Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review: Unser Dorfladen - Bavaria, Germany

On a summer trip to Germany, we spent several nights in the remote and hilly Bavarian village of Aufseß (Aufsesse). 

Not far from Bayreuth, home to Richard Wagner and a grand opera house, Aufseß is a quiet and delightful place with a population of about 1300 who can enjoy great food and very local beer at the town's brewery and restaurant, Brauereigasthof Rothenbach

Beyond that brewery and a few other gasthaus establishments, there aren't many local services. Filling the gap for Aufsessers is Unser Dorfladen. I wasn't clear if this small grocer was a mom-and-pop store or a branch of a German 7-11 type convenience store. Turns out it was neither. 
Unser Dorfladen is co-operative village shop that follows the original one in Gottwollshausen, founded in 2005. The objective is "to ensure the basic supply of food and articles of daily necessity, with fresh baked goods, fruit, vegetables, dairy products and other foodstuffs at reasonable prices." 

It's a grass-roots "eat local" operation, offering products from the region and a wide range of organic, fair trade and "demeter" products. In Germany, the demeter “biodynamic” certification requires biodiversity & ecosystem preservation, soil husbandry, livestock integration, and prohibition of genetically engineered organisms.” 

Because small villages can't support a supermarket and many of the older local shops closed, Unser Dorfladen aims to fill the gap and thereby "secure and maintain the quality of life in our sub-regions." 
Yeah, but how was the pizza? 
Keep in mind, this is a small cooperative grocery in a remote German Village. We stopped in for a few staples and I was drawn to the baked goods counter near the register. Among the local partners for Unser Dorfladen is Bäckerei Spreuer (Spreuer Bakery). Next time I need to try their zwiebelkuchen (German onion pie), but on this visit I was delighted to see some attractive slices of square pan pizza in the counter display. 

One serving was a generous size, roughly equivalent to two standard slices. It seemed to be designed for eating at room temperature (as are so many foods outside the USA) so we ate it without reheating. 

The crust was medium-thick, a bit crunchy, and sturdy enough to support its toppings. It did not much resemble pizza dough or even the kind of bakery sheet bread used for a Philly tomato pie or an Old Forge pizza tray. The texture was oddly somewhere between toasted black bread and a biscotti! 
Some curious perforations under the hood
The crust was tasty on its own, even as it made an odd base for a slice of pan pizza. I could imagine this crust served instead with jam and butter at breakfast. 

The tomato sauce was a role player, as was the liberal amount of cheese on top, which seemed to have a Gruyere character; perhaps inspired by flammkuchen, the crisp and smoky German pizza. 

What made this slice distinctive was the topping of ham and mushrooms. The sauce, cheese, and toppings were applied is proper proportions so that the pie was well-balanced in terms of flavors and textures.
The castle in Aufsesse
Like much of this pizza I experienced in Germany and Austria (there seems to be pizza shops all over the cities), it was better than 95% of American mom-n-pop stuff, but not as memorable as iconic pizza like Al Forno in Rhode Island, Lombardi's in NYC, DeLorenzo's in Trenton, or Picco in Boston.

All told, this sturdy square slice was a tasty variation on a pizza theme. Not many American small towns have pizza this good or the great variety of local goods that a co-op like Unser Dorfladen can offer. Ausgezeichnet!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Review: Joe Bologna's Pizza, Lexington KY

The drive from Lexington to Frankfort, Kentucky is a green (blue?) scenic vista of gently rolling hills populated with contiguous horse farms. Kentucky is known for its blue grass, its thoroughbred horses, and perhaps for cornbread, country ham, and fried chicken. But how's the pizza?
"Sfingione" pie
Lexington is home to the Kentucky Wildcats, the most successful NCAA Division I basketball program in history. We searched for the iconic local pizza and discovered Joe Bologna's, where locals have enjoyed the pizza served in a converted church since 1973, located near the University of Kentucky campus.

When I arrived at 4pm on a Wednesday in July, the large dining area was half full. By the time I left around 5pm, there was a wait to get a table. Clearly, Joe Bologna's is a popular destination. The menu offered lots more than pizza, but I didn't explore it. I had to choose between the regular round pizza and the pan Sicilian, and then between the regular and the thin crust variety. 

I settled on the smallest round 8" pizza, round pie, regular crust. Then I selected from the several specialties pies, and could not resist the intriguing "Sfingione" pie, which features a sauce made with diced onions and anchovies. 

I ordered this Sfingione pie topped with pepperoni, and I chose a draft Kentucky Ale to go with it ($3.95 for a pint).  The ale was crisp, cold, tasty, and an ideal match for a pizza.

When my pie arrived, it looked very small and I regretted not getting the 10" pie, but I did find later that this pie filled me pretty well. The narrow cornicione was a nice golden brown and glistened with an oily surface. 

The initial impression on the first bite was that of a deeply cooked and spiced sauce; I detected herbal notes, particularly oregano, but later the anchovy and especially the onion dominated the flavor. The sauce was a bit on the sweet side, too.

The crust was reasonably thin, doughy but not soft, with a denser chew than you'd find in a crisper East Coast pizza. The cheese was a fairly standard mix of mozzarella and Romano, mild and a little salty, but sporting lovely brown spots from skillful baking. I'm skeptical of pies baked on screens, but this one clearly was and still had good texture, flavor, and overall character in the crust.

Another pizza technique that generally fails is fresh tomato as a topping, but here each small slice had a slender half-moon slice of pale tomato atop the cheese and under the pepperoni. Because it was so thin, it didn't add troublesome weight or moisture - but it didn't likely add much flavor, either.

After one slice, I was thinking "good service, nice ambiance, excellent beer, slightly better than Pizza Hut" pie here. But this little pie grew on me, and each slice seemed to taste better than the one before. It had a very good balance of sweet and salty, and the ingredients were also in harmony in terms of flavor, textures, and quantities. This was a fun pie if not a gourmet experience, and ultimately pretty satisfying to my palate.

If I could draw a comparison it would be to two other unexpected pizzas I found in off-the-beaten-path locations: Sirianni's Pizza Cafe in Davis, WV, and West End Pizza Company in Fredericksburg, TX. 

What do these three places have in common? Each is making an authentically home-made style pie with scratch ingredients. Distressingly, too many cookie-cutter places in the East Coast look like mom and pop shops, but they are all using the same Sysco ingredients and perhaps recipes.

Joe Bologna's pies are unique, the setting is both charming and family friendly, and the service was top-shelf. The Sfingione is not entirely Sicilian authentic (because it includes tomato sauce), but who can quibble with this signature pie deep in the heart of Wildcat country?

Joe Bologna's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomatoa

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