Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: All Purpose Pizzeria - Washington DC

In 2007, the Capitol Riverfront was created as a business improvement district, south of the U.S. Capitol in Wasington DC. Adjacent to the Navy Yard and Washington Nationals stadium, it is now home to more than 9,000 new residences and all the shops are services for the (wealthy) people moving in. There is a boardwalk along the Anacostia River, a wading pool, a marina, and plenty of hip destinations.

Among them is a second location in DC for All Purpose Pizzeria, directly on the waterfront with both indoor and outdoor dining. On an unseasonably warm Father's Day, we opted for inside seating. The space is very bright, open, and well-organized; elegant but still casual. The kitchen is in full view, a dining trend that remains welcome.

All Purpose describes itself  as offering "local beer and seasonal dishes inspired by the Eastern U.S. and Italian coastlines." Reading the menu, I noticed a lot of NY and NJ references; our server told us that the owner grew up in New York and North Jersey. The beer list was short but impressive, as was the offer of a free beer for Father's Day. I chose "Downright Pils," a Czech style pilsener from Port City Brewing in nearby Alexandria; it was especially good.

The menu is divided into four categories. Pizza, of course, but also salads, spuntini (light appetizers), and antipasti (heavy appetizers). Although the pizzas are a large 11" personal size, we decided to split one pizza and one appetizer for our lunch visit. From the many good choices, we selected the spring asparagus "marinati" which included blanched and sliced cold asparagus with whipped robiola cheese, toasted sesame, lemon, and salsa verde.

This appetizer was an omen of good things to come; it may be the best asparagus dish I've ever eaten. It was tender but crunchy and there was a swirl of wonderful flavors from the cheese, sesame, and light touch of green salsa. 
Asparagus as served in salad bowl
I asked our server about its preparation, and she knew the technique from start to finish! The key was to first remove the outer layer of fibrous stalk, then marinate in salt and sugar, then blanch, then slice and mix with the other ingredients.
Asparagus, plated
The pizza menu included eight styles and a build-your-own option. We chose the "Buona" which features tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, Calabrian chili honey, and fresh basil. Our pie arrived with a deep golden glow and a very puffy cornicione. It's important to note that these are not Neapolitan pies; they cook about ten minutes in a conventional gas oven.

I sometimes keep notes about the particular qualities of the sauce, the cheese, the toppings. I failed to do that here - and that speaks to how much I was enjoying each slice and how the ingredients were in ideal balance and harmony. Much like the authentic pizza I grew up eating in New Jersey, the sauce and the cheese melded into a delicious orange swirl that married the pepperoni to the crust.

I did take particular note of the crust, always the most important element. It was even darker on the bottom than the top, but not burnt or overdone. The crust was thin in the center, but not wafer-like. It was much thicker at the cornicione.  All the way through, it was delightfully crispy on the outside and lightly chewy within. I commented that they could just bake the crust alone and serve it with butter and it would make a very satisfying meal.
Underside of crust
Although I'm partial to the small but thick "spicy cup" pepperoni, these large thin circles had excellent flavor and texture. The Calabrian chili honey added more sweetness than spiciness, but certainly enhanced the other flavors. Mike Kurtz (Mike's Hot Honey) and Paulie Gee started the whole hot-honey-on-pizza thing and it remains one of the best non-traditional pie toppings.
Conventional gas deck ovens
Everything about this visit was a success. Great ambiance, superb service, excellent beer for free, amazing asparagus, and a perfectly balanced pie built on an expertly baked crust. Washington DC already offers some wonderful pizza options, and All Purpose stands with the best of them. 

All-Purpose Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, June 15, 2018

Review: &Pizza

When the American Neapolitan pizza movement got into full swing during the last decade, the pioneers made pizza in the true Naples fashion. They built (or imported from Italy) the wood-burning dome ovens that reach temperatures of  800-1000 degrees, they used 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, Fior di Latte or Bufala mozzarella, and fresh basil. Those artisans set a new standard for great pies while introducing America to this traditional pizza of southern Italy.

Some of the first are still among the best - Forcella, Motorino, Paulie Gee, Zero Otto Nove. One of Philly's top Neapolitan piemakers, Vetri, is attempting to expand regionally. So it's not surprising that there would be several attempts to create a national chain of Neapolitan-ish pizzas.

By now, you've probably had the "fast casual" build-your-own personal pies which are frequently an imitation of a true Neapolitan, but with a wide range of non-standard ingredients.  I've tried some of those and some other regional Neapolitan-ish chain pies, and they range from good to very good. The best I've experienced thus far was at Ecco in Anaheim, CA.
Choose your ingredients
Other pizzeria chains in this "Chipotle of Pizza" market include:

Conveyor oven
One of the fastest-growing entries in this market is &Pizza (, which calls itself an "anti-establishment establishment built on the renown of its creative pies and craft beverages, localized shop design, and the strength, unity and vibe of its living-wage-paid, ampersand-tattooed Tribe." There are about 25 locations in DC, MD, and VA, with new stores opening in NYC, Boston, and Philly.  On a warm June night, I visited the Philadelphia location just off Walnut Street in Center City.

