’d guess the diameter of the pizza was 14 inches and I think the dough ball was a little too big for that size. Western, NY seems to like a doughy crust so this might be more of a regional preference. Sauce had a sweetness too which is also a Western, NY thing. The pepperoni had a little zip to it. In the end, better than a chain pizza but not anything special. Very friendly, welcoming place though.

So now onto my official Batavia, NY Pizza Power Rankings

1. Batavia’s Original – my personal preference would be to get the less doughy NY Style instead of the thicker Batavia Style.

2. Ken’s Charcoal Pit – pizza cooked in an outdoor oven that is only available on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. 

Better than a chain, but kind of similar to a chain
3. Big Pauly’s - I think the deck oven and cup and char pepperoni push this shop to the top of this portion of the list.

4. Jerry Arena’s - Kind of like a homemade chain pizza.

5. Mark’s Pizza (no longer there) – Smaller than a national chain, but a pretty similar style of pizza.

Order something other than pizza
6. Main Street House of Pizza - while I didn't enjoy the pizza here, it looked like other dishes might be good. Pretty big menu.

7. Ficarella's -Try the wings, maybe? If I think too long about it, I still get mad at the pizza I had here.

Saturday, February 23, 2019


Compliments are cheap but they are sometimes more of a polite thing than a heart felt thing. "Good job" is not the same as a detailed, specific or enthusiastic compliment. Anyhow, I got a good one last night and it is still giving me a little smile.

Typically when I fire up the oven, I deliver pizzas to the neighbors across the street. One family gets a cheese, the other gets a half pepperoni (Dad likes pepperoni, kids like cheese). It's good practice. Two more pizzas I get to make but don't have to eat. I blew off work yesterday with the plan for the day to make pizza in the oven. The weather was supposed to be decent and the temperature was supposed to get to 40. Perfect. Toppings are easy when the outside temperature is basically refrigerator temp. The dough is easier to mange too. And in a rare occurrence, I was actually happy with the quality of the pizza I was pulling out of the oven. Figures, because I didn't take any pictures of the finished pizzas.

Last time at the cheese family, I was invited in and was talking with the parents while the daughter ate a slice of pizza. She interrupted the conversation to say in a serious, matter of fact way, "You make really good pizza, Mr. Jon." It was a very sweet compliment that still makes me smile.

Yesterday's pizza delivery was almost stealthy. It had to have been very quiet. They have two dogs and I didn't see or hear either of them.When I got to the door, I could see the mom on the phone right there. Instead of ringing the bell, I just tapped on the glass. She saw me (and the pizza box), opened the door smiled/thanked me. We exchanged "Happy Friday" greetings and I left. As I was walking down the driveway I could hear their daughter excitedly screaming, "Mr. Jon brought pizza! Mr. Jon brought pizza!" That was nice. I said she's a sweet kid, right? Then I got a few more steps down the driveway and the front door re-opened. A face I had never seen before appeared, a guest I suppose, shouted, "You're the best neighbor ever!!!"

I waved back and that compliment definitely made me smile. Then I walked back to the oven and made a half pepperoni for my other neighbor.

UPDATE to the original post: I wrote this in the morning and figured I'd read it again later. Wasn't sure I was going to post it at all. Feels a little too much yay me. After writing it, I took the dog for a walk and saw my neighbor. I had actually met the unknown face about a year ago. It was Grandma. Our dogs were born around the same time and played as puppies. She had heard the stories about a guy that just shows up with a pizza at random times and was very excited that she got to try it.

I also posted that I spent most of my Friday focused on pizza and got this funny reply from Chef Ric Orlando.


Friday, January 18, 2019

An Ode to Cheap Kielbasa

I wonder if the Pizza Cognition Theory (basically: the first pizza a child eats and appreciates becomes what “pizza” is for that child) applies to other foods. The wondering started when I bought a package of the kielbasa we used to have at family cookouts and birthday parties when I was a kid. I’ve had many kinds of kielbasa. Different brands (White Eagle and Bilinski are some local ones) to fancier in house butcher made “artisan” styles. I’ve made and smoked homemade kielbasa. But for me, the one I really like is the mass-produced Hillshire Farm Polska Kielbasa. Not any other of the Hillshire Farm styles, especially not the turkey. Just Polska Kielbasa.

At some point in the past year I started buying it again. I usually grill the same way my father used to grill it at my birthday party. The kielbasa is cut into 2 inch pieces and then each piece is split in half.

The cut side is grilled first. It was dark and a little smokey, not the best time for a flash picture.

Once that side has some color and grill marks, each piece is flipped to get a little color on the casing side. That’s it.

If you were at my 4th birthday party, pieces of this kielbasa would be served with a tooth pick sticking out of each piece on a paper plate that was wrapped in aluminum foil. In the center of the plate would have been a mound of Gulden’s spicy brown mustard for optional dipping. At home I usually use a Dijon mustard for just about everything but I recently picked up some Gulden’s to go with the occasional Polska Kielbasa. 

On paper, I shouldn’t really like this guilty pleasure but it's probably a good thing that I have to share this basically oversized hot dog with the rest of the family. I’m pretty sure I could eat the whole thing.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Happy Trails, All Over Albany

Earlier this week, the sad news came out that the website All Over Albany would stop putting up new content at the end of the year. I’d say I pop on to their website somewhere between 4 and 6 times a week to check in and see what’s going on in town. I expect I’ll probably just keep automatically clicking on the bookmark for a while.

I have no idea how Greg or Mary from All Over Albany stumbled onto my blog and started including it in their weekly “What’s Up in the Neighborhood” round up. I’m not even sure how long ago it was. But ever since then, I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the All Over Albany extended family. What a great group of people.

As my blog posts shifted from barbecue toward cured/smoked meats and then settling into the current pizza obsession, All Over Albany kept tabs on my general insanity. At some point (I think it might have been after I made up a betting point spread and over/under line for The Tournament of Pizza final round), I had droned on enough about pizza that I was invited to be a judge in the final Tournament of Pizza. Would you believe I almost turned down the offer? No joke. Politely declining the offer was something I considered and there was a drafted in an email explaining why. I mean, how colossally stupid would that have been?

The reason my irrational brain came up with to pass on The Tournament was because a daydream I had. One year The Tournament had a mystery entry. The mystery entry in each bracket turned out to be a chain pizza. The daydream was to compete as a mystery entry and run the table. I wanted to win The Tournament of Pizza. As someone that would have been a judge, it felt like a conflict of interest to jump over into the competition side of The Tournament. That’s how into their Tournament of Pizza my pizza obsessed brain got. I worked myself up into a bizarre ethical conflict that most likely didn’t exist. In a very long winded email (that I still have), I explained why I was conflicted by outlining the whole daydream to Mary. “The plan is that in 2016 or 17, I’m going to ask you and Greg if I could compete as a ‘Mystery’ entrant” is something I wrote to someone I didn’t really know very well. Mary, who was probably thinking, “Oh no, what did we get ourselves into?” talked me down by telling might be the last Tournament and she couldn’t see why judging one year would knock me out of any possible future competitions. Deep down I must have known the conflict of interest thing was stupid. With a future title still a possibility for me, I joined the judging panel and had a blast. Eating pizza and hyper analyzing it with other people who are crazy enough to hyper analyze pizza is just the best.

After The Tournament, I was invited to other events and projects Greg and Mary organized for All Over Albany. Many of the emails leading up to these events are about getting the gang back together for something. A mini pizza tour. I wrote about raising some cattle (an essay that Greg edited into one of the best things I’ve written). A burger tour. The AOA birthday parties. A pizza party in my garage (which I want to host again now that I’m cooking in the wood oven). A recent ice cream tasting.

There was also an annual end of year end request asking several people to briefly write about the best thing they ate this year. Greg’s specific instruction was to not spend a lot of time on it. Well, I take my All Over Albany assignments seriously so it was in the back of mind all year. “Wow, that’s good. Is it worthy of the best thing I ate all year? I don’t know. I’ll file it as a maybe.” I’m not sure if they will do the annual column next week, but I have my 2018 pick ready to go if they do.

Being part of the All Over Albany community was an honor. One I will no doubt miss. Instead of getting sad that there will no longer be an All Over Albany with its unique coverage of local politics, stories, maps, Snowpocolypse winter storm ratings, and seasonal moment photos, we should look forward to whatever Greg and Mary do next. Doesn’t matter if it is together, each on their own or Albany even based. Whatever project they work on next is going to be great. No doubt in my mind. Best of luck for a wonderful 2019, Greg and Mary.

And let’s get the gang back together for a pizza party. My house. Got a few new topping combinations I want the gang to try.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Even More Pizza On The Road

The Eat All the Pizza in Batavia mission continued last week and unfortunately, there are no shining stars to report on this week….sigh. But these bad experiences make the good experiences even better. This trip I wanted to hit Marks and Main Street Pizza.

First up was Mark’s. I skipped lunch and pulled up to Mark’s on the way to the hotel. Turns out Mark’s is a regional chain. Twenty five locations.

I ordered a pepperoni pizza. They are cooking on screens in an air impingement oven (conveyor deck). It looked like the oven was set at 460 degrees. I timed the bake of my pizza at just under 10 minutes. I think the people behind the counter took my watching them as impatience, but I was just trying to see anything that was going on behind the scenes. I can say, there was a college age guy making subs and if he continues to cut sub rolls that way (holding the bread while making large, fast slices with a bread knife aimed at his hand), he will be getting stitches at some point in the not too distant future. I watched the dough being stretched. Instead of an edge stretch where the rim of the crust is formed early in the dough stretching, the dough was stretched and then the rim was kind of crimped. In the end, it looked normal.

The crust was light, airy and the crisp bottom had a little coating of uncooked bench flour (bottom picture came out blurry). The crust was also completely flavorless. It made me think of some cheese bread/sticks I've seen on the pizza forum. The sauce wasn’t very good and there was too much of it. The cheese and pepperoni slide. The cheese was also a bit watery. The pepperoni was your standard, nothing special flat pepperoni. The pizza did get a little bit better with age. As everything cooled to room temperature, the toppings and cheese stopped sliding but this was not good pizza. Recently, a different location of Mark’s was recently reviewed by SexySlices – an Instagram reviewer on a mission to review a different Buffalo Style pizza place each week. They gave Mark’s a solid B. If this is an above average example of Buffalo Style pizza, I might be done trying to look into the style.

But wait, it gets worse. So much worse.

For dinner, I met my friend Kevin (from heaven) and we headed out to Main Street Pizza Company

We went over the menu and decided to try a small pepperoni pizza and one of their grilled pizzas too. I’m reluctant to beat up the restaurant too badly. Service was very friendly. It was nice inside. They had an inexpensive house wine. The menu was diverse. They were running a tripe special. But the pizza…I hated everything about the regular pizza.

The regular pizza was cooked on a screen in what I would guess is conveyor belt oven similar to Mark’s and the appearance of the pizza was also very similar to Mark’s. The crust…I think you might be able to do better with a Boboli shell from a supermarket. The sauce was painfully sweet. Just thick tomato fortified with a shit-ton of sugar. We each only had one slice of the regular pizza. Neither one of us wanted another. I got the leftovers to go trying to be polite but those two slices were all that got eaten.

The grilled pizza had the same dough rolled thin, way too much the same sauce, a few sad pieces of rubbery fresh mozzarella and some roughly torn basil leaves. C’mon, that’s a sad looking pizza, right?

That grilled blob was $11.95. Kevin asked, "Is this going to be featured on the world famous Jon In Albany Blog?" Yes, Kevin. It is.

I ate one slice, Kevin had 2 of the grilled, more I think because he was a little hungry than the quality of the pizza. People seemed to like the Chicago Deep Dish there. We saw one as we left. It looked like the same pizza with the dough in a different shape. If I were ever to make it back to Main Street Pizza, I’d try some of the other things they had on the menu that looked like they could be interesting but I’d stay away from the menu items that had pizza dough. They had calzones and "subzonis" which sound kind of stromboli-ish.

After dinner, Kevin and I headed next door to the Eli Fish Brewing Company. It’s a really nice space with 20 beers on tap. If they weren’t brewed there, they were brewed somewhere else in New York. We talked with someone that works in the kitchen at a place called O’Leary’s that is just around the corner. Sounded like a nice restaurant. Maybe I can get to O’Leary’s next time. There is only 1 more pizza place to visit and then I will be able to compile my Batavia Pizza Power Rankings. I'm not optimistic about the last place. People at Eli Fish made "why would you go there?" faces when I mentioned it, but a mission is a mission. I'm going.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

More pizza on the road

Back on the road again last week and I was able to cross another two places off my personal Batavia Pizza Challenge. I kept it simple by going with half cheese/half pepperoni small pizzas. First up was Jerry Arena’sPizzeria. The place looks like a pizza dive. Great things come out of dive dinners and dive bars. No reason great pizza can’t come out of a dive too.

