Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: Al Forno, Providence RI

On just about any list of the best pizzas in Rhode Island, Al Forno is rated as number one. Al Forno's husband and wife team of George Germon and Johanne Killeenbeen began making their grilled pies more than 35 years ago, and they are recognized as pioneers of grilled pizza.

Naturally, Al Forno became my choice pizza destination on a visit to nearby Warwick. Unlike nearly every other legendary pizza restaurant, the pie is not the main focus here. Al Forno is an elegant upscale full service Italian restaurant. The pizzas are often shared by groups of diners as an appetizer.

Entrance from the parking lot in rear
Al Forno housed in an old two-story building, with several cozy dining spaces inside. I visited on a Tuesday night without a reservation, and had the option to dine at the bar or one of the small tables in the bar. I was intrigued by the other entree offerings, but of course kept my focus on the pizza.
Interior photo from
To start, I pondered a crispy cod cake appetizer, but the waiter steered me to a signature Clams Al Forno dish ($14.95). The littleneck clams were tender and swimming in a delicious broth that contained a lot of tomatoes and translucent onions; an excellent start to my meal.

Some of the pizza offerings were more creative than I was seeking (such as pies topped with corn or pumpkin), and I opted for a pepperoni pizza, priced at $23.95. The dough is a high-gluten mix that is not proofed for very long. It goes onto the grill roughly in rectangular shape, but I noted that mine had taken on the same kind of amoeba shape that my home pizzas often do.

The dough cooks rapidly on the grill and is then flipped (complete with grill marks now on the upper surface) for application of the cheese and toppings. Al Forno uses hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes and a blend of low-moisture cheeses, then a scattering of local herbs including basil and parsley. The finished pie is topped with another Al Forno signature touch, a handful of slivered scallions.

The pizza (which takes about 2-3 minutes from the time it hits the grill) arrives unsliced, and completely covers a 12-inch plate. I was provided a fork and a steak knife, which was the proper tool to cut through the crispy and chewy grilled crust. Do I cut slices and eat like regular pizza, or cut individual bites and eat the pizza like citizens of Naples do?  I did some of both, and it was equally satisfying.

The crust was wonderful. Golden crisp underneath (but without visible grill marks), it had a satisfying crunch and an al dente chewiness too. It was thin, dense, and delicious. Part of the preparation of this pie includes a drizzle of Tenuta di Capezzana olive oil, an intense olive fruit and peppery elixir that adds another layer of flavor.
Bar area dining room
If there were any topside grill marks, they were obscured by the cheese, sauce, and long thin slices of pepperoni. I had expected the traditional rounds of salumi, but the cured meat here was a much higher grade. The toppings extended almost to the edges so that there was little cornicione; I had expected to use the crusts to sponge up the remaining broth from my clams appetizer.
Underside of crust
All the ingredients were applied in an ideal balance. The San Marzano tomatoes brought an acidic zing; the cheese was earthy and dense but did not overload the thin crust. Each bite was rich and deeply satisfying. There were no wet or soggy spots.

I did have one very odd sensation - due to the density of the cheese and perhaps eating this pizza with a fork, I noticed a gustatory similarity to a good baked ziti or lasagna. 

I've had some very good grilled pizza once before, at Cambridge 1 in Massachusetts. There, the pie was superb with a crust that was light and delicate. Grilled pizza is no longer a novelty, but this pizza was unique among all of my pizza eating due to its flavor and dense texture combinations.

Al Forno Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The grilled pizza at Al Forno was flawless and lived up to its lofty reputation. Clearly destination pizza, and it's remarkable that any pizza maker can maintain this level of quality and execution for more than 30 years. Let's hope for 30 more.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review: Bar 35, Honolulu HI

In 49 states, "Hawaiian pizza" implies pie topped with ham and pineapple. But in Hawaii, a state blessed with deep and varied culture, what other pies stand out? What do the locals eat?
"Veggelicous" - from
I found a well-written article about the best pizza on the island of Oahu, and narrowed my choices down to those in Honolulu. Not surprisingly, none are in the tourist-heavy Waikiki area. With three colleagues, I set out for Bar 35 in Downtown Honolulu.
Exterior of Bar 35 on N. Hotel St
Bar 35 in on narrow Hotel Street in the Chinatown district. A narrow front leads into a deep space, with a large bar and dining area in front. Toward the back there are two semi-private rooms with cozy seating and bead curtains. Further back is a large patio area.

On this Thursday evening visit, we opted for one of the back rooms because the main dining area was full with patrons.
Front room
The pizzas, which give a slight nod to Roman-style al taglio pie, come in regular (personal) size and large. We ordered a mix of four personal pizzas to share, each one began with a base of tomato sauce and mozzarella

  • Veggelicious, with zucchini, olives, mushrooms, basil, and sesame oil 
  • Deep Forest, with prosciutto, mushrooms, and EVOO
  • Sweet Bangkok, with Chinese sausage, chili sauce, and cilantro
  • Simple Pleasure, with basil and EVOO

Bar 35, despite its pizza reputation, is bar first and pizzeria second. There was a great variety of "happy hour" (until 9pm) drink bargains, including a wonderful beer selection and $5 drafts. We all drank beer, from a simple Belgian style blonde to a rich bottled stout, and the selections were terrific.
Sweet Bangkok
Each pizza was built on a very thin, almost cracker-like crust. The closest comparison I would make is Jules Thin Crust, another pizza that shares the thin crust, elongated oval shape, and exotic gourmet toppings. Is it pizza, is it flatbread? Labels not that important!
Simple Pleasure
My choice was the Sweet Bangkok, and it was a pie where the unusual toppings and flavors clicked very well. I might change it only by adding a spicy element. I rarely choose a veggie topped pie, but the Veggelicious was a success. The vegetable toppings were applied in proportions that did not overwhelm the thin and somewhat delicate crust.
Underside of the crust
The most complex flavors were found on the Deep Forest pie, where the cured meat and the mushrooms supplied the maximum umami. The Simple Pleasure pizza (we'd call it "plain" on the mainland) offered the best chance to savor the crust, which was a little crisp, a little chewy, and flavorful on its own.
John with our server
In the final analysis, Bar 35 is a great space with a hip crowd, wonderful drinks, and very good pizza to go with those drinks. I'm not sure what it would require to elevate this from excellent to destination pizza; perhaps reduce the sauce, cheese, and toppings load to let that crust shine a bit more.
Any visitor to Honolulu should grab the chance to get out of the tourist area of Waikiki and see a bit more of Hawaii as the locals live. Bar 35 is a great choice to drink in the vibe of the local bar scene, have superb beer at bargain prices, and eat some very good pizza while you're doing it. 

Bar 35 Honolulu Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, September 5, 2016

Feature Story: Norma's Pizza, Manheim PA (Roots Country Market)

Disclaimer: This is not an objective review. After three visits to Norma's Pizza, I'm both a fan and a friend. My wife and I got to visit Norma on her Saturday "day off" when she was preparing dough for her regular Tuesday sale day (Roots Market is open only on Tuesdays).
Boardwalk pizza
Although Roots the Market was closed, there was a huge Arts & Crafts Fair being held on the grounds over the long Labor Day weekend. The arts fair was kind of fun, but it was our 90 minutes with Norma that made the 3-hour round trip worthwhile.
Snipping the basil
In previous visits, I had sampled (and loved) her "Boardwalk" style pizza, which also later doubled as her "New York" style pizza that won her the Caputo Cup and great acclaim. Just as wonderful, though, was her Detroit style pie, a thick but airy crust baked in a deep square pan with its cheese, topped with tomato sauce only after it comes out of the oven, then cut into just 4 rare and wonderful rectangles. See all the pics and review HERE.
Detroit pizza from prior visit
We didn't give Norma much advance notice that we would be at the Craft Fair, but she graciously offered to have us enter the empty market so that she could make some pizza for us. The dough was a day or two short of its ideal rise time, we learned. 
Mrs. PQ slicing the first pie
First, she made her signature boardwalk pie, and topped it with a special variety of spicy cup pepperoni. Beyond its perfect (yes, literally perfect) crust that was crisp, yet airy with great hole structure, Norma does not use mozzarella like many pizzaioli. I won't reveal her cheese(s), but her selection works great on this classic pie. We ate way too much, knowing full well that another pizza was on its way.
Brilliant crust, crisp and airy
Recently, she acquired and cleaned up some vintage deep-dish pizza pans, and she's been experimenting with a Sicilian pizza. This one is big enough for 9 slices (instead of 4 for the Detroit), and there is a different hydration in the dough. She bakes it with just the cheese, then removes it from the oven, added some cured meat and tomato sauce, then returns it to the oven for a finishing bake. Like the Boardwalk pie, she finishes it with snips of fresh basil.
Sicilian pie, before slicing
The Sicilian was a bit more dense than her Detroit pie, but it sported a similar cheesy-crunchy cornicione. She added one more kind of cheese to this pie, and the blend of cheeses, sauce, Calabrian chili oil, salami, and basil was just singing on the palate. Another brilliant pizza by Norma.
A peek under the hood
All of that and she sent home the leftovers slices with us, as well as 2 frozen doughs which she sells so that you can attempt this level of greatness at home. A perfect day with a wonderfully gracious host and pizza maker.
A great pizza day
Since her Caputo Cup fame, Norma often faces more pizza demand than she can meet on any given Tuesday, especially for those who want a whole pie. Part of the problem is that this "Best NY Pizza in the World" is also value-priced at just $2 per slice. Given the demand for this world-class pie and the quality of her ingredients (not to mention the 5 days each week she works just to sell pies for 12 hours every Tuesday), I'd recommend a price increase if I was her accountant!

It is truly a treat and a privilege to chat with Norma and eat that astonishing pizza. Put it on your bucket list.

Norma's Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato