Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review: Tonito's Pizza - West Chester, PA

When I moved from Bucks County PA (near Trenton NJ) to West Chester PA in 2009, it was only one hour west. But when I begin searching for good pizza near my home, I felt like I'd gone to Montana. 

There were three or four pizza joints within a mile of my house, but each was standard strip mall pizza made with mass-sourced ingredients. Big, soft, floppy slices overloaded with generic mozzarella and processed red sauce. 

It wasn't until 2017 that you could find true "destination pizza" in West Chester, when Rize opened on Market Street with its unique take on a Sicilian-style pan pizza.
Before the re-heat
The final frontier is my own suburban neighborhood. One small strip mall has always housed a pizzeria, and it has changed hands 2 or 3 times since I've been here. The great news is that the newest occupant - Tonito's Pizza - is operated by the Spatola family. I ate and loved the Trenton and Brooklyn style pies at the Spatola's Pizza in Paoli PA, and I saw them on the menu at Tonito's.
Every bite is different
In Trenton, a tomato pie is a round pizza that is made with cheese applied first, then large clumps of chunky red sauce on top. It is generally superior to conventional pizza because the cheese protects the crust from becoming soggy. It is better than "upside down" pies where a sea of red sauce covers the entire pie, because much of the cheese is still exposed to oven browning.

At Spatola's and Tonito's, the Trenton tomato pie is a large square pizza, much like the wonderful pies at La Villa in Morrisville PA. The "Brooklyn" pizza has nothing to do with Brooklyn unless you think it has something in common with a New York Grandma slice. Here, the Brooklyn is simply the same as the Trenton pie except fresh mozzarella is substituted for standard dry mozzarella.

I ordered a Brooklyn pie with sausage to go. Inside, Tonito's is a small standar strip mall space with just a few tables; clearly, the emphasis is on takeout.
Slices at Spatola's Paoli location
Like Spatola's, Tonito's uses thin longitudinal slices of pre-cooked sausage. It was a perfectly fine topping, but any pizza could be improved by the application of fresh raw sausage in chunks, squeezed right from the rope, to be cooked on the pie.

At home, I opened the box to see a beautiful pie, but it was the Trenton, not the Brooklyn I had ordered. I had to decide if I was going to give it an oven re-heat and re-crisp; the square slices were a bit soft, so I broke out the 12 slices over two perforated pizza pans and gave it 10 minutes at 375 degrees.
Crispy oiled crust
That was a great idea - and why this pizza is so good when you just buy a slice in the shop - because the re-heat really improves the texture.  The crust is very thin, but the cheese and sauce payload is pretty substantial. There is just enough oil on the crust to help it become crisp and rigid while keeping a nice dense chewiness.

I was fearful that the pizza would not be as good as the one in Paoli. However, this pie matched and even exceeded my memory of the Paoli location (Spatola's has Downingtown and Phoenixville locations, too). The thin crust was a little crisp, a little chewy, and ideally al dente after the re-heat.

The standard mozzarella cheese was plentiful and adhered perfectly to the crust, but it was a role player here. The red sauce was especially vibrant; chunky and dense and piquant. Its distribution could be improved by spreading it around a bit in smaller pools atop the cheese, and I did a bit of adjustment before the re-heat.

Each bite provided a true Trenton tomato pie experience of a rigid and tasty crust, with varying ratios of cheese and chunky red sauce. I shared this pie with 3 others for dinner, and we demolished the entire pizza. Superb.

Like Spatola's in Paoli, Tonito's also makes a more conventional round pizza. Those pies too are above the standard strip mall fare, but the star offerings here are the Trenton and Brooklyn pizzas. Seven years into the Pizza Quixote Blog, and there is finally a wonderful pizza that is practically walking distance from my home.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Review: Corleone Pizza, Trenton, NJ

Among the new pizzerias with pies worth seeking out, many are crafting Neapolitan-style pies. But as the Pizza Renaissance goes along, I'm seeing a wider variety of styles including rectangular pan-baked pies like the Detroit pizza at Via 313 in Austin and the Roman al taglio slices at Alice Cucina Romana in Philly.

Another relative newcomer with a rectangular pie is, whose name would never suggest anything beyond typical fast-food pizza. But the suburban Trenton location is one clue that you need some serious chops to sell a unique pizza here in the heart of Trenton tomato pie country. 

The owner of is Marcello Mandreucci, a Sicilian immigrant and veteran restaurant owner in the region.
Take-out only at
Marcello has a wonderful story of how he came to recreate the "Corleone style" Sicilian pizza of his youth - I encourage you to read the review and story by Rich Pawlak at Edible Jersey, HERE
Marcello's first stop in America, Bordentown NJ
Based on that insider scoop, I made it a point to stop for this unique pie when passing through Trenton. It's take-out only, with no real space to sit and eat inside.

What is a Corleone style pizza? It looks like a Sicilian pizza, but I found the dough to be light and airy yet crisp -- much like that found in the Philly-style tomato pies offered at bakeries. 
The Corleone, garnished with two fresh basil leaves
Don't confuse a Trenton tomato pie, which is essentially a pizza with the chunky tomatoes laden over top the cheese, with a Philly tomato pie, which is more like a Sicilian pizza with no cheese beyond a dusting of Parmesan. Click HERE for a primer on tomato pie.
Marcello uses only Italian tomatoes, Sicilian oregano, Sicilian olive oil, and a secret blend of three cheeses. What he's achieved in this Corleone pie, though, is balance. 

That crust has a surprisingly delicate texture and flavor, and it would be overwhelmed by the payload of red sauce and dense mozzarella found on a typical Sicilian pizza.
Light and airy crust
This was a pie of perfect proportions; crust, cheese, and sauce in ideal balance. I was delighted to see that the pepperoni topping I ordered was the "spicy cup" style that curls when it bakes, and it added the right notes of salty and savory. 
Multi-tiered rotating oven can take 20 pies at once
The only way to improve this pie would be to offer it with real chunks of Italian sausage that cook on the pie.

They typical experience with Sicilian pizza is that I'm full after one or two slices. Here, I confess I wolfed down four of these feathery delights. 
Under the hood of the Corleone
This pie is not as hearty and umami-rich as a Detroit pizza or the thick pillowy squares at Rize Pizza (Broomall and West Chester, PA), but it brings a lot of old-world satisfaction in a lighter and balanced way. No pizza lover near Trenton should miss the Corleone pizza.

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

Friday, January 12, 2018

The 17 Breakout Pizzas of 2017

This time last year, I said that "It is a wonderful dilemma that the ongoing pizza renaissance continues to yield more terrific pies than I have time or capacity to experience." 

Our visit to Best Pizza in Brooklyn
What follows here is a countdown of the best pies that I tried for the first time in 2017. Like 2016 and every year before, 2017 turned out as yet another banner year in discovering "pizza worth the calories."
A sauce-rich slice from Tony's Place, Philadelphia
We found great pizza in all sorts of styles: Neapolitan (still trending), old-school, Detroit, NY style, Old Forge, Roman al taglio, New Haven apizza, and even a Chicago deep dish.
Al Taglio slices at Alice Cucina Romana, Philadelphia PA
This is not a "Best 17 Pizzas in America" list - these are the best ones I discovered in 2017. And some are truly spectacular! Click on any pizzeria for the full review and more pictures.
Old Forge, PA - "Pizza Capital of the World"
Honorable Mentions. These four pies didn't quite make the top 17, but were too good to leave out.

The Boiler Room, Chicago IL. On my first real visit to Chicago since beginning this blog in 2011, naturally my focus was on deep-dish pies - two of which made the top 17. A worthy runner-up was the classic New York slice at this hipster gathering place, where I enjoyed the terrific "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.
All smiles at The Boiler Room, Chicago
The Boiler Room Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Joe Bologna's, Lexington, KY. Six years into writing about pizzas and I finally tasted a "Sfingione" pizza, even if I had to go to Kentucky to find it. A unique pie in a unique converted church building, this pizza was an unexpected delight in the land of blue grass and thoroughbreds.
A Sfingione slice at Joe Bologna's
Joe Bologna's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomatoa

Arcaro & Genell, Old Forge PA. As a Pennsylvania resident, 2017 was the year I finally made it to the self-proclaimed "Pizza Capital of the World" to try Old Forge style pizza. These rectangular pies, where the pizza is a "tray" and a slice is a "cut," were wonderful cousins to Sicilian and Grandma pies. Much like my Chicago visit, three different pizzerias made it to the 2017 list.
A white cut and a red cut at Arcaro & Genell, Old Forge PA
Arcaro & Genell's Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Joe Squared, Baltimore MD. Previous trips to nearby Baltimore had turned up great hardshell crab taprooms and not a single worthy pizza. That all changed at Joe Squared, a hipster spot (once visited by Guy Fieri) serving the thinnest square pies I've had, flash-cooked in a 900-degree coal oven.
Clam-and-bacon pizza at Joe Squared
Joe Squared Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

And now let's start the countdown of the

17 Breakout Pizzas of 2017!

17. Salvation Pizza, Austin TX. Austin has a deep bench in pizza land, with star pie makers at Home Slice, Pieous, and Via 313. That high bar tradition continues at Salvation Pizza, where I enjoyed a flawless New Haven/Bar Pie hybrid. A new pizzeria making old-school east coast classic pie.
Sausage applied uncooked on this Salvation Pizza
Salvation Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

16. Best Pizza, Brooklyn NY. I may be the last pizza pretender to discover this high-profile and widely-acclaimed pie. It was wonderful stuff, an updated old-school style where the aroma lifts your spirits as soon as you walk in. It says a lot about the happy state of pizza in America that this great pie placed only 16th in my 2017 discovery list.
Mushroom and pepperoni pie at Best Pizza, Brooklyn
Best Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

15. Providence Coal Fired Pizza, RI. 2017 certainly saw a continuation of the coal-oven trend. This upscale restaurant & taproom was churning out some great pies in a warm ambiance during my visit. Their 900 degree coal-fired oven baked pizzas that are a hybrid of Neapolitan, New Haven, and Trenton tomato pie styles. Just more evidence of all the talent being directed at pizza making.
Sausage pizza with massive cornicione at Providence Coal Fired Pizza
Providence Coal Fired Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

  14. Green Fire Pizza, Savannah GA. This was my last new pie tried in 2017, and we closed out the year with a winner. This was another winning twist on a Neapolitan hybrid, baked in a novel Italian oven with open flame and a large rotating stone. Like every successful pizza, this ideal slice was built on a great crust. Whole pies or slices.
Pepperoni and jalapeno slice at Green Fire Pizza, Savannah GA
Green Fire Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

13. Exchequer Restaurant & Pub, Chicago IL. 
I visited Exchequer mostly due to its Loop location (convenient to the conference I was attending) and the recommendation of colleagues. What I found was a deeply satisfying cheese bomb deep dish pizza in an Irish Pub. Add in a warm atmosphere and superb service - don't overlook this pie when in town.
There is spinach deep in there somewhere!
Exchequer Pub Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

12. Pizzeria Vetri at Urban Outfitters, King of Prussia PA. I sampled these spectacular thick and square al tagio slices at the newest Vetri location, adjacent to the retail store of the new owners, Urban Outfitters. By the end of 2017, founder and chef Marc Vetri had quit (amicably) Urban Outfitters, and the local Vetri outlet had shifted its emphasis mostly back to their excellent Neapolitan pies. For me, these pillowy squares are the prime offering, though.
The Marinara al taglio slice from Vetri
Pizzeria Vetri Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

11. Tony's Place Tomato Pie, Philadelphia PA. Despite the flurry of great new pizza spots and pizzaioli, my heart lies with the true old-school pizza joints - the places that my parents might have visited in the 1960s or even earlier. That era defines pizza for me. Much like Best Pizza in Brooklyn, at Tony's you are greeted with the wondrous aroma of pies properly cooked when you enter. A crisp crackery crust, wonderful chunks of real Italian sausage, and old-world red gravy. This tomato-heavy bar pie - just $10 - is one of the best pizza bargains anywhere.
Inside Tony's Place
Tony's Place Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

10. Filomena's Italian Kitchen, Costa Mesa CA. After three fruitless attempts to find a decent pizza in Anaheim (outside the Disney property), I finally struck gold by taking a short Uber ride to nearby Costa Mesa where chef/owner Linda Johnsen is showing off her New Jersey roots in this cozy Italian restaurant. Another winning Neapolitan hybrid, I'm not sure how she makes that magical crust in a conventional deck oven. This is not a grab-a-slice pizza joint but a true neighborhood gem where patrons happily linger over great food and ambiance.
The sausage pie at Filomena's Italian Kitchen
Filomena's Italian Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

9. Pizano's, Chicago IL. Much like my visit to Exchequer, I opted for Pizano's because this outpost of the 6-restaurant mini-chain was located near my hotel in the downtown loop. It was a great choice, though, marked by a crisp and rich buttery deep dish filled with good cheese, sausage, and an ocean of incredibly vibrant red sauce. A caloric bomb that was easily worth it.
Personal sized deep dish at Pizano's, Chicago.
Pizano's Pizza & Pasta Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

8. Pizza Perfect, Trucksville, PA. Every true pizza obsessive needs to make the journey to Old Forge PA to experience those wondrous pan-baked rectangles called a "tray" of pizza. In nearby Trucksville, the twist on Old Forge style is to bake the pie in a pan with lots of oil so that the crust takes on a fried quality. Add in a lot of onions to the sauce and you have one crunchy, chewy, greasy, umami-laden delight. One slice was very satisfying. This large casual pizzeria was buzzing with happy customers during my visit.
Under the hood of a Pizza Perfect slice of "fried" pizza
Pizza Perfect Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

7. Wm. Mulherin's Sons, Philadelphia PA. Philly's revitalized Fishtown section is already blessed with two pioneering pizzaioli at Beddia Pizza and Pizza Brain. The rich get richer with the emergence of this hip restaurant, where every dish we sampled was transcendent. There is a separate kitchen just for the pizza, and these Neapolitan cousins are more sturdy due to the addition of some farro wheat, which rises for 40 hours. Not only great pizza but maybe my best overall dining event of 2017.
The mortadella-topped "Vincenzo" at Wm. Mulherin's Sons in Philly
Pizzeria Vetri Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

6. Alice Cucina Romana, Philadelphia, PA. After my first taste of the by-the-slice "al taglio" pizza in Rome, I wondered why no one was making that style in American. Now Philly has at least two prominent Roman-style pizzerias. Alice (ah-lee-chay) is a branch of an Italian chain, but nothing about this pizza seems chainlike. I was just as happy here as I was with my slices in Rome at the Campo di Fiore. Half pizzeria, half-upscale cafe, this is a wonderful addition to midtown Philly dining options.
The pizzeria side of  Alice Cucina Romana, Philadelphia PA
Alice Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

5. Giuseppina’s Pizza, Brooklyn NY. After a few failed attempts to find Brooklyn's famed Lucali open, I was happy to learn that the Lucali pizzaiolo (Marc Iacono's brother Chris) was making identical pies at his own place. We found street parking and no crowds to visit and enjoy this spectacular pizza. State of the art pizza built on a uniquely crisp and chewy crust with a broad cornicione and the best-tasting cheese blend of any pie we had in 2017.
Our Giuseppina pizza, topped with all-beef pepperoni
Giuseppina's Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

4. Pizzeria Beddia, Philadelphia PA. I won't refute the claim made in 2015 by Bon Appetit magazine that Beddia is the "best pizza in America" but I can confirm that is the "hardest to get" pizza in America. No phone, no reservations, open just 4 nights a week, and a burdensome 2-step ordering process whereby you line up for 45 minutes to place an order and then come back 2+ hours later for your pie with no place to eat it. Why do people put up with that? Because the pizza is pretty damn spectacular. Every single element could be cited as competing for the best ever - the crust, the sauce, the cheese, the toppings. And they all work together in harmony for a pie that very much exceeds the sum of the parts.
Pizza alchemy at Beddia in Philly
Pizzeria Beddia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

3. Metro Pizza and Evel Pie (TIE), Las Vegas NV. I was only able to sample these pies at the Pizza Palooza event near Washington DC in September, but both of these square slices were so memorable and so perfect that they merit inclusion here.
Gluten-free Detroit slices by Vincent Rotolo
Vincent Rotolo was offering his gluten-free Detroit style pizza that day, and I noted that it was "spectacular pie, one of the best I've eaten all year. Crisp, dense yet chewy, and topped with the perfect balance of sauce and cheese." Until that point, I interpreted "gluten-free" to be "flavor-free" or at best "compromised texture." But this pie floored me, as did Vincent's passion for making it and talking about it. It should be no suprise that the best pies come from the passionate pie makers. Vincent has since moved on from Evel Pie to his new shop Good Pie in Vegas, slated for a February 2018 opening.
Spectacular Sicilian by Metro's John Arena
My favorite slice at Pizza Palooza, where I sampled a LOT of great pie, was fashioned by John Arena of Metro Pizza. He was offering rectangular slices of pan-baked Sicilian pizza, and it was an ethereal delight. With assembly assistance from pizza all-star and all-around great guy Scott Weiner, the Metro slices won the day. I noted "The crust was magical - crisp, thick yet airy, bursting with flavor. The cheese was good, the sauce was hard to believe. John uses some caramelized onions and one anchovy per huge can of simple tomatoes for this piquant sauce." John has 38 years as pizzaiolo and he's just about perfected the craft.

Evel Pie Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Metro Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

2. Razza Pizza Artigianale, Jersey City NJ. Razza has been on my radar for a while, and finally getting there was worth the wait.  I was a little hesitant, fearing it might be yet another soft and puffy Neapolitan. But after a lovely salad appetizer, my white pie (topped with kale and wild-boar salami) arrived and blew my mind. This was (yet another) Neapolitan hybrid, where the pizzaiolo took that basic form and elevated itDespite the brilliant chew and crackle of the crust and the other powerful flavors, my experience eating this pizza was akin to eating top-line Japanese food; the harmony and the balance send subtle signals that are more important than the individual flavors. Pete Wells of the New York Times dubbed this Jersey pie as "the best in NY" and who am I to argue?
 Cinghiale Bianca pizza at Razza, Jersey City NJ
Razza Pizza Artigianale Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1. Elio G's Pizza, Old Forge PA. Old school, old school, old school. No matter how much I enjoy the new wave pizza makers, my heart remains with the pies that are living tributes to pizza history in America. And while terrific artisanal eating is one level, the human element is just as essential. It's why I try to get pictures of people into reviews about pizza, because the experience matters at least as much as the product.
Michelle at Elio G's Pizza, Old Forge PA
In the tidy Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) town of Old Forge, I had my best-yet pizza experience. Fresh off eating a few very worthy slices just down the street at the better known Arcaro & Gennell and their cross-street friendly rival Revello's, I came to Elio G's with the expectation of sampling a slice. When I discovered that the only options were full pie or half pie, I ordered a half-pie and settled in to wait for about 45 minutes for my pizza to be made and baked.
A white pizza at Elio G's in Old Forge PA
That might have been a dreary and tedious experience, but the good folks there entertained me with tales of the history of Old Forge pizza and with glasses of home-made Italian red wine. I was just another curious stranger in this close-knit town, but I was treated like a guest in their home. The pizza could have been lousy and I still would have left with a fond feeling about Elio G's.
Elio G making a tray 
But the pizza was wonderful. I had eaten 4 "cuts" of Old Forge pizza at my previous stops, and I had one more stop (Pizza Perfect) planned, but this pizza was so wonderful that I rapidly scarfed down two slices. This dense-yet-light crunchy crust reminded me of the first-rate thick square pies from Norma's Pizza (Detroit style) and Binge House Pizza (Detroit/NEPA hybrid). 
A cut of mushroom pizza at Elio G's Pizza, Old Forge PA
Most Old Forge pizza has a sickly undercooked appearance because the cheese is ghostly white, but that's deceptive. Close your eyes, take a bite, and travel back in time. Three of the premiere pies of 2017 were Old Forge style, and Elio G's tops them all. Great people, great town, great pizza.

Elio G's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato