Monday, August 15, 2016

Review: The Copper Oven, Ovid (Finger Lakes) NY

A recent Finger Lakes vacation landed us in the center of a region offering a lot of terrific food and wine (and beer and spirits) in addition to the hiking, waterfalls, river gorges, and lake activities. Our home base was a cabin just off Rt. 89 in Ovid, NY, along the shores of Lake Cayuga. That put us about a half hour from Ithaca to the south and Lake Seneca to the west. 
"The Godfather"
At nearby Lucas Vineyards, we'd experienced great BBQ and wine on the lawn with live music. Just minutes away on another night, we found superb charcuterie with flights of hard cider while listening to the old-timey music of the superb Miller's Wheel band at Finger Lakes Cider House.

The bar was set pretty high, then, when we were drawn to visit The Copper Oven (at Cayuga Ridge Estate Winery) by the small "Wood Fired Pizza" sign out on the edge of the highway. The winery and restaurant are housed in an eye-catching red barn that is perched on a rolling hill with terrific views of Lake Cayuga.
Dog-friendly rear deck dining
"They didn't give me any pizza"
We called ahead to be assured of an outdoor table where we could bring our dog. It was a warm but beautiful night for our party of four. We selected three of the four pies on the menu, each made with the surprising choice of cheddar cheese:
  • FunGuy with crème fraîche, mushrooms, chives, smoked salt, and and truffle oil
  • Summer's Bounty with crème fraîche, Roma tomatoes, corn, basil, and lemon salt
  • The Godfather with red sauce, Italian sausage, peppers, and caramelized onions

We started by sharing some superb salads of local greens topped with beets and goat cheese, and we ordered a bottle of Cuvée Red, a vineyard blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and chancellor grapes. It was an excellent $15 pizza wine.
House Sangria

This limited-menu pizza restaurant was built around that copper oven. According to the website, "The core of our 6,000 pound Le Panyol oven is made up of Terre Blanche (white earth), a kaolinic clay that has been specially harvested in France since 1840 for the many special properties that make it ideal for wood fired cooking."
"Summer's Bounty"
Our server told us that the pies bake at 800 degrees, so these are Neapolitan in style if not in name. Owner/chef Mary Jane Challen-Kircher takes a "hyper-local" approach to crafting these pies and the few other dishes on the menu. 
"Fun Guy"
Each pizza was bigger than a typical personal size, irregular in shape, probably 13-14 inches in average diameter. The pies cook in that wood-fired copper dome, and they come out thin, crisp, and sporting some lovely char on the edges and underneath.

The crust was identical, and spectacular, on all three pies. Unlike the typical Neapolitan, there was no soupy wet spot in the center. Each pie had an ideal proportion of toppings to that thin crust, so that it was balanced in both flavor and texture.

It's hard to pick a favorite here. The Godfather was the most traditional, and the quality of the toppings was evident in every bite. Most surprising was the Summer's Bounty, but the crème fraîche was the right ingredient to help the Roma tomatoes and sweet corn succeed on a pizza.

Getting a very slight edge as overall favorite was the FunGuy, because the flavors of the cheddar, mushrooms, truffle oil, and chives were in such harmony. Bursting with umami to complement the perfect texture. And, on each pie, the cornicione had its own excellent and full flavor.

In other parts of America, folks are paying $100 a seat for this kind of artisan-and-farm-to-table meal. Beyond being a spectacular meal, this was also a wonderful bargain. Destination pizza, lovely outdoor setting, good service, good wine.
The Copper Oven

It's hard to go wrong in this stretch along Lake Cayuga, but The Copper Oven was our top can't-miss dining and pizza destination.


  The Copper Oven Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review: Conte's Pizza and Bar, Princeton NJ

1980 was the year I discovered the impeccable tomato pie at DeLorenzo's in Trenton (now Robbinsville). Later that same year, we went out for beers after a company softball game and landed at Conte's Pizza and Bar, just a few blocks away from the campus of Princeton University.
Conte's sausage pizza
I doubt that I even had the pizza on my first few visits - our meager funds were designated for pitchers of cheap domestic beer (probably Rolling Rock, which is still on tap at Conte's). The pizza, once I tried it, was the exact style that I prefer, with a thin and crisp crust. It remained a favorite of mine through 1987, when I moved away from the Trenton area to Pennsylvania.
Princeton U, 5 minutes away

I returned only once since then, probably around 2005. I was comforted by how little Conte's had changed - and by how the pizza was still excellent. Princeton is a long trip from home now, but we recently took some international visitors to tour the University, which provided the ideal chance to get back to Conte's for my first visit since starting this blog in 2011.

Note the glass block bar on left

What I loved about Conte's in 1980 was its authentically retro feel. A step inside Conte's is a step back in time, and I was delighted to discover in 2016 that the building remains the same, inside and out. Conte's history as a pizzeria goes back to 1950, per their website:
Conte's began in 1936, when Sebastiano Conte opened the Witherspoon Bar on the current site. Conte, born in 1895, came from the island of Ischia in 1920. Princeton’s first pizza was served at Conte's bar on October 13, 1950. Conte's traditional thin crust traces back to a NY baker who took the train to Princeton every day. Mr. Conte would pick him up every day and return him to the station around midnight. The decor of Conte's has remained consistent since the 1950s. The white top tables are original, the brown ones arrived in the 70s. Conte's pizza has remained true to its roots; red pies are the rule, neither green vegetables nor “gourmet” toppings are available. Most of the wait staff who work here are family, and the exceptions are usually longtime friends of the family.
We arrived at dinnertime on a sweltering Saturday. During September-May, I would expect to wait for a table, but with students mostly gone and so many locals away on vacation, we were seated right away. The waitress asked - en route to the table - if we knew what we wanted to order. We didn't, of course, but it's a nice way for regulars to get their pies into the oven ASAP.
Pepperoni pizza
The menu is very short - a few sandwiches and pasta dishes, and red sauce pies with a handful of topping choices: sausage, pepperoni, anchovies, mushrooms, olives, peppers, onions, or garlic. This is the kind of pizza to eat with a pitcher of beer; there is Bud, Miller Lite, Peroni, and Hefeweizen on tap.
Onion and garlic pie
We ordered a pitcher of the Hefeweizen and three pies: sausage, pepperoni, and a garlic/onion combo.

Each large pie was about 16" across, and featured a thin, crisp crust with ideal color and char underneath and on the cornicione. Although the sausage pie was little heavy on the cheese and sauce (while the others were ideally balanced), there was no tip sag. Every narrow slice was rigid and crisp.

Because my notion of the perfect pizza was formed in the 1960s, I have a deep appreciation for any pies that seem like the kind my parents would have eaten. Conte's pie fits that perfectly - both the ambiance and the pizza are in a wonderful time warp. It really could be 1980 - or 1960 - all over again inside Conte's.

There was very little hole structure to the crust - it was uniformly flat, even to the cornicione. There was some nice dense chewiness above the crisp bottom, and the crust sported its own excellent flavor. Shame on anyone who leaves the pizza bones here. We sure didn't.
Perfect color underneath
The red sauce had a nice tang, but it differed from the simple crushed tomato found on a Trenton pie. This was a bit more cooked, and it melded into the orange with the conventional cheese (dry mozzarella or mozz blend). Old school all the way.

As noted, the sausage pie had a bit too much cheese and sauce, but the uneven chunks of fresh Italian sausage were more than enough to compensate for that small flaw. Proper sausage pizza begins with uncooked chunks that release fat and flavor into the pie while it's cooking.

The pepperoni pie shared the same wonderful base, but had an ideal balance in the amount of sauce and cheese. The pepperoni was a nice version of the "spicy cup" variety that curled up into the ideal little grease chalices. I wouldn't change a thing about this pizza.

We loved the onion and garlic pie, too. Like the pepperoni pie, it was assembled with the right proportion of cheese and sauce to crust. The garlic was a little hard to distinguish, and the onion slices were just a tad too thick, but still a wonderful pie. The pitcher of German witbier was light and perfect with pizza.
Thin crust but great chewy texture
It's hard to go home again - so often, precious memories have been exaggerated in your mind. But Conte's pizza is just about identical to the pie I had in 2005 and in 1980. I can't say the same for the wonderful tomato pie at DeLorenzo's, even as it remains a favorite.

So many of the best places are making the same pies as when Italian immigrant artisans began crafting them from scratch after the second world war. Sally's and Pepe's in New Haven, Lombardi's and Totonno's in NYC, Tacconelli's in Philly, DeLorenzo's and Papa's in Trenton/Robbinsville. 
Our guests from Shenzen, China

If you like old style pizza, you can't do much better than this. Conte's - a legend in Princeton - is overlooked and underrated outside the immediate region. This destination pizza is worth the trip.

Conte's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Review: Lorenzo and Sons Pizza, West Chester PA

Philadelphia is one of the truly great pizza towns. While there may not be an iconic "Philly style" pizza (other than a Philly tomato pie - details HERE), the best in town can stand with the top places in New York, Chicago, and New Haven. Thus, it was exciting to see a branch of a Philly pizza place open up in West Chester.
Monster slices at Lorenzo & Sons, West Chester
Just ten years ago, Philly trailed nearby Trenton NJ (home to a completely different kind of tomato pie), but the exodus of the great pie makers from Trenton has let Philly pass it by as the top Delaware Valley destination.

Philly has only one legendary pizza joint - the venerable Tacconelli's in Port Richmond. But many of the brightest stars of the Pizza Renaissance call Philadelphia home: Beddia, Pizzeria Vetri, Capofitto, Gennaro's, Zavino, Slice, Osteria, Nomad
Lorenzo & Sons, West Chester
There are some stalwart slice joints, too. One is Lorenzo's Pizza, located on Christian Street in the Italian Market. Another is Lorenzo and Sons, on South Street. For years, I've confused these two Philly pizzerias with similar names. (And let's not even bring Trenton legend DeLorenzo's into the discussion.) 
The Philly Taco
Both are famous for big slices of thin New York style pizza, often served to drunks in the wee hours of the morning. The bigger slices at Lorenzo and Sons are used for the awful "Philly Taco" by which a cheesesteak sandwich is rolled up in a slice of pizza, taco style.
A beautiful char on our slice at Lorenzo's Pizza in Philly's Italian Market
About a year ago, we visited Lorenzo's in the Italian Market, and we loved the $2 slice there. It was a near-perfect rendition of an uncomplicated New York slice. The kind of pizza that was ubiquitous until the 1970s, but which began to disappear as the mom-and-pop shops began cutting corners with inferior ingredients from mass suppliers like Sysco.
Corner of Gay and High Streets, West Chester
Almost two years ago, news broke that Lorenzo and Sons was opening a branch in West Chester in a prime location at the corner of Gay and High Streets. This prime property had been vacant for a long time and seemed like a great location - near West Chester University - for a slice joint. 

I had been thinking that I'd get a West Chester version of that great slice I had in the Italian Market, but it's actually the suburban location for the South Street Lorenzo and Sons, which I haven't experienced.
Second floor dining room
We visited at lunchtime on a sleepy summer Saturday. There are plenty of tables for al fresco dining and a spacious room upstairs, too. We were struck by the sight of the enormous 28" pies and the huge slices. Although one $3.50 slice was probably adequate to feed two people for lunch, we ordered one plain and one with sausage and pepperoni.

Like many slice joints, Lorenzo & Sons makes only a few basic pies for slice re-heating. Here, there is plain and pepperoni. For any other topping, it's added to the slice for the re-heat. Hence, our meat slice had the baked-in pepperoni, with the addition of pre-cooked sliced sausage. This never works out very well, because the toppings aren't properly integrated into the pie.

The staff was very friendly, and our oversized slices came out quickly. Each sliced overflowed the two paper plates on which it rested, and the two slices together filled the entire surface of the tray on which we transported them to the dining table upstairs. 
Good color underneath
The slice was, in a word, ridiculous. Far too big to pick up and eat, even with two hands. If you engage in the bad habit of pizza folding (thereby turning your pizza into a calzone), this was still too big to pick up. Lacking silverware, we simply tore off chunks until each slice was manageable.

I found that the crust had good texture, in the classic crisp-but-not-dry style of the better New York slices. The cheese was a good role player, and applied in near-perfect proportion. The sauce was tame and barely a factor. 
Cornicione was white-bready and bland
The baked-in pepperoni was standard grade, but it certainly enhanced that slice by adding a savory and salty note. The added thin slices of sausage were reasonably tasty, but of course well short of the great boost that chunks of cooked-on-pie sausage can deliver.

We enjoyed these slices, which were a measure better than the standard slice joint in the area. Still, when reaching the cornicione, the crust was revealed to be pretty low on character and flavor. It would have been no sin to leave the bones behind here.
Better slices at Lorenzo's Pizza in Philly's Italian Market
I wondered why this slice wasn't as good as the slices we had at Lorenzo's Pizza in the Italian Market, but of course now I know that this is not Lorenzo's Pizza, but Lorenzo & Sons.

In Philly, then, Lorenzo's Pizza is the hands-down winner for Slice Joint King. The absurdly large slices at Lorenzo & Sons are great for Philly's South Street or this college town, a good $3.50 value to be wolfed down by inebriated college kids. Lorenzo & Sons just won the local "best bang for your buck" pizza award.

Superior pizza at nearby RapiDough
In West Chester, Lorenzo & Sons adds one more decent choice to an improving if not yet great selection of pizza places. This is good pie, akin to the pizza at nearby Couch Tomato, but trailing RapiDough, whose Neapolitan pies are currently tops in town.

Lorenzo And Sons Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato