Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TOP Round 1 - Mario's vs. Marino's

The All Over Albany Tournament Of Pizza moves on to the next battle. My pizza insanity has driven me to document each slice I eat as a judge in the Tournament. If you would like a chance at judging some pizza, ticketsare available for the finals. You’ll get the same pizza as the judges, some beer samples and a brewery tour. One thing I’ve learned on past pizza quests is that tasting things back-to-back or side-by-side can seriously impact your perception of what you are eating. If you are around on October the 11th, come join me at Schmaltz Brewing to eat pizza and crown this year’s Tournament champ.

As a little reminder, 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. After each round, I wrote up my thoughts on the evening within a day so that they would still be fresh in my mind. Here’s how I thought the second tournament match-up went.

Mario’s in Niskayuna
For consistency’s sake, I began with the sausage pizza. The crust has a little bit of browning and there were screen marks on the bottom of the slice. The crust was a little tough and dense, kind of bready. The sauce was decent but nothing special. The cheese was a little tough and rubbery. The kind of cheese that when you bite it, it all comes off the slice. The sausage was seasoned all the way through, but the flavor was just so-so. The pizza looked a lot better than it tasted.

Sausage Pie
Crust:3, Sauce:3, Toppings:3, Overall Taste:4  for a total of 13 points.

Moving onto Mario’s white broccoli pie. The first thing you notice looking at the pizza is how wet and runny the ricotta was, but it had an OK flavor. The crust was browned but looked oily - and it was. This crust was also cooked on a screen and a little bready. The rim was dusted with something. I took a taste of the dusting and that was a mistake; it tasted like a ton of granulated garlic. After the scores were in, another judge made a comment that was right on the money. His slice had an everything bagel taste with what he thought was some onion mixed in with the garlic. I didn’t catch any onion flavor on my slice, but a garlic bagel is a great description. The broccoli was cut into bite size pieces and tasted like frozen broccoli.

Broccoli Pie
Crust:2, Sauce:3, Toppings:2, Overall Taste:4 for a total of 11 points.

Marino’s in Schenectady
I had driven by a few times but never stopped at Marino’s. When you walk in, it has the feel of a nice family restaurant. Nicer than a hole in the wall with a very friendly feel to it. Sticking to the same order as last week, I began with a slice of the sausage pizza. The crust was nicely browned, no noticeable char on my slice (a few darker spots on the rim) and they don’t use pizza screens. I thought the sauce was nice and light. There was a good distribution of sausage clumps all over the pizza and it had the standard sweet Italian sausage flavor, but that flavor wasn’t very strong. On the way out, I asked if the made the sausage there and they do. The cheese had a nice flavor and a good amount of salt. All in all, I thought it was a good pizza.

Sausage Pie
Crust:4, Sauce:3, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:7 for a total of 18 points.

Next up was the white broccoli pizza. The crust was lightly browned with some delicious random bubbles on the rim and once again, no screen. I found nothing to complain about with the crust. There was a heavy garlic aroma coming off the pizza and small ricotta dots were spread out all across the pizza. The broccoli tasted like fresh, not frozen and cut into bite size pieces. A tiny bit of garlic got burned in the oven and I had one bite with the strong taste of burnt, bitter garlic. Other than that one bite, I thought this pizza was pretty much as good as a white broccoli pizza gets.

Broccoli Pie
Crust:5, Sauce:3, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:8 for a total of 20 points.

In my opinion, the pizza we sampled at Marino’s was better than Mario’s and the scores showed that with Marino’s having a sizable lead on my scorecard (38 to 24). Looking at the total scores from all the judges for Marino’s I gave the sausage pie 18 out of its 74 points (24%) and the broccoli pie 20 out its 84 points (24%). At Mario’s I gave the sausage pie 13 of its 49 points (27%) and the broccoli pie 11 of its 46 points (24%). In a completely unscientific way, it would appear that the judges and I are in near perfect agreement with this match-up.

Round 1: Schenectady Wrap Up
If you told me that I’d taste 4 pizzas and like a white broccoli pie the best, I’d think you were dreaming. So I’m surprised to see a white broccoli pie with the most points I awarded to a pizza after two match-ups of pizzerias that have already proven themselves in the tournament. But I wasn’t alone. One thing that was mentioned as we left Marino’s was that all of the judges ranked the Marino’s broccoli pie higher than their sausage pie. Several years ago, I went to Mario’s for dinner. They offer a pizza on a long cutting board. Going on what’s left of my memory, that pizza (while more of a Sicilian style) was better than their round pizza. As for Marino’s, I’m going to bring the family there for dinner sometime. Seemed like a nice, family friendly neighborhood joint. The world needs more of those.

Monday, September 29, 2014

TOP Round 1 - Momma Mia's vs. 5th and 50

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.

Sausage Pizza
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.

Broccoli Pizza
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.

Sausage Pizza
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.

Broccoli 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.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A new toy

I saw a post on the pizza forum that the Black Stone Oven was on sale for $300 and available at Lowes. We were in Lowes for a few other things so I gave the oven the once over while we were there. Two days later I went back and bought. After I put it all together, I was giggling with excitement because I had this in my garage.

I fought getting the stickers off of the shelves but opted against dealing with the one around the thermometer. I figured some use would get that off without scratching it up. Not that it was together, I set about making some modifications I had read about online. The easiest was putting some stainless steel washers under the bottom stone to make an air gap. The bottom can get hotter than the top. Important safety tip: do not use zinc plated washers. When zinc plating gets hot it can put off a toxic gas. Splurge the extra buck for stainless steel.

I also rewired the power cable to the rotisserie motor (the bottom plate spins). With a counter clockwise rotation, you can see the pizza just before it goes through the hottest part of the oven so you can decide to pull the pizza a little easier. To rewire the motor, you just cut the wire, strip the plastic coating and attach the red to black, black to red and cover it all up. Right now it is just covered with electrical tape, but I plan to solder it and cover the wires in shrink wrap to make it look prettier.

Finally, I added a "Chau-flector." It's a little metal shield named for it's inventor on the pizza forum. People have used sheet metal, the end of a spatula or parts of a grater to make the Chau-flector. I went with a little flipper I found in a restaurant supply store.

I broke the handle off and flattened it a little bit. I tried to just bend it, but needed to use a hammer to convince it to bend. You can kind of see it hanging down from the upper stone. It's dark in the oven and the phone flash didn't really get a good shot. So the smaller piece of steel originally near the wood handle is tucked under the upper oven plate, and the longer part of the spatula reflect head back down onto the spinning pizza.

On Saturday, I made 8 dough balls using the Progessive flour I got from Restaurant Depot. Normally, I only make 4, but I wanted to play with my new toy. The plan was to go to Fall Ball softball games all morning, then make pizza all afternoon. But that got cancelled for a birthday party so I got the dough into the fridge and hoped it would still be good on Monday.

On Monday, the workday couldn't end fast enough. I got home and starting putting the toppings together and set up a working table in the garage - a piece of plywood on two saw horses covered with a Halloween tablecloth. I didn't hav enough space for the dough balls on the table, so I commandeered the kids' wagon. Pizza Emergency.

I fired up the oven and let it go until the bottom plate was reading in the mid 700s with my el-cheapo temp gun. You can see the burner is directly above that knob on the front of the oven.

Here we go, the first pizza launch, captured for posterity by my daughter Allison.

You can see the quick oven spring on the rim of the pizza.

About 2 minutes later, here was a lovely sausage and mushroom pie.

I cranked out five more fairly quickly with varying degrees of success.  I need to work on managing the heat and keeping the bottom stone a little cooler. One thing I'm going to do next time around is dial down the heat in between bakes. I did that at the end and I think it helped. I'm also going to adjust the position of my Chau-flector a little. You can kind of see the deflector while this pizza cooks. You can also see that front sticker being abused by the heat of the oven.

After six successful pizza launches onto an 800 degree pizza stone that is rotating counter clockwise, I hesitated while launching the 7th pizza. Here's my undercooked accidental calzone.

But we ended on a high note. This cherry tomato/black olive for the kids was pretty good.

Now I need to focus on oven management and dough. My dough balls were sized for 13.5 inch pizzas. I'm going to scale that down to 13 inches. I also have a list of doughs I want to try out. Definitely a work in progress. I still want a wood fired oven and this will be a good stepping stone.

This is going to be fun...and fattening.