Friday, December 21, 2018

Happy Trails, All Over Albany

Earlier this week, the sad news came out that the website All Over Albany would stop putting up new content at the end of the year. I’d say I pop on to their website somewhere between 4 and 6 times a week to check in and see what’s going on in town. I expect I’ll probably just keep automatically clicking on the bookmark for a while.

I have no idea how Greg or Mary from All Over Albany stumbled onto my blog and started including it in their weekly “What’s Up in the Neighborhood” round up. I’m not even sure how long ago it was. But ever since then, I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the All Over Albany extended family. What a great group of people.

As my blog posts shifted from barbecue toward cured/smoked meats and then settling into the current pizza obsession, All Over Albany kept tabs on my general insanity. At some point (I think it might have been after I made up a betting point spread and over/under line for The Tournament of Pizza final round), I had droned on enough about pizza that I was invited to be a judge in the final Tournament of Pizza. Would you believe I almost turned down the offer? No joke. Politely declining the offer was something I considered and there was a drafted in an email explaining why. I mean, how colossally stupid would that have been?

The reason my irrational brain came up with to pass on The Tournament was because a daydream I had. One year The Tournament had a mystery entry. The mystery entry in each bracket turned out to be a chain pizza. The daydream was to compete as a mystery entry and run the table. I wanted to win The Tournament of Pizza. As someone that would have been a judge, it felt like a conflict of interest to jump over into the competition side of The Tournament. That’s how into their Tournament of Pizza my pizza obsessed brain got. I worked myself up into a bizarre ethical conflict that most likely didn’t exist. In a very long winded email (that I still have), I explained why I was conflicted by outlining the whole daydream to Mary. “The plan is that in 2016 or 17, I’m going to ask you and Greg if I could compete as a ‘Mystery’ entrant” is something I wrote to someone I didn’t really know very well. Mary, who was probably thinking, “Oh no, what did we get ourselves into?” talked me down by telling might be the last Tournament and she couldn’t see why judging one year would knock me out of any possible future competitions. Deep down I must have known the conflict of interest thing was stupid. With a future title still a possibility for me, I joined the judging panel and had a blast. Eating pizza and hyper analyzing it with other people who are crazy enough to hyper analyze pizza is just the best.

After The Tournament, I was invited to other events and projects Greg and Mary organized for All Over Albany. Many of the emails leading up to these events are about getting the gang back together for something. A mini pizza tour. I wrote about raising some cattle (an essay that Greg edited into one of the best things I’ve written). A burger tour. The AOA birthday parties. A pizza party in my garage (which I want to host again now that I’m cooking in the wood oven). A recent ice cream tasting.

There was also an annual end of year end request asking several people to briefly write about the best thing they ate this year. Greg’s specific instruction was to not spend a lot of time on it. Well, I take my All Over Albany assignments seriously so it was in the back of mind all year. “Wow, that’s good. Is it worthy of the best thing I ate all year? I don’t know. I’ll file it as a maybe.” I’m not sure if they will do the annual column next week, but I have my 2018 pick ready to go if they do.

Being part of the All Over Albany community was an honor. One I will no doubt miss. Instead of getting sad that there will no longer be an All Over Albany with its unique coverage of local politics, stories, maps, Snowpocolypse winter storm ratings, and seasonal moment photos, we should look forward to whatever Greg and Mary do next. Doesn’t matter if it is together, each on their own or Albany even based. Whatever project they work on next is going to be great. No doubt in my mind. Best of luck for a wonderful 2019, Greg and Mary.

And let’s get the gang back together for a pizza party. My house. Got a few new topping combinations I want the gang to try.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Even More Pizza On The Road

The Eat All the Pizza in Batavia mission continued last week and unfortunately, there are no shining stars to report on this week….sigh. But these bad experiences make the good experiences even better. This trip I wanted to hit Marks and Main Street Pizza.

First up was Mark’s. I skipped lunch and pulled up to Mark’s on the way to the hotel. Turns out Mark’s is a regional chain. Twenty five locations.

I ordered a pepperoni pizza. They are cooking on screens in an air impingement oven (conveyor deck). It looked like the oven was set at 460 degrees. I timed the bake of my pizza at just under 10 minutes. I think the people behind the counter took my watching them as impatience, but I was just trying to see anything that was going on behind the scenes. I can say, there was a college age guy making subs and if he continues to cut sub rolls that way (holding the bread while making large, fast slices with a bread knife aimed at his hand), he will be getting stitches at some point in the not too distant future. I watched the dough being stretched. Instead of an edge stretch where the rim of the crust is formed early in the dough stretching, the dough was stretched and then the rim was kind of crimped. In the end, it looked normal.

The crust was light, airy and the crisp bottom had a little coating of uncooked bench flour (bottom picture came out blurry). The crust was also completely flavorless. It made me think of some cheese bread/sticks I've seen on the pizza forum. The sauce wasn’t very good and there was too much of it. The cheese and pepperoni slide. The cheese was also a bit watery. The pepperoni was your standard, nothing special flat pepperoni. The pizza did get a little bit better with age. As everything cooled to room temperature, the toppings and cheese stopped sliding but this was not good pizza. Recently, a different location of Mark’s was recently reviewed by SexySlices – an Instagram reviewer on a mission to review a different Buffalo Style pizza place each week. They gave Mark’s a solid B. If this is an above average example of Buffalo Style pizza, I might be done trying to look into the style.

But wait, it gets worse. So much worse.

For dinner, I met my friend Kevin (from heaven) and we headed out to Main Street Pizza Company

We went over the menu and decided to try a small pepperoni pizza and one of their grilled pizzas too. I’m reluctant to beat up the restaurant too badly. Service was very friendly. It was nice inside. They had an inexpensive house wine. The menu was diverse. They were running a tripe special. But the pizza…I hated everything about the regular pizza.

The regular pizza was cooked on a screen in what I would guess is conveyor belt oven similar to Mark’s and the appearance of the pizza was also very similar to Mark’s. The crust…I think you might be able to do better with a Boboli shell from a supermarket. The sauce was painfully sweet. Just thick tomato fortified with a shit-ton of sugar. We each only had one slice of the regular pizza. Neither one of us wanted another. I got the leftovers to go trying to be polite but those two slices were all that got eaten.

The grilled pizza had the same dough rolled thin, way too much the same sauce, a few sad pieces of rubbery fresh mozzarella and some roughly torn basil leaves. C’mon, that’s a sad looking pizza, right?

That grilled blob was $11.95. Kevin asked, "Is this going to be featured on the world famous Jon In Albany Blog?" Yes, Kevin. It is.

I ate one slice, Kevin had 2 of the grilled, more I think because he was a little hungry than the quality of the pizza. People seemed to like the Chicago Deep Dish there. We saw one as we left. It looked like the same pizza with the dough in a different shape. If I were ever to make it back to Main Street Pizza, I’d try some of the other things they had on the menu that looked like they could be interesting but I’d stay away from the menu items that had pizza dough. They had calzones and "subzonis" which sound kind of stromboli-ish.

After dinner, Kevin and I headed next door to the Eli Fish Brewing Company. It’s a really nice space with 20 beers on tap. If they weren’t brewed there, they were brewed somewhere else in New York. We talked with someone that works in the kitchen at a place called O’Leary’s that is just around the corner. Sounded like a nice restaurant. Maybe I can get to O’Leary’s next time. There is only 1 more pizza place to visit and then I will be able to compile my Batavia Pizza Power Rankings. I'm not optimistic about the last place. People at Eli Fish made "why would you go there?" faces when I mentioned it, but a mission is a mission. I'm going.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

More pizza on 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.