Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Family Pizza Tour

Northern New Jersey Edition

I can’t believe my family routinely lets me do this to them. This weekend we were heading to Staten Island for my nephew’s birthday party. Why not extend the trip a little, spend Saturday night in a hotel and eat a lot of pizza on the way? And let’s bring the dog too.

First, some background on the behind the scenes thinking of the very secretive Pizza Tour Site Selection Committee (PTSSC). Several very influential members of the PTSSC follow Pete Genovese on twitter. I’m not sure what makes his him an authority on all things New Jersey, but he seems to be the guy. He travels the state in search of the best diners, best bakeries and, of course, best pizza. He does a New Jersey Pizzeria Power Rankings which is a top 25 list. I think it is annual thing. There were several newcomers to the list that shuffled places around in 2016. Sources familiar with the recent meeting of the PTSSC tell me the committee wanted to see how Pete Genovese’s thoughts on pizza lined up with their own. The PTSSC finds it interesting to try a place a pizza critic has visited. The process kind of calibrates one’s tastes with the critic’s tastes. For example, if you find a movie reviewer with similar tastes that writer’s reviews should hold a little more weight than a reviewer who panned your favorite movie. All three places on this trip routinely make Peter Genovese’s Top 25 pizza places in New Jersey. The PTSCC also paid attention to location, travel time between pizzerias and total travel time.

The pizza tour stops in order were:
1. Pizza Town in Elmwood Park
2. Star Tavern in Orange
3. Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza in Elizabeth

Stop 1
Pizza Town USA
111 Rt 46 West
Elmwood Park, NJ
Ranked #22 in 2016 (fell from #14)

I have been here before and should I ever find myself within 20 miles of the place, will come again. When I think traditional NY Slice joint pizza, it’s this slice. It’s crisp yet tender. I have no idea how they do that. Here’s what we got: a slice, a deep-fried calzone filled with ricotta and ham and a bag of zeppole.

 Wohoo! We're here!

 Look at the beauty of that slice

 Seriously, look at it.

 The small deep fried calzone is fantastic. The dipping sauce is good too.
After this trip, everyone wants me to start making zeppole.

The kids loved everything about this place. Pizza was great. Calzone was great. Zeppole were great. My youngest wants to move closer. She once said, “All you need to survive is a Target and Bella Napoli (for their doughnuts).” She would be willing to forgo the Bella Napoli doughnuts for these zeppole. Plus, while we were there, I heard a thickly accented bee-you-tee-full. Plus-plus, this is the site of one of my favorite dough stretching videos (this is poetry in motion). Plus-plus-plus, I love this place. Pro tip: eat the zeppole outside so you won’t feel bad about powdered sugar going everywhere. If you’ve had a Bella Napoli powdered jelly doughnut, that is just a powdered sugar dusting compared to these zeppole.

Stop 2
Star Tavern
400 High Street
Orange, NJ
Ranked #11 in 2016 (fell from #8)

Star Tavern is kind of the home of the Bar Pie. I have wanted to try this place for years. There is a very long thread about their pizza on the pizza forum. It’s very thin pizza that is meant to go well with beer. We got here around 4:30 on a Saturday. The parking lot was packed and there was a short wait for a table. When the pizza came to the table, the melted cheese was approximately the temperature of lava.

 Star Tavern

 The joint was jumping at 4:30 on a Saturday.

 Hot Lava.

A peek at the bottom.

I am usually one that digs right in and takes a bite, roof of the mouth be damned. But not this time. Let’s give that a second to cool. The pizza was good. It was crazy thin. The texture of the crust reminded me of a better version of a Blaze pizza. The best bites were the crusty bits of melted cheese around the edges. This is the kind of place where the Pizza Cognition Theory is in full effect. The restaurant was full of families having dinner. The table next to us was two families going out together, with a total of 4 kids at the table, I’d guess the oldest was 10. When those kids come home after being away awhile, when they come home for a visit, Start Tavern is going to be the first place they want to go. Should this place ever change or (I don’t even want to say it) close, people will mourn it for a long time. A lot of people. All that said, it is a little too far away from my personal Pizza Cognition, so it isn’t for me, and there's nothing worng with that.

Stop 3
Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza
639 South Broad Street
Elizabeth, NJ
Ranked #2 in 2016 (held the #2 spot)

I was definitely looking forward to this stop. At one time this shop was at the top of Peter Genovese’s list. I think in the one of the more recent version it has dropped to Number2. On a busy Saturday night, this was a 2 person operation. It is take-out only. There’s a small place for customers to stand and at times while I was there, it was packed. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I got the best that Santillo’s has to offer. They have a variety of options to choose from, some of them are by year. I asked the person in front of me for their favorite. He was picking up three pizzas and seemed to have his own thermal bag to get them home. He recommended the 1964 but said everything is good. I took his advice. I spoke with a few customers and they all love this place. And I've got to tell you, if you are within a block of this place, it smells delicious.

If you weren't looking for it, you'd miss it.  You need to go down the alley.

  Near the end of the alley, this sign is over the door/

No tables, we ate this pizza out of the back of the mini van.

 I thought the pizza was just OK. But again, I might not have picked the best of the best. I thought the sauce was a little too sweet and there was too much of it on the pizza. The crust was good but not amazing. If I lived closer, the menu would definitely require further exploration. All in all, OK, but I would have to disagree that this is the best pizza in New Jersey since it wasn’t the best pizza of the day. This certainly wasn’t bad pizza but I think I’d put the Gennaro’s tomato pie I had on an earlier New Jersey tour ahead of it.

After our last pizza stop we headed off to the hotel. The family consensus was that Pizza Town was the best of the day. It was fun tour and it left me feeling a little bit cocky. I felt like I could put my pizza next to a pizza some have argued is the best in New Jersey and I’d like mine more. I’m sure there’s a wee bit of bias in there. My last bake in the wood oven went well. Best one so far. I felt like I had the dough under control and could keep the oven floor temperature steady. Hopefully that wasn’t a fluke. This trip really made me want to fire the oven up again. Maybe on Saturday. We’ll have to see how the week goes.

Disclosure: The head of the Pizza Tour Site Selection Committee as well as all the distinguished Pizza Tour Site Selection Committee voting members are just me. My vote carries a lot of swing at those loud, high stakes meetings.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Local Tequila?

I guess it's not exactly local. But the company is based in Saratoga Springs.

Here's the story. I wander into Empire Wines during my lunch break to buy booze for Thanksgiving. On the list:

Bourbon - not sure which one I would purchase, it was either going to be something I never had before or Basil Hayden.

Rum - I wanted to get a bottle of 13 year old Plantation Rum. It's really good rum. I describe it as everything Captain Morgan wants to be but isn't.

Tequila - I get a bottle whenever my brother is going to visit. He likes sipping it on the rocks and he got me sipping it too (no rocks for me though). I usually get Milagro Anejo. I like it because I think it almost tastes like a margarita on its own. Truth be told, I was drawn to the brand by the name because it reminded me of the movie The Milagro BeanField War.

So there I am walking into Empire and it's pretty busy with pre-Thanksgiving booze buying. That place sure looks like it moves a ton of booze. There a woman with a table set up, lots of clear little plastic cups filled with something and a pitcher of mixer. As I started to walk by (I was shopping instead of eating lunch and was working on nothing but a cup of coffee so I wasn't thinking sampling) the woman politely offered me some Saratoga tequila. Wait, what? She had my attention.

(image from the One With Life Tequila website)

It's called One With Life Tequila. The company is based out of Saratoga but everything is made in Mexico. Each bottle comes with a little bracelet and a saying. I tasted the tequila on it's own first while she told me about the organic agave and how she travels to Mexico a few times a year. My first impression was surprise. I did not expect the tequila to be this good. I liked it a lot. It was similar to the Milagro in that it was kind of a margarita on it's own but it was better than I remember Milagro being (it's been awhile since I've had it). Then I tasted it with the mixer she had and it was still OK, not my favorite cocktail, but this tequila is for sipping. It's too good to mix.

Here's where assume made an ass of me. I've had stuff from a lot of small batch distilleries that seem to be popping up all over the place. I get that they are starting out, finding their way, and sometimes high quality ingredients are expensive.  But if you are going to make a bottle of whiskey and charge somewhere between $40 and $50, that bottle of whiskey HAS to be better than a $35 bottle of Basil Hayden. And many times it's not. I assumed the price of a bottle of was going to be in the $50 or more range.

I thanked her and continued into the store on my shopping trip. When I got to the tequila shelves, there were bottles of One With Life Tequila priced at $37.99 which is the same price as the Milagro Anejo. Solely on the first impression, I thought I liked the One With Life better so I left feeling like I was getting a little value, not much, but definitely not overpaying for something labeled artisan or organic.

On follow up tastings, I still really like this tequila and I think it is my new go-to tequila. I'm not alone. After his first sip, my brother declared it excellent tequila. He is much more into tequila than I am. He's got shelves of the stuff (no kids) and he was surprised by the price point too. And if you don't trust me or my brother, Wine Enthusiast gave it a 94. They gave the Milagro Anejo a 90.

If you are in the market for some tequila, give this One With Life Tequila a try.

For anyone interested in the rest of the shopping trip, I did get that Plantation rum and went with Tuthilltown Spirits Baby Bourbon I have wanted to try for awhile. It is also quite good.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Foster Fail

Just over two weeks ago, we met Bailey. Cute little shit, isn’t she?

I’m not 100% why we meet Bailey. Maybe it was fate. We’ve fostered dogs a few times through Help Orphan Puppies. The dogs were fine (except for Comet – Comet hated me) but none of them left me wanting to be responsible for a dog all the time. Don’t get me wrong. I like dogs. I used to really, really want one. Even had some names picked out. I had planned to get one in my 20s but it never happened. As I grew older, I came to like other people’s dogs. Kind of like a cool dog uncle. I’ll play with a dog until the dog wants to quit, and then the owners have to pick up poop in their yard while I slept late on Saturday. My in law’s dog Duke was perfect for that.

Anyhow, Help Orphan Puppies often transports puppies from over crowded, high kill shelters to our area. There’s a network of volunteers that drive the dogs here. After the trip, the dogs stay with a foster family for at least 2 weeks to make sure they are healthy, good with kids, other pets and that kind of stuff. A little over two weeks ago, there was a Facebook message about 4 puppies on their way and only 3 had foster homes. My wife asked me if I cared about hosting another dog. I remember my response:

I’d rather not. Thanksgiving is coming and what if we still have the dog with a houseful of people.

I was pretty much a hard pass and fine with never fostering puppies again. They are cute, but puppies can be a lot of work. I followed up with a, “but if YOU want to, go ahead.” Translation: I’m not getting up at 3 in the morning to let the dog out, but if you want handle that, have at it.

I didn’t even know the decision to foster “Tilda” was made when she came into the house. (Tilda is a terrible name. It makes me think of tilde. How about Comma which would be short for Oxford Comma, or Ampersand or Semicolon? But I understand you can’t name every dog Maggie or Jake when you are running an organization like this. The theme for these 4 siblings was T and somehow Tilda was picked which I guess is short for Matilda. After soliciting some suggestions, the kids settled on Bailey for a name.

Bailey is already basically accident free, really well behaved (when offered a tissue or a ball, she picked the ball) and very affectionate. She often sleeps with the kids (who seem to fight less with each other with Bailey around). She does occasionally grab blankets, socks and clothes to chew on and does like moving shoes around. And I don’t know why, but things like that used to drive me nuts with the other dogs just don’t bother me with Bailey.

A Foster Fail is when the foster family keeps the pet they are fostering. The idea is that the foster family takes in a dog, helps it and says goodbye making room for the next foster that needs help. I guess once a foster family fails, they are less likely to keep fostering.

This time we failed. Bigly.

We took the leap and adopted Bailey over the weekend. Bailey melted my icy cold “I don’t want a dog” heart. Maybe she reminds of Duke. Maybe she is kind of like what I imagine that dog I never got in my 20s to be. It doesn't matter because I am oddly smitten with this dog. I’m not sure if this will be the end of fostering for us. I bet Bailey will grow up to be a good rood role model for a foster dogs. We’ll see. Right now, we’ve got a good girl that needs a belly rub.

And a vet.

And a puppy class.

And all the things on the left side of a pet store.

I wonder how she feels about pizza. I bet she likes it.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Solo Overnight Trip for Work = Pizza

Anyone that has spent some time poking around this site knows this, but if you’re new: I have a thing for pizza. And last week I was on the road for work. By myself. I ate a lot of pizza.

Traveling alone can get boring. For about a year I traveled with the same guy. We bounced between a very comfortable silence to personal stories to random dumb conversation to guessing which TV shows got good ratings because the ratings happened to be in the USA Today the hotel had in the morning. On my own, it was just podcast city. Some interesting, some dumb, some funny.

Back to the pizza. For a late lunch, I popped into the Hornell Wegman’s. I had a small salad and couple cookies (most Wegman’s have a bulk cookie section and I can’t walk past a snickerdoodle, it’s another thing I have). After that, for the next 30 or so hours, I only ate pizza.

Once or twice a year for probably a little over a decade, I find myself in Olean. It’s a little weird how well I know my way around town. I’ve had pizza there. For the most part, it is exactly what you’d expect. Fairly cheap puffy dough with no flavor topped with a purchased pizza sauce and a lot of cheese. This type of pizza is everywhere.

While I was doing a search for food online, I found the Brooklyn Bakery. It looked like it was mostly bread but they had a few pizzas and everything is cooked in a wood fired oven. At first I wasn’t sure how I had missed this place in my earlier travels (I think it has been open about 5 years). Then I tried to find it. I knew I was nearby, but still couldn’t find it. I parked nearby, and had to start walking using the GPS to find the small path lined with stacked firewood that led to the shop. I had a nice conversation with the owner/operator while he made my pepperoni pizza. I should have taken an oven picture but it was just the two of us in the shop and the idea of cell phone pictures felt a little weird. Instead, this pictures is from their Facebook page

The owner designed that oven. It’s a large rectangular oven with a door on the side for the fire. The light on the front of the oven (the next pizza stop had one too) is an idea I should have stolen. It might not be too late. Not sure I could find a similar light that would be OK outside. If not, I’ll just pick up a nice flashlight. Anyhow…the dough was already stretched out and placed on a screen before it was topped. When I saw that, my expectations dropped. But I was told the oven floor is in the mid 700s and that’s pretty hot for the amount of time the pizza baked. I’m guessing it was in there for about 5 minutes. I think the oven ceiling is a little high and the screen balances out the bake. Which is fine especially since it looks like a commercial bread oven first and a pizza oven second. The pizza spent the last minute directly on the oven floor without the screen. It looked good.

What I got was a very crispy thin crust pizza. The cheese, sauce and pepperoni were all good, but the crust was just texture – no flavor. So not a great pizza, but certainly not a bad pizza (over the course of the night I ate the whole damn pizza and I would rank it above many Albany pizza places). I would, and probably will, go again.

Oddly, I wasn’t hungry for breakfast. At lunchtime, I found myself north of Olean in East Aurora, home of the Elm Street Bakery. I had heard of the Elm Street Bakery from a few places. The pizza on their menu has made some “Best of” lists. I had been to the Eat Aurora area several times but I had never been.  Their oven has a similar look to the Brooklyn Bakery, similar lighting up front too. On their web page, I found out it is an Allen Scott oven which is interesting only because if I rushed into building my oven without years of reading and research, I would have built an Allen Scott oven as is describe in the book: The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens. I’m glad I didn’t. The ovens have a lot of mass and take a long time to heat up. Once they are hot and heat saturated, they stay hot a long time. Perfect for a place like a commercial bakery, not quite as good for firing up on a Saturday afternoon.

Enough blabbing, I got a pepperoni pizza for lunch.

This pizza was much softer than the night before but other than that they were pretty similar. Good sauce, good cheese, good pepperoni but the crust was kind of bland. Good, decent pizza, just not mind blowing or amazing. Again, better than a lot of pizza in the area. The best thing I got at the Elm Street Bakery was a change in perspective.

For the past two years, I have been trying to limit the pizza I eat to only my pizza or some place well known. I think I’m done with that. I’m going to try some more pizza. Probably not any and all pizza – I’d prefer to not gain any more weight. But I’m going to try more. Best case, I get fantastic pizza that I remember for years to come. Worst case, I get to walk away smugly thinking that my pizza is better.

I fired up my oven this weekend. The first 4 pizzas were less than spectacular. The dough fought me a little, the oven floor was a little too hot, I put too much cheese on one pie and it was totally out of balance. The next 4 came out much better. The oven had cooled a little and I cranked out some decent pizza. I brought a sausage pie over to our relatively new neighbors. I still get a kick out of delivering pizza. I'm also almost to where I'm going to stop any work on the oven for the year. After Thanksgiving I'm going to start a sourdough culture for some dough experiments. Time to stop building the damn thing and just use it.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Halloween Tale

I had a pizza post almost set to go tonight, but there was trick or treating and I saw this while walking the streets for candy:

The setting:  A typical, dime a dozen suburban cul de sac.
The characters: my daughter and two of her friends and a group of 6 or 7 kids ranging in age from 7 to 10.

