Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review: East Side Pies - Austin TX (Airport Location)

Austin, TX has become a destination for pizza. I've enjoyed the thin crust Trenton/New Haven style pies at Salvation Pizza, the New York-ish slices at Home Slice, the impeccable Neapolitans from the Backdraft trailer, the farm-to-pizza hybrid pies at Pizzeria Sorellina in Spicewood, Neapolitans out in Dripping Springs at Pieous, and the game-changing Detroit style pizza at Via 313.

Regardless of the region, however, I never have high expectations for airport pizza, even though there are some worthy pies like those at Wolfgang Puck Express located in the airport at Indianapolis, and Sauce Pizza & Wine at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Needing some lunch on the way out of Austin-Bergstrom Airport, we saw East Side Pies as one of the more promising options.

East Side Pies is a mini-chain in Austin, known and appreciated for its thin-crust pizza. Their website notes that their pizzas are made with produce from central Texas farms in addition to "classic tomato sauce, whole-milk mozzarella, and Texas-sourced meats."
Gas deck oven at East Side Pies
Behind the counter, you can see stacks of pre-made pies. There appears to be no pizza-making taking place at this location - the pies are simply heated/cooked in a conventional gas deck oven.

We ordered the Frankie, a 10" red sauce pizza with Italian sausage, ham, and mushrooms. It took quite a long time to be ready. While we waited, we chose a "Lemon Berry Acai" fountain soda from an excellent set of beverage choices.

The pie was cut into 6 small slices. The crust was thin - just about as thin as a pizza crust might possibly be. It delivered a satisfying crunch at the cornicione, but it was not sufficiently rigid to support its toppings, especially the large amount of cheese. The first few bites of each slice were, accordingly, pretty messy.

The dough itself had a nice bready flavor, but seemed a bit undercooked. The red sauce, mostly hidden beneath that generous layer of cheese, was surprisingly robust, with little hint of sweetness. The cheese was quite mild, a stretchy mozzarella type. There was an ample application of the three toppings - ham, sausage, and mushrooms. All were good quality, but none were exceptional. Despite the cheese overload, the flavors were well balanced.
Some leopard spotting underneath
This pie was enough for lunch for two people, and we both felt it was good pizza - especially considering the setting. A fairer test of East Side Pies would be a visit to one of their full service locations (four in the Austin area). I'd give East Side a definite thumbs-up when you're choosing a meal at this airport, but it's not up to the level of Wolfgang Puck Express or the fire-baked pies at the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport.

East Side Pies Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, June 17, 2019

Review: Sorellina Pizzeria, Spicewood, TX

Spicewood, TX is a town along Highway 71 about 40 minutes west of Austin. Perhaps best known as the home of Willie Nelson, it boasts shoreline on Lake Travis, cypress trees, and the Krause Springs swimming hole.

You'd expect to find some good smoked brisket or Texas-style burgers at places like Opie's BBQ and Poodie's Hilltop Roadhouse. But this is 2019 - can you get a great pizza out here in Texas Hill Country?
Bucolic Spicewood, Texas
A local alerted us to Sorellina Pizzeria, which is an offshoot of upscale Apis Restaurant and Apiary. The two restaurants share an unpaved parking lot on a six-acre property overlooking the Pedernales River. Chef and owner Taylor Hall has roots in Texas, San Francisco, and New Orleans.

Sorellina's website says:
"We focus on milling our own grains, shaping and stretching our own cheeses, cultivating and processing, curing, and aging all of our own wild boar salumi on site. Our pizza is a made with sourdough crust utilizing a 10-year old starter culture and a mixture of house milled red wheat, rye, and traditional Italian pizza flours. The dough has no added yeast and takes 2-3 days to develop into the pizza it becomes when it meets our custom wood fired oven."
View of the kitchen from bar seating
The interior has a stone and light wood theme; it's open and airy with community tables and a short bar. We opted to sit at the bar, which afforded a view of the kitchen operation and pizza oven. 
Insalata di Anguria
We came for the pizza, of course, but the salads and appetizers were especially intriguing. We chose the Insalata di Anguria ($8), made with compressed watermelon, watermelon radish, spiced coconut foam, brined blueberries, habanero oil, macadamia nut crumb, and snippings of basil flowers. It was incredibly creative mix of flavors and textures.

All the pizzas are 12" personal size, cut into 6 pieces. We ordered two pies:

  • N’duja sausage pie ($18) with Calabrian chili, cherry tomato, sausage and other pepperoni-ish salumi, and stracciatella cheese
  • Verde ($12) with pea and walnut pesto, arrowleaf spinach, ricotta salata, and lemon (we added speck ham, $3, as a topping)

N'duja sausage pie
Sorellina has beer, wine, and a small cocktail selection; we enjoyed a nice pecan porter and the "Bee, Please!" made with vodka, aperol, lime, grapefruit, & lychee.

The pizzas arrived simultaneously and made an instant visual impression. These Neapolitan hybrid pies sported a nice golden cornicione with a bit of leopard spotting. Underneath, the crust took on a cooked-but-not-charred tone that seemed to contain a hint of that red wheat.
Verde pizza
For every pizza, and especially Neapolitan types, the crust is key. Here, it was exceptional. Uniformly thin and crisp right to the edge, where the crumb expanded a bit into idea handles. There was a depth of flavor to that crust, more than the usual bready goodness of well-made dough.

The toppings of each pie matched the quality of that impeccable crust. I've had a lot of pies where the Calabrian chiles burn too hotly and overwhelm the other flavors, but on the N'duja pie, all the flavor were in harmony, and there was a warm zing from the peppers. The presence of two cured meats seemed like a lot, but they worked well together.
Underside of the crust
The Verde, too, was a revelation. The pea & walnut pesto gave each slice a deep and rich flavor. It was a very different experience from the N'duja pizza, but equally delicious; they were a perfect pairing.
Wood oven roasted cauliflower
Nine days later (Father's Day, in fact) we returned for a late dinner. For appetizer, we got the wood oven roasted cauliflower ($8), with cashew yogurt, Moorish spices, and torn herbs. Not surprisingly, it was scrumptious. Like everything else coming out of that oven, it was ideal in taste and texture.
Margherita pizza
We tried two more kinds of pizza: 

  • Margherita, with Italian tomato, yesterday’s mozzarella, and Thai basil (we added bacon)
  • Oyster mushroom, with fermented and dried shiitake, taleggio cream, garlic roasted oyster mushroom, speck ham, and fried rosemary

Oyster mushroom pizza
The truest test of any Neapolitan pizzaiolo is the Margherita, and this was spot-on. Superb, deeply flavorful yet fresh-tasting sauce, creamy pillows of mozzarella, all riding on that delicate crust. 

The crust had a different character than on our prior visit; it was a little softer, thicker, and puffier. This may be due to natural variation in the dough, or the oven temp, or simply the style of the pizzaiolo. It was different, but equally delicious.

Of the four pies we tried on two visits, the mushroom pizza was the most remarkable. Due to the dull grayish brown of the mushrooms, it had the least visual appeal. But the mushrooms were layered deeply and had a meaty depth, yielding a distinctly savory note on each bite. Magical stuff.

Sometimes, when I discover a pizzeria this good, I hesitate to share the news so that I'm not helping it become so insanely popular that I can't get a table, like Beddia in Philly or DeLorenzo's in Trenton or DiFara in Brooklyn. Pizzeria Sorellina stands with those giants, and you should be eating this pizza.

On a Friday night, the kitchen was busy with takeout orders, and the dining room was about half full when we arrived around 6:30. In Philly, in New York, in downtown Austin there would be lines out the door for pizza (and appetizers) this good. On Father's Day, we walked right in and sat down to enjoy a fabulous meal.

Austin and Hill Country people, whatever pizza you are eating is not this good (unless it's Via 313). I moved from the Philly burbs to the Austin burbs expecting great BBQ and Mexican food, but not good pizza. This is not only great pizza, it's world class. I'll be there often - and I can't wait to try its sister restaurant, Apis.

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

Friday, May 17, 2019

Review: The Bakehouse at Chelsea - Norfolk, VA

Norfolk sits at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Home to a large military base, Norfolk is the second largest city in Virginia, trailing only its neighbor, Virginia Beach. Until my visit there, I had known only the northern parts of the state, such as Arlington and Alexandria, the suburbs of Washington DC.

In a quiet part of town I found The Bakehouse at Chelsea, purveyor of breads and pizzas made in a wood-fired oven.  While the breads and breakfast items looked wonderful, their website notes that pizza is the main attraction: "Each pizza begins with organic flour & naturally leavened dough,  baked in a wood burning oven specifically designed and built by hand to give our pizzas a crispy, charred crust." 
The Birch (L) and The Bakehouse at Chelsea (R)
Adjacent to The Bakehouse is The Birch, a hipster hangout with "21 craft beer drafts, 5 cider & mead taps, and a curated menu of artisan cheeses, beer inspired grilled cheese, and brewer inspired bratwursts." I learned that you can order a pizza at Bakehouse and have it delivered to you at The Birch for a pizza-and-beer experience.
Open-air taproom at The Birch
Pizzas come in small, medium, and large sizes. Among several intriguing specialty pies, I gambled on the Bacon Gouda pizza ($15.75 for the 12" medium), featuring tomato Sauce, Mozzarella, smoked Gouda, bacon, and caramelized onion.
The Bacon Gouda Pizza (12")
After making my order, I ambled over to The Birch, and I loved how the beer menu was organized by styles like "Light and Crisp" or "Sour and Funky" or "Hoppy."  I ordered a flight to sample four different beers, and all were terrific. Here are the current offerings: http://thebirchbar.com/draftlist.
Messy to eat, lots of cheese
I regret that I didn't have sufficient appetite to order some more food from the menu at The Birch. The pizza set-up service was, basically, here's a box with your pizza. No plates, no silverware, no napkins; the bartender did get some napkins for me after I asked.
The wood-fired oven (from https://www.bakehouse757.com/)
The lack of plates and silverware looked to be a potential messy problem, because on first inspection, this was a very soupy pie, loaded with cheese.  Indeed it was - for the first slice, I was able to eat it only by the terrible New York habit of folding. Afterward, as the pie cooled a bit, the cheese congealed sufficiently to make it easier to eat.

Despite the cheese overload and the lack of utensils, the rest of the experience was revelatory. This was outstanding Neapolitan-hybrid pizza. When I saw the volume of cheese on top, I expected the crust to be soggy in the middle - but it wasn't. 
Al fresco dining available
The crust was crisp, chewy, pliable but sturdy, and had a superbly yeasty flavor. It was darkly charred underneath, but didn't have a "burned" taste at all. Its overall texture was just about perfect, as good as it gets for a thin crust round pizza.

The big gamble had been the Gouda cheese; I worried that its smoky flavor would overwhelm the other ingredients. It was indeed a big flavor, but not that artificial smokiness found in some inexpensive versions. It did dominate but it played nicely with the crust, sauce, and bacon. Despite giving off a lot of grease in the baking process, it had an excellent texture, too.
Delectable char underneath
The sauce seemed to be good quality, and it added the right acid balance to the cheese. I might have liked a bit more sauce, but that also may have put the pie over the top in terms of how much moisture that crust could carry.

Even with all the smoky Gouda, the bacon didn't get lost. It was applied in thick chewy chunks that got an ideal oven crisping. All the ingredients were in flavor and textural harmony. My habit is to add salt to pizza, but there was so much flavor here, none was necessary.

This was my best pizza of 2019, made all the better by devouring it at The Birch with a flight of excellent craft beer on a warm spring evening in Southern Virginia. Great pizza, great experience, don't miss it if you're any place nearby.

The Bakehouse at Chelsea Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato