Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: Kono Pizza - (Pizza in a Cone)

Although my pizza preference is the thin-crust round variety, and the Trenton Tomato Pie in particular, there's much joy to be found in almost anything that can be labeled pizza. 

That includes deep-dish Chicago style, thin squares of Granma Pie or Roman al taglio pizza, thicker squares of Sicilian pizza and its cousin Old Forge style, or even French bread and English muffin pizzas.
Kono Pizza event in Philly's FDR Park
How far can you stretch the definition? Once you put the crust on the outside, is it still a pizza? Most people would call it a Calzone. Put the crust on the outside and deep-fry it, you have a panzarotti.
Eric Ciancaglini in front of the Kono Pizza truck

Anthony Ciancaglini and Dan Pennechetti
What about shaping the crust as a cone? Is it still pizza or is it an open-face calzone? These are the deep questions I wrestled with after attending an invitation-only event to introduce Kono Pizza in Philadelphia. 
Chicken Parmesan Kono cone
On a beautiful evening in early June, a bunch of food geeks and pizza nerds were invited to FDR Park to sample several different varieties of Kono pizza cones.
Pepperoni and Margherita cones
Kono is already an established offering in Europe, and the franchise made its debut in the USA in 2013. In the Philly area, you can find a Kono cone at kiosks in malls in Cherry Hill NJ and King of Prussia PA. 
Jake Ciancaglini in the truck

The Kono cone oven
At the Philly event, the cones were baking in the portable Kono food truck, where I met the family behind the local franchise: Eric, Gino, Matt, Jake, and Anthony Ciancaglini.
For all its wonder, pizza can be a messy meal. How can you eat a pizza when you are walking or when you don't have a table? John Travolta took a shot at it by stacking two slices from Lenny's Pizza in Saturday Night Fever, but the cone pizza really addresses the portability issue. 
Imagine yourself in a baseball or football stadium, beer in one hand and pizza cone in the other - that seems like an ideal scene for pizza in a cone.
More to the point - how did it taste? I had modest expectations, and I was delighted and a little surprised by the crisp crunch of the outer part of the pizza cone. 

No matter the shape, every pizza lives or dies by its crust, and the cone was crisp inside, nicely chewy on the interior, and packing its own toasty flavor.
Some critter from Philly's "More 101.1 FM"
Each Kono is made with a pre-made cone that's been partially baked. It's then filled with the pizza ingredients, including a mild marinara and low-moisture cheese that seemed like mozzarella. 
Chicken Parm in a handy stand
The oven is a rotating carousel that toasts the outside of the cone while heating the inside to a hot but not scalding temperature. I was impressed that I could take a big bite of the cone, fresh from the truck, without much risk of burning the roof of my mouth.
The full-size cone will sell for about $7; this event featured all the varieties in the smaller dessert-size cones. I sampled a Margherita, a Pepperoni, and a Chicken Parmesan cone. 
Really a pretty good night for critters
The crust was consistently crisp and tasty in all three pies. I thought the sauce and cheese were a bit tame, but franchise owners don't have much flexibility with the ingredients. I suspect Philadelphians and New Yorkers would like a bit more punch in the flavor of their red sauce than would the folks in Kansas and Iowa.
The Chicken Parmesan was the most interesting, because it added a nice dense and chewy chicken nugget at the top of the cone. I'd be very happy with any of these at a stadium, festival, or even an airport where portability is a big plus.
Live music on the waterfront
Overall, it was a terrific evening in South Philly, meeting the franchise owners, learning about and eating the Kono pizza cones, and talking to other foodies. The Ciancaglini family contemplates some other uses for this cone. Why limit it to pizza when that cone might contain a gyro sandwich or a Philly cheesesteak?
I've never had any pizza worth the calories in a stadium; I expect that the Kono pizza cone (or imitators) will replace all the wet and floppy stuff sold as pizza in stadiums over the next few years. It tastes much better and it's so much easier to handle.
I'm not trading in my DeLorenzo's tomato pie for a Kono pizza cone, but it would be interesting to see Kono go pie-to-pie with the Pizzeria Vetri concession during Eagles games at Philly's Lincoln Financial Field. Fun new stuff, and the Ciancaglini family has the personality to make the Philly-area franchise a hit.

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: Luigi's Pizzeria, Houston TX

Did Willie Nelson or LBJ come to New York and check out the BBQ joints? Probably not, but nonetheless on our Texas visit to the land of slow-cooked and marinated meat, we consulted some "best pizza in Houston" lists to find a pizza target. We were happy to get a recommendation from a local that matched one of the pies on a pretty good lineup from Thrillist.
Click on any image for full size version
Luigi's Pizzeria has long been a local cult favorite, but its popularity has soared by the addition of the Axelrad Beer Garden, which shares a large open yard. On a pleasantly warm night in late May, Axelrad was jammed with after-work hipsters enjoying the beer garden, and Luigi's was doing a brisk business of selling pies to be consumed at the outdoor picnic tables. 

Luigi's picnic tables; Axelrad Beer Garden in the back
 Luigi's can't sell you a beer, but will permit you to walk over to Axelrad to get one. The draft beer list is so long that it's nearly overwhelming; I paid $7.50 for a pint of pecan porter in a plastic cup.
Where the magic happens
For our group of 5 diners, we opted for 3 medium 12" pies: one Margherita, one white pie with mushrooms, and one conventional pie topped with pepperoni. When the pies arrived after a short wait, they came with paper plates and small packets of Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.
Pepperoni pizza

The Margherita

White pizza with mushrooms
As always, the crust is the foundation for a successful pizza. Here, each pie sported a golden brown and puffy cornicione with some attractive bubbles. Underneath there was also the good color of a well-cooked but not scorched pie. 
Margherita slice
The crust had its own fresh flavor with a texture that was crisp yet foldable. Overall, very good crust that had just a remote hint of its white bread cousins; it might be improved with a bit more salt and olive oil in the mix.

Pepperoni slice
Our local expert noted that her favorite feature here is the cheese because it has the old-school mozzarella stretchiness. And indeed each pie came with a generous portion of mild but tasty and indeed stretchy cheese.

The thick sauce was dark red and a little sweet as a role player in the pizza's overall flavor. I later learned that Luigi's uses Allegro pizza sauce, a Heinz product made with tomato puree, salt, sugar, EVOO, spices, and garlic powder.

The pepperoni was the standard thin-sliced product, applied generously. All the ingredients on the pepperoni pie were in pretty good harmony - balanced in flavors and in proportion. The total effect here was a pretty good Texas version of a classic New York slice.

The white pie was made with Alfredo sauce and a healthy application of sauteed mushrooms. Here too the ingredients were well-matched for a successful pizza. Flavors were a bit tame overall, but the mushrooms added a nice umami kick.
Good color and crispness underneath; no soggy spots

The Margherita was the least successful because it was topped with chopped bland pink tomatoes. It's ironic that fresh tomatoes make a lousy pizza topping, but they add weight and moisture while diluting the flavor. Further, these diced bland chunks clashed with the dark red sweet sauce.
The rest of the pie was fine, and the fresh basil is always a nice touch. It could go from an OK pizza to a very good one by eliminating the pizza sauce and the fresh tomatoes and substituting some vibrant canned crushed tomato and fresh garlic.
Axelrad in foreground, Luigi's behind it
Luigi's Pizzeria offers a great atmosphere - especially on a warm and pleasant evening - and a nice lineup of New York style pizza. You won't think that you're in Brooklyn, but drinking craft beer under the Texas stars, why would you want to be anywhere else?

Luigi's Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Review: The Boiler Room, Chicago IL

While Chicago is known as the home to deep-dish pizza, there's plenty of thin-crust pies too, including some legendary stuff like the party-cut bar pies at Vito & Nick's, on the south side. On a recent Chicago trip, I sampled the deep-dish at Pizano's, Pequod's, and Exchequer. But the trip wouldn't be complete without sampling a thin crust pie.
In 2017, you can go to any city in America and get a reasonably good rendering of a Neapolitan pizza cooked in a 900 degree oven, so we set out instead for something with a distinctly local flavor. That pointed us to the Boiler Room in the Logan Square part of town - just a short blue line ride from the Palmer House, our hotel in the Loop.
We arrived to a large and hip space that has that revamped industrial warehouse feel. We passed the pizza ovens near the entrance; even on a weeknight, the place was busy with happy and animated patrons enjoying the hipster vibe.
The kitchen
Our party of three considered sharing one of their huge 20" pizzas, but to permit each of us to have our preferred toppings, we opted to share an appetizer and then order individual slices. Our starter course of poutine was well-executed, but I'm still not sure why anyone prefers to ruin the texture of a french fry by soaking it in gravy. 
Poutine appetizer
When I learned that the Boiler Room uses pre-cooked sausage (raw is always better), I chose my second-favorite topping for one slice, pepperoni. Because the menu features a lot of curious special pizzas, for my second slice I decided to experiment and order a veggie slice, featuring mushrooms and black olives.
I could not resist the "PBJ" special, which includes a slice of pizza (otherwise about $4.50), a tall can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and a shot of Jameson whiskey -- all for $8.50. I imagine the Boiler Room sells a lot of that special!
Pepperoni slice
Because the pies are 20" around, you get a huge portion for $4 - $5 per slice, depending on the topping. Both of my slices featured a thin crust, crisp yet flexible without being droopy. 
Al dente

The underside was dusted with cornmeal, and the top showed several nice bubbles along with just the right amount of char at the cornicione. The crust had a great flavor and texture, with an al dente chewiness.
The pepperoni slice was the star of my meal. The sauce was flavorful, but it stayed in the background with the blend of mozzarella and provolone cheeses. The success of this pie is built around that excellent crust and then the harmony and balance of the stuff riding on top. 

The tasty but understated cheese and red sauce was the right palette for top-shelf cupped circles of pepperoni. There in Chicago, I sat eating a classic NY slice.
Thin, crisp, sturdy crust
The veggie slice was much less successful, because the mushrooms and olives were mild like the cheese and sauce. It was still tasty and balanced, but it lacked the punch of the pepperoni slice. My dining colleagues also reported that their chicken topped slices were more interesting than those with Alfredo sauce or vegetable toppings.
With that in mind, it's never a bad time to review the Kenji Alt-Lopez theory of pizza toppings:
Whatever is added to my pizza must be more flavorful than the last thing I put on it, and no single topping shall be so strongly flavored that it masks the flavor of those that come before it.
In other words, things like cauliflower and squash, fine vegetables in other settings, only serve to dilute the flavor of a pizza. And Kenji nails it when he explains why pepperoni helps your pie and chicken takes it down a notch:
Sure, pizza and chicken cook in the same oven, but they remain largely unrelated to each other. Pepperoni, soppresata, or a good chunk of sausage, on the other hand, cooks not just on top of the pizza, but with the pizza. They release salty, flavorful fat that mingles with the melted cheese, drips into the sauce, and flavors the whole pie. They crisp up on the edges, adding salty, crisp bits of texture to match the crunch of the crust underneath.
I gambled on my veggie slice and regretted it. Still, the pepperoni slice shows just how good Boiler Room pizza is when the proper toppings are selected. When you add in the electric vibe and the $8.50 PBJ special, the Boiler Room qualifies as destination pizza. 
It's not easy to get a worthwhile NY slice if you aren't in NYC or north Jersey. We had a spectacular one at North of Brooklyn in Toronto, and few others. Joining the ranks now is Boiler Room; this is a thin-crust pie you should try in this deep-dish town.

The Boiler Room Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato