Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Taking the plunge

We moved into this house just over a year ago. Since then we've been trying to decide how to set up the yard. We've met with contractors, worked with a landscape architect and priced different things. We've gone from "that's way too expensive" to "we should just do it and be done" and then back and forth again and again. We always seem to come back to the "just do it" side of the fence and last week we did.

When we moved in, the yard looked like this.

Then we had the trees removed because they weren't doing anything in terms of privacy, they dropped a shit-ton of needles and several were beginning to lean towards the house. Once the trees were gone, it looked like this.

And now that we've made a decision that will either be an incredible amount of fun, a maintenance nightmare, or both...the yard looks like this.

The pool will open in the spring of 2015. That dirt in the back will end up being patio around the wood oven I've been daydreaming about off and on for a decade.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tournament of Pizza Finals

A good sized crowd gathered at Shmaltz Brewing for the finals. Both Marino's and DeFazio's brought two pizzas for the crowd and judges to eat. Both shops also took the Finals seriously and sent some great pizzas to Clifton Park. Their challenge: 1 vegetable pizza and 1 meat pizza.

The judges went for the vegetable pizzas first. Marino's sent in a pizza topped with sauteed green pepper and mushrooms. Defazio's sent in a smoked mozzarella pizza with red peppers and red onions.

Marino's Vegetable Pizza
This was the warmest slice we ate. The crust was nicely browned and had good color. It had gotten a little tough in transport from Schenectady to Clifton Park but nothing serious. The sauce was good, not as amazing as the sauce on their Margherita, and I thought the pizza could have used a little bit more of the sauce. Maybe they held back to avoid potential sogginess during shipping. The toppings were sauteed before going on the pizza. I thought the white button mushrooms were delicious. While I'm not a fan of green peppers, this is usually the only way I like them - sauteed down so they lose their bitterness. The cheese on the slice had a nice flavor too. A very enjoyable slice.

Marino's Vegetable Pizza
Crust:4, Sauce:4, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:7, Total:19.

DeFazio's Vegetable Pizza
The crust on this pizza was delicious. I don't know what they did differently, but I thought this was the best DeFazio's crust I've had that spent time in a take-out box. It was nicely browned and tender. Just the right bit of char. Wow. The sauce is the shops regular pizza sauce, which was added for the Finals - this pizza is usually white. The flavors of the toppings worked well together - smoked mozzarella, small bits of red onion and some roasted red pepper. Up to this point, I believe that this is the best slice of pizza I have had in the Tournament.

DeFazio's Vegetable Pizza
Crust:5, Sauce:4, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:8, Total:21.

Moving onto the meat pizza round,

Marino's Meat Pizza
Marino's went with a lot of meat. Pepperoni, meatball, sausage. The crust was a little lighter than the vegetable slice I had and still had good flavor but was a little chewy. They still have a good sauce and again there could have been a little more. But on the flip side, some more could have definitely soaked into the crust during transit. Their pepperoni was the same zippy pepperoni that was on their spicy pizza in the semi finals. Sausage was still excellent. I thought the meatballs were good, but not great. All in all, a very good meat lovers pie.

Marino's Meat Pizza
Crust:4, Sauce:4, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:7, Total:19.

DeFazio's Meat Pizza
DeFazio's brought a Bolognese pizza. The crust was topped with their Bolognese sauce (slow cooked pork and veal with little bits of pancetta) topped with cheese and then a little bit of crumbled sausage on top. The crust was pretty much the same as their vegetable pizza just slightly darker - delicious. I thought the sauce was well flavored but I thought the wine taste on the finish was a little off. All of the meat was excellent.

DeFazio's Meat Pizza
Crust:5, Sauce:3, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:7, Total:19.

Pre-Results Wrap Up
In a damn close decision, I gave the edge to DeFazio's 40 to 38. The crust was the difference for me. I brought the family to the finals. Allison thought the DeFazio's vegetable pizza and the Marino's meat were the best two pizza. If she were picking a slice from the two of those, she went with DeFazio's Vegetable. Casey would pick the same two pizzas also with a preference to DeFazio's. Amy concurred picking those two pizza's as her favorites. When asked which one she would go to for another slice she said, "There, I would have gone for the DeFazio's red pepper one because I couldn't believe how much I liked it. Right now, I think I'd go with the Marino's meat lovers."

Really, really close call. I'm not sure how the other judges scored it but I think DeFazio's narrowly won the veggie round and Marino's narrowly won the meat round. It will all come down to the margin of victory in each round. I'm writing this before the results are posted so we'll see if I'm right. The All Over Albany write up of the event is here.

The Results Have Been Posted Wrap Up
Well, the results are now up at All Over Albany. The People's Choice title went to Marino's meat pizza that barely beat DeFazio's veggie pie, 73 to 72.5.  The judges narrowly gave the Tournament Title to DeFazio's 167 to 164. That's really close. If you combine the pizza scores from the People's Choice, the people also gave the title to Defazio's  144.1 to 138.6. So it looks like I was mostly right, DeFazio's won the veggie round, Marino's won the meat round and it all came down to margin of victory. Anyhow, I've talked about pizza at work enough so our holiday party will be pizza trips to DeFazio's and Marino's.

The End of the Pizza Tournament
I was absolutely thrilled to be part of the Tournament. As a long time fan (I came up with an over/under and a points spread for last year's finals) it was a lot of fun to participate. It was even fun getting interviewed by some Saint Rose students covering the finals for a class. I learned a lot about pizza along the way. I knew eating it fresh out of the oven was important, but I didn't realize how important. I also learned that when you are hyper-analyzing pizza there isn't just the variation between shop to shop, there is also variation from slice to slice out of the same pizza. And lastly, if you had asked me if I thought some of the best pizza in the tournament would be meatless, I would have thought you were crazy. But they were. And the DeFazio's smoked mozzarella/red pepper pizza was, in my opinion, Best In Show. I'm going to have to try and copy that one.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

TOP Semi Finals Part 2

Spicy (AOA link)

The judging moved on to the “spicy” pizzas. We had already sampled 4 large slices of pizza which was what we had been doing during Round 1. It was time to take a deep breath and double up because there were 4 more slices to be eaten. And they were needed, at least for me because my scorecard after the “Classic” round was essentially a dead heat.

5th and 50 Spicy: Chicken Parmesan Pizza
There’s no nice way to put this. This pie was everything I didn’t like about 5th and 50 from the first round. The rim of the crust was bready and tough. The rest of the crust acted as a stiff support to a layer of topping mush. What sauce you could taste had a really nice level of heat to it but the sauce had been absorbed into the rest of the topping of dry, flavorless ricotta and what seemed like breading that had come off the chicken. In looking around the room (not just the judges table), there were several plates with a slice of this pizza missing one or two bites. That said, one of the guests really liked it.  I don’t think 5th and 50 makes it into the Finals.

5th and 50 Spicy
Crust:2, Sauce:3, Toppings:1, Overall Taste:3, Total:9.

Marino’s  Spicy: Hot Sausage and Pepperoni Pizza
Marino’s went meat. And plenty of it. The crust was nicely browned but a little dense. The sauce was just ok and didn’t hold up to the zing of the meats. It was there, but you’re not going to be eating this pizza and think “mmm, delicious sauce” like on their Margherita. The heat of the zippy pepperoni and spiced sausage just overpowered the sauce. The cheese had good texture to it, but the flavor was also overpowered by the meats. The pepperoni had good bite to it and I wonder if this is a spicier pepperoni than their usual. This wasn’t pepperoni my kids would enjoy. The sausage was tasty too. And there was plenty of meat. The slice had a real heft to it. If you are into a spicy meat lovers kind of pizza, you will definitely enjoy this pie.

Marino’s  Spicy
Crust:3, Sauce:3, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:6, Total:16.

Marissa’s Spicy: Chicken Caccitore Pizza
I have no idea how Marissa’s did it, but on the night of the semi-finals, their crust traveled really well and was the closest to still being in the shop. I liked the sauce. It had a really nice depth of flavor and a slow burning spice/heat that came out after you were done with a bite. I thought there was a strong under current of kalamata olives to the sauce. I happen to like those olives, if you don’t I could see that as a turn off. The fresh mozzarella got a little tough in transport but the braised, shredded chicken was moist, tender and flavored by the sauce. I personally believe that the idea/concept of this pizza is inspired. I’ve never heard of it being done.

Marissa’s Spicy
Crust:3, Sauce:4, Toppings:3, Overall Taste:7, Total:17.

DeFazio’s Spicy: Buffalo Chicken Pizza
After this scored so well in past Tournaments, I had to go to the store and try it. And I enjoyed it. But tonight, something was off. The crust had nice color to it but it was a little bready and dense. The sauce is Franks Red Hot and there was a lot of it on this pie. I suppose that isn’t really a bad thing, but everything on the slice tasted like Red Hot.  The bites of chicken were moist, tender and tasted good if you picked them off the slice. Left on the slice, the chicken tasted like hot sauce. There was a little gorgonzola flavor in the back and I could see that melted mozzarella cheese I love, however the hot sauce was pretty much the only flavor. And it’s a shame because I know this pizza can be better. After all, this is one of the highest scoring pizzas in Tournament history, but not tonight. Any given pizza…on my scorecard, Down Goes the Champ.

