Tuesday, October 30, 2018

More pizza from 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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Apple PIcking 2018

For a long time, I’ve been an Indian Ladder guy. It’s a nice place. The apples are good. Good cider too. And you can wait in a sometimes long and slow-moving line to get some hot apple cider doughnuts. Being a dad now, I generously offer to wait in the doughnut line while the rest of the family wonders off into the petting zoo area. This generosity is really just a selfish ploy to get the hottest and freshest doughnut for myself, but no one in my immediate family reads this blog so my secret is safe. When you finish at the orchard, Indian Ladder is pretty close to Thatcher park and some impressive scenic autumn views. This experience is what I think of when I think “apple picking.”

But one year when the kids were pretty young (I’ll guess 2 years and 6 months, a big sash baby carrying thing was involved) we ventured out to Bowman Orchards. We drove in and parked. Since we were in an orchard, the stroller didn’t look like it was going to do well on grass so off we went carrying two kids. There was a tractor/wagon that gave you a ride to the other side of the orchard. We took it not realizing we would be what felt like a day’s hike from our car. When we eventually made it back to the car weary from carrying two kids, the bag of baby stuff one always needs to have at all times, and a bunch of apples around an orchard. We drove towards the exit only to sit in what felt like an endless traffic jam of cars waiting to get their apples weighed. There were cranky kids. Cranky parents. Everyone, myself included, needed a nap. It was miserable. I left vowing never to return. Lifetime ban.

Everyone knows what happens when the sit-com dad “puts his foot down.”

We went back to Bowman’s Orchard on Sunday. The main reason being that Bowman’s is the only orchard in the area that allows dogs. This late in the season, the orchard was busy but it was not nearly as crazy as our first visit. Another thing I noticed from walking around is that the place doesn’t seem as big when you aren’t carrying children and racing the toddler nap-time fatigue meltdown clock. It’s like going back to an epic place that seemed overwhelming as a kid but is just an unimpressive, regular place when you return as an adult. 

This time the problem for us was choice overload. Here’s the list of apples that were available on Sunday:
Golden Delicious
Granny Smith
Ida Red
Northern Spy
Radiant Runkle
Red Delicious
Ruby Frost
Snow Sweet

That’s a lot of apples. The orchard boasts over 46 varieties. Why say over 46? Just say the number. It’s definitely less than 50. If it was 50 or more they wouldn’t be talking about 46. And 48 or 49 would probably be “Almost 50 varieties of apples.” That leaves 47. I’m guessing they have 47 varieties of apples. Only the Bowman’s know for sure. Anyhow, with so many varieties, you can’t help but wonder, “Will Radiant Runkle be the best apple I’ve ever had in my life?”

It isn’t. Neither is Pinova. None of the unfamiliar names were anything special. Should we return next year, we’ll probably just go right to the Cortlands, Empires and Macouns for the apple picking portion of the visit. Here’s a tip should you go to Bowman’s. You can bring your own plastic bags. They’ll sell you some but any kind of grocery bag will do. The apples are sold by weight. If you bring a pen and some scrap paper, you can label each bag of apples. That way, your Mutsu apples don’t get confused with Shizuka apples…because that would be tragic. The only problem with our multiple labeled bag method is that it is easy to pick a shit-ton of apples without realizing you picked a shit-ton of apples. Each bag isn’t that heavy. A few bags get dropped off at the car as you walk by heading towards another section of apples. At Indian Ladder, you buy a bag. When the bag is full, you’re done. Bowman is more open ended and I had some sticker shock on the way out. I doubt we will run out of applesauce at Thanksgiving this year.

Since we made this trip later in the afternoon on a crisp day towards the end of the apple season, the place wasn’t packed so there was no traffic jam as we left. After we went through the orchard checkout, we headed over to the barns for some cider and cider doughnuts. Here is where Bowman’s will always lose points in my opinion. The doughnuts aren’t fresh from the fryer. They were probably made that day since there is a high volume of people moving through the orchard. The doughnuts are sold cold in a soulless, plastic clamshell container.

I suppose hot doughnuts would steam and get nasty in the plastic container. From the line, I could see several trays of doughnuts in the kitchen area waiting to be packaged. These were bigger than the doughnuts at Indian Ladder, but in this case quantity does not equal quality and fresh, hot doughnuts were noticeably missed from the apple picking experience this year.

So Bowman Orchards, they’ve got a lot of varieties of apples for you to pick (I’m guessing 47), they let you bring your dog, and they do have stuff for kids to do after apple picking. Looked like there was a corn maze in back too. But the cider doughnut game is weak. Really weak. If the orchard is busy, you can expect to sit in a little traffic on your way out of the orchard. Bowman’s is much nicer than my emotionally scarring memory of the place. I have officially lifted my Bowman Orchard lifetime time ban (which, in reality, was only enforced until my wife wanted to go back).

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Pizza on the road

This summer, we spent a few days down in Wildwood, New Jersey. It was a fun trip. Since we were basically driving right past PizzaTown USA, we stopped on the way down for some slices, deep fried calzones and zeppoles. And while we were in Wildwood, there are two well know boarwalk style pizza places that I had to try: Macks and Sam's.

This trip happened way back in August and I didn't post about it because I found both places very disappointing. I felt that Mack's was nothing special. I had to go twice to because I had such high expectations and the first visit was just so-so. The second visit was a little better but nothing I would go out of my way to get. Sam's, well Sam's was just bad. I tried slices and a whole pie from Sam's. They were pretty much the same. And the crust was an exercise in way too much bench flour. Look at this. I wouldn't serve that to anyone, let alone take money for it. As I stood at the counter watching, this was how all the pizza looked. This is the same photo, just cropped to zoom in to show the uncooked flour.

Needless to say I was discouraged by the mediocrity of two well known pizza places and kind of fell back into the habit only eating my own pizza, which doesn't really expand one's horizon. A series of work trips came up and I found myself alone driving around Batavia, NY. While driving I began to notice the pizza places. It seemed like there were more than the local population could support. I think my first count was 8, not counting Pizza Hut and Dominos.

The idea of an All Batavia Pizza Tour felt good. Something to do during the off hours while alone in a town I'll probably be visiting monthly for a while. A mission. Eat Batavia's pizza. I had already had one place down when the idea came to me. Ken's Charcoal Pit serves wood fired pizza Thursday through Saturday and as luck would have it, I was there on a Thursday evening.

Ken's is an odd place. I had been there once on a Tuesday and tried some of their barbecue.It was OK. I also had a salad and was introduced to a new salad dressing. Riviera dressing. It was kind of like taking French dressing, mixing with an Italian dressing and serving it slightly warmed. Unique. Which is why I was surprised when I returned on a Thursday to try the pizza and the salad bar was open, all the dressings were packets of Ken's. I've never seen that at a salad bar outside of a grocery store. That's weird, right? There was also a special being offered that included a "lightly flowered" dough.

I asked my server what she recommended because a few of the topping combinations sounded good. She recommended the Buffalo chicken with pepperoni added. I was a little reluctant because Buffalo sauce makes everything taste like Buffalo sauce which isn't necessarily a bad thing but I did want to taste the crust. Figuring I could start with the rim of the pizza and go from there, I went with her recommendation, and truth be told it is a topping combination I have stolen and made at home.

The pizza was alright. Crust was decent. I think you get a better flavor throwing a little Gorgonzola on pre-bake than using a squirt bottle of blue cheese dress post-bake, but you can't fault them for my personal preferences. It was a decent pizza. If it was local, we might go on the occasional Friday night.

On the next trip, I thought I'd make a quick stop in town for some slices for lunch and then head out to my work site. After a quick review of locations that wouldn't be out of the way and were open, I headed to Ficarella's Pizza. Website says it has been in business for 31 years.

When I walked in, two women were talking behind the counter. I was the only customer there. I saw the spinning enclosed rack of slice pizzas. The pizza did not look good. Had there been a polite way to turn around and leave, I probably would have done it. I briefly considered doing it impolitely but figured...SCIENCE! I ordered a plan cheese and a pepperoni. I was asked if I wanted sweet or regular sauce on the pepperoni. I went with regular. Maybe I'm missing something with the sweet sauce. There was no reheat. The slices were taken out of their spinning glass case and slid into a bag, one on top of the other. 

I was charged $6 for these two slices. I ate about two thirds of the cheese slice and two bites of the pepperoni. They were bad. really bad. Had the pepperoni been cup and char I might have thought there were doing some kind of Buffalo style pizza (it's actually a thing - kind of bready, tons of cheese, pepperoni that cups and doesn't lay flat like these. I've had it once or twice and it isn't for me).

Well, this was one of those pizza experiences that makes me mad for days. It was that bad. Several months ago, I was invited to tasting of local convenience store pizza (again, for SCIENCE!). I'd put Ficarella's on par with convenience store pizza. You can do better with a 12 cut from Price Chopper.

After Ficarella's, my pizza binge was put on hold. The stomach was willing but the mind couldn't handle the disappointment. I thought I would do better because my expectations were low, but seeing what passes as pizza can be depressing. It's like seeing a plate of bagels and cream cheese on the other side of the conference room only to get closer and realize the bagels are from Dunkin' Donuts. Disappointing. I ended up getting Pad Thai at a places near the hotel for dinner instead of trying more pizza that night.It wasn't anything special either, but I had no absurd emotional attachment to the dish.

Alas, my Batavia adventure will continue sometime later this month. I'm recharged and think I can knock two or three of these places off the the to-do list. Still to try in no particular order are

Jerry Arena's Pizzeria
Big Paulie's
Mark's Pizza
Batavia's Original
Main Street Pizza
and I think one other that I drove by but can find on a map right now.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Summer Ice Cream Tour

On Saturday the whole family piled into the mini van and set off for the Fussy Little Blog Tour de Soft Serve - Schenectady Edition.

I learned a lot about my feelings on soft serve. I used to always get a vanilla cone. And then I would eat it relatively quickly and not pay much attention to it. But if you really taste vanilla soft serve, it is nothing special. So after the first tour, I thought I liked a vanilla/chocolate twist better. Neither the chocolate or vanilla was great, but together their sum seemed to be larger than the parts. Now after participating in 3 of these soft serve tours, I think I'm leaning towards vanilla or chocolate soft serve isn't worth the time. Other soft serve flavors might be, but vanilla and choclate are just cold on a summer day. There isn't much special about them.

With these tours, I usually do a break down of how we scored everything and look for any comments  that might provide insight into how each one of us ranked the ice cream. But it is hot out and I'm going to be lazy because in the end, we all picked the same place as the best. And of the tour participants (I think there were 11 on tour), we were the only 4 to pick this place as our favorite of the day.

What we ended up doing was getting the same order at each place and sharing. The order was 1 kiddie sized chocolate/vanilla twist, 1 kiddie sized chocolate/vanilla twist with rainbow sprinkles, and 1 kiddie sized vanilla. The cost ranged from $6.90 to $7.50. In general, I thought they were all decent values because I end up buying soft serve at Guptil's (it is near some softball fields), and while there is never a line because it is very well staffed, ice cream isn't cheap there. It is not uncommon for me to be sitting there wishing we had all got our own half gallon at Stewart's.

Dairy Circus

Jumpin' Jacks


Curry Freeze


If I am not mindlessly eating soft serve and focusing on the flavor I don't notice the metallic aftertaste. Ever place seems to have it. At least to me. My kids thought I was weird and didn't notice it. But comparing soft serve to soft serve, we all liked Curry Freeze the best. And if I went to any of these places again, I wouldn't get the chocolate or vanilla soft serve.  Tune into Fussy Little Blog for the official results coming sometime this week. I don't remember which  place won, but I can tell you our family block vote did not pick the winner.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Another Pizza Oven Update: Some Progress and a Counter

Looking back, the last oven update was almost a year ago. There has actually been some progress and last week, I made it one of the oddly self-imposed benchmarks warranting another update. We last left you with a topping party – the structure had a roof.

Next up was the soffit. Using scrap pies of 2x4s and 2x8s to have so wood framed into the metal. This was a huge pain in the ass and another reason portions of the framing would have been easier. Or maybe if I knew what I was doing I could have planned a little better. Had I known what I was doing, I could have raised everything roof-framing related up a little bit and then just attached wood to the metal framing in large pieces that could have been easily installed. Instead, I had cut pieces to length, use a router to cut a groove that the flange of the steel could fit into and screw in lots of pieces. It took a little while. Curse words were involved and I only recall one tantrum.

Here's a closer view and I'll try to clarify what was done. The closer end of the wood has a routered line in it so sthat the flange of the closer steel stud can fit in and the 2x4 can be flush with the bottom. The far end of the 2x4 is cut to length so it is snug and screwed into the the back steel stud. I don't recommend this method of construction

I found some tongue and groove pine boards at 84 Lumber in Guilderland. The people there are really nice and I think their lumber is a little better than you find in the box stores. I stained a bunch of the wood with a cedar outdoor stain that was light enough to show the grain. I put on two or three coats. With the steel frame, there was nothing to nail the first board so I countersunk a few self tapping screws to the front steel framing. I cut the next piece to length and made sure it fit. Then I laid out the centers for three holes for the lights. The wholes were cut out with I bit I bought that fit the lights. That board went up (I used a borrowed compressor/nail gun and Joe came back to wire up the lights.

Once the lights were in, the rest of the soffit went fairly quickly. Boards were cut length, tapped into the groove of the previous board and nailed into position – nails go through the tongue/groove connection and into the wood I framed into the steel roofing system (if that makes any sense). Ran into a little problem when I got to the front wall because nothing about this project is square, level or plumb, but hoped some trim work would take care of it later. The shorter fascia sides went up very quickly. That was just cut, tap, and nail. I managed to cut a decent transition to go from the short side pieces back to full sized pieces at the back wall. All that is left there is one last piece to cover up the last inch. Nothing other than laziness is why that isn’t done yet. If you aren’t me, you probably wouldn’t have noticed that piece is missing. 

I wanted to over up the front before a bird thought that would be a good place to build a nest. The idea was to get a 2x6, use the router to hollow out where the steel framing would go and then put it up. It worked for the most part. To help hide the sins of the builder, I cheated a little. One end of the 2x6 is a little narrower than the other end. It kind of hides some of the not square, level or plumb. So that piece went on and I think it looks pretty good.

Next up was raising the counter in front of the oven. The goal was to make a flat ledge the was 1.25 inches below the oven floor. I used scrap pieces of 2x8 on the sides and a piece of scrap roof plywood in front. To over-engineer it and make it absurdly stronger than it needed to be, I drilled concrete screws into the existing ledge and left the out about an inch to act as a shear stud and connect the two concrete pours. I also put in some leftover wire mesh that I had from making the concrete ring around the oven brick. This was the last concrete pour of the project and it went the best.

The oven door is coming along. I made a template out of wood and a friend who is good with a torch is making the door out of steel in his free time. He's pretty busy and on the road a lot for work but the door is coming out great. I made to panels out of scrap luan board. The smaller one will fit into the oven archway. The larger one will rest flush against the outside of the arch. The two panels will be two inches and will be filled with two layers of the insulation board that is under the oven floor.

Here's what is made out of metal so far. All that is left is to make handles and weld those to the outer panel. Shouldn't be much longer.  I'm told when welding with the insullation already in place, it too over 45 minutes to cook down to where the door could be handled with gloves. Successful test of the insulation.

In the mean time, I have been stacking bricks as a door and messed around with a few residual heat dinners the next day. I have been dialing in making ribs, done a few loaves of leftover dough bread and this beast makes a mean baked potato.

Back in June, I contacted a Kitchen Counters Express in Latham to come take a look and give me their thoughts on the best way to put in a small counter.  After the initial visit, I went to their warehouse/workshop to pick out a piece of scrap that I liked (it’s not a big counter). I looked through all these pieces thinking that I wanted something light because the counter in in direct sun. I had taken temperatures with a IR gun of the concrete that would support the granite and it was in the 120-150 degree range. Kind of like pavement in the sun. I picked a light piece and drove off. I got about 2 miles away before having buyer’s remorse. If I went too light, I thought it would get lost in whatever finish I chose to cover the walls. So I turned around and went back. A very nice lady talked me down. Looked at a picture of the oven and recommended another piece. I went with that.

Unfortunately, my folder got misplaced and lost in the shuffle. I called back after not hearing anything for a bit and made an appointment to take more detailed measurements. The person taking the measurements was the same woman that helped me pick a color. Having seen it firsthand, she thought it would still be good. That was Wednesday. On Friday, the counter was installed.

This counter was the next milestone. I’ve got to tell you, it is hard to take a day that could be spent messing around with different doughs and making pizza to finish the oven. I’m already talking myself into finishing the top have of exterior work and taking on the base next year.

Here’s what’s next:

  1. Finish that little piece of wood in the back.
  2. Build a decorative arch around the opening of the oven.
  3. Make an outer protective door with scrap from the soffit.
  4. Put either stucco or a stone veneer on the top half of the oven. (next milestone)
  5. Make the bottom half look nicer than concrete block. (next, next milestone)
  6. Make pizza as often as possible.