Much like other fast-casual pie joints, you approach a counter and choose a specialty pie or begin making custom-pie options. There are three dough choices (including gluten-free), five sauce choices (two red, two white, and pesto), nine each of vegetable or protein toppings, and twenty post-bake add-ons.

I opted for the specialty "American Honey" pizza with spicy tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, arugula, red pepper flakes, goat cheese, hot honey. The long oval pie was rapidly assembled and then placed on the screen of a conveyor oven for a bake that was under two minutes. 

The gentleman staffing the post-bake add-ons bar thoughtfully asked if I wanted all four of the items designed for this pie. I gladly accepted the arugula, goat cheese, and hot honey, but declined the extra heat of the chili flakes. The pie was priced to come out to $10.50 with tax; I added a can of seltzer water for another $2.50.

There is plenty of long table and counter seating in the large black-and-white themed dining area. My pie was cut into 8 small slices that were easy to handle except that the post-bake items had to be balanced carefully so that they wouldn't fall off.

The crust was thin, but perhaps not quite as wafer-thin as the pies at places like MOD and SNAP. It had a nice puffiness at the cornicione, and a deeper graininess that makes me think it was the "ancient grains" dough and not the traditional dough. Crisp on the bottom, chewy above that, and sporting a good flavor, this was a solid crust on which to build a successful pie.

The toppings matched the quality of the crust. The thick ovals of pepperoni were applied generously but in reasonable proportion. Each bite yielded a flavor blast dominated by the savory goat cheese crumbles and the hot honey. The arugula added a bit of snap and textural balance. 
Nicely browned and crisp underneath
The cheese, generously applied, was a bit of a role player as was the red sauce, but all the elements worked in harmony. I'm pretty certain this particular combo was better than anything I might have attempted in the build-your-own approach.
Nice texture in the crust
Overall, terrific pizza. It did not quite match Ecco, but the pies from that two-store "chain" are baked in a genuine Neapolitan dome oven. The pizza from &Pizza gets the nod over MOD, for instance. All of these pies live somewhere in between the generic and the genuine, but they also represent a huge leap forward in chain food. 

More than ever, there is no reason to waste calories on Papa John or Domino's pizza when these superior pies are available almost everywhere. Kudos to &Pizza for raising the bar in the fast-casual pizza category.

&pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: Roberta's Wood Fired Pizza (Frozen)

I've made the trek to Bushwick, that worn-down part of Brooklyn being revitalized as young hipsters find Williamsburg and Park Slope to be too expensive.
One of the earliest signs that Bushwick would be an attractive neighborhood was the opening of Roberta's Pizza, where the Neapolitan pizzas are both faithful to the authentic Naples version yet creatively American in toppings. Roberta's makes one of America's best Neapolitan pies.
The pizza I ate at Roberta's in Brooklyn
Frozen pizza, on the other hand, rarely reaches gourmet level. It's tasty and passable, especially the rising-crust style frozen pies. The best frozen pizzas I've had to date, though, are the small thin Neapolitan-ish pies at Trader Joe's (the Trader Giotto brand, imported from Italy) and the occasional specialty frozen pizza from ALDI (but only those imported from Germany).

With that as background, I was delighted to learn that a line of Roberta's frozen pizzas are now available at Whole Foods. There are two varieties - a base Margherita and the "Baby Sinclair" which is a white pie with kale. At my local Whole Foods, I bought the Sinclair because it was the only style available.

Neither pie contains any meat ingredients. The packaging is novel in that you have clear plastic shrink wrap instead of a cardboard box; this allows you to see exactly what you are buying. These are small 9.7 ounce pizzas, and priced at $11.99. Expensive compared to almost any other pizza, but cheap when compared to a fresh pie at any high-end pizzeria.
Before baking
I followed the package instructions, cooking it for five and a half minutes at 450 degrees, directly on the oven rack. I was tempted to add some soppressata, but to make a fair taste test the only embellishment was the addition of fresh garden basil after it came out of the oven. I cut it into six small slices.
Out of the oven
A freshly-baked Neapolitan has a soft and pliable crust, but this very thin crust was crisp and rigid. The immediate impression on the first bite was the forward flavor of the cheese blend - cheddar and Parmigiano. 

The kale was plentiful, but its flavor subdued. The garlic was a nice and powerful note. Although this pizza was tagged "medium spicy" I could not detect any heat at all from the Calabrian chilies.

As noted, the wafer-thin crust was crisp from edge to edge. Despite this departure in texture from the fresh-baked pie I'd eaten on my visit to Roberta's in Bushwick, it retained a lot of the excellent flavor. With that tasty base and the nice mix of strong flavors from the cheese and garlic, this was an exceptionally tasty frozen pizza.
Good char underneath
Bottom line, this is the best frozen pizza I've had. If this was your only taste of Roberta's pizza, it would not send you in a hurry to try one freshly-baked.  But it's almost as good as leftover pizza that got slightly overbaked on the re-heat. If it's in your budget, you should upgrade to this (or Trader Giotto) from whatever frozen pizza that is currently taking up space in your freezer. 

Roberta's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato