Saturday, January 9, 2021

Pizza Quixote's Top Five Breakout Pizzas of 2020

In a year when I stopped all in-restaurant dining around the end of February, pizza became the go-to food for takeout. You can bring it home, heat it up in the oven, and minimize the risk of covid19 transmission. And I did eat plenty of pizza in 2020, but much of it came from close-to-home favorite pizzerias. 


Our annual recap is all about the discovery of new pizzerias, often prompted by travel, so we have a pretty compact list this time (unlike 2017, which featured 21 different pizza places). The quantity is reduced, but not the quality!

Let's begin with a clear understanding of this list:  These are not the Top Five Pizzas in America, or my own favorite five, but simply the Five Best Pizzas Newly Discovered By Me in 2020. 

5. 'Zza Pizza & Salad - Bee Cave, TX.  The year began with this delightful surprise, when a St. Louis-style pizzamaker opened this location only minutes from my home. The long oval flatbreads (some under $10) are offered with a range of inventive toppings, and the salads were terrific too. 


We said "It is pizza? It is flatbread? Is it pizza-flavored nachos? Whatever you call it, it is scrumptious, and easily the best 'fast casual' pizza I've had, edging out &Pizza for that distinction." 

4. Whole Foods Fresh Pizza. If any national supermarket chain could crack a list of best pizzas, Whole Foods is the best candidate. I may never have tried it in a normal year, but tweaked grocery habits took me to Whole Foods and I was intrigued by the look of the pizza. The Friday special offering a whole large pizza for $6 was all the incentive needed.


I reported that "the crust on this pizza was just stunning" and "it reminded me of the ideal mix of chewy and crunchy that I'd found at some of the best pizza joints on the east coast." With a vibrant red sauce, this pie was wonderful.

3. Tonari Japanese Deep-Dish, Washington DC. My only air travel of 2020 took me to Philly and DC in late February. We visited Tonari, a restaurant offering pasta and pizza "wafu" style, which means "in the Japanese way." Of course, we had to try the deep-dish pizza, and it was like nothing I've had before or since. 


It shared much with Detroit-style pizzas, and we noted it had a "formidable crunchy crust" but "the interior of the dough is white, soft, and pillowy." Texturally, while it resembles some of the best thick and airy pizzas like the ones at Rize in West Chester PA and Via 313 in Austin TX, it was distinctly different from any pizza crust I've ever eaten. The dough is fermented for up to three days to develop a structure that is common to Japanese white bread. Beyond its delectable silky interior and crunchy edges, it had a wonderfully complex flavor even without the toppings.

We sought out the "most Japanese" pizza, opting for the Mentaiko & Corn pie that included brick cheese, mentaiko (cod roe) cream, Kewpie (Japanese mayonnaise) corn puree, and scallions. The toppings flowed like lava over this pie but the crust did not become soggy. Weird and spectacular stuff!

2. Casa Nostra, Spicewood, TX. Spicewood is home to Willie Nelson's Luck Ranch, and it's just five minutes down the highway from my suburban Austin home. To an east coaster like me, Spicewood is where residential Texas begins to yield to ranch Texas. I expect good BBQ, but not pizza. However, in 2019 I found that Pizzeria Sorrelina in Spicewood was spectacular. On each trip to Sorrelina, I drove past Casa Nostra thinking "that can't be very good."


I'm here to report that I was wrong. Every pizza is perfectly cooked, with no wet centers and a well-considered balance of ingredients. The simple Margherita ($11) rides on a delicate and puffy yet crisp crust with a tangy red sauce married to the mozzarella with basil and extra virgin olive oil. And Casa Nostra offers pizza ala tonno, (a white pie with mozzarella, tuna, carmelized onion, Kalmata olives, and pine nuts), which I had previously seen on on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.


Casa Nostra was a lifeline in 2020. Great pizza, efficient curbside service, and during the terrible spring when grocery stores had shortages, Casa Nostra set up an online system from which we could order staples like red sauce, pizza flour, and beer! In fact, yesterday I made pizza at home with the excellent flour I bought at Casa Nostra. 

Apis Restaurant & Apiary Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1. Lake Travis Pizza, Lakeway TX. Given the travel constraints of 2020, it's no wonder that three of the top five are driving distance for Austin suburbanites, but all three of these Texas pizzerias would be on my list in any year. Operating out of a tiny red shack on Route 620 in Lakeway, Lake Travis Pizza was getting a lot of buzz. I avoid 620 when possible, because it's the most congested artery in the region and folks around here don't drive so much as they mosey. But when I knew I'd be passing by on a journey home from Round Rock, I called ahead for a takeout pizza.


On the 15 minute ride home, I noted that the aroma in the car was intoxicating; it's a smell that instantly conveys "great pizza ahead." The taste measured up; the crust was a Neapolitan hybrid with some of the textural elements of a conventional soft and puffy Neapolitan, but also plenty of crispness. It had its own rich flavor and was cooked about perfectly, right down to the leopard spotting underneath.


On our pepperoni pie, the cheese was very well balanced to the rest of the pizza, but it was a role player. The sauce, however, was remarkable; dark, thick, rich, and bursting with flavor. The spicy cup pepperoni was about a perfect accent, adding yet one more layer of umami. Overall, a nearly perfect pizza.


The folks at Lake Travis Pizza know what it takes to make terrific pie. The superb Lake Travis pizza is more proof that "it's the water" is a silly myth about great NYC pizza. Any non-native Texan knows that the water here is lousy. I drank tap water all of my life in NY, NJ, PA - but not here. Water has almost nothing to do with it; it's about quality ingredients and pizzamaking skills. Lake Travis pizza has that in spades.


On a personal note, I love the Texas climate, the Austin vibe, the hill country, and the BBQ. I thought I'd be giving up some things to gain all that Texas offers, like great pizza and watching the Eagles every Sunday in the fall. But the pizza here is better than in my old neighborhood: Sorrelina, Casa Nostra, and 'Zza are all within 10 minutes, the terrific Toss and Lake Travis Pizza are within 15 minutes, and Via 313 is perhaps 25 minutes away. And bonus, because they are in the NFC East with the Cowboys, the Eagles are broadcast right to my home most Sundays.


Let's hope that 2021 gives you and me the chance for more travel, more pizza, and a return to normal. And for the Eagles, a return to the playoffs!

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Review: Presto Pizzazz Plus Rotating Pizza Oven

Among the enduring food trends of the past decade, two stand out in my mind. One is craft beer. In American history, beer was first local, then regional, then dominated by large national brands. The big beermakers like Miller, Pabst, and Budweiser crowded out the regional brands; iconic beers disappeared (Schmidt's, Ballantine, Piels) or were bought up by the big breweries and rendered into bland brews (Rolling Rock, Lone Star, Olympia, Schaefer). 

Beer was in a sad state, and the best stuff you could get was green-bottle imports like Heineken and Molson. The craft beer explosion changed all that beginning in 1979 when Jimmy Carter deregulated the beer market, and it's been a beer drinker's renaissance as the trend accelerated in this century.

Presto Pizzazz Plus Rotating Pizza Oven
There's a good parallel track for pizza in America. Beginning with Shakey's (1954) and Pizza Hut (1958), national chains began to compete with the mom and pop pizzamakers. While they couldn't match the taste, their efficiency allowed them to compete on price. The overall effect was that more pizza was available to more people (not just in Italian-American neighborhoods) and at a lower price. But not only was it bland generic pizza, it degraded the quality of the surviving mom and pop joints, who often turned to mass suppliers like Sysco to trim costs. 


But the artisanal pizza movement has exploded in the nine short years that I've been writing this blog, and in almost any town in America you can get a legit Neapolitan pizza to go with your craft beer.

Beyond the ubiquitous Neapolitans coming out of 900 degree dome ovens, You can get wonderful Detroit style pizza at Via 313 in Austin, New Haven style at Basic in San Diego, and "al taglio" Roman style at Rione in Philly.

Beginning to bake my 12" pizza

Beyond the commercial efforts, the artisanal pizza movement has sparked a wave of "make it a home" enthusiasts. I've embraced some basic methods to get around the limitations of a 500-degree home oven, such as using a Baking Steel. Built-in backyard pizza ovens are growing in popularity, but there are also some simpler options for those not so fully committed; that brings us to pizza ovens for home use.

Nearly done
There are "portable" outdoor pizza ovens like the Ooni Fyra, a $250 wood-pellet fueled oven that reaches 900 degrees. You can spend $1,000 on the Breville Pizzaiolo for a countertop pizza oven, and there are plenty of oven boxes that can be heated using your conventional backyard gas grill. At the budget end of the pizza oven spectrum, for $50 you can get the Presto Pizzazz Plus Rotating Pizza Oven. We got one as a Christmas gift and I was eager to try it out. 


The Pizzazz is a Jetsons-like device in its form, a rounded triangle slotted body that incorporates heating elements to cook the pizza from both the bottom and the top. The heating triangle covers only a small "slice" of your pizza at any given time, but the slowly rotating cooking tray assures that your pizza will cook evenly. The tray is dimpled and has a nonstick coating.



Golden underneath
One immediate advantage is that, compared to my regular method of cooking homemade pizzas on a Baking Steel at 500-550 degrees, there is no preheating time lag. A second, more valuable advantage is that you don't incur the risk of mishandling the pizza when transferring from peel to oven. You can assemble your pie directly on the cold rotating tray, then put the tray in the oven to cook.

Cornicione was pale and tender
For my first attempt, I made a batch of pizza dough for which the recipe specified just one hour of rise time. The batch was big enough for two 12" pizzas, so I put half in the refrigerator for another time. The tray is a little bigger than 13", so it was ideal for the almost-round 12" crust that I fashioned. I used jarred Marinara sauce (Rao's), raw chunks of fresh mild sausage, and a mix of Parmesan, Asiago, and Romano shaved cheeses.

Pesto pizza, pre-bake
The spindle on which you seat the tray begins to rotate as soon as you plug in the oven, and it's a little hairy to get the tray perched properly on the spindle; even then, it seems wobbly but that did not affect performance. To begin cooking, you rotate the heating control like a timer to set the desired cooking time; there is no temperature control. The feature that transforms this budget machine is a selector switch that allows you to cook from the bottom, the top, or in dual mode.

Perfectly cooked, top and bottom
I cooked this pizza for about 12 minutes in dual mode, and the top appeared well-cooked, including the sausage. But a peek underneath revealed a still-pale crust, so I gave it an extra 4 minutes cooking from the bottom only. This is how you can easily fine-tune your results. Unlike a conventional oven or any enclosed oven, the pizza is right in your field of view, and you can top-cook only for extra crisping or bottom-cook only to firm up a pale crust.

Brilliant sesame studded undercarriage
This first pizza was a hit, taste-wise. The top was perfectly browned, and the crust was properly rigid. No wet spots, no soggy tip, no sag. However, the crust was curiously delicate, especially toward the cornicione. I like an al-dente chewy/crunchy cornicione, but this was pale, tender, and delicate. Still good, but not ideal. I wondered if I could correct that.

About 4 days later, I took out the second half of the dough which had been resting in the fridge, and let it rise for a few hours at room temp. I decided that the pizza might cook differently if I split it into two smaller 7-8" pizzas. Those pies became medium ovals as I rolled the dough pretty thin. 

The mini Margherita
I did prepare the dough off the tray, adding flour for handling and putting sesame seeds on the underside of the first mini-pizza (a trick I learned from Rize Pizza in West Chester, PA.) I secured the seeds to the underside with olive oil cooking spray, then I assembled the toppings after the dough was on the tray.

Much better than the original attempt
Mini-pie #1 started with homemade pesto in place of tomato sauce, topped with garden cherry tomatoes and the same sausage and cheese mix used on the previous pizza. I didn't center the pizza on the tray very well, and the tray listed to one side as it rotated, but that did not affect results. Because of the moisture load delivered by the cherry tomatoes, this pie got about 15 minutes of dual cooking. 

Tortilla "pizza"
The results were spectacular! This crust was so much better than the previous one made from the same dough. It had all the flavor, plus good hole structure, plus a crispy snap, plus a great chewiness. It will take more experiments to know if the difference was due to more rise time (likely), the underside oil and sesame seeds (maybe), or the smaller size of the pizza (possibly).

Good hole structure on mini Margherita
Mini-pie #2 followed in similar fashion, but without seeds underneath; it was essentially the personal-size version of the original pizza. It was excellent, much better than the original pie, but not quite as magical as mini-pie #1. 

Best all-around flour I've found
Between these two pizza events, I used some flour tortillas to make a pizza-ish lunch, topping the tortillas with the same Rao's Marinara, then adding diced leftover prime rib and some white American cheese. It's not pizza, but it was good. And once again, the dual control proved to be a key feature to getting the top cooked without burning the thin tortilla.

The original Pizzazz oven was targeted for heating up frozen pizzas; if you were making your own pizza, it was imperative to cover the entire tray surface. This newer "Plus" model allows you to cook smaller pizzas, things like pizza rolls or chicken wings, and other frozen convenience foods. The instructions warn you that you shouldn't use it to cook raw meats, but it cooked the sausage on my pizzas perfectly.


I was excited to get the Pizzazz Plus as a gift, and it has exceeded my expectations. It does take 15 minutes to cook a pizza, but the overall time is shorter than using an oven because you don't need to pre-heat. If you are making a lot of pizzas (at a party, for example), you could go much faster with a $150 grill insert device or the $250 Ooni wood-pellet outdoor oven. But for a mere $50, this is a superb performer. Given its exposed heating elements, I don't recommend it if you have small kids who might want to participate, but otherwise this is a fairly versatile device that is worth the cabinet space and the tiny price tag.


Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Review: Pizza Mill and Sub Factory - Alamogordo, NM

If you traveled to New Mexico, what kind of food would you seek? For my tastes, New Mexican fare tops both California and Tex-Mex in its approach to Mexican-inspired cuisine. Santa Fe is an epicure's delight as much as any town or city in America. But when you're trying to eat a covid-safe meal in southern New Mexico, takeout pizza or BBQ is an easy choice. 
Cracker crust pizza in Alamogordo
During our trip to Carlsbad and Alamogordo, we found that the BBQ pales in comparison to Texas, especially when ranked against stellar offerings like Cooper's in Llano or Opie's in Spicewood. What about the pizza?
Pizza Mill and Sub Factory
Given the proliferation of excellent Neapolitan pizza makers crafting personal-sized pies in 900-1000 degree wood fired dome ovens, I'm pretty confident that it would be easy to find great pizza in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. But much of New Mexico is sparsely populated.
Our mushroom and sausage pizza
Alamogordo is a city in the Chihuahuan Desert with 30,000 residents in southern New Mexico, supporting an Air Force base and tourism mostly related to the surreal and spectacular White Sands National Park. 
White Sands National Park
Online reviewers were pretty much unanimous that the best pizza in Alamogordo comes from Pizza Mill and Sub Factory. I had modest expectations, because there are so many storefront joints in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that churn out generic pizzas and hoagies (subs) that are just OK. All other things being equal, I prefer a place that really focuses on the pizza. 
Cross section showing thin crust
Another reason for caution was that the menu includes a "Garbage Barge" pizza topped with Canadian bacon, pepperoni, Italian sausage, hamburger, mushrooms, onions, black olives, green olives, bell peppers, and green chilies. In my experience, an "everything" pizza or any other pie with an overload of toppings is simply a technique to distract you from a lousy crust or mediocre generic ingredients. We opted for a more balanced pizza topped with mushrooms and Italian sausage.
A party-cut slice
There is a convenient (especially for this covid era) drive-up window to pick up your order, and there you can observe the staff preparing the pies. After a short drive to our lodging, I opened up the pizza box and found a delightful surprise - the pizza was sporting the midwestern "party cut" with small squares instead of the traditional triangle shaped slices. 
Pale underneath
During visits to the actual Midwest, I have enjoyed some solid bar-style thin crust pies at legendary pizza joints like Vito & Nick's in Chicago, Lucca Grill in Bloomington IL, Rubino's in Columbus OH, and the regional chain Monical's. After some digging, I learned that the founders had been making pizzas in Michigan before opening this Alamogordo pizzeria in 1972.
Photo from Facebook.com/PizzaMill
Most of these razor-thin pies mentioned here had a bready crust, but this pizza had a true cracker-type crust. Very thin with a crackly crunch, yet somehow still had some al dente chewiness to it. Baked on a metal tray, it was pretty pale on the bottom with just a few golden spots.
Mini square party cut
I can appreciate all kinds of crusts, from the thick and spongey cheese-encrusted corner slices of a Detroit slice at Via 313 in Austin, to a buttery rich grainy deep-dish Chicago style slice at Louisa's in Crestwood IL, to a medium thick classic slice at Toss in Bee Cave TX, to a thin and rigid tomato pie at DeLorenzo's in Robbinsville NJ, to any of countless soft and puffy Neapolitans at places like Cane Rosso in Dallas and Austin TX. 
Visible edge seam. From Facebook.com/PizzaMill
There's room in my heart and my stomach for a cracker crust, too. It was ideal for this party cut pie. Each perfectly round pie is crafted with fresh dough made daily, sent through an automatic roller, and then cut into perfect circles using the pans themselves as a template.
This thin and crisp wafer was topped with a generous amount of standard mozzarella, but the cheese and sauce did not make the crust soggy or saggy anywhere. The mushrooms were likely canned variety, but they had good color, size, and flavor. 

From Facebook.com/PizzaMill

The sausage chunks were small but surprisingly spicy. The tomato sauce was a solid role player to bring all the elements together. This was a well balanced and tasty pizza.
White Sands National Park
Pizza Mill and Sub factory is not breaking any new ground, but it's well above the average chain or mom-n-pop shop. It was a welcome surprise to find a reasonably authentic midwestern party cut thin crust pie in the remote reaches of New Mexico. Kudos that they've kept a high quality for 48 years in this location.





Pizza Mill & Sub Factory Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato