Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Wait...what did I just say?

I’ve never liked going to the dentist. Kramer from Seinfeld would call me an anti-dentite and he’d be right. After leaving the dentist’s office on Monday morning, I figured I’d stop by Restaurant Depot on the way back to the office and pick up another 50 pound bag of pizza flour. You know, a reward for being so well behaved at the dentist.

I went with a 50 pound bag of Full Strength flour. For those keeping score at home, the last bag was Hummer Flour, and the first bag was All Trumps. I had forgotten Restaurant Depot carried Royal Oak lump charcoal so I grabbed a bag of that too. Roaming the aisles, I picked up a few more things. The last thing I grabbed was a package of 50 small pizza to-go boxes. I was probably giggling a little when I took them off the shelf and just thinking about them now makes me smile. Whenever I daydream about making pizzas at home in a wood oven, I also imagine sliding a fresh pie into a box and having one of the girls walk or bike a pizza to a neighbor. A small, in-neighborhood pizza delivery service. Wouldn’t that be great?

I figured this outdoor closet that we have would be a good place to keep the boxes. Our basement has filled up surprisingly quickly. As I was walking toward the closet, a contractor putting new gutters on my neighbor’s house looked down from his ladder and saw me with 50 pizza boxes over my shoulder. He started a conversation asking about my gutters which we both agree suck. He explained a little about his gutter system and I said I was planning to replace the gutters when the roof gets re-shingled. I’m hoping to 5 more years out of what’s currently up there. He offered to leave me some information on the gutters and I said I give it a look.

Then he said, “That’s a lot of pizza boxes. Do you own a pizzeria?”

“No, not yet.

“Six years ago someone would ask me if I had a contracting company and I’d say 'not yet' but now I do and it’s the greatest.”

He continued to tell me about his company and I suddenly realized that my response kind of made it sound like I was actively working towards owning a pizzeria. You don't need a psych degree to analyze my quick, subconscious response. While it is true I occasionally go through Craigslist and look at local pizza shops and equipment for sale (doesn't everybody?), these pizza boxes were more of a smile than a business plan.

I doubt not yet will ever turn into yes, but I should be ready…just in case. I should probably stop typing and make some dough.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Watching what you eat...literally

Alright, this need to start with a confession. I'm really not proud of this and I probably die a little inside every time I do it but...

My kids love tacos and quesadillas. With our beef supply, there is no shortage of ground beef and these can be pretty quick dinners. What haunts my dreams is that the kids prefer Ortega's 40% reduced salt taco seasoning mix over any spice combination I have ever put together from scratch...sigh...oh, the shame. Must be the autolyzed yeast extract and the caramel color. On the plus side, they really like my pizza, which to be honest, is much more important to me.


I gave up trying to make my own seasoning mix and usually you can find 2 or 3 packets of this in my cupboard. Turns out, Ortega recently had a voluntary recall of these spice packets. Apparently one of their third party vendors sold them some spices with traces of peanuts and tree nuts and none of that information made the label. If you aren't allergic to either, who cares? But my oldest can't eat peanuts. It's a mild allergy. A spoonful of peanut butter will make her sick and pretty uncomfortable. Tagalong Girl Scout cookies look a lot like Thin Mints and that mix up happened once. She has been fine eating things "processed on machinery that also processes peanuts and tree nuts" which seems to be a lot of labels as companies appear to go into full cover your ass mode. It's not one of those extremely severe allergies, just something we watch.

Well, I had no idea the taco seasoning mix had been recalled until the phone rang. It was a robo-call from Price Chopper letting my wife know about the recall. I must have bought some seasoning there, swiped my Advantage Card and that data went off into the little tubes of the Price Chopper computer databases. So thanks for letting me know about the recall, Price Chopper...but it is a little creepy you remembered I bought it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Unfortunate, but necessary preparations

When we first bought a house just before we got married, I picked up an old, hearty snow blower that had just had the engine rebuilt. It served me well. That first winter we went away for New Years and came home to at least 18 inches of snow in the driveway. That snow blower (which is actually older than I am) took about half an hour to clear it. Over the years, that snow blower cleared that driveway and a neighbor's driveway every time it snowed. I didn't want any money from my neighbor but he gave me a little each spring and again in the fall. The snow blower essentially became free. Once in a while the snow blower need a little work and I got surprisingly good a maintaining it.

Last winter was our first winter in this house and got a lot of snow last year. It seemed like even more when the plow was done with the street. After one particularly nasty storm, I cleared the driveway, went to the office and came home to a huge solid pile of snow that was taller than me at the end of the driveway. My trusty late 60's 5 horsepower Ariens couldn't handle that snow. It eventually got it done, but it struggled the whole time. Then something went wrong with the engine at the end of the season. Luckily there wasn't a snow storm that required a snow blower after the motor quit. I don't know enough about engines, but I was pretty sure it was something a engine person could figure out quickly. So, I gave it to my friend Joe. Joe took the snow blower home and quickly fixed her up. He fixed her up so fast that I think he felt a little bad about taking it. Something about the carburetor, a bolt and something else I didn't understand and she came right back to life.

The quest for the next snow blower had begun. I checked Craigslist all the time. I found one that looked promising in Saratoga, but it would have been a real hassle to get the snow blower to my house so I passed. Just as I was starting to regret passing on that snow blower, I found and ad in Want Ad Digest and bought this:


Isn't she pretty? Used, but still really shiny and not many hours on it. I've upgraded the engine from 5 to 9 horsepower. She runs great and looks like she can move a lot of snow. Plus it is the right width to fit nicely in the garage and still be able to open a car door. And it has safety features. That's something new. There was nothing safe about my old snow blower. If I fell down, that thing would have kept going down the driveway, into the neighbors yard and wouldn't have stopped until it sank in their pool. For some reason the state recently (and suspiciously close to election day) sent me two tax rebate checks. Pretty much found money. In my cheap mind, this beast didn't cost $150.

My new snow blower....I hope I never need to use it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Taking the plunge

We moved into this house just over a year ago. Since then we've been trying to decide how to set up the yard. We've met with contractors, worked with a landscape architect and priced different things. We've gone from "that's way too expensive" to "we should just do it and be done" and then back and forth again and again. We always seem to come back to the "just do it" side of the fence and last week we did.

When we moved in, the yard looked like this.


Then we had the trees removed because they weren't doing anything in terms of privacy, they dropped a shit-ton of needles and several were beginning to lean towards the house. Once the trees were gone, it looked like this.


And now that we've made a decision that will either be an incredible amount of fun, a maintenance nightmare, or both...the yard looks like this.


The pool will open in the spring of 2015. That dirt in the back will end up being patio around the wood oven I've been daydreaming about off and on for a decade.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tournament of PIzza Finals

A good sized crowd gathered at Shmaltz Brewing for the finals. Both Marino's and DeFazio's brought two pizzas for the crowd and judges to eat. Both shops also took the Finals seriously and sent some great pizzas to Clifton Park. Their challenge: 1 vegetable pizza and 1 meat pizza.

The judges went for the vegetable pizzas first. Marino's sent in a pizza topped with sauteed green pepper and mushrooms. Defazio's sent in a smoked mozzarella pizza with red peppers and red onions.

Marino's Vegetable Pizza
This was the warmest slice we ate. The crust was nicely browned and had good color. It had gotten a little tough in transport from Schenectady to Clifton Park but nothing serious. The sauce was good, not as amazing as the sauce on their Margherita, and I thought the pizza could have used a little bit more of the sauce. Maybe they held back to avoid potential sogginess during shipping. The toppings were sauteed before going on the pizza. I thought the white button mushrooms were delicious. While I'm not a fan of green peppers, this is usually the only way I like them - sauteed down so they lose their bitterness. The cheese on the slice had a nice flavor too. A very enjoyable slice.

Marino's Vegetable Pizza
Crust:4, Sauce:4, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:7, Total:19.

DeFazio's Vegetable Pizza
The crust on this pizza was delicious. I don't know what they did differently, but I thought this was the best DeFazio's crust I've had that spent time in a take-out box. It was nicely browned and tender. Just the right bit of char. Wow. The sauce is the shops regular pizza sauce, which was added for the Finals - this pizza is usually white. The flavors of the toppings worked well together - smoked mozzarella, small bits of red onion and some roasted red pepper. Up to this point, I believe that this is the best slice of pizza I have had in the Tournament.

DeFazio's Vegetable Pizza
Crust:5, Sauce:4, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:8, Total:21.

Moving onto the meat pizza round,

Marino's Meat Pizza
Marino's went with a lot of meat. Pepperoni, meatball, sausage. The crust was a little lighter than the vegetable slice I had and still had good flavor but was a little chewy. They still have a good sauce and again there could have been a little more. But on the flip side, some more could have definitely soaked into the crust during transit. Their pepperoni was the same zippy pepperoni that was on their spicy pizza in the semi finals. Sausage was still excellent. I thought the meatballs were good, but not great. All in all, a very good meat lovers pie.

Marino's Meat Pizza
Crust:4, Sauce:4, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:7, Total:19.

DeFazio's Meat Pizza
DeFazio's brought a Bolognese pizza. The crust was topped with their Bolognese sauce (slow cooked pork and veal with little bits of pancetta) topped with cheese and then a little bit of crumbled sausage on top. The crust was pretty much the same as their vegetable pizza just slightly darker - delicious. I thought the sauce was well flavored but I thought the wine taste on the finish was a little off. All of the meat was excellent.

DeFazio's Meat Pizza
Crust:5, Sauce:3, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:7, Total:19.

Pre-Results Wrap Up
In a damn close decision, I gave the edge to DeFazio's 40 to 38. The crust was the difference for me. I brought the family to the finals. Allison thought the DeFazio's vegetable pizza and the Marino's meat were the best two pizza. If she were picking a slice from the two of those, she went with DeFazio's Vegetable. Casey would pick the same two pizzas also with a preference to DeFazio's. Amy concurred picking those two pizza's as her favorites. When asked which one she would go to for another slice she said, "There, I would have gone for the DeFazio's red pepper one because I couldn't believe how much I liked it. Right now, I think I'd go with the Marino's meat lovers."

Really, really close call. I'm not sure how the other judges scored it but I think DeFazio's narrowly won the veggie round and Marino's narrowly won the meat round. It will all come down to the margin of victory in each round. I'm writing this before the results are posted so we'll see if I'm right. The All Over Albany write up of the event is here.

The Results Have Been Posted Wrap Up
Well, the results are now up at All Over Albany. The People's Choice title went to Marino's meat pizza that barely beat DeFazio's veggie pie, 73 to 72.5.  The judges narrowly gave the Tournament Title to DeFazio's 167 to 164. That's really close. If you combine the pizza scores from the People's Choice, the people also gave the title to Defazio's  144.1 to 138.6. So it looks like I was mostly right, DeFazio's won the veggie round, Marino's won the meat round and it all came down to margin of victory. Anyhow, I've talked about pizza at work enough so our holiday party will be pizza trips to DeFazio's and Marino's.

The End of the Pizza Tournament
I was absolutely thrilled to be part of the Tournament. As a long time fan (I came up with an over/under and a points spread for last year's finals) it was a lot of fun to participate. It was even fun getting interviewed by some Saint Rose students covering the finals for a class. I learned a lot about pizza along the way. I knew eating it fresh out of the oven was important, but I didn't realize how important. I also learned that when you are hyper-analyzing pizza there isn't just the variation between shop to shop, there is also variation from slice to slice out of the same pizza. And lastly, if you had asked me if I thought some of the best pizza in the tournament would be meatless, I would have thought you were crazy. But they were. And the DeFazio's smoked mozzarella/red pepper pizza was, in my opinion, Best In Show. I'm going to have to try and copy that one.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

TOP Semi Finals Part 2

Spicy (AOA link)

The judging moved on to the “spicy” pizzas. We had already sampled 4 large slices of pizza which was what we had been doing during Round 1. It was time to take a deep breath and double up because there were 4 more slices to be eaten. And they were needed, at least for me because my scorecard after the “Classic” round was essentially a dead heat.

5th and 50 Spicy: Chicken Parmesan Pizza
There’s no nice way to put this. This pie was everything I didn’t like about 5th and 50 from the first round. The rim of the crust was bready and tough. The rest of the crust acted as a stiff support to a layer of topping mush. What sauce you could taste had a really nice level of heat to it but the sauce had been absorbed into the rest of the topping of dry, flavorless ricotta and what seemed like breading that had come off the chicken. In looking around the room (not just the judges table), there were several plates with a slice of this pizza missing one or two bites. That said, one of the guests really liked it.  I don’t think 5th and 50 makes it into the Finals.

5th and 50 Spicy
Crust:2, Sauce:3, Toppings:1, Overall Taste:3, Total:9.

Marino’s  Spicy: Hot Sausage and Pepperoni Pizza
Marino’s went meat. And plenty of it. The crust was nicely browned but a little dense. The sauce was just ok and didn’t hold up to the zing of the meats. It was there, but you’re not going to be eating this pizza and think “mmm, delicious sauce” like on their Margherita. The heat of the zippy pepperoni and spiced sausage just overpowered the sauce. The cheese had good texture to it, but the flavor was also overpowered by the meats. The pepperoni had good bite to it and I wonder if this is a spicier pepperoni than their usual. This wasn’t pepperoni my kids would enjoy. The sausage was tasty too. And there was plenty of meat. The slice had a real heft to it. If you are into a spicy meat lovers kind of pizza, you will definitely enjoy this pie.

Marino’s  Spicy
Crust:3, Sauce:3, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:6, Total:16.

Marissa’s Spicy: Chicken Caccitore Pizza
I have no idea how Marissa’s did it, but on the night of the semi-finals, their crust traveled really well and was the closest to still being in the shop. I liked the sauce. It had a really nice depth of flavor and a slow burning spice/heat that came out after you were done with a bite. I thought there was a strong under current of kalamata olives to the sauce. I happen to like those olives, if you don’t I could see that as a turn off. The fresh mozzarella got a little tough in transport but the braised, shredded chicken was moist, tender and flavored by the sauce. I personally believe that the idea/concept of this pizza is inspired. I’ve never heard of it being done.

Marissa’s Spicy
Crust:3, Sauce:4, Toppings:3, Overall Taste:7, Total:17.

DeFazio’s Spicy: Buffalo Chicken Pizza
After this scored so well in past Tournaments, I had to go to the store and try it. And I enjoyed it. But tonight, something was off. The crust had nice color to it but it was a little bready and dense. The sauce is Franks Red Hot and there was a lot of it on this pie. I suppose that isn’t really a bad thing, but everything on the slice tasted like Red Hot.  The bites of chicken were moist, tender and tasted good if you picked them off the slice. Left on the slice, the chicken tasted like hot sauce. There was a little gorgonzola flavor in the back and I could see that melted mozzarella cheese I love, however the hot sauce was pretty much the only flavor. And it’s a shame because I know this pizza can be better. After all, this is one of the highest scoring pizzas in Tournament history, but not tonight. Any given pizza…on my scorecard, Down Goes the Champ.

DeFazio’s Spicy
Crust:3, Sauce:2, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:5, Total:14.

Here’s how I scored the eight pizzas in the Final Four with Marissa’s and Marino’s getting ready to fight it out for the title.


Classic
Spicy
Total
Marissa’s
18
17
35
Marino’s
17
16
33
DeFazio’s
17
14
31
5th and 50
15
9
24

This is how I scored it, but this is a panel of judges so my points are just a quarter of the points available to any individual pizza. Looking at the All Over Albany write up of the semi finals, it looks like the other judges didn't like the flavor of Marissa's tomatoes on their Margherita as much as I did and depending on the person, I could see the kalamata olives in the Caccitore pizza taking a hit. Also, keep in mind that when you are totally nitpicking everything on a pizza, there is even variation between slices from the same pie. The crust is a little different, toppings not quite the same, a little more/less sauce here and there. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I certainly see how Marissa's got bumped out. Hell, on my score sheet, it's only a 4 point spread between the top three shops.

And if you want to nerd out on some numbers, Greg has kindly posted all of the tournament scores in the annual Crunching the Numbers post at All Over Albany. If you take a look at those stats, DeFazio's has put up some serious numbers in the tournament. DeFazio's, Marino's and Marissa's have the highest all time averages. Seems fitting that it came down to those three shops. It will be interesting to see what happens at the Finals this Saturday.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Faith in the Pizza Universe

Last week on the pizza forum, someone in Arizona asked if there was anyone in the Northeast that would be willing to send him a bag of pizza flour. A lot of the flours used for pizza don't make it out west. Turns out that a Restaurant Depot here doesn't carry the same flours as a Restaurant Depot out there.

Putting my faith in the good will of pizza enthusiasts, I volunteered, totally confident that this complete stranger in Arizona would pay me back. I stopped by Restaurant Depot and picked up a 50 pound bag of flour (not quite $17), headed over to Staples and got a heavy duty box that would hold a 50 pound bag of flour (just over $5) and then went to the big UPS in Latham to ship it (just under $80). I honestly thought the shipping would be less. Apparently there is a surchage to send to Arizona. No idea why.

I sent the guy a message to let him know the flour was in the mail, tell him the cost and say $100 was close enough. He quickly replied that he had already received the tracking info and told me to watch my email for a PayPal transfer. Within minutes of letting him know the flour was in in transit, PayPal sent me an email letting me know $102 was just sent to me.

People that are really into pizza can be trusted.