Tuesday, April 22, 2014

New Haven Pizza Hat Trick

There's something about pizza that brings out passion and there is nothing quite like a good pizza debate. So much so there is even some Pizza Philosophy. Sam Sifton's Pizza Cognition Theory that I first saw over at Slice states, "The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes (and somehow appreciates on something more than a childlike, mmmgoood, thanks-mom level), becomes, for him, pizza." I would argue this is true.

Back in the day, my family frequented a restaurant named The Brick Oven in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In thinking about this post, I believe that this restaurant's wood fired oven is where my fascination of cooking with fire began. Among a number of great Italian dinners, this restaurant produced the first slice of pizza I appreciated, and craved and loved. Alas, all good things must come to an end. The owners of The Brick Oven (Rachel and Carmine) wanted to own their space instead of rent so they sold the business and opened a more formal restaurant...in another town.

This past weekend, we loaded up the family truckster and headed to Connecticut to visit my mother. I had warned everyone that I wanted to go to New Haven for pizza. Normally, we just hit the Pepe's outpost in Fairfield and save ourselves an extra drive. At the outpost, we have had some pretty good pizza as well as some exceptional pizza. It was never bad, but it wasn't always great. After all, how bad can a white clam and bacon pizza be?

We drove down on Friday. While at a park giving the kids some time to stretch their legs, my mother and I talked about the old Brick Oven and decided to head over to their new place (Carmine's in Shelton, Connecticut) for dinner. It was great. We saw Rachel and Carmine and even after having not seen her for a few years, my mother was recognized immediately. I had a nice conversation with Carmine. He assured me I would be happy with owning a wood oven and offered to give me pointers once I had the oven. I plan on taking him up on it.

Here's the little pizza we got to go along with our meal.

While it isn't exactly how I remember it, the pizza was still damn good. Plus eating a slice of it was trip down memory lane. If I had any doubts in the Pizza Cognition Theory, this meal erased them. So while this unintentional pizza stop was more than I dreamed it could ever be, I had my heart set on eating some New Haven Apizza.

My plan was originally to drag everyone to Modern Apizza for lunch, visit a museum to kill time while we digested, and then go to the New Haven Frank Pepe's Apizza Napolitana to see how it compared to the Fairfield outpost. I didn't think I would be able to swing Sally's Apiza in there, maybe.

When my plan was disclosed to the kids, the immediately shot the museum down. I was actually looking forward to checking out the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, conveniently located about a mile from Modern Apizza. They had a what sounded like a pretty cool dinosaur egg exhibit. The girls were upset at having to postpone a visit to a park near my mother's place for a day, wanted nothing to do with a museum and wanted a different park. A quick google search located a Crossings-esque park a few miles in a different direction. Dun. Off we went.

First stop, Modern Apizza. The route the GPS wanted us to take involved a closed road. After a little "Recalculating, Recalculating" we were there.

We got there at noon and found a space in their relatively small lot. The restaurant opens at 11 and we were not the first ones there, but we didn't have to wait either. There was a line when we left around 1:00. We ordered three small pizzas - a clams casino, a half olive/half bacon (kids choice), and a veggie bomb hold the olives and cheese (my mom is vegan, it must skip a generation). With the order in, I brought the kids over to look at the oven and pizza making process. The beauty of places like this is that I am clearly not the first person to take out a camera a snap some pictures. Pizza nerds abound in New Haven. The pizza making crew can get a lot of pizza in that oven and they were impressive to watch. Not a lot of talking, just calm, steady pizza production.

We got our pizzas pretty quickly. The clams casino

The half bacon/half olive

and then the battery on the camera died so I don't have a picture of the veggie bomb. I should have pulled out my phone and taken a shot, but I was really more concerned with eating than photography. I would say these pizzas were very good and I would happily eat them regularly. But they were not amazing. The crust seemed a little soggy in the center of the pie so the great bit at the tip of a slice wasn't there. So, very tasty pizza at Modern, but nothing that is going to haunt my dreams. Hell, it couldn't have been bad, all that was left was one small slice of the veggie bomb.

 After a short ride around the Yale campus, we headed over to Hannah's Dream Playground. The playground part was a lot like the Crossings, but there were also tennis courts (one was empty so we had a good softball catch in there), basketball courts, baseball fields with some games, and a nice bike path along Long Island Sound. I had jammed the kids bikes into the back of the family truckster so they had a nice ride (they just learned how to ride a little over a week ago). It was fun and by 4:00, I was ready to head over to Pepe's so we piled in and headed back downtown where I lucked into a spot on Wooster between Pepe's and Sally's.

Now, back in the late 80s, my brother lived on Wooster Street between Pepe's and Sally's. I had always preferred Pepe's and I would often call my brother, he'd call in a pizza order (that'll be about 90 minutes, kid), about half an hour later I'd drive up, we'd hang out a bit, then we'd go get the pizza. More often than not we were there before the pizza was ready. We'd watch it go into the box get sliced in the most bizarre pattern you've ever seen a pizza get sliced, and then head back to my brother's place to eat it. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to pick out the building, but once I was standing on the street, I knew which window was his. Here's the view from the entrance of the building looking towards Pepe's. Pepe's is that white sign just past the arch.

Here's the view looking back up the street directly into the blinding sun. That little gap in the cars by the light post is basically the entrance to Sally's. Location, location, location.

Arriving at Pepe's a little after 4:00, there was a short wait. Less than 10 minutes. If we were a party of two, it would have been less. When we left the wait would have been significantly longer. Once seated we ordered three more small pizzas - a white clam and bacon, a cheese with bacon (no black olives at Pepe's) and a half broccoli/onion - half cheese. Then I went off to look at the oven and pizza making. Just like at Modern, the pizza making is a calm, smooth, quiet process that steadily and quickly turns out a lot of pizza.


Here's what we got. White clam and bacon


Half broccoli/onion, half cheese

Again, these pizzas were pretty damn tasty. They were also noticeably different than Modern - texture, sauce, flavor of the crust - really different, which was a little surprising to me since it is such micro-regional style of pizza. As with Modern, these were very enjoyable but not mind blowingly great pizzas. Once again, we left a solitary slice and had it wrapped to go. While we were waiting for the check, I just had to get to Sally's. I mean, we were two blocks away. I had to get the hat trick. My wife came up with an amazing idea that perfectly humored my insanity. She'd wait and pay the bill while I went and ordered a Sally's pizza to-go. We'd meet up in the small park between Sally's and Pepe's. So the kids got the second park of the day and I set off for our 7th pizza of the day (8th in 24 hours).

I got lucky, because Sally's didn't open until 5:00, so the doors had only been open for about 30 minutes when I walked in the door. If you want to go, check the hours and bring cash. No credit cards.

Sally's is not as large or clean as I remember it being.There wasn't a line, but most of the tables were already filled. A few were still open. What really struck me was heat. When you walk into Sally's there are booths on both sides and an aisle up the middle. As you get closer to the back of the shop, the aisle makes a little jog and the shop gets narrower. At this exact spot, the air temperature goes up 50 degrees. It's like a weather front. There are a lot of people working there that were probably friends but seemed like family and they are joking with each other having a good time and churning out their pizzas. To be fair, the three guys mostly responsible for the actual pizza preparation were more serious than everyone else. And the guy loading the oven was wearing a winter hat. Plus everyone behind the counter has shuffle to their step. My guess is that a full out walk will will land you on your ass after you slipped on flour. Completely different than the other two shops. Pepe's and Modern were choreographed. Sally's was organized chaos. The very friendly staff made me think of a Pirate Ship Kitchen that Anthony Bourdain described in Kitchen Confidential. I wanted to hang out with these people. The hangover would be intense, but I bet the ride would be worth it. Here, take a look at the kitchen.


No shit, that guy in the last picture is wearing a winter hat. It is Death Valley in the summer hot where he is standing. In case you are a pizza nerd and was wondering, those sacks of flour are All Trumps (not that I was looking for any secrets or anything). I asked for a small cheese pizza and was told that it would be 25 minutes. Perfect. I watched a little bit, and then met up with everyone in the park. After about 10 minutes I went back and waited and watched some more. They add some oil and water to the top of the pies to keep the cheese from burning. You can see the steam coming off as soon as the pie gets in the oven.

I got my pizza and headed off to the park like a kid that just got a present and could wait to open it. Here's what we had

It was also good, but not great. Out of the 7 pies we had that day, it was my least favorite. But the pie has a ton of potential. If/when I return, it will not be for a plan cheese pie. I bet a different set of toppings would have been better. Here, we intentionally left one slice to be compared cold with all of the other single slices we collected in our journey.

So what did this pizza quest teach me? I wholeheartedly believe each of these three shops could produce a pizza so delicious it will make you do a double take. Unfortunately, this past Saturday none of them did. I also believe that the Pepe's outpost in Fairfield makes a pizza that is as good, if not better, than the original location in New Haven, which is surprising because I have only heard that the opposite is true. I also learned that I really want to be able to make pizza like Carmine. He taught his son, maybe he'd be willing to teach me too.

Sunday morning, we tried a slice from each pizzeria cold. Without knowing which slice came from which pizzeria, I picked Carmine's as my favorite leftover slice. The Pizza Cognition Theory strikes again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Battle Royalle: What's playing in our house

Last week was pho and high school musicals. This week, it is the four* crappy television shows I sit through regularly. Yes, this is grumpy parent rant and it is also a subject that I shouldn't have an informed opinion on.

Way back in the 70s, if it was on TV, you could watch it. There was no "I love this episode so I am going to watch only this episode again and again and complain if we have to stop in the middle of a show I have seen 50 times" like there is today with cable TV and DVRs. Left to there own devices, my kids would watch exactly 4 shows - with special emphasis on a few episodes of each show, all of them on Disney. Here they are in order from ugh, not again to tolerable. If you have to watch these shows repeatedly, I feel your pain.

Jessie: I hate the premise of the show and it doesn't help that the repeated "Hey, Jessie oohho ohh" of the theme song will rattle in your head for days. Super rich jet-setting New Yorkers adopt a bunch of kids and basically leave them in New York to be raised by a nanny and a sarcastic butler. Hijinks ensue. Sound a little like The Nanny? This was created by one of The Nanny's producers.

Shake It Up: Two best friends in high school are also on a local dance show. One is dumb, the other is smart. Hijinks ensue. It's more tolerable than Jessie, but not much. Plus, one of the leads in the show goes by one name like Cher or Madonna. Your age shouldn't end in "teen" if you are going to go by one name.

Austin and Ally: Down in beautifully sunny Miami, a male teen singing sensation, his shy female best friend/song writer, and two other friends go to school, write songs and perform. Hijinks ensue. For the most part, I find the dancing and music on this show awful. The two sidekick friends make it watchable. The female sidekick gets fired from a job in most episodes and the male sidekick friend is so over the top goofy that he can be funny. He occasionally gets into smack-off type insult fights with another character and they can also be amusing. Under no circumstances take this as a recommendation to watch the show. It is still a sit through only if you must kids show.

Dog With A Blog: Maybe it's because I have a blog too, maybe because the parents aren't morons, or maybe it's because this is essentially ALF with a talking dog instead of an alien puppet. The father looks familiar. I think he's been in commercials. The mother is Beth Littleford who used to be a reporter on The Daily Show. Anyhow, out of the four shows that seem to run on a continuous loop when the kids watch TV, this is the best one. It's pretty close to a traditional network sit-com and you don't feel yourself getting dumber like you do when Jessie is showing.

*There used to be a 5th show, Good Luck Charlie but that seems to have fallen out of favor. The series ended and I think that killed it for the kids. It was a fairly standard sit-com that would fall on the higher end of this tolerable scale.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Battle Royale: Soup and Stage Edition

My first visit to a pizzeria is almost always filled with the hope that I have found the pizza I grew up eating. No matter how often I am disappointed, there is always hope. The comparison of the pizza in front of me to the long gone pizza from The Brick Oven in Bridgeport, Connecticut probably happens more often than it should. Over the past few days, two pairs of things are readily comparable. The first was by design, the second just kind of happened.

While I really like Pho, I am certainly not an expert. I have had it from exactly 3 Capital District restaurants, mostly from one place because it is the most convenient for me and I would argue that a weekly bowl of pho last winter kept me healthy while everyone else in the house sniffled and coughed. I have no preconceived notion of how pho should taste. I don't know the traditions of how it should be served or what a great price on a bowl is. To me, it is just a bowl of very enjoyable noodle soup. So this compare/contrast is strictly based on personal taste.

On Thursday, I was near Kim’s on Madison Ave. I had read about Kim’s in a Times Union review, All Over Albany and another write up at Chopsticks Optional.  The restaurant is in certainly nice enough, nothing fancy. There was one other table of 6 having lunch when I arrived. Out of several options of pho, I went with the brisket, eye round and beef meatball combination.

It was good. I thought the broth was a little thin. From memory, this bowl of pho seemed similar to the bowl I had at Saigon Spring in Clifton Park when the restaurant opened (my one and only visit – don’t get to Clifton Park often).  In my mind, I though I liked my usual bowl of pho better. But I hadn’t had a bowl of my usual pho in awhile…which brings us to Friday’s Lunch at Pho Yum.

Last year, I ate enough bowls of pho at Pho Yum to be recognized when I visit and I am expected to get a bowl of pho with beef brisket and a glass of water. When I arrived on Friday, the restaurant was full. I counted 17 people in the small shop. Luckily, I snagged a seat at a table that had just been vacated. And you’ve got to give Linh (the owner and keeper of the front of the house) credit, I haven’t been there in months and she still recognized me and knew my order. To compare apples to apples, I switched up my usual brisket order to the Pho Yum - any three meats - and got the same brisket, eye round beef meatball combo I had on Thursday. The base of the dish is the broth, and Pho Yum’s broth had more flavor and more gelatin/body to it. It also had more fat. Not sure that’s a bad thing though. Here’s how I’d score the fight:
Broth: Pho Yum’s was better.
Noodles: Pho Yum’s had better texture.
Eye Round: Draw – the eye round was pretty much the same.
Brisket: I liked Pho Yum’s. It had some fatty, crunchy pieces. If you’re into that, Pho Yum’s wins, if not, you’ll like the brisket at Kim’s better.
Meatballs: These aren’t Italian style meatballs. They’re light, kind of spongy meatballs that are pretty damn tasty. The meatballs at Kim’s were better.
Sides: Draw. They are pretty much exactly the same. I don’t add the siracha or hoisin to the soup. I like both sauces, just not in my soup. The jalapeno at packed more punch, but that is going to be pepper to pepper anywhere.
Cost: Both portions were enough, but the portion at Kim’s is noticeably bigger and slightly cheaper. This pho at Kim’s was $8.95 and it was $10 at Pho Yum (before tax and tip).

In the end, I would like to try many things on the menu at Kim’s, but when I’m looking for a bowl of pho, I’ll spend the extra buck at Pho Yum.

This weekend turned out to be a weekend of musical theater. High School musical theater. On Saturday night we saw Footloose. Sunday afternoon, we caught the afternoon matinee of Oklahoma! Both plays were pretty well done. Both plays had some pretty good laughs. The crowds at both plays gave the cast standing ovations. But let’s score the fight:

Orchestra: the musicians at Oklahoma! were better.
Vocals: the singers at Oklahoma! were better. The kid that played Curly could really sing well.
Set: the set at Oklahoma! was nicer.
Cost: Draw – same price. At face value, for less than a single ticket to see The Lion King at Proctors, a family of 4 can go see a high school show and buy baked goods during the intermission. Sure, there’s some drop in production quality, but in terms of enjoyment I don’t think that drop is a factor of 4. For both plays, two kids and two adult tickets were $44. For the four of us to see the Lion King, it was well over $200. Given the choice, I think I’d rather go see the high school play. In my book, "Let's Hear it for the Boy" trumps "Hakuna Matata."

In the end, I wished the school that did Oklahoma! put on Footloose. After all, no matter what you do to it, the play Oklahoma! is still Oklahoma! and I’d be ok with never seeing it again. Even though the song “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” has been rolling around in my head. It’s a change from the barrage of One Direction songs my daughters subject me to... but not all change is good.