Sunday, November 27, 2022

Pizza Memories

After Thanksgiving, I brought my mother back to Connecticut. After I pulled out and started the return trip home I had an idea. The road I take goes pretty close to a restaurant in Stratford. When I was a kid, the people running this place made the pizza that is my personal Pizza Cognition Theory pizza and are really the inspiration to the wood fired oven in the back yard. The obsession started there. The current restaurant is fancier than the original location. Pizzas are only to go which would be fine tonight.

I pulled over, looked up the number on the phone and ordered two pizzas. A cheese and one with bacon. My plan was to pick up the pizzas, then keep driving and stop in a VFW parking lot, eat and then continue on my way home. I got there and paid as the pizzas were coming out of the oven. The tops looked good and had that hypnotic cheese boil going on.

Off I went, basically adding no extra travel time to the trip. Perfect.

Well, the lights were all off at the VFW so I drove right past it in the dark. No worries, there was a gas station a little ways up. I'll eat in the lot there, and then run in for a drink.

The pizzas were so disappointing. Like, crushingly disappointing.

I've had the pizza in the back and considered it kind of a hollow shell of it's past. It was never bad pizza and there were always a few bites that brought back memories of pizzas from long ago. Not this time. The crust had nothing in common with the historic pie. It was under salted and under fermented. The sauce was flat. The flourish of was oregano missing and even the cheese melt was different. And the worst part, was that the bake was completely unbalanced. The top was done but the undercarriage of the crust was blond and missing any browning or char the old pizzas used to have.

I wonder if the new oven isn't as good. I'm tempted to try a pizza from the original location. The photos don't look promising, but you never know. It is a Brazilian-Italian place now. Interesting combo. But I think I'm done trying to relive my pizza memories here. If I return, it will be for something else on the menu....but probably still a pizza to go. There's always a little bit of hope left.

Also, while I'm whining here:

A Margherita pizza is a Margherita pizza. There is no such thing as a Margherita pizza with or without something. Been seeing things like a Margherita pizza with pepperoni or a Margherita pizza without basil. These are no longer Margherita pizzas.

Just like pouring a beer in a wine glass doesn't make it wine, roasting any cut of beef doesn't make that roast Prime Rib.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022


I don't get the upside of putting a sign for a politician in your yard. Is it supposed to change someone's mind as they walk or drive by? Is it just for name recognition? Why?

I've only had a political sign in the yard once. The few times I've been asked to put a sign up, I just say I live at the end of a dead end street. No one but me will see the sign. But the time I put a sign up, one of my neighbors was running, it was his sign, one house over had the opponent's sign and he wanted one of his near the opponent's sign. I avoided the awkwardness and said sure.

I voted for the opponent.

That was some time ago. Years before Trump's Republican party. These days I would have dealt with the awkwardness and said something like, "I suspect it will be a full generation before I even consider voting for you or any other Republican." And based on some political conversations in the time since, I don't think he'd ask again, to spare himself the awkward conversation.

On the Saturday before election day, a different house put up some signs. I already knew they probably leaned right. But there's a level of leaning right and then there's thinking that election conspiracy, anti-LGBTQ, anti women's health Lee Zeldin is a good choice level of leaning right.

I was left with questions.

Why even bother, there isn't much traffic past this driveway and the election is in 3 days?


You know voting for him is a vote against your daughter having decent healthcare in the future, right?

You've got signs for Zeldin and Velella, but skipped Liz Joy. She's too bat shit crazy for you but the other pair are OK? 

The "Don't say gay" bill would lead to a lot of really, really bad, cruel things. You're good with that?

I was disappointed in my neighbors. Maybe I'm over reacting. Sure doesn't feel that way though. On the positive side, Zeldin and Velella both lost. No idea if the signs had any impact on the neighborhood vote, but they didn't work overall.

I get not being thrilled with Hochul. I'm not. The campaign donation followed by a big contract is sketchy at best. The football stadium is stupid. I guess that's her expensive bridge. Hopefully she doesn't name it after her father. Her election bid was one October screw up away from a loss. I saw something on elections recently that made a lot sense. Basically it said elections are like public transportation. You pick the candidate that is going to get you the closest to where you want to go. I don't want to go anywhere with Lee Zeldin.

Saw this from a Canadian election observer. It's got to be tough to watch. It ain't exactly fun being a part of the mess either.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Road Trip to Queens

Not quite a month ago, I had to go on an overnight for work. I'm still leery of being out a lot. Ordering take out and not dining in, masks and all that. So obviously when faced with an overnight trip to Queens, I pulled up map and tried to correlate places I could stay and pizza shops I wanted to try.

The list of pizza places I'm curious about in Queens isn't huge. I'm sure there is more worthwhile pizza than the list. But in no particular order, the places I'd like to try are:

Lucia Pizza, Flushing

Amore Pizza, Flushing

Philomena's, Sunnyside

Louie's Pizza, Elmherst

Brother's Pizza, Flushing

Rizzo's Fine Pizza, Astoria

Margherita, Jamaica

Rosario's, Astoria

Bellucci's Pizzeria, Astoria

There's already another story behind the Bellucci's that I posted about a year ago. The original Bellucci's was opening at the end of Untitled Pizza Movie. But there was a falling out and Andrew Bellucci left and has since reopened another pizza place a few blocks away from the first. Anyhow, the shop currently being run by Andrew Bellucci wasn't open that night and this list of pizza places is pretty spread out. I decided to pick the one I wanted to try the most and get a hotel fairly close with a parking option.

I found a hotel with a parking spot about a mile away from Philomena's. It looked like it would work well. A nice walk there and back plus I was pretty close to where I had to be in the morning. Checked into the hotel, hung out for a bit in the room and set off on my straight shot walk up Queen's Boulevard to Philomena's. The weather was nice and the walk was good. It was nice to be out of the car.

When I got there, I came close to ordering one of everything of the slice offerings and a root beer. While they were reheating, I asked the guy making pizzas if he was Dave. He said he was. I let him know Scott from Boston says, "Hi," Scott is a pizza shop owner in the Boston area and a pizza consultant and incredibly knowledgeable about pizza on the forum and by all accounts incredibly nice. So we briefly talked and then my slices were ready so I headed to a bench outside the shop to eat.

Everything was good. This is pizza made by someone who cares. I think the 2 squares probably could have used a little more top heat during the reheat, but the place is solid. I wouldn't call it destination pizza. If you're nearby, definitely go. I don't think I would be heading out to make a special trip for Philomena's.

With nothing really on the agenda for the rest of the night. I people watched for a little bit to let the 4 slices settle and went in to try some other offerings. I considered ordering a square, but decided that was just too much pizza and picked a small sausage and broccoli rabe pizza to go and was told it would be about 20 minutes. No worries, plenty of time to kill.

A few doors away from Philomena's is a White Castle. I have had microwaved White Castle Sliders but never had the real deal. 

So I walked over there and ordered a slider. It felt like I was the first person in history to have ever ordered a single slider. I had already eaten 4 slices and had just basically ordered 4 more but it still felt weird. 

The White Castle slider tasted like a cross between meatloaf and sloppy Joe. I ate about half of it. I think this might be a thing you had to have growing up to love. It's not for me. Or maybe I ordered wrong. Anyhow, I headed back to Philomena's for my pizza. Once there, I was waiting for my pizza and Dave called me back to where he was working to talk pizza a little more. He told me about his dough and the changes he makes. Right now he is using a poolish and the dough that day was 4 days old. You can definitely taste the poolish. There is kind of a mild, fermented, not quite sourdough flavor in the background of the dough. It was fun talking dough and about the places Dave worked before going out on his own (he started with wood fired pizza).

When my pizza was done, Dave's assistant let him know that he had made the wrong pizza. There is the broccoli rabe and sausage combination, but there is also a vegan combination with a chickpea base and broccoli rabe with garlic. He had made the vegan one. I said it wasn't a problem but he wasn't having that, so he made the sausage/rabe pizza I had ordered and gave me both.

Chickpea with broccoli rabe and garlic

Sausage with broccoli rabe

I went outside and wanted to try the pizzas while they were still hot. They were both good. My only complaint would be that the rough chop on the broccoli rabe was a little too rough and the pieces were uncomfortably lard to eat. The chick pea topping was delicious. Truth be told, the vegan combination was better than the sausage combination. The chickpeas had a coarse grind to them and weren't smooth like a hummus. They were well seasoned and combined with the garlic and broccoli rabe it was my favorite of everything I had tried at Philomena's and before I fell asleep, all the pizza was gone and I didn't really eat the next day.

So Philomena's is good pizza and worth visiting if you are nearby. I still think about that chickpea topping and how I could copy it. But I wouldn't give Philomena's a destination, drive a few hours just to get it, kind of a rating. In fairness, that is an incredibly short list and two of the places making up probably half of the list that comes to mind would also require a time machine.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Winter Pizza Challenge and a confession

The winter pizza challenge was to revisit one of your Signature pizzas. I had made what I call the Fancy Pants Mushroom pizza back in November of 2019. The pizza has a base of creme fraiche (fancy pants sour cream), mushrooms sauteed in olive oil with garlic and a splash of wine. Usually some oregano in there. I've been prepping some topping in the oven during the preheat (a sheet pan of bacon cooks surprisingly quickly and well in there) and I had seen something on roasting mushrooms figured I'd give it a try.

Monday was President's Day so a day off from work. Temps were also in the 40s.  I lit the oven a little after 10. Fun fact - starting a fire in a wood oven with a weed burner is oddly satisfying. It's weird, a stick light feel soulless compared to a match, but the weed burner is fun. Don't need any newspaper.

Anyhow, for this go around of the Fancy Pants Mushroom, I roasted the mushrooms in the oven and added the seasoning and other ingredients later.

The dough was a little under fermented and I didn't like the cheese,

The line at Restaurant Depot was insane and I was only getting cheese so I stopped at Shop Rite for some other toppings and grabbed their house mozzarella. Good news, the cheese was on sale. Bad news, it grated funny, was bland, melted a weird shade of white and will not be purchased again. But I did also pick up some Seabrook Farms creamed spinach. I kind of wonder how that would do on a pizza.

the mushroom were ok, but there is more flavor to them when sauteed. The garlic gets a little softer too. Next time, I think I will try adding the garlic and a splash of wine to the sheet plan when the mushrooms come out of the oven. There should be enough heat left to incorporate them. I supposed I could just slide the pan I use in the oven too. In the end, I'm pretty sure I was the only one nit-picking the dough, cheese, and flavor of the mushrooms. Something, something, own worst critic...

I also tried a new go at the gluten free pizza. I used a blend of gluten free flours, water, yeast, salt and some olive oil. The mixture all combined kind of comes out like spackle. I think an offset spatula would help spread it in a Detroit style pan. So after about 24 hours in the fridge, the dough was spread in the pan, then there was a 4 hour room temp rise. I par baked the dough with just a little bit of cheese around the edges so stop the dough from shrinking. Cooled that off and then topped it just before a final bake. Went half cheese, half mushroom. It came out pretty good. I think this is the gluten free pizza path of the future. I've got 2, dedicated gluten free pans for this.

All in all, that was a good day. So the confession: I've never put pineapple on a pizza. I can't think of a time when I have liked cooked pineapple. Anyhow, when we were meeting the new neighbors, it turns out one of their little kids likes pineapple on pizza. I thought I'd try to make the best pineapple pizza she ever had. The plan was:

1. Take some fresh pineapple (I will not put canned pineapple on a pizza)

2. Glaze/caramelize it with a little brown sugar

3. Make a Hawaiian pizza (even though that topping combination was created in Canada by a Greek immigrant with no ties to Hawaii) with the pineapple and some good, real ham

4. Walk it across the street

5. Sip an adult beverage and think about what I had done

But none of this happened.The neighbors were out of town during the school break and we had the pineapple with dinner on Tuesday night. My pineapple-less streak received a stay. Not sure how long the stay will be. My wife noted that all it took to get me thinking about pineapple on pizza was a little kid making the request. A few adults have brought it up in the past and I kind of pushed it off.

What can I say? I've got a soft spot for little kids that like my pizza. It's not like I'm going to eat pineapple on pizza myself.

Unless it looks and smells really good. 

Then maybe. I doubt it. Probably not. But maybe.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Pierogi Day

Yesterday was pierogi day and I do love a good pierogi day. I've posted about pierogi making but I don't think I ever wrote about the origins of the day. Every year, Christmas Eve is at my wife's Aunt Carol's house. There is an absurd amount of food, a lot of fun and games including a holiday themed bingo game with bingo card that date back to the 90s. One of the main foods besides the shrimp and ham are a ton of pierogi.

Well, after I officially married into the family in 2000, being the food nut that I am, I asked for a pierogi making lesson. We picked a day and my wife and I went over to make that year's holiday pierogi. Well, it turns out that I'm pretty good at rolling them out and my wife is pretty good at filling them. The four us (Uncle Lou was there too) started at about 8 in the morning and were done before noon. Aunt Carol was stunned. Normally this was just the two of them cooking which means Aunt Carol doing just about everything and then Uncle Lou boils the pierogi. They used to start at like 7 in the morning and finish around dinner time, sore and cranky with their basement kitchen trashed, and barely on speaking terms.

So from there, we started coming over to make the annual Christmas pierogi. And then my brother in law and sister in law moved back home from North Carolina and the party grew. And then the kids started coming and the event grew even bigger. Aunt Carol has written records for the most pierogi out of one batch of dough and she keeps track of how many we make each year. The number fluctuates with how stuffed they get but also, the blocks of farmer's cheese used to come in all sizes, it's just a straight 3 pound block now. Many hands makes it go quick. They get stuffed almost as fast as the circles get cut, the next batch of dough is usually ready to go before it is needed, and two pots of water are boiling them as they get made. We usually start a little after 10 and are done making pierogi about 2 hours later.

Two years ago, my nephew took an interest in rolling out the dough and cutting the circles. Last year, for the first time in a long time, there was no pierogi making party. Carol and Lou made a batch and delivered them on Christmas eve to all the families that would have normally been at their house. This year, I brought a bench scraper and my nephew was even more into it. I think my job as official Dough Roller may be in jeopardy. Official Dough Roller Supervisor is probably a pretty good gig.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Pizza Sauce Evolution

The sauce I use for my wood oven pizza has been evolving slowly over the years. I specify wood oven, because when I make Detroit style that is thicker than the wood oven pizza. The pizza sauce has gone from almost always being Pastene Kitchen Ready ground peeled tomatoes to various Stanislaus once I was able to get inside a Restaurant Depot. Stanislaus only make those really big #10 cans of tomatoes. But in their product line, I went from 7-11 which are a crushed tomato, to Tomato Magic which is the same as 7-11 except the tomatoes are peeled, to Alta Cucina which are whole peeled tomatoes in a packing liquid. With the crushed tomatoes, I sometimes used them right out of the can and sometimes I combined out of the can with some run through a food mill. I had been running these whole tomatoes through a food mill and including the packing liquid which is something I just assumed pizza places would do. Through all this, the sauce is just tomato and some sea salt. I like to add oregano on top of the cheese. As the cheese greases off a little and starts to boil, that oregano cooks into and seasons the pizza.

I saw an interview with Angelo Womack, he worked at Roberta's when it was just starting out and is now a pizza consultant, and in the interview he mentioned that if you were using the packing liquid from the can of Alta Cucina's the sauce wasn't everything that it could be. So the last time I made pizza, I used only the whole tomatoes and I liked the sauce. But was it really that different?

I had forgotten about wanting to look into this a little further and remembered when opening the can. I was trying to be a little scientific but was making it up as I went. I tired breaking down the can into parts. I'm using grams but they are really just ballpark numbers since there is some tomato left in the can, in bowls, on the food mill, on the counter...there will be rounding errors.

I ran all the whole tomatoes through the food mill using the coarse plate.

Pulp left behind in the food mill: 244 grams

Packing liquid remaining in the can: 876 grams

Tomato sauce that came through the mill: 1614 grams

Totaled up that's 2735 grams. The can says 2.89 kg, or 2890 grams making 155 grams of gone AWOL. I tasted everything. The pulp left behind is awful. Really terrible. Don't eat that. The canning liquid is fine, nothing really special about it. That is until you taste the milled tomatoes, then the canning liquid is definitely lacking. The milled tomatoes are bright and fresh tasting with a tartness on the finish that just isn't in the canning liquid.

I made a blend of the milled tomatoes and the canning liquid to estimate what I'd have if I had just run the whole can through the food mill. I'm not sure this is the right way to estimate the proportions. If I had just pulsed a stick blender in the can, I'd have the pulp in there too. In any case, I made a blend of milled and liquid. There was no way around it, the canning liquid dulled the flavor of the sauce. I added some salt. It helped but not enough. I brought in my wife as a second taster. She agreed. The milled tomatoes by themselves were better. I'd argue that using just the milled tomatoes was like using a different ingredient. 

Since I'm already a little nuts with the pizza, moving forward I plan to only use the milled tomatoes. That amount will get me through a typical wood oven bake with a little left over. Maybe I'll combine the leftover with the canning liquid to make a pasta sauce later in the week. For how often I fire up the oven and the cost of a can of Alta Cucina was under $5 the last time I bought a case, it isn't a big deal or really wasteful.

Where the experiment falls short: I didn't try comparing the two sauces on a pizza. Cooking could change it. I was just so surprised at how different the two sauces were and how much more I liked the milled tomatoes only, I used that sauce in the bake. Since it is just me making pizzas in a relatively small wood oven, side to side comparisons in the past haven't been true side by sides. The two pizzas would probably come out over 10 minutes apart, the oven conditions are constantly changing and it is generally difficult to create an "all other things being equal" kind of condition by myself in the backyard. This could also be less apparent in a more seasoned sauce. Also, if you are going for a sauce with a specific flavor profile, this might not help. I'm guessing most pizza shops either aren't milling the tomatoes (though some definitely do) and are using a combination of canned tomatoes. Maybe like 2 cans of crushed and 1 can of something thinner. When I took that class years ago at DeFazio's, they were using 2 different Stanislaus products with some water in a batch of sauce. There's more than just salt in their sauce too.

Overall, a very interesting taste test. Glad I remembered. It changed the way I will be making sauce moving forward. But the sauce is always evolving. The next change probably isn't too far off. 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

El Presidente

I came really close to not saying anything about this, but pizza...

Dave Portnoy from Barstool Sports was in the area this week doing his pizza reviews at a handful of local places.

As someone not into sports, all I know about Barstool is the bad stuff that looks to be pretty well documented...sexism, anti LGBTQ, harassment. This is a quote from a 2017 Sports Illustrated article by Richard Deitsch and Chris Chavez on ESPN cancelling its partnership with Barstool after 1 episode:

At a certain point over the last week, Skipper became more aware of the historical content of Barstool Sports away from the popular Pardon My Take podcast, and specifically, the ugly comments made by Barstool founder and president Dave Portnoy in 2014 about ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown host Sam Ponder.

I will mention that during the pandemic, Barstool did good work helping out restaurants, but let's just say Dave Portnoy is not in the running to replace Alex Trebek either.

A good way to gauge if a reviewer's tastes are in line with your own is to compare their notes to yours on a visit to the same place. The first Barstool pizza review I saw was for Mama's Too! in New York City. It was the 300th review and Portnoy did it wearing a "Jew Crew" t-shirt. He was unimpressed and gave it a score of 6.8. This review went up in February of 2018. Mama's Too! was one of the places I visited on a pizza tour with some people from the pizza forum. The place stole the day. It was amazing.  It looks like Dave Portnoy and I do not have the same tastes in pizza. Turns out I wasn't the only one impressed by Mama's Too! because in November of 2018, Mama's Too! was given a star by Pete Wells in the New York Times.

From the Time's review:

It is as if Frank Tuttolomondo, the owner and pie architect of this informal but very serious pizzeria on the Upper West Side, has learned how to genetically modify pizza.

From the bits of the local reviews I watched, Portnoy burnt the hell out of his mouth on a slice early in this pizza tour so who knows if he could actually taste anything and each place I saw scored higher than Mama's Too! including one that is pretty close to my house. Trust me, if there was pizza as good as Mama's Too! close to my house, I'd be there regularly.

On top of all the problematic behavior, I don't think Portnoy's pizza reviews are that good either. His highest score locally (DeFazio's in Troy, not close to the house) would also be one of my higher scores locally, but overall, I think the Barstool pizza ratings are more a reflection of Portnoy's current mood as he hams it up for a camera than a real pizza ranking.