I went in and placed my order. An aluminum pan was brushed with oil. I turned to see what two guys were doing with a video game and missed if the dough for my pizza go through a sheeter but there was one behind the counter. I did see a little hand stretching before the dough went on the pan. A measured spoon of sauce went on next. It looked like a lot. Then it got the cheese and the half pepperoni before heading off into a big conveyor oven. 

There was also a post bake dusting of grated cheese. The digital display on the oven was set at 475 degrees. 

Here’s what I got to go:

The dough was oily. The crust flavor and texture seemed like a typical chain pizza. There was definitely too much sauce and the cheese slid. I’d say it was actually a little better once it had cooled down to room temperature. It was flavorless cold the next day. All in all, not a place I would return to, but I didn’t drive away angry which was a good sign. Sometimes I can be mature. Maybe skipping lunch made me really hungry. This was an "it is what it is" situation.

My visit to Jerry Arena’s was around 5:30, pretty much right after I go off work. I went and checked into my hotel, took a shower, took a nap and was recharged for round 2. I drove off to Batavia’s Original Pizza. While it was definitely on my radar for this tour, I had also recently seen it on a list of pizza places in New York State listed by county (more on that list later). Batavia’s Original offers a little bit of everything – all things fried, pasta, some seafood, and for pizza – deep dish, Batavia Style, NY Thin, and gluten free. Based on the amount of flour on the pizza maker, I’d ask about cross contamination if I was gluten free out of necessity. They also have a sweet sauce option. I think people in western New York like sugar with their tomatoes. 

I went with Batavia style (because when in Rome…) which is a thicker crust than NY Thin. Basically, it is just a bigger dough ball for the same size pizza. Also in their topping options, they had a choice between pepperoni and cup and char pepperoni. I went with cup and char. I later found out it was Margherita brand. Was curious to see if it was Battistoni which looks like a common Buffalo cup and char pepperoni. I'm going to try and pick some up the next time I make it all the way out to Buffalo. From where I was, it was a little hard to see the bake. There are several deck ovens behind the counter, no sheeter in sight and no screens. This pie also got a post bake sprinkling of grated cheese. I sometimes do that too. There is something about a sprinkling of Romano into the pepperoni cups that I like.

The rim was a little bready. The flavor and texture reminded me of the bread I make out of leftover dough balls. The sauce was nice, nothing really other than tomato. If I get the chance, I’d like to return and try the NY thin style, maybe ordered well done. I like the restaurant. It looks like it does a good business. Batavia’s Original is definitely a family place with bright booths (the colors of the Italian flag), a large dining area, and various daily specials – I forget the day but kids eat free once a week, they have Friday fish fry…that kind of thing. It's the kind of restaurant you would expect to see a little league team celebrating their season with pizza and pitchers of soda but also nice enough that that a four-top with two couples catching up wouldn't be out of place.

I recently saw this list. The list doesn’t claim to be a “Best of.” In fact, in the introduction it says it isn’t. It’s more of a “shout out” guide to places with extra credit given to longevity and “old Italian names.” So click bait…Batavia’s Original gets mentioned for Genesee County. But what about closer to home? 

Albany County: Romo’s Pizza in Glenmont- Never been but I have heard nice things about it. They recommend the 9W – sauce, broccoli, roasted red pepper, garlic, onion, cheese and oregano.

Renesselaer County: Ipek’s La Bella Pizza. Heard of it and I’ve never been. The recommended pizza is a chicken/bacon/ranch. I’d order something else. No ranch on pizza for me.

Saratoga County: Gennaro’s Pizza Parlor. I almost got to eat there after a softball game but I was out-voted and we ended up at a burger joint. It is definitely on my local to-do list and I have heard good things about their pizza. The list says the clam oreganata pie is the best pizza here. I'd like to try Harvest and Hearth too. Can't seem to find myself in that area when they are open.

Schenectady County: Paulie’s Pizza. The list recommends the chicken fajita pie. I’ve been to Paulie’s Pizza and I’m not in a rush to get back. Going back to the Schenectady Slice Tour, Paulie’s ranked 4th out of 5 on our family rankings. If you add Marino’s, that’s 4 places within a few miles of Paulie’s that I would rank higher than Paulie’s, but again, this isn’t really that kind of list. 

Overall with 4 places down and 4 to go, Batavia is batting 500 on alright pizza – nothing Holy Crap this is amazing, but alright, not chain pizza. Next up is probably Main Street Pizza and Big Pauly’s. I'll probably get out that way again sometime late November.