My daughter and her friends are strolling along talking. The trick or treating is secondary. They are in no rush to get from house to house. They don't care and are enjoying each others company. For the most part, I am usually 20 or so feet away from them letting them do what they but around just in case I'm needed. They are all in 8th grade. I'm not sure how many more costumed Halloweens are in their future.

The pack of younger kids is running from house to house. My daughter, her friends and the pack of kids were all on the same door step, trick or treated, and got some candy. The pack of kids ran across the lawn to the next house. My daughter and her friends chat while they go down the walkway to the street and casually followed the pack.

The pack rang the bell and then took off. A father asked what was going happening. One pack member yelled, "We ding dong ditched!" Most of them scattered. One pack member hid behind a bush. When the door opened, my daughter and her friends had just gotten to the stoop. They said, "trick or treat," got some candy and politely thanked the home owner. The kid hiding in the bush realized how dumb he was being, got in line and got some candy. I'm not sure the rest of the kids realized the error of their ways.

And in other news, we are fostering another dog and she is freaking adorable.  She's on my lap right now.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

I learned it from watching you...tube

Awhile ago, I used to sit down with an adult beverage after everyone went to bend and try to stump YouTube.

YouTube couldn’t possible have this obscure video from the 80’s. It did.

What about this song? Yep.

How about music from a band I used to go in Boston in the early 90s. You bet.

What about the rock opera I saw in Paris in 1989? The whole damn rock opera.

And when I needed to tile a back splash, I learned how to set tile from a guy in Australia that put up a few videos.

Sometime last year, the dryer wouldn’t start. I did a few searches and found out that it was most likely the belt. I found a parts supply company with lots of videos. To check the belt, I undid two screws and pooped the top of the dryer. If the belt was broken, it would either be gone having fallen to the floor of the dryer or resting on top in one piece. It was in one piece. I order the belt from them and it showed up two days later. The site has a nice feature where you can type in the dryer model and get confirmation that it’s the right part. The company also had a video where I could watch a someone basically take apart my dryer (it wasn’t the exact model) and put on the belt. It was a little difficult to get the belt on, but I eventually got it and everything worked well. Fixed for under $10. Wohoo!

Last weekend, my older daughter was at a birthday party and my younger daughter was sleeping over at a friend house. My wife and I had 4 hours of alone time…and that’s when we discovered the dryer no longer produced heat. To the internet!

My online diagnosis narrowed it down to three things: a thermal fuse, the thermostat or the heating element. Based on our crummy lint trap on the duct going outside, I thought it was thermal fuse. I have an el cheapo Harbor Freight free voltmeter, but it is worth about as much as I paid for it. It was no help diagnosing the problem. So, I went online, found a local company that had a thermal fuse and picked it up on Monday. After work, I installed it (once you got everything open, it is pretty much undoing 2 wires, taking out two screws, putting the fuse in place, putting back the two screws and then putting the two wires back in the same spot), put the dryer back together and gave it a whirl. No heat.

I went back to my trusty appliance website and ordered a heating element and thermostat. When they came in the mail, I already had the dryer opened and ready to go. You basically have to undo about 10 screws and 6 wires, replace the parts, and put the screws and wires back. All three of the parts I was replacing are on the same larger piece. I put it all back together and much to my surprise, it worked. Worked well.

This fix was a little pricier that the $10 belt but probably less than having a service person walk in the door. The heating element was about $70, and the fuse and thermostat were about $20 each. Had I known what I was doing and had a better meter, I could have saved a little and skipped the thermostat and fuse. But I figure with everything replaced hopefully we can get some trouble-free years out of the dryer.

What’s weird is that I think this all goes back to when we had the steers. I think the experience of building and maintaining the fence gave me the confidence to work with tools more. The wood oven probably helped a little too. The only tools this dryer fix required was a Phillips head screwdriver and a needle nose pliers. And a guy on YouTube showing me step by step how to do it.

If you want to give it a shot yourself, check out AppliancePartsPros.com They seem to have everything plus a little video on how to install the part.