Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: Ecco Pizza Shoppe - Anaheim CA

During four trips to Anaheim over 3 years, I discovered that the town offers very little interesting dining options, at least in the Disney area. You can get a good-to-excellent but pricey meal at almost any Disney restaurant (which you can enter without going into the park), but the rest of that part of town is a dreary assortment of chains and fast food.

On my first two visits, I couldn't find one pizza place worth trying. On my third visit, I found a terrific Neapolitan pizza at La Brea Bakery Cafe right in Downtown Disney. On this visit, I traveled two miles away from the Convention Center area to visit Ecco Pizza Shoppe.

Ecco joins the growing number of small regional and national chains that offer reasonably authentic "fast-casual" build-your-own Neapolitan pizzas. It may be premature to call Ecco a chain, because there are just two locations now (Anaheim and Costa Mesa) with one coming in Irvine.
The courtyard at Anaheim Packing House
Other pizzeria chains in this "Chipotle of Pizza" market include:

Inside the Packing House

I've enjoyed these Neapolitans at MOD, ZAZA, Snap, and Sauce; they ranged from good to very good. None are quite the real deal, but all are miles better than the giant chains like Pizza Hut, Papa John's, or Domino's.

I didn't know that Ecco was part of a mini local chain when we arrived. It's housed in a former citrus packing house that's been converted to an "upscale food court" that is home to a great variety of restaurants. Walking through the open and airy space, I saw plenty of attractive options.
The Diavola
I was a bit dismayed to see the typical fast-casual assembly line, with little plastic containers of toppings for customers to see and choose, like when you are customizing your SubWay sandwich. That would have lowered my expectations, but then I saw the legitimate wood-fired Neapolitan dome oven, and my hopes were raised.
Pizza assembly area
The Orange County Register had recommended the Diavola pie, with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh Mozzarella, three kinds of hot peppers (Fresno chilies, jalapenos, and pepperoncini), thinly shaved Calabrese salami, Grana Padano cheese, and chili oil.
Authentic wood-fired Neapolitan pizza oven
The pizzaiolo informed me that they were out of jalapenos, so I could choose any other vegetable topping. To keep the character of the pie but to turn down the heat, I opted for conventional bell peppers.

Like every Neapolitan, my pie was ready in a hurry and it was beautiful to see. This pie was a bit more substantial than the typical fast-casual Neapolitan, and it was generously topped with peppers and long slivers of crispy/chewy Calabrese salami.

Although the center of the crust wasn't soggy or wet, it wasn't rigid enough to support the toppings, so the first few bites of each slice required knife and fork. But on the very first bite, it was apparent that this was the best-of-breed, clearly more authentically Neapolitan than other fast-casual pizzas.
Perfect color and char underneath
The crust had its own good flavor, and the texture improved with each bite closer to the puffy and chewy cornicione. The sauce and cheese had melded nicely, but each was a distinctive component. Ecco's red sauce is made with four kinds of heirloom tomatoes, wild basil, fresh Tuscan oregano, garlic, cracked black peppercorns, and onion.

I'm glad that Ecco was out of jalapenos, because this pie was blazing hot. It was at the upper edge of my spice tolerance, and I even removed a few of the Fresno chilies. The Calabrese salami was a standout topping - a much more complex and tasty experience than the typical pepperoni. The Grana Padano added the final umami note to this terrifically balanced pie.

I'm very much looking forward to trying both 1000 Degrees Neapolitan Express and MidiCi when a location opens near me - but for now, Ecco is the king of fast-casual Neapolitan pizza. Enjoy the good-to-great pies at these Neapolitan chains before Pizza Hut or Dominos' buys them out and ruins them with inferior ingredients as they did with conventional pizza.

Ecco Pizza Shoppe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, November 10, 2017

Review: Filomena's Italian Kitchen - Costa Mesa, CA

On my fourth trip to Anaheim in three years, I knew that pizza options in this town are pretty dreary. Although Los Angeles is just 27 miles away, it's 27 miles of congested freeways. 

I looked instead to some other nearby towns in Orange County and found a nice write-up of Filomena's Italian Kitchen in Costa Mesa, about a 20 minute ride from the Disneyland area. The Orange County Register reports that:
This is a hidden gem, where [the] pizza has slowly evolved ... the crust reached perfection midway through 2015. It’s hard to categorize the style, as it’s not quite New York, not quite sourdough, but rather a whole lot of goodness in between.

I called ahead on a Tuesday night and learned that the restaurant was mostly full with a wine tasting event, but the host found an open table for two. The wine event looked excellent; I learned that the cost to participate was $125.
The tasting room
The dining room
View of the bar from back of dining room
Inside, there is a large open room where wine tasters enjoyed a reception, and a more conventional dining room with a small bar. 
Menu from the Wine Tasting Event
We chose a bottle of California Cabernet ($49) from an extensive and pricy wine list and ordered two of the 12" pizzas - one with the pepperoni endorsed by the Orange County Register, and one with Italian sausage.
The sausage pizza
It's worth noting that the entire restaurant buzzed with warmth and comfort; the terrific service and the excitement of the wine event were both contributors to the happy atmosphere. When I saw the pies reach our table, I was encouraged that the reviews I'd seen would prove accurate.
The pepperoni pizza
We were offered freshly grated cheese to top our pies. I'm a fan of the post-bake addition of a sharp cheese like grana padano; I had mixed feelings about adding the same Parmesan that would go on the spaghetti at a neighboring table. We allowed the cheese on the sausage pie and declined it on the pepperoni pizza.
Superb cornicione on these pies
This pie looked Neapolitan, but it's baked in a conventional gas oven at 550 degrees. As always, the crust is the key factor, and this was spectacular bread. It was a bit thin in the center to support the generous payload of cheese and sauce, not to mention the meat toppings. Still, the slices held together well enough that knife and fork were not required.

Each bite closer to the cornicione was a little thicker, a little chewier, and a little crisper. As good as every morsel was, the best part was the cornicione, a puffy and toasty crust with ideal flavor and al dente crunch. There are some real breadmaking skills in this dough, and it was cooked to perfection.
Nice browning & char underneath; appears to be cooked on a screen
The cheese blend seemed to be mostly conventional mozzarella, and it largely melded with the sauce. It was a salty pizza - a good thing - but not overly salty. The sauce may have been very good, but it took a back seat to the volume of cheese and the heavenly crust.
Scrumptious crust on this pie
Both meat toppings were good, but the pepperoni - spicy cups with an ideal curl - had the superior character. The sausage was clearly excellent quality, but it had been pre-cooked before going on the pie. If I had the chance to return, I'd ask for the sausage to be applied raw before baking, Trenton style.
There were no leftover slices
This pizza was wonderful stuff and easily worth the trip from Anaheim. We met the chef/owner Linda on our exit and discovered that her roots matched ours, growing up in South Jersey. 
Chef/owner Linda Johnsen
She clearly has both the training and the passion for Italian food and I'd return often if I lived nearby. Great stuff, destination East-coast style pizza. Don't miss it.

Filomena's Italian Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review: La Brea Bakery Cafe - Disneyland CA

On previous visits to Anaheim, I had given up on finding any pizza worth the calories. Visiting Anaheim is like going to the mall - the familiar chain stores and chain restaurants. All the best food is in Disneyland. It's not quite authentic, but Disney always does a good job imitating any category of food.
Click on any image to see full-size resolution
Still, I managed to stumble on some intriguing pizza, quite by accident. Downtown Disney is an area of shops and restaurants that does not require admission to the parks. In 2015, I went there to have breakfast at La Brea Bakery Cafe. La Brea is a huge bakery, making bread on both coasts, but also operates a cafe in Los Angeles and another at Disneyland.


Looking at the breakfast menu, I searched for something that emphasized the bread which has made the bakery famous. But then I saw the pizzas! I was going to resist pizza for breakfast until I saw the "Eggs in a Nest" option. This pie featured two eggs over easy, prosciutto, spicy marinara, and a big pile of arugula "nest."

I ordered a decaf coffee, not the usual beverage for pizza, but it seemed right for the bread-and-eggs dish that this pizza promised. The coffee was remarkably good. Better than the good K-cups I've been drinking, better than Starbucks. The waiter told me is was "Silverback single origin" coffee, sourced from Rwanda. Powerful flavor but with a silky smooth finish.

The pizza arrived swiftly, and it was a pretty big personal pie. Beautiful to look at, with the huge puffy charred cornicione that is typical of the best Neapolitans. The deep piles of wonderfully fresh arugula were lovely but also served to hide the rest of the pie.

Ordinarily, I love arugula, but I like my salad on the side instead of piled onto my pizza.  But it worked very well with the egg, spicy sauce, and crust, even as it made for a messy slice.

The crust was superb.  Better than 4 out of 5 authentic Neapolitan pies I've had. This is the magic of Disney (or Disney-approved places) - somehow great food is churned out by the kids they hire to staff these places. The cheese was sparse, appropriately, and a bit of a role player. The sauce was likewise applied sparingly; otherwise, the weight and the moisture of the sunnyside egg would have made for a wet pie.
In fact, this pie had a wonderful texture, terrific balance, and no soggy middle. Each slice could be picked up and eaten with little sag. The one shortcoming is the quality of the prosciutto. It was pale pink, cut a little too thickly, and didn't have a fresh aroma. It still added to the pie, but other cured meat (bacon, speck, soppressata) might have worked better.

Wonderful coffee, a nearly-perfectly executed Neapolitan, good service -- all this made for a delightful pizza experience in a town where I'd given up on finding decent pie. The pie was $15, the coffee (free refills) was $4. Not cheap, but a grand bargain in Disneyland. I would eat again at La Brea Bakery without hesitation. Breakfast may be the best time to be there, before it gets populated with sunburned crying kids well past nap time.


I had a return visit to Anaheim in November of 2017, and I eagerly anticipated another breakfast pizza at La Brea. Alas, they had revamped the menu and it was gone from the offerings. So at 8am, I ordered a pepperoni pizza.

This Neapolitan pie had the same wonderful crust, its dough single-sourced from an heirloom grain, Fortuna wheat grown in Montana. The pie was delightful around the cornicione, with great and complex flavors as well as the right mix of densely chewy and crunchy.

The interior of the pie required knife and fork, because of the fountains of grease that had flowed from the pepperoni and the over-application of the standard mozzarella. Fully half of each slice was drenched in orange oil. I cherish the greasy pizza as much as anyone, but this was overloaded.
Lovely char, but lots of grease underneath
The red sauce was a San Marzano puree, and it stood up well to the salty cheese and oily pepperoni. Curiously, there were two kinds of pepperoni. There were thin discs of a large diameter that seemed almost prosciutto-like, and small cups of thicker pepperoni that probably yielded up most of that orange oil. Both seemed to be high quality salumi.
Twio kinds of pepperoni
Despite the grease overload, this was still a very tasty pie, but it lacked all the artisanal balance of the breakfast pie I'd enjoyed in 2015.
Swimming in orange oil
I suspect that egg-on-pizza was a bit too exotic for the typical Disney park patron, so the menu revamp included a return to basic pizza with an emphasis on what many Americans want from their pizza: a lot of bland mozzarella.

I still recommend La Brea Bakery Cafe pizza - but the menu revamp has dropped it down a notch. 

La Brea Bakery Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato