Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Review: Tribute Pizza - San Diego, CA

Visitors may not think of San Diego as a pizza destination, but two recent trips here have permitted me to find good, great, and amazing pizza.

In 2016, I found a small place that serves authentic Chicago style deep dish, by the slice, at Berkeley Pizza. I suppose there is no such thing as "San Diego style" pizza, so why not Chicago? The theme continued when I stopped in at Basic Pizza, and had a wonderful New Haven style apizza. Those two places alone put San Diego on the pizza map, but my latest visit here turned it up to 11.

Pizza geeks had been buzzing for a while about Tribute Pizza, where owner Matt Lyons fashions several kinds of pies in tribute to the world’s best pizzas, such as Apizza Scholls in Portland, Best Pizza in Brooklyn, Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, and a rotating variety of other regional favorites. 
Wood-fired oven at Tribute Pizza
Lyons says "We’re not looking to create exact replicas or take something and make it our own. We want to make something incredible as well as we can." I had been following Tribute on Facebook, drooling over pics of the pizzas and appetizers, and a visit here gave me the opportunity to visit the North Park pizzeria.
The Margherita
The large, open space is modern and comfortable, housed in a former U.S. Post Office. Wooden tables wrap around a large counter, behind which you can see the pizza prep and the large oven.

We visited on a Sunday night, and the place was nearly full. Happily, were were quickly seated and we had superb service the entire evening.
Underside of the Margherita
I regret that we did not order appetizers, but our group of five was able to try three different pizzas. As a baseline, we ordered a Neapolitan Margherita. We also opted for a pie modeled on Best Pizza in Brooklyn (which I have visited) that was constructed with fresh mozz, ricotta, wood roasted onions, parsley, and sesame seeds on the crust. 
The Brooklyn pie
Our final selection was Bronx inspired, the "Mushroom Whitestone" featuring fresh and aged mozz, garlicky wood roasted mushrooms, garlic confit, Calabrian chile, ricotta, and Pecorino. We also ordered some drafts from the excellent selection of beers on the menu. 
A Brooklyn slice
The Margherita came out first. I was immediately struck by the vitality of the red sauce. So simple yet so vibrant, the closest comparison I can make is the simple crust, sauce, and olive oil al taglio slice I had at Forno Marco Rosciolo, by the Campo di Fiore in Rome. The crust, too, was revelatory. Thin, crisp, and delicate. So light and so tasty, yet no soggy spots anywhere. No one in our party left any uneaten pizza bones.
Underside of the Brooklyn slice
Thrillist says, and we agree, that "the Margherita pie is the perfect benchmark to judge the quality of any given pizzeria. Here, it’s made with organic Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, creamy fresh mozz, basil, and primo olive oil -- and serves as a fitting homage to its inspiration, Pizzeria Brandi in Naples." Lyons uses flour from Central Milling and his crust is more breadlike than other pizzas, in all the best ways.
The Bronx Mushroom Whitestone
The Brooklyn's Best pizza was also wonderful, and somehow the crust was even better with the addition of sesame seeds. All the ingredients were in harmony and balanced in both texture and flavor, even as I was missing that impeccable red sauce. The thin and crisp crust became puffy and bubbly at the edges, and these may be the most delectable corniciones of any pizza anywhere.
Underside of the Mushroom Whitestone
There was no drop in quality with the Mushroom Whitestone, which we enhanced with a prosciutto topping. While the Margherita pie was as completely authentic as you'll find anywhere in America, the other two pizzas seemed to start with that Margherita base and then morph into something more American; it's hard to think of a better Tribute than that. These pies are not replicas, but ground-breaking stuff that blends ancient methods with cutting edge pizza craft.
Gwen with a Bronx slice
It's important to note that, even after stuffing in the last few slices, we were persuaded to order dessert. I had the vanilla soft serve topped with olive oil and sea salt, and it was the perfect combo of creamy, cold, sweet, savory, and salty. How to make a fabulous meal even better, this was it.

I've eaten a lot of pizza and it's often tempting to say "this was the best X pizza ever."  I must say that you would be hard pressed to find better pizza anywhere. This stuff stands with the best pies I've had in NYC, Rome, New Haven, Trenton, Philly, and Chicago. As good as the sauce and other toppings are, it's the dough that makes a great pizza, and I could eat this stuff every day.
Soft serve with EVOO and sea salt
In writing about pizza and eating great pizza, the best experiences are talking with owners who have true passion for their craft. If you're watching Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon (if not, you should be), you know that the Maestro cherishes artists who play music "with the blood." By that he means that they play with feeling and passion. No amount of technical finesse can cover for a shortage of passion.
Jeff helps finish the last few slices
Some of the most inspirational pizza makers are Norma Knepp, who made such wonderful boardwalk and Detroit style pies in her tiny shop in a farmer's market, and the wonderful folks at Elio G's, where making Old Forge style pizza is a long family tradition. We had the chance to chat with Matt Lyons at the end of our meal, and he told us about his time making pies in Nairobi and what inspired his approach and how his team plays "with the blood."
"With the blood"
This was one of the top pizza experiences not just in San Diego, but anywhere. Don't miss it if you're in town, just a 12 minute drive from the Gaslamp district. Magical stuff.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Review: John's Pizza - Frazer (Malvern) PA

In October 2018, Philadelphia Magazine published an article specifying "30 Cheesesteaks to Eat Before You Die" and it included John's Pizza in Frazer PA as one of the best in the Philly metropolitan area:
It's got a huge dining room, a long counter, a vintage Pac-Man arcade cabinet in the corner, and signed pictures on the wall from Paul Anka, the Supersuckers, Kenny Rogers and Mr. Tony Danza. Know what they call that 'round these parts? Bona fides, man. This place has been around the block and back again, looks like it hasn't redecorated since 1981, and turns out a solid roster of 'steaks on crispy bread. The only option here is with onions or without, but if you need anything more than that, you're too bougie for John's anyway.

John's occupies a large rectangle building on Route 30, a particularly dreary stretch between Malvern and Exton with lots of dog kennels, sundry automotive services, a U-Haul store, a bowling alley, and a dive bar. 

Other than the tilted letters on the sign out by the road, there is nothing visually interesting to draw you into John's Pizza. In fact, I've driven by it frequently for nine years in my search for authentic pizza and never imagined it would be more than another mom-n-pop place slinging Sysco-sourced generic floppy cheesey pizzas.

A few years back, I conducted an extensive cheesesteak survey in Philly with a good friend, so I was excited to try this local entry endorsed by Philly Magazine. We stopped by for cheesesteaks and they were excellent, good chopped steak on a lovely fresh chewy roll with grilled onions and American cheese. Folks in this region of Chester County now have at least two great options for cheesesteaks, John's Pizza and The Pepper Mill in West Chester.

That might have been the end of the story, but we saw a nearby couple order a pizza. It looked great! Thin crust, clearly not generic Sysco stuff, and a deep red sauce with plenty of cheese. We vowed to return soon for the pizza, and we did.
Celeb photos from Philly TV newsmen of the past
In addition to the furnishings noted in the magazine article, we noted a group of photos of Philly TV news celebrities, going all the way back to the legendary Jim O'Brien, on air from 1970 through 1983 (trivia note: his daughter, Peri Gilpin, played Roz Doyle on Fraser). There are also framed newspaper clippings of special events at John's Pizza in the wake of the Phillies' 1980 World Series victory.
Our 16" sausage pizza
The staff at John's is casual and very friendly. Our server let me know that all the dough is house made, and that on a sausage pizza, the sausage is applied in raw chunks, as it should be.

We ordered a large (16") pizza with sausage; all of the pizza prices are modest by modern standards. Like most pizzerias, there are fountain sodas as well as a cooler of various soft drinks.

The pizza arrived and that golden-edged thin crust looked beautiful. The red sauce was a vibrant color, but we noticed it was applied in great abundance, resulting in a swirly pool of sauce and melted cheese on top. Without careful lifting on the first slice, you'd be at risk of the sauce and cheese sliding off.

This was less troublesome than it first appeared, because as the pie cooled a bit, the sauce and cheese congealed a bit and had better crust adhesion. I did eat the first bite of each slice with a knife and fork, but the rest was easily consumed without the bad habit of folding.

Despite the sea of red sauce, the crust was uniformly thin and crisp - no soggy spots anywhere. It sported really good char underneath and had a good bready flavor. 
Nice char under the hood
The red sauce, it seems, was so plentiful because it was the star of this pizza. Deeply flavored, both rich and sweet, it reminded me of the pizza at another local old-school pizzeria, Franzone's of Bridgeport. In fact, our pizza at Franzone's was also awash in a flow of wonderful sweet red sauce. In my review of Franzone's, I dubbed it "pizza soup."
Saucy pie from Franzone's
There was plenty of cheese here, but the cheese was largely a role player. The sausage turned out to be a perfect choice, because it was good quality genuine Italian sausage with ideal browning as it cooked on the pie. All told, each bite was delectable and surprisingly balanced, given the volume of red sauce.
Chris, one of the owners, making cheesesteaks (from facebook.com/JohnsPizza610.647.4297)
Our server told us that some customers ask for "light sauce" and I will certainly try one that way. John's Pizza is old school in all the right ways. You can't go wrong with the award-winning cheesesteak or the old-school thin-crust pizza at John's. We'll be back often for both.

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

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Review: Porta - Philadelphia, PA

Situated in a huge two-story former furniture store, Porta is Philadelphia's largest restaurant space. This is the third location for Porta, which began in Asbury Park, NJ in the space once occupied by The Student Prince, the nightclub where Bruce Springsteen met Clarence Clemons.

I visited the Philly location on a Wednesday night, and the place was abuzz with dining parties of all sorts. There are two levels inside, and the place feels warm and comfortable despite its cavernous dimensions. My visit was part of a group outing for food and drinks, so I didn't have control of the menu.

Porta is known best, perhaps, for its authentically Neapolitan pizza, but there is a fairly complete Italian menu including salads, fried appetizers, pastas, steaks, and even branzino. We gathered around a large attractive bar on the second floor and began with drinks and appetizers. 

Our Caesar salad was simple but well-executed, and the big crunchy croutons were a standout. Another impressive starter was the house-made mozzarella drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, & black pepper, served with excellent fresh sliced Italian bread. Bread is always an odd appetizer before pizza, but this really set our taste buds on edge.

The first pizza I sampled was the simple Margherita, always the truest test of a Neapolitan pizza. This was was rendered with San Marzano tomatoes, house-made mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, basil, and extra virgin olive oil. 

It was perfectly balanced in tastes and textures, with none of the wet spots or sogginess that plagues so many Neapolitans. I took particular note of the brightly flavored red sauce. The crust, always the most important element, was excellent if not quite at the level of Razza or Scuola Vecchia, the best Neapolitans I've had.
The Quattro Formaggio and the Margherita
The next pie I sampled was a white quattro formaggio. I like a white Neapolitan, because although it's indeed inauthentic without the red sauce, the reduced moisture content means the cheese gets to absorb more of that brief 90 seconds of heat in the 900 degree dome oven. 

Much like the Margherita, this pie too was ideally balanced. I can't name the four cheeses (nor find it on the menu), but the blend was particularly tasty, with a strongly flavored one (goat cheese?) in the mix.
Excellent char underneath
The third  Neapolitan was the least successful, essentially a Margherita topped with peppers, onions, and sausage. These are all terrific conventional pizza toppings, but not ideal on a Neapolitan. The peppers were tasty, but not in harmony with the more delicate flavors of the Margherita underneath.
Quattro Formaggio

The sausage, excellent quality, were inch-size pre-cooked slices which did not integrate into the pie at all, riding on top like the sad add-ons at a slice joint when the pizzaiolo puts sausage on a plain cheese slice before the re-heat. Porta's catering menu seems to tilt toward more "Medigan" tastes and this pie was probably a compromise to that. I'm glad it's not on the regular menu.

Sausage, peppers, onions
Finally, the last pies to come out were Nutella dessert pizzas. I've seen versions of this at other Neapolitan places and never was tempted, but in this setting it was easy to grab a slice to try it. I put some Nutella slices and other leftovers in a box to take home. An hour later, I tasted the Nutella pie and I was floored. Dusted with powdered sugar, it was a delightful mix of that savory and chewy crust with the sweet chocolate-hazelnut flavor inside.  I had another piece the next day after overnight refrigeration and it was still wonderful.
Source: @pizzaporta on Twitter
Philly is a great pizza town, even if Beddia has come and gone. Roman al taglio style at Rione or Alice, traditional masterpieces at Tacconelli's and Pizza Brain, Neapolitans at Capofitto and Vetri. Porta is a worthy addition both in terms of the quality of their Neapolitan pies, but also the huge space with great ambiance in an ideal center city location. We'll be back!

Porta Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato