I think about pizza all the time. Making pizza, eating pizza, flours, hydration percentages, handling the dough, dough fermentation, heat, brands of tomatoes, brands and types of cheese (I’ve found the way you grate the cheese makes a difference), topping combinations…all the time. So when I was invited to participate as a judge in the All Over Albany 2014 Tournament Of Pizza, I was willing to quit my job to attend. I’d get to try pizza from a bunch of places I’d never gotten around to trying, plus I’d be spending time with people that were also into hyper-overanalyzing pizza - it’s my personal heaven. And as luck would have it, most of the judging takes place in the evening and I am still employed.
First off, this judging gig is harder than I thought it was going to be. Attaching a number value to specific elements of pizza was difficult. Say half the crust is soggy but the other half is good - what do you do? Since I tend to be my own worst critic when it comes to my pizza making, I may have been a little harsh on some of the pizza in the tournament. The objective was to judge each slice for what it was, not what I hoped or wanted it to be. Regardless of whether or not I like a poofy crust, was this a good poofy crust? And second, after each match up in Round 1 of the Tournament, I got to spend the next 24 to 48 hours second guessing myself.
Here’s how the rounds were scored. Each judge had 25 points to award (or not award) a pizza. Crust, sauce and toppings were given up to 5 points each and then Overall Taste was allowed up to 10 points. I like having the Overall Taste category because sometimes a pizza is actually better than the sum of its parts.
After each round, I wrote up my thoughts on the evening within a day so that they would still be fresh in my mind. I thought I would share each of these write ups covering every pizza we ate in the tournament as the tournament unfolds over at All Over Albany. I tried snapping a few pictures but the lighting wasn’t cooperating on the first night so I gave up. Photos of all the pizzas are at the All Over Albany site along with the final results from each round.
Mama Mia’s in Saratoga
Once seated in the restaurant, we ordered two pizzas (a large sausage and a large white pizza with broccoli) with a round of waters. The first pie to the table was the sausage pizza. I liked the crust. I was actually a little surprised how much I liked the crust. They didn’t use a screen (I’m morally opposed to pizza screens), it had little bit of char to it and good flavor. There wasn’t much sauce on the pizza. Which is fine. There’s a thin line between over saucing and under-saucing a pizza. A taste of the just the sauce lacked fresh tomato flavor but it didn’t detract from the overall pizza - one of those sum is larger than the parts things. The cheese on the pizza was OK, nothing noteworthy. The seasoning in the sausage wasn’t evenly mixed. Most of the slice I had seemed unseasoned, no real flavor to it. As I ate more of the slice, the seasoning became much more pronounced and better. I’m not sure where the sausage came from, but it looked almost like chipped meat as opposed to having been run through a grinder. The crust carried the slice and makes me think with a different topping, this could be one of the better pizzas in the area.
Crust:4, Sauce:2, Toppings:2, Overall Taste:6 for a total of 14 points.
There was a little bit of a mix up with the white broccoli pizza. The pizza maker forgot the broccoli. Our waitress asked if we wanted the pizza anyway or if we wanted to wait for one with broccoli. Seeing as this was to be compared with other pizzas that had broccoli, we waited. However, instead of making a new pizza that had broccoli, they steamed/and or nuked what tasted like frozen broccoli and spread it out on top of the original pizza. If you look at the picture at the All Over Albany site, that broccoli wasn’t cooked on the pizza. This crust was nothing like the sausage pie. Although it looked like some if it might have been. The slice I got was incredibly soggy. The bottom of the crust was very pale. There was none of the crispness and char that was on the sausage pie. There is no sauce, so the sauce ranking in this round is based on the seasoned oil and ricotta cheese. Both were fine. The seasoning in the oil looked a little clumped together but it was passable. The broccoli was completely unseasoned and with no time in the oven it tasted like thawed, frozen broccoli.
Crust:2, Sauce:2, Toppings:1, Overall Taste:4 for a total of 9 points.
5th and 50 in Scotia
As a fan of the Tournament of Pizza, I had heard of 5th and 50 when they won the whole tournament. I had wanted to go, maybe grab a pie on the way to my in-laws, but it never happened. We got there around 8:00 and put in the same order - large sausage and a white pizza with broccoli. One thing to note, customers can’t see the pizza ovens and I’m always a little distrustful of a pizza place that doesn’t showcase their pizza making. Sometimes in a full service restaurant that also serves pizza, the oven can be in the back. But think of your favorite pizza place. Can you openly see the pizza ovens? I bet you can.
We ate the Sausage pie first. It was disappointing. The crust was clearly baked on a screen. Maybe they slid it off and finished cooking it on the deck as it had some color. The crust from the middle of the slice to the triangle tip of the slice was completely soggy. There was no picking this slice up, I ate half the slice with my fingers. Here’s the weirdest thing about the crust: I don’t know if they were using a mechanical dough press or two pieces of dough, but the rim of the crust pulled off in the same way a cinnamon roll pulls apart. It didn’t look like one piece of dough. The tomato sauce was very watery and probably to blame for the condition of the crust. Nothing really notable about the cheese. The sausage was dispersed in large clumps and seasoned throughout, but whatever the seasoning was it wasn’t very good. In my mind, this was not a good offering from a past tournament champion and a shop that had a banner showcasing a Pizza Wars event victory.
Crust:2, Sauce:1, Toppings:2, Overall Taste:4 for a total of 9 points.
The crust on the sauce-less white broccoli pizza was much crisper. You could pick up the slice. Still cooked on a screen and still had that weird rim. There was no ricotta, just oil, cheese, broccoli and some seasonings. It was pretty greasy and I think the main seasoning was garlic powder, maybe granulated garlic. This broccoli also tasted like it was frozen, but it was minced up and distributed over the pizza.
Crust:2, Sauce:1, Toppings:2, Overall Taste:3 for a total of 8 points.
I’m a nerd, so bear with me. I flat out didn’t like the pizza we sampled at 5th and 50. So while Mama Mia’s stumbled a little bit against a former tournament champ, they still won the matchup 23 to 17 on my score card. However, the other judges didn’t agree with me and 5th and 50 advanced to the semi finals.
We don’t really discuss scores so I have no idea how anyone else scored the pizzas. Four score sheets were used. In looking at the points awarded to Mama Mia’s, I gave the sausage pie 14 out of its 64 points (22%) and the broccoli pie 9 out its 34 points (26%) - both about a quarter of the awarded points. Not the same at 5th and 50. At 5th and 50 I gave the sausage pie 9 of its 53 points (17%) and the broccoli pie 8 of its 55 points (15%). Not exactly scientific way to see if opinions line up, but interesting…to me anyway.
Round 1: Saratoga Wrap Up
I learned that this judging stuff isn’t that easy and my numbers may have been a little harsh. It was my first time evaluating pizza with a set number scale and I had to leave room for the possibility of better pizza. I left the night with the goal of being consistent throughout the tournament and that might make me a low scoring judge. I also learned how difficult consistency in a restaurant is to control. I don’t know what happened at Mama Mia’s, but I’m certain we didn’t get their best effort on the broccoli pie. Under a different set of circumstances (server, pizza maker, day), I bet Mama Mia's broccoli score would have been higher. And at 5th and 50, there looked to be three fairly young people working. Maybe their pizza is better with more experience in the kitchen. Looks like I’ll get to see if they can improve in the next round.