Saturday, April 7, 2018

Epic Pizza Tour

To paraphrase Ghostbusters, when someone asks if you want to blow off work for a pizza tour, you say, "YES!"  

I almost didn't go on this tour. As the data approached, I knew I would regret missing it. My head is still kind of in a blur. It was total pizza sensory overload. Not just binge eating pizza, but the conversation and the people made the entire day unbelievably amazing. 

On Thursday morning, I left the house around 6:30 in the morning to go meet people I had only either met or heard about online. I drove down to the Croton-Harmon Metro-North station, parked (paid for up until 3:00 AM because who knows?) and took the train to the 125th Street-Harlem station. From there, it was about a 15 minute bus ride to the first meet-up point of the day. A place called Mama's TOO! that I had seen popping up in pizza-geek Twitter/Instagram recently. I was a little early so I took a lap around the block. I was surprised to see the original Mama's a block from the spinoff. Not long after my lap, what I thought was a familiar online face showed up. But I was wrong. It was the familiar online face's brother. Oops. It was nice to put voices and faces to screen names I have been seeing on the pizza forum for years. And I've got to tell you, everyone was as nice and great and awesome in person as you could have hoped. So here's the pizza craziness that followed:

A crowd of pizza nerds shuffles into Mama's TOO! about 15 seconds after it opened. For the next 45 minutes we talked with owner and ate pizza. The same dough was used in the round slice pizzas as in the squares, but the squares...holy shit, they were amazing. Style-wise, the square isn’t exactly what I think of when I think Sicilian. Flavor and texture wise. It did remind me of a onetime visit to Emmy Squared (Detroit style). I thought the dough, especially in the square form was delicious. Even the way they had it rolled into a garlic knot was delicious.The owner was kind enough to give us most of the dough recipe. Recreating it is on my to do list.

We spent too much time at Mama’s Too! So Sal and Carmine’s was dropped. We drove over to Sophia. The car ride was fantastic. Aside from getting to know two forum guys a little better, the pizza conversation was great. Flour, sauce, yeast, fermentation textures, cheese, mixing order (the owner of Mama's insists adding the salt late makes a big difference)…and it must have been going on in the other car too because there was a car-to-car phone call about yeast at Mama's TOO!. Birds of a feather were definitely flocking together on Thursday.

Parking was tough around our next stop, Sophia. We tried a slice, a square and a spinach dip slice. Nothing there was bad, it just wasn’t great or memorable. The spinach dip kind of tasted like creamed spinach (I'd argue Seagate frozen creamed spinach if you want to get specific about it).

The spinach dip slice is in the upper left corner of the second photo.

From there we were off to Prince Street for the Spicy Spring. It was greasy delicious. Tons of pepperoni (the sidewalk outside is kind of littered with pepperoni that fell off  earlier slices) and I think the dusting of cheese that partially melts into the cupped pepperoni was great too. One thing to note was that we got two slices and cut them into three pieces each. I’m not sure I’d feel the saw way about the Spicy Spring slice if I ate a whole square myself. I could see the four bites of delicious slowly turning into a salty, grease bomb that haunts you for the rest of the day. Alas, I didn't get a good picture of the spicy spring slice and no one has put one up on the forum yet. So you are currently stuck with a crowd shot.

And we're moving...We headed off to L’industrie and got there a little bit ahead of schedule. A forum member whose screen name is quietdesperation and I took the opportunity to walk over to Best Pizza. We had a regular square and a pickled vegetable slice. They were both good. I thought the kale on pickled vegetable slice was really tasty. I had been to Best Pizza once before and it was alright, this visit was better.

We walked back to L’industrie and joined the tour already in progress. Paulie Gee of Paulie Gee's and the soon to be Paulie Gee's Slice Shop and Mike of Mike's Hot Honey had joined the group. Not a take your breath away slice here. It was a little on the dry side and I thought they had used too much bench flour so there was still a little on the crust. That said about the slices, a table ordered a fresh pizza while we were there and it looked better than what was being served as slices. Perhaps L’industrie is a better whole pie/eat right away place than a slice shop. As I was late to this portion of the tour, I don't really have any good pictures, but the fresh burrata on this slice was beautiful.

Next stop was the Big Ragu. They had a cool oven. It was gas fired with a rotating deck. The deck was spinning faster than I thought a rotating deck would go, but it is fair to say I know nothing about rotating deck ovens. We got the namesake Big Ragu slice. Just before if comes out of the oven some paper is put down on top of a paper plate and it gets a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar. That was a new one for me. The slice was then cut into bite sizes. We had a bunch of plastic forks to eat it. The slice was thick, doughy and I didn’t think it was good. It had overtones of something you get at a fair. Should you find yourself here, try something else.

Then Williamsburg Pizza. I had stopped here once before when a work trip had brought me into the area and their grandma slice was the start of that mini tour. While I was there they were prepping their apple bacon slice and the topping sounded great but I had a few other places I wanted to visit and I was on my own so giving the apple bacon square a try was on my to-do list. I don’t know if the pie had been in the window too long or maybe I’m just wrong about the combination, this was a disappointingly bad slice. As people were getting ready to go Paulie Gee had just gotten his grandma slice. So I got to hang out and talk with Paulie and we split the slice. The grandma slice is still very good and worth getting if you are nearby.

From there, Paulie and I drove to Sam’s to catch up with the group. That was another nice drive/pizza/pizza business discussion. I know where Paulie buys his cheese. He asked me not to tell anyone. I'm not telling. Walking into Sam’s is like stepping back in time. Sam is gone and the place is run by his son Lou who very much enjoys the joke, "Don't call me Son of Sam." I thought the pizza here was very good and just being there made me want to really explore the menu. There were not a lot of people in there and I can’t figure out why. The food looks really good and being inside reminded me of being a kid and walking into an Italian restaurant with my parents in the 70s. I’d very much like to bring a party of 8 or 10 here and try some of everything. Also, Paulie can’t get within a mile of the place without getting clams.

From Sam’s, some of us walked to Lucali, others drove. Walking there we stopped in the Court Pastry Shop. It smelled amazing in there. I was too full of pizza and there was still another stop so I didn't get anything. Quietdeparation had some did-not-buy remorse and headed back for some biscotti while we waited for a table at Lucali. We tried biscotti some after Lucali’s and I don’t think it is an exaggeration when I say that was the best biscotti I ever had. I did not know biscotti could be that good.

So had a little bit of a wait at Lucali but it wasn’t too bad. I’ve waited just as long if not longer outside of Pepe’s or Sally’s in New Haven. My impression of Lucali was that it was a pizza that needed to be eaten promptly and that the crust was kind of on the clock. I’m not sure I00% right about that. I’ve got to say dining with forum Member Jackie Tran (his first name is Chau and the bent spatula inside my propane oven was developed by him and then the forum named it after him - it's call a Chauflector) is amazing. He is very observant and it made me look and consider things I probably wouldn’t have caught on my own. I definitely enjoyed Lucali. Not sure it is 2 hour wait worthy (we didn't wait that long but people have) but I’d be OK with a 20-30 minute wait for the dining experience. I want to get their all beef pepperoni for my pizza. So flavorful. Like Sam’s, Lucali isn’t just the pizza, the space is fun and inviting, there’s a little velvet rope at the entrance, the wood oven is in back with a very open kitchen - it’s an experience. We got two small calzones, the one I had was delicious. The other appeared to be a little under cooked. Fresh basil is served on everything. One thing to note about Lucali is that after a day long pizza eating binge, I didn’t hesitate to take a full slice from each pizza. When we were done with pizza, I think I could have had another slice but the calzones were on the way and while the mind was still thinking about pizza, it was probably for the best to be done.

One of my favorite pictures of the day was up on Paulie Gee's Instagram feed. It feels like it captures the Lucali experience.

After Lucali we split up to head home. I was lucky enough to hitch a ride back to the Croton train station with a member that lives nearby. Even the ride back was enjoyable. Talking about the day, pizza, life family with a new friend. What an amazing day. I’m so glad I was able to join part of this tour. I say part, because it was four days long. It wrapped up earlier this afternoon. The pictures from today look good. I'm waiting to read about it on the forum. It might make a nice little family tour.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Electric City Pizza Tour

Once again, my family willingly followed me along on a pizza themed excursion. This time it was the FussyLittleBlog's slice tour in Schenectady. Five stops. Five slices to judge with the goal of determining the best New York style slice in Schenectady. Now what exactly is a New York Slice? To me, Scott Wiener of Scott's Pizza Tours gave my favorite explanation:

“a New York-style pizza is a large-format pizza. It’s cut into eight even wedge slices. The whole diameter of the pizza is somewhere between 18 and 22 inches, and it’s made with a low-moisture mozzarella, baked in a gas-fueled deck oven at about 550 degrees, for somewhere between seven and ten minutes. When it’s served to the public, it’s available either fresh, or if you’re there ten minutes late, as a reheat slice. And the slice is always larger than the plate upon which it is served. This is a New York slice.”

I'd like to add that the reheating the slice add a crispness to the bottom of the crust. In my mind, the best NY Style slice I've ever had was at Pizza Town USA ironically located in Jersey. Somehow the slice is impossibly thin as well as crispy and tender at the same time. Here's a link to my first visit there. Midway through this tour my youngest daughter Casey was a little confused about slice shops. I explained that they were trying to be like Pizza Town, USA. She said, "Well then they're failing." That's my girl. After our December visit to Pizza Town, she wanted to move closer. I mention this to place this tour on a scale of NY Slices. Two stops on this tour made a decent slice (I'll do the math for you - three did not), but those decent slices aren't on the same level as the best of the best. The "best" Schenectady slice isn't on the same playing field as the "best" NY slices.

On the score sheet was a space for the anticipated winner to see if there was a little bias from the start. I had only been to one of the places so I was flying blind without any expectations. The kids picked expected winner's based only on how much they liked a shop's name. Allison liked Nico's and Casey liked Isopo's. After a first look at our family's score sheets, we were split about which shop was the best. Usually we vote as a block. We discussed not turning in all of our scores to lessen the impact of the family voting block. I think on one soft serve tour we were 20% of the vote. Upon further review of our scores, we technically voted 3-1. But if we were working in pencil some numbers would have gotten adjusted.

We got two cheese slices at every stop. I had a cutting board and pizza cutter to make 4 skinny slices. Prices were all pretty much same, $4.30 to $5.00 for two slices. Here's how the tour broke down. (Note: Some scorers used factions of a point. I blame the Olympics.)

Stop 1: Pizza King

We got here at 11 and the tour kind of slammed them.

My notes: In the rush, the reheat wasn't very long. The slice warmed up but the bottom crust didn't crisp that much. Not a lot of flavor in the crust. There was a good cheese melt. The sauce was on the sweet side. I'd call it a better than average upstate that oddly seemed to get better as it cooled.

Amy: I liked the cheese. Stretchy and tasty.

Allison: Sauce is good, end crust is too doughy, cheese is alright and doesn't come off all at once (which is good).

Casey: Huge slices, great crust.

Stop 2: Isopo's

My notes: Pale and under cooked. No crisp on the reheat. Dough was dense, kind of bready and could use a little salt. The sauce was sweet. Very thin rim didn't rise. Cheese was a little rubbery and would slide off. I think this is a fairly typical slice in the area.

Amy: Not uniform, some bites completely different than the last. Some didn't have sauce. I didn't like the cheese. I liked the crunch in the end crust but the under crust was lacking.

Allison: Sauce was pretty much the same as Pizza King except there is a little more. End crust parts were more doughy while some parts were crunchy. The slice was pretty thin but the under wasn't crunchy and it was a tiny bit soggy. The cheese had a weird taste that I can't place that made it worse than Pizza King.

Casey: Different sized slices, cool name, pizza slices are OK.

Stop 3: Nico's

My notes: Bready, under cooked crust that was soggy and couldn't support its own weight. Not crispy at all. The sauce and cheese combined into one layer but the components of that layer aren't good. I have heard their whole pies are different and better that the slice pies but this slice was not good. I ate half of my half slice.

Amy: Not good. Doughy. All dough.

Allison: There is a small layer of sauce to an extent where you can't really taste it. The cheese tastes weird. The slice is really droopy and the under is not crunchy at all. The end crust is more  consistently crunchy than Isopo's but it is still doughy.

Casey: Under crust is a bit soggy. GIANT slice (bigger than Pizza King). Cheese is weird. Not enough sauce.

Stop 4: Paulie's


My notes: Over sauced, very soggy. Sauce seemed unseasoned then got sweet. Cans of Stanislaus tomatoes were in the trash. It's a great brand. I liked the cheese flavor but it slid all over on top of the sauce. Bready crust that mostly tasted bland. I think it could have used some salt. Smaller slices. Very so-so.

Amy: Too much sauce, crust was tasteless. Soggy.

Allison: The sauce still had some tomato chunks in it making it too tomato-y. There was also a lot of sauce on the slice. Cheese was good but it came off easily maybe because there was so much sauce. The crust looked weird on the bottom and tasted cornmeal-y. The crust was thin but not really thin like the earlier shops. The end crust was also cornmeal-y but it was more consistent than Nico's.

Casey: Slices are smaller than the other stores.

Stop 5: I Love NY (and you will too)

My notes: Crust is brown instead of some of the pale we had been seeing and has a nice crispness. Cheese is good. Cheese and sauce boiled into one layer. Actually had a cheese pull which was the only one I noticed during the tour. The sauce could use a little more seasoning and the slice is salty but in a good way. This was the closest to what I think a NY slice should be, but still not great. There was a little aftertaste to the end crust.

Amy: Crisper and crunchier than others. Ingredients tasted good. I tend to like more cheese. The most consistent of all.

Allison: End crust was really good. It was crunchy and just enough doughy. You couldn't really taste the sauce but it was kind of a seasoning and it made the pizza really good. The pizza was just as thin as Pizza King but it was the crunchier of all of them. The cheese tasted really good and went nicely with the crust and sauce.

Casey: good thin, under crust is crisp

The Rankings:

Nico's - 49
Paulie's - 57
Isopo's - 61
Pizza King - 80
I Love NY - 84.8

Post Game Analysis

The last line on the score sheets is: What was your favorite and why?

Me: I Love NY. I thought it was the closest to my ideal NY style slice. Not in the same league as what is available downstate though.

Amy: I would go with Pizza King because I liked the ratio of the ingredients to the overall slice. I tend to like a little more cheese the I Love NY pizza had but that crust was good is you like crisper pieces. I liked the flavors of Pizza King better.

Allison: I Love NY was my favorite because is had the best flavor overall and the crust was crunchy and consistent.

Casey: My favorite was Pizza King because it had plenty of room to sit and its crust was great. It also had a good amount and flavor of the cheese and sauce.

Amy didn't want to scribble up the whole score sheet to re-balance her scores because technically she scored I Love NY a touch higher than Pizza King. Next tour will have pencils. But if she readjusted her scores, The I Love NY score drops a little and the Pizza King score goes a a bit and you basically have a tie. And in fairness to Pizza King, I think if our slices had spent another 60 seconds re-heating, my scores might be adjusted too.

Based on the slices we got, our family is split between Pizza King and I Love NY as the best in Schenectady. I suppose there are worse things we could argue about. I have no idea how the rest of the tour voted (there was a pretty good turn out), so you will have to watch the FussyLittleBlog for the Official Results.  My guess is that I love New York gets the win with Pizza King close behind. At least that's how I saw it.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Super Bowl Sunday

For the most part, I just don't care about football. I do know enough about the game to almost run the recent football category on Jeopardy. The purple people eaters one would have gone by me. If I was forced to pick a team, I think it would be nice for the Bills to be competitive again, but that is probably more because I like Buffalo more than I like football. What we had done in the past was take the kids out to a nicer than usual restaurant (if you go back to 2012, there was illness, a kitchen remodel and store bought pizza shells - not my proudest moment). For those with young kids, it's perfect. The restaurant is happy for the business, the kids get a nicer than Moe's/burger joint/Friendly's/diner type experience and because the place is empty, if your 3 year old gets a little loud, no one is around to care. Now my kids are old enough that I can take them anywhere without worrying about their behavior. Finding them something they'd be willing to eat might be the harder issue. This summer we took a cruise and they tried some things in the main dining room on the boat that they probably wouldn't have tried in a restaurant on land. And the reason for that was the safety net of the buffet upstairs. If they tried something new and hated it, there was always something they would like at the buffet. For the most part, they did well. I only had to have two dinners once or twice. But back to Super Sunday.

The meal this Super Bowl Sunday was very enjoyable. The four of us had a really good time. There was only one flaw in the meal. It was the cheese pizza one of my kids ordered.

If I wasn't a pizza obsessive, none of this would bother me. The pizza wouldn't have detracted anything from the meal. It would have been just a kid's pizza.  No one left the restaurant hungry. The pizza was gone when left, although that is probably because I was going a little overboard tasting the crust. I didn't take a picture because we were out having a good time, I prefer to keep a phone away from the table and I didn't want to announce "pizza freak" to the waitstaff. I didn't realize I'd be thinking about this pizza steadily for a full day and with 20/20 hindsight, I regret not taking the photo. So with all that said and remembering we had a very nice evening, let's start bitching about the pizza.

1. I didn't really check the layout of the kitchen but I believe the pizza is made in a different area than the rest of the menu. I bet if the head chef saw this particular pizza, it would have become a snack for the waitstaff and another pizza would have been made and served. If I pulled that pizza out of my oven, I would not have served it. Hell, just from looking at the shape, I might not have bothered to top it with sauce and cheese. Dough is cheap. I'm guessing there was less than 25 cents worth of ingredients in that dough ball before it was topped. Probably wouldn't have been the end of the world to start over.

2. The bake was completely unbalanced.  The rim of the crust was pale and under cooked. The shape was not round, which can be OK. I'm pretty sure this was meant to be round. And a bigger diameter. If this dough ball was stretched rounder and bigger, the big dough crust rim would have been smaller, less dense and might have properly baked.

3. I liked the sauce.

4. Whoever made the pizza needs to get better at launching a pizza. The peel had to have been coated with a lot of flour to leave that much raw flour on the undercarriage of the pizza. Try a sprinkling of rice flour on the peel instead of that much extra bench flour. .

Well, I feel a little better. The appetizer we had was lovely. Three entrees were nice too. Some shrimp were cooked beautifully. Service was attentive and friendly. If I lived closer, I would want to be a regular customer. I suggested the possibility of having the upcoming family Birthday Dinner here. Unfortunately I think it's just a little too far away from home. But the pizza, that needs some work. Maybe just more experience.

Later this week, my wife and I will have been a couple for 26 years. While she and I were critiquing this pizza at the restaurant she commented that she was surprised how quickly she became a pizza snob.

Back off. She's with me.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

It really tweaks my melon, again

Once again, I'm going to channel my inner Abe Simpson and publicly whine about a few things:

Major League Baseball is on hiatus
By hiatus, I mean I’m not watching any of it this year. A few years ago, back when I was still exercising regularly, I was on the road for work in Utica. I had just gone for a jog and noticed that there was a baseball game being played at the high school next door to the hotel. I went over and watched a few innings. Yes, a game played at the high school level is not played as well as in the big leagues. But it was more fun to watch. And since my oldest daughter has been playing softball, I’d rather be a part of that than watch a pro game. Have you ever seen a college softball game? That’s more fun to watch than a pro baseball game too. But major league greed is what pushed me over the edge. This off season, it has become painfully clear that there are several teams that just don’t care about a winning season for their fans. I’m not taking about a World Series win, I’m talking about putting a pro team on the field that is worth watching. Something more than a game above 500. Tanking multiple seasons has become an accepted practice and every year is a "rebuilding year." Pro baseball doesn’t deserve its fans.

Veterinarian Bills
Our dog Bailey recently got spayed. Now maybe it’s the vet office we chose, but if the cost of spaying/neutering a dog is this much everywhere, there is no reason to wonder why there are so many orphaned dogs. A lot of people aren’t going to pay that. I’m surprised I paid that. A few years ago, there was a great weekend in Boston with a bunch of college friends. We ate and drank and had a blast. Valet parking was involved. That all-out 3 day weekend was cheaper than the sum of our first 3 vet visits. 

I don’t have a lot of experience with veterinarians, but spaying/neutering is something they should probably do a little closer to cost (which should include payment for their time). We needed to return a few weeks after our first visit for a booster shot. They offered to draw some blood for some tests before the spaying operation. It would be $100 cheaper to do in advance instead of on the day. Yeah, sure. Do that. For comparison, I had some blood work done a few months after getting bitten by a tick.

Blood work place: That will be $1200

Insurance company: We’ll give you $49

Blood work Place: OK

What an absurd scam. I don’t expect the vet to lose money with spaying and neutering. But maybe if they didn’t quadruple up on the cost of the procedure, more people would listen to Bob Barker and “help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered.”

Restaurant Apology
We went out to dinner last night. We weren’t rushing, but we had one daughter with us and had to pick the other up so we weren’t planning for a long meal. After placing the order, we waited. After about 15 minutes, the waiter came to top off our water glasses and said the food would be out shortly. About 10 minutes after that, he came back and told us that they lost our ticket and were rushing to fill our order now. He apologized. We said it was OK, it happens. He brought out the food and apologized again. We started eating. A manager came over to check on us and apologized, asked how everything was and told us she was going to comp an entrée. She said there was an emergency in the kitchen, someone had to rush out and the ticket got lost. We accepted her apology. The waiter apologized a few more times. They offered us a free desert which we passed on because we had to get going and they took a $21 entrée off the bill. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say they apologized for the delay 6 or 7 times. It kind of felt like the Monty Python sketch about the dirty fork: “I am the manager. I’ve only just heard." "I want to apologize humbly, deeply and sincerely about the fork.” 

The apologies worked. I don’t have any ill will toward the restaurant and I’d go back. Truth be told, the only apology I really wanted was for making me have to listen to Phil Collins sing Against All Odds while waiting for dinner.

Reviewing the Reviewer
More often than not, when I buy a Sunday Times Union it’s because I need paper for lighting chimneys of charcoal or fires in the wood oven. That’s probably a sad statement about the newspaper business. I haven’t been keeping up with the weekly restaurant reviews but when I get a paper I read the write up. It’s weird how reviews seem to end up in either moderate, silent reader agreement or passionate, loud reader disagreement. Writing style plays a big part in it too. I’m sure the current reviewer is a great person, but I don’t care for her writing style. Aside from occasionally needing a dictionary to understand a sentence, there have been a few “scat” references that I felt were poor choices in a professional restaurant review. From a review of Forged:

The black bean brownie with tofu ganache ($9) certainly pushed me to the edge, with its constipated scat of solid black beans and oats, and dribbly coconut milk “whipped cream” with an empty taste of melted ice.

Maybe it was an attempt at humor that went by me. It’s ok not to like something, but the Times Union restaurant review can make or break a local restaurant. Leave “constipated scat” out of a review. And water. Water is “the empty taste of melted ice.” In this week’s review of the Galleria 7 Market, there was an unnecessary shot at a nearby restaurant. 

Of course, you've already checked out Innovo Kitchen in the corner, either because your curiosity was piqued by its owners' embezzlement imbroglio at their previous place or because you'd heard they were killing it in their new space. 

Yes, Innovo Kitchen had a stand in the Galleria 7 Market, but it's gone now. It is a stand alone restaurant around the corner in the same strip mall. Why even mention Innovo Kitchen at all? I don't think the owner or restaurant have anything to with the place being reviewed. It just seems like an unprovoked, mean spirited jab.

Then in the description of the pizza place in the food court:

Anna's pizzas, cooked to order in three minutes, have an intriguing tangy tomato sauce and soot-blackened bottoms that could use a little crunch ($11).

I suppose a little bit of burnt/charred crust could be considered soot. I tend to think of soot as the particles in smoke that end up lining the chimney from incomplete combustion of the wood. I guess you could argue that delicately charred crust can be delicious, incomplete combustion.
I’ve been to Anna’s once. It’s not my favorite pizza. As my father would say, “It isn’t the worst pizza I ever had.” It is easy to find worse pizza locally. I had a slice for lunch last week and I’m still mad at how bad it was (I should have just turned around and left after getting a look at the slices). Anyhow, the reviewer wished Anna’s crust was a little more crisp. Now, I’ll give you Anna’s isn’t a true Neapolitan pizza, but it is clearly inspired by the style and that style is not crisp. To my completely insane pizza obsessive sensibilities, that’s like saying, “the pizza was alright but I wish it was Chicago Deep Dish instead” or “I ordered the steak but wished it was chicken.”

An Anniversary
One year ago today, according to my brother in law's Facebook timeline (and the end of this post), the first pizzas came out of the wood oven.

Made some good progress on the oven since then. It's snowing now but the forecast calls for 40s on Saturday. Time to fire up the oven and make some pizza. I think I’m going to try to make some bigger pies this time. I’m usually in the 13-14 inch range. I’m going to see if I can bump a few pies up to 16 inches. As I age, it’s amazing what passes for excitement.

Note to Phairhead - I hope you are feeling better soon!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Family Pizza Tour

Northern New Jersey Edition

I can’t believe my family routinely lets me do this to them. This weekend we were heading to Staten Island for my nephew’s birthday party. Why not extend the trip a little, spend Saturday night in a hotel and eat a lot of pizza on the way? And let’s bring the dog too.

First, some background on the behind the scenes thinking of the very secretive Pizza Tour Site Selection Committee (PTSSC). Several very influential members of the PTSSC follow Pete Genovese on twitter. I’m not sure what makes his him an authority on all things New Jersey, but he seems to be the guy. He travels the state in search of the best diners, best bakeries and, of course, best pizza. He does a New Jersey Pizzeria Power Rankings which is a top 25 list. I think it is annual thing. There were several newcomers to the list that shuffled places around in 2016. Sources familiar with the recent meeting of the PTSSC tell me the committee wanted to see how Pete Genovese’s thoughts on pizza lined up with their own. The PTSSC finds it interesting to try a place a pizza critic has visited. The process kind of calibrates one’s tastes with the critic’s tastes. For example, if you find a movie reviewer with similar tastes that writer’s reviews should hold a little more weight than a reviewer who panned your favorite movie. All three places on this trip routinely make Peter Genovese’s Top 25 pizza places in New Jersey. The PTSCC also paid attention to location, travel time between pizzerias and total travel time.

The pizza tour stops in order were:
1. Pizza Town in Elmwood Park
2. Star Tavern in Orange
3. Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza in Elizabeth

Stop 1
Pizza Town USA
111 Rt 46 West
Elmwood Park, NJ
Ranked #22 in 2016 (fell from #14)

I have been here before and should I ever find myself within 20 miles of the place, will come again. When I think traditional NY Slice joint pizza, it’s this slice. It’s crisp yet tender. I have no idea how they do that. Here’s what we got: a slice, a deep-fried calzone filled with ricotta and ham and a bag of zeppole.

 Wohoo! We're here!

 Look at the beauty of that slice

 Seriously, look at it.

 The small deep fried calzone is fantastic. The dipping sauce is good too.
After this trip, everyone wants me to start making zeppole.

The kids loved everything about this place. Pizza was great. Calzone was great. Zeppole were great. My youngest wants to move closer. She once said, “All you need to survive is a Target and Bella Napoli (for their doughnuts).” She would be willing to forgo the Bella Napoli doughnuts for these zeppole. Plus, while we were there, I heard a thickly accented bee-you-tee-full. Plus-plus, this is the site of one of my favorite dough stretching videos (this is poetry in motion). Plus-plus-plus, I love this place. Pro tip: eat the zeppole outside so you won’t feel bad about powdered sugar going everywhere. If you’ve had a Bella Napoli powdered jelly doughnut, that is just a powdered sugar dusting compared to these zeppole.

Stop 2
Star Tavern
400 High Street
Orange, NJ
Ranked #11 in 2016 (fell from #8)

Star Tavern is kind of the home of the Bar Pie. I have wanted to try this place for years. There is a very long thread about their pizza on the pizza forum. It’s very thin pizza that is meant to go well with beer. We got here around 4:30 on a Saturday. The parking lot was packed and there was a short wait for a table. When the pizza came to the table, the melted cheese was approximately the temperature of lava.

 Star Tavern

 The joint was jumping at 4:30 on a Saturday.

 Hot Lava.

A peek at the bottom.

I am usually one that digs right in and takes a bite, roof of the mouth be damned. But not this time. Let’s give that a second to cool. The pizza was good. It was crazy thin. The texture of the crust reminded me of a better version of a Blaze pizza. The best bites were the crusty bits of melted cheese around the edges. This is the kind of place where the Pizza Cognition Theory is in full effect. The restaurant was full of families having dinner. The table next to us was two families going out together, with a total of 4 kids at the table, I’d guess the oldest was 10. When those kids come home after being away awhile, when they come home for a visit, Start Tavern is going to be the first place they want to go. Should this place ever change or (I don’t even want to say it) close, people will mourn it for a long time. A lot of people. All that said, it is a little too far away from my personal Pizza Cognition, so it isn’t for me, and there's nothing worng with that.

Stop 3
Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza
639 South Broad Street
Elizabeth, NJ
Ranked #2 in 2016 (held the #2 spot)

I was definitely looking forward to this stop. At one time this shop was at the top of Peter Genovese’s list. I think in the one of the more recent version it has dropped to Number2. On a busy Saturday night, this was a 2 person operation. It is take-out only. There’s a small place for customers to stand and at times while I was there, it was packed. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I got the best that Santillo’s has to offer. They have a variety of options to choose from, some of them are by year. I asked the person in front of me for their favorite. He was picking up three pizzas and seemed to have his own thermal bag to get them home. He recommended the 1964 but said everything is good. I took his advice. I spoke with a few customers and they all love this place. And I've got to tell you, if you are within a block of this place, it smells delicious.

If you weren't looking for it, you'd miss it.  You need to go down the alley.

  Near the end of the alley, this sign is over the door/

No tables, we ate this pizza out of the back of the mini van.

 I thought the pizza was just OK. But again, I might not have picked the best of the best. I thought the sauce was a little too sweet and there was too much of it on the pizza. The crust was good but not amazing. If I lived closer, the menu would definitely require further exploration. All in all, OK, but I would have to disagree that this is the best pizza in New Jersey since it wasn’t the best pizza of the day. This certainly wasn’t bad pizza but I think I’d put the Gennaro’s tomato pie I had on an earlier New Jersey tour ahead of it.

After our last pizza stop we headed off to the hotel. The family consensus was that Pizza Town was the best of the day. It was fun tour and it left me feeling a little bit cocky. I felt like I could put my pizza next to a pizza some have argued is the best in New Jersey and I’d like mine more. I’m sure there’s a wee bit of bias in there. My last bake in the wood oven went well. Best one so far. I felt like I had the dough under control and could keep the oven floor temperature steady. Hopefully that wasn’t a fluke. This trip really made me want to fire the oven up again. Maybe on Saturday. We’ll have to see how the week goes.

Disclosure: The head of the Pizza Tour Site Selection Committee as well as all the distinguished Pizza Tour Site Selection Committee voting members are just me. My vote carries a lot of swing at those loud, high stakes meetings.