DeFazio’s Spicy
Crust:3, Sauce:2, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:5, Total:14.

Here’s how I scored the eight pizzas in the Final Four with Marissa’s and Marino’s getting ready to fight it out for the title.

5th and 50

This is how I scored it, but this is a panel of judges so my points are just a quarter of the points available to any individual pizza. Looking at the All Over Albany write up of the semi finals, it looks like the other judges didn't like the flavor of Marissa's tomatoes on their Margherita as much as I did and depending on the person, I could see the kalamata olives in the Caccitore pizza taking a hit. Also, keep in mind that when you are totally nitpicking everything on a pizza, there is even variation between slices from the same pie. The crust is a little different, toppings not quite the same, a little more/less sauce here and there. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I certainly see how Marissa's got bumped out. Hell, on my score sheet, it's only a 4 point spread between the top three shops.

And if you want to nerd out on some numbers, Greg has kindly posted all of the tournament scores in the annual Crunching the Numbers post at All Over Albany. If you take a look at those stats, DeFazio's has put up some serious numbers in the tournament. DeFazio's, Marino's and Marissa's have the highest all time averages. Seems fitting that it came down to those three shops. It will be interesting to see what happens at the Finals this Saturday.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Faith in the Pizza Universe

Last week on the pizza forum, someone in Arizona asked if there was anyone in the Northeast that would be willing to send him a bag of pizza flour. A lot of the flours used for pizza don't make it out west. Turns out that a Restaurant Depot here doesn't carry the same flours as a Restaurant Depot out there.

Putting my faith in the good will of pizza enthusiasts, I volunteered, totally confident that this complete stranger in Arizona would pay me back. I stopped by Restaurant Depot and picked up a 50 pound bag of flour (not quite $17), headed over to Staples and got a heavy duty box that would hold a 50 pound bag of flour (just over $5) and then went to the big UPS in Latham to ship it (just under $80). I honestly thought the shipping would be less. Apparently there is a surchage to send to Arizona. No idea why.

I sent the guy a message to let him know the flour was in the mail, tell him the cost and say $100 was close enough. He quickly replied that he had already received the tracking info and told me to watch my email for a PayPal transfer. Within minutes of letting him know the flour was in in transit, PayPal sent me an email letting me know $102 was just sent to me.

People that are really into pizza can be trusted.

Tournament of Pizza Final Four: Part 1

I spent the day pacing myself so I could be ready for the Tournament Semi-Finals. Four shops each submitting two pizzas meant 8 slices per judge. Basically an entire large pizza. I started the day with a yogurt and banana. Had a peanut butter and jelly from Stewarts for lunch and then nothing else until the judging started around 6:30. Many thanks to the people at Keeler Mini for hosting and sponsoring these semi finals.

This tasting was kind of a sensory overload for me. Out of the 8 pizzas sampled, only two were similar so there were 7 very different kinds of pizza to eat. I think my note taking suffered during this tasting as I was trying to wrap my head around how much different the to-go pizzas were from the in-store pizzas. And there was just so much pizza. I didn’t step on a scale the morning after this tasting. Ignorance is bliss.

The four semi finalists were asked to submit a pizza they considered to be a “classic” and another they considered “spicy.” We started with four slices of classic.

5th and 50 Classic: Greek Pizza
The pie was cooked on a screen (the only shop in the finals using one) and my slice didn’t have a rim that easily pulled off. Maybe they roll the rim of the pie over itself. The crust was nicely browned on the top and bottom but a little oily toward the center of the pie. I though the crust was bready and tough by itself but worked with the pizza. A significant improvement, in my opinion, over their Round 1 pizzas. It was a white pizza so there wasn’t really a sauce. As with the white broccoli pie, judges used the flavors and extra cheese for the sauce score. The feta was fairly mild. Nothing wrong with that, I’m not sure a strong feta would have worked well on this pie. The feta was combined with diced bits of ham, or maybe mild bacon or maybe Canadian bacon. I’m not sure which it was and while that is a little unsettling the flavor combined with the tomato pieces was good. Not a great slice, but certainly not a bad one.

 5th and 50 Classic
Crust:3, Sauce:3, Toppings:3, Overall Taste:6, Total:15.

Marino’s Classic: Margherita Pizza
This was the slice where the difference between eating in the store and getting takeout hit me. The crust that I had really enjoyed in Round 1 still had good flavor but was tougher to chew. The color on the crust was nicely browned but the toasty notes seemed to have gotten lost in transit. The sauce though…I think this sauce was the best thing we tasted all night. Really good tomato flavor with delicious chucks of tomato spread out over the slice. What brand of tomatoes are they using? The cheese had a nice flavor but it was a little tough/stringy. I’m not sure there is any way around that with a fresher style of mozzarella being transported. While still a good slice here, this would be great ordered and eaten at the restaurant.

Marino’s Classic
Crust:3, Sauce:5, Toppings:3, Overall Taste:6, Total:17.

Marissa’s Classic: Margherita Pizza
I don’t know how they did it, but the crust on the Marissa’s Margherita travel better than the others. Definitely had more chew that when we were in the store but it never got that cardboard-y texture some pizza crusts get as the cool off. There was a very thin coating of sauce on the pizza but the tomatoes on the slice, while not looking like they would taste good, did taste good and really perked up the flavor on the slice. The freshly shredded basil was nice too. The fresher mozzarella had browned in spots and became like the Marino’s pie became tough/stringy but the flavor was nice. This slice tasted a lot better than it looked.

Marissa’s Classic
Crust:4, Sauce:3, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:7, Total:18.

Defazio’s Classic: Sausage with Peppers and Onions Pizza
The crust had good color and a little bit of char on the bottom. Once again, the impact of travel on the crust was clear. This crust would have clearly been better in the shop. The sauce had a good tomato flavor. The cheese was tender, flavorful/salty, and I still want to know the brand. The sausage was also good and well seasoned. It had much less of that paprika flavor that we had on their sausage pie in Round 1. Green peppers aren’t my favorite (they aren’t ripe) and this pie had a strong green pepper flavor to it, but it worked.

Defazio’s Classic
Crust:4, Sauce:3, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:6, Total:17.

After the classic round of the Final Four, I had this scored as pretty much a dead heat. In my mind at this point in the tasting, any of the shops could make it to the Finals. There was a little bit more spread when all of the judges scores were counted, but it is still anyone's round to win. The All Over Albany summary of the classic round is here. While the judges and I may differ on opinion here and there, one thing that stands out from looking at the summary is the score for the Marino's Margherita. Their sauce scored a perfect 20, 5 out 5 from each judge. It was really good.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Tournament of Pizza Round One Wrap Up

I put together a summary of my Round 1 scores. The only outstanding misfire that I see is that Marino’s sausage pie should be higher than Marissa’s and I’ve already mentioned that Marissa’s sausage pie should have been a little lower. A rookie judge mistake. While I may have had doubts when looking back at individual pizzas, I think the “Total” column is a good ranking in how I felt about the shops and the pizza we were served.

I Love
Mama Mia’s
5th and 50

I think the “we were served” part of that last statement is important and something that needs to be taken into consideration. These rankings were based on two pizzas from 8 shops on random Thursday evenings. I’d argue that each of these shops is capable of putting out better (or worse) pizza than the pies we were served. One judge joked, “Any given Thursday” and there is a lot of truth to that. I would, however, also argue that the likelihood of getting a better pizza than what we were served improves the higher you go up this list. And the pizza at Mama Mia’s is better than their score. I bet they lost 6 or 7 points due to an unfortunate decision.

My top 4 shops can’t be the Final Four because two of them fought it out in a match up but my three highest scores all advanced to the semifinals. In my overall scores, the two shops in Saratoga bracket finished 7th and 8th. The order of my rankings of Mama Mia's and 5th and 50 were overruled by the other judges and 5th and 50 squeaked into the Final Four.

Some final thoughts on Round 1: Three of the top 4 ranked shops on my list make their own sausage. I think that shows a certain level of commitment to quality ingredients and that commitment comes through in the product they sell. Only one of the shops in my top 4 uses screens. That’s a different level of commitment to skill. In my mind, screens have more to do with convenience and ease than quality. And the final weird thing I noticed looking back at the Round 1 results is that half of the shops in the tournament start with the letter M. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

TOP Round 1: DC's vs. Marissa's

I have no idea if there are still tickets available, but if you are interested in being a pizza judge, follow this link to see if you can still get a now FREE ticket to the AOA Tournament of Pizza Championship.  This is going online a little late. The official results for this pizza battle went up yesterday.

DC’s in Albany
I have a little bit of history with DC’s but only one visit to their shop. I thought their sausage was good, but the overall slice was lacking. But that was then, this is now and we are judging the slice in front of us. Starting with a slice of sausage pizza: The rim of the crust had a nice depth of flavor but the rim was a little bready. There was no char on the pizza, in fact the pizza was a little bit light in color, and the bottom had plenty of screen markings. The sauce had a pasta sauce quality to it and I think it would have been nice on some ziti. It would also work for pizza but there was too much of it here. The cheese pretty much slid on the sauce and the slice couldn’t support its own weight. The sausage was good, although I’d say it was better at my last visit. All the components combined to make a very middle of the road slice.

Sausage Pizza
Crust:2, Sauce:3, Toppings:3, Overall Taste:5 for a total of 13 points.

Moving onto the broccoli slice, I was surprised at how similar this crust was to the sausage pizza. I guess there is something to be said about the consistency of a screen. The only noticeable difference (and it is kind of a big one), was that without the tomato sauce, this slice was able to support its own weight. The cheese and ricotta worked well together, the ricotta was spread out nicely over the slice and I thought there was a nice seasoning to the pie. The broccoli was minced, I’m guessing frozen but without any large pieces there was no frozen broccoli texture. While I think I would prefer florets, minced is probably the way to go if you are using frozen broccoli.

Broccoli Pizza
Crust:3, Sauce:4, Toppings:3, Overall Taste:6 for a total of 16 points.

Marissa’s in Guilderland
I have had pizza from Marissa’s twice. Once was a whole pie to go (after a previous Tournament of Pizza) that was alright, but nothing that made me excited to return to the shop. The other time was a lunchtime visit for a slice when I was in the neighborhood. My takeaway from these two visits was that Marissa’s pizza was significantly better when reheated as a slice. That second cook really helped the crust out. I was looking forward to seeing how their pizza was fresh out of the oven.

Sausage pie first: no screen and some nice color on the bottom of the pie. The rim on my slice was a little pale but there were slices on the pizza that had nice little brown bubbles on the crust. The crust was surprisingly bland by itself but it worked well when combined with the flavors of the sauce and cheese. The sauce had a nice flavor and there was a proper amount of it on the pizza. The sausage was thinly sliced pieces a link sausage. It had a good flavor but was not especially eye pleasing. All in all, I thought the flavors combined nicely to make a good slice.

Sausage Pizza
Crust:4, Sauce:4, Toppings:4, Overall Taste:7 for a total of 19 points.

Marissa’s broccoli pie: The crust was darker on the bottom than it was on the top. There were some bubbles on the rim and the slice had a crisp snap when I folded it to take a bite. The drops of ricotta were well distributed but very plain and not seasoned. The broccoli was minced and very similar to DC’s. There was a lot of garlic on the slice. A lot…of what I’m guessing is purchased minced garlic. With fresh garlic and better ricotta, this could have been a much better slice.

Broccoli Pizza
Crust:4, Sauce:2, Toppings:3, Overall Taste:5 for a total of 14 points.

In the days after this round, I really started second guessing my scores. I still do. This judging is hard. With 20/20 hindsight, I think I gave Marissa’s two points they might not have deserved. The toppings on the sausage pie sausage should have been a 3 and I probably should have given the toppings portion of the broccoli pie a 2. The crust at Marissa’s was bland on its own but I thought worked well with the overall pizza. It would have been nice to have a 3.5 scoring option there. With this 2 point adjustment and the impossible 3.5 scores taken into consideration, my scores for these two shops are even closer at 30 to 29 points with Marissa’s still on top. Based on these four pizzas, that seems right to me. On this night, I think Marissa’s was a little better than DC’s, but not by much. Almost a coin flip. I have spent a lot of time hoping that the other judges also slightly preferred Marissa’s and that these 2 or 3 points don’t impact the outcome of the tournament and luckily they didn’t.

Again, my feeling was that the pizza we sampled at Marissa’s was a little better than DC’s and the scores showed that on my scorecard (33 to 29). Looking at the total scores from all the judges for Marissa’s I gave the sausage pie 19 out of its 74 points (26%) and the broccoli pie 14 out its 60 points (23%). At DC’s I gave the sausage pie 13 of its 57 points (23%) and the broccoli pie 16 of its 67 points (24%). In a completely unscientific way, it would appear that the other judges and I agree on this match up.

Round 1: Albany Wrap Up
In another surprise to me, I liked the broccoli pizza more than the sausage pizza at DC’s. My main take away from the night was how important the marriage of individual components in a pizza is. The Marissa’s crust was a little bland, but got significantly better when combined with the sauce and cheese. I think the quality of the DC’s sausage got pulled down by their sauce. Too bad there isn’t a way to make a Franken-pizza combining the best parts of both shops. It was a very close match up and probably goes back to that “any given pizza” theory. Same pizzas ordered at a different time and the outcome of this round could easily be different.