Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: Alice Cucina Romana - Philadelphia, PA

One of my best-ever pizza experiences was my first taste of Roman by-the-slice "al taglio" pizza at Forno Marco Roscioli in Rome, adjacent to the Campo di Fiore open market. The counters were filled with large rectangles of pizza, from which the pizzioli would lop off slices and sell by weight.
Alice management team member Antonella
The pizza was spectacular, top to bottom, but mostly due to the medium-thick crust. If you start with great bread, you will have great pizza. Why don't they sell this Roman style pizza in America, I asked?
Pizza al taglio in Rome
At long last, true Roman style pizzerias are opening on this side of the Atlantic. I was particularly keen on sampling the pizza at Rione, which opened in downtown Philadelphia in May, 2017. In fact, I was walking to Rione along Locust street when I saw Alice.
Alice - pronounced ah lih che - is the first American outpost of an Italian pizza franchise that was founded by Domenico Giovannini in 1990; I had read a blurb about Alice in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the location at Locust and 15th looked inviting on this damp and drizzly evening. I punted my plans for Rione and ducked into Alice Cucina Romana.
 On one side there is a counter with stools, a few small tables, and a long display case of rapidly changing pizzas. That was my focus for this visit, but I was intrigued by the other half of the interior space, which is a coffee/gelato/dessert bar by day and a full service Italian restaurant by night, in partnership with the nearby Gran Caffe L’Aquila.
The pizza side

My appetite allowed for about two normal size slices, but I could have had four smaller slices, because the pie is sold by weight and cut to the size of your choice. Next time, for sure I will try more varieties.
The cafe side (photo by @AlicePhilly)
All of the choices looked good, with the one exception of pale pink diced tomatoes on a few pies. At the time I made my selection, the only pie with traditional red sauce was a "plain" pie, so I wound up with two slices that lacked a tomato component.

I chose one slice with potato and bacon, and the other topped with sausage and basil. Service was earnest, but clearly the American staff was still being trained by the Italians. My slices came to me at room temperature - and I'm not sure if an oven warm-up was or should be an option. I paid about $3.50 each for slices big enough for each to be cut into two squares.
My two slices
I took a counter seat, looking out on Locust Street. You can often detect superior pizza just by its appearance, and this pie was beautiful. The medium-thick crust was golden brown outside, and it sported the complex hole structure of good Italian bread. The exterior was a little oily and ideally crisp, with a dense but light chewiness inside.
Potato and bacon slice
Antonella - part of the management team - told me that Alice uses a special ancient grain for the flour, grown outside of Rome. More details about that crust from the Alice website:
The secret is in the dough, characterized by a very small amount of yeast: 25 g of brewer’s yeast, generally used to make 1-2 kg of dough, makes about 25 kg of our dough. The dough becomes rich in oxygen and, after at least a 24 hours rising at a controlled temperature, is gently kneaded and rolled out in the baking tray.
The potato and bacon slice (Antonella's favorite) was tasty and well-balanced, but the flavors on top were a bit tame. I fixed that with some salt, but I'd add more bacon, sharper cheese, and/or seasoning to the potatoes. The texture, though, was perfect. Many attempts at potato pizza result in a pie that is wet or heavy, but this potato topping blended beautifully with the crust and cheese. This slice would be wonderful at breakfast with some strong Italian coffee.
A crust close-up
The sausage (salsiccia) slice was superb in every way. Large chunks of piquant Italian sausage had been cooked on the pie, and were melded into a tasty cheese blend on top. There was also a generous amount of a green topping that seemed like a fresh pesto - even though I could not determine if it was parsley or basil. A slice that was about perfect in flavor, textures, and balance.

After I had finished, I spotted a pie topped with large wavy slices of what looked like soppressata, just visually beautiful.  I'm going to be surprised if Alice isn't regularly full of people coming for both the casual pizza side and the full-service side of the interior space.
Photo by @PhillyInsider
I'm generally skeptical of chain pizza, and there are over 100 Alice outposts in Italy. But this was not only good pie, it was one of the best pizzas I've had in 2017. There's something wonderful about all types of pizza, but the current Pizza Renaissance in America has seen a lot of Neapolitan pies and fewer pan-baked rectangular pies.

Happily, that's changing with places like Rione, the incredible Rize Pizza in West Chester PA, the expansion of Tina Fey's hometown favorite Pica's, and now Alice Cucina Romana. This is can't-miss destination pizza.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: Ecco Pizza Shoppe - Anaheim CA

During four trips to Anaheim over 3 years, I discovered that the town offers very little interesting dining options, at least in the Disney area. You can get a good-to-excellent but pricey meal at almost any Disney restaurant (which you can enter without going into the park), but the rest of that part of town is a dreary assortment of chains and fast food.

On my first two visits, I couldn't find one pizza place worth trying. On my third visit, I found a terrific Neapolitan pizza at La Brea Bakery Cafe right in Downtown Disney. On this visit, I traveled two miles away from the Convention Center area to visit Ecco Pizza Shoppe.

Ecco joins the growing number of small regional and national chains that offer reasonably authentic "fast-casual" build-your-own Neapolitan pizzas. It may be premature to call Ecco a chain, because there are just two locations now (Anaheim and Costa Mesa) with one coming in Irvine.
The courtyard at Anaheim Packing House
Other pizzeria chains in this "Chipotle of Pizza" market include:

Inside the Packing House

I've enjoyed these Neapolitans at MOD, ZAZA, Snap, and Sauce; they ranged from good to very good. None are quite the real deal, but all are miles better than the giant chains like Pizza Hut, Papa John's, or Domino's.

I didn't know that Ecco was part of a mini local chain when we arrived. It's housed in a former citrus packing house that's been converted to an "upscale food court" that is home to a great variety of restaurants. Walking through the open and airy space, I saw plenty of attractive options.
The Diavola
I was a bit dismayed to see the typical fast-casual assembly line, with little plastic containers of toppings for customers to see and choose, like when you are customizing your SubWay sandwich. That would have lowered my expectations, but then I saw the legitimate wood-fired Neapolitan dome oven, and my hopes were raised.
Pizza assembly area
The Orange County Register had recommended the Diavola pie, with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh Mozzarella, three kinds of hot peppers (Fresno chilies, jalapenos, and pepperoncini), thinly shaved Calabrese salami, Grana Padano cheese, and chili oil.
Authentic wood-fired Neapolitan pizza oven
The pizzaiolo informed me that they were out of jalapenos, so I could choose any other vegetable topping. To keep the character of the pie but to turn down the heat, I opted for conventional bell peppers.

Like every Neapolitan, my pie was ready in a hurry and it was beautiful to see. This pie was a bit more substantial than the typical fast-casual Neapolitan, and it was generously topped with peppers and long slivers of crispy/chewy Calabrese salami.

Although the center of the crust wasn't soggy or wet, it wasn't rigid enough to support the toppings, so the first few bites of each slice required knife and fork. But on the very first bite, it was apparent that this was the best-of-breed, clearly more authentically Neapolitan than other fast-casual pizzas.
Perfect color and char underneath
The crust had its own good flavor, and the texture improved with each bite closer to the puffy and chewy cornicione. The sauce and cheese had melded nicely, but each was a distinctive component. Ecco's red sauce is made with four kinds of heirloom tomatoes, wild basil, fresh Tuscan oregano, garlic, cracked black peppercorns, and onion.

I'm glad that Ecco was out of jalapenos, because this pie was blazing hot. It was at the upper edge of my spice tolerance, and I even removed a few of the Fresno chilies. The Calabrese salami was a standout topping - a much more complex and tasty experience than the typical pepperoni. The Grana Padano added the final umami note to this terrifically balanced pie.

I'm very much looking forward to trying both 1000 Degrees Neapolitan Express and MidiCi when a location opens near me - but for now, Ecco is the king of fast-casual Neapolitan pizza. Enjoy the good-to-great pies at these Neapolitan chains before Pizza Hut or Dominos' buys them out and ruins them with inferior ingredients as they did with conventional pizza.

Ecco Pizza Shoppe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, November 10, 2017

Review: Filomena's Italian Kitchen - Costa Mesa, CA

On my fourth trip to Anaheim in three years, I knew that pizza options in this town are pretty dreary. Although Los Angeles is just 27 miles away, it's 27 miles of congested freeways. 

I looked instead to some other nearby towns in Orange County and found a nice write-up of Filomena's Italian Kitchen in Costa Mesa, about a 20 minute ride from the Disneyland area. The Orange County Register reports that:
This is a hidden gem, where [the] pizza has slowly evolved ... the crust reached perfection midway through 2015. It’s hard to categorize the style, as it’s not quite New York, not quite sourdough, but rather a whole lot of goodness in between.

I called ahead on a Tuesday night and learned that the restaurant was mostly full with a wine tasting event, but the host found an open table for two. The wine event looked excellent; I learned that the cost to participate was $125.
The tasting room
The dining room
View of the bar from back of dining room
Inside, there is a large open room where wine tasters enjoyed a reception, and a more conventional dining room with a small bar. 
Menu from the Wine Tasting Event
We chose a bottle of California Cabernet ($49) from an extensive and pricy wine list and ordered two of the 12" pizzas - one with the pepperoni endorsed by the Orange County Register, and one with Italian sausage.
The sausage pizza
It's worth noting that the entire restaurant buzzed with warmth and comfort; the terrific service and the excitement of the wine event were both contributors to the happy atmosphere. When I saw the pies reach our table, I was encouraged that the reviews I'd seen would prove accurate.
The pepperoni pizza
We were offered freshly grated cheese to top our pies. I'm a fan of the post-bake addition of a sharp cheese like grana padano; I had mixed feelings about adding the same Parmesan that would go on the spaghetti at a neighboring table. We allowed the cheese on the sausage pie and declined it on the pepperoni pizza.
Superb cornicione on these pies
This pie looked Neapolitan, but it's baked in a conventional gas oven at 550 degrees. As always, the crust is the key factor, and this was spectacular bread. It was a bit thin in the center to support the generous payload of cheese and sauce, not to mention the meat toppings. Still, the slices held together well enough that knife and fork were not required.

Each bite closer to the cornicione was a little thicker, a little chewier, and a little crisper. As good as every morsel was, the best part was the cornicione, a puffy and toasty crust with ideal flavor and al dente crunch. There are some real breadmaking skills in this dough, and it was cooked to perfection.
Nice browning & char underneath; appears to be cooked on a screen
The cheese blend seemed to be mostly conventional mozzarella, and it largely melded with the sauce. It was a salty pizza - a good thing - but not overly salty. The sauce may have been very good, but it took a back seat to the volume of cheese and the heavenly crust.
Scrumptious crust on this pie
Both meat toppings were good, but the pepperoni - spicy cups with an ideal curl - had the superior character. The sausage was clearly excellent quality, but it had been pre-cooked before going on the pie. If I had the chance to return, I'd ask for the sausage to be applied raw before baking, Trenton style.
There were no leftover slices
This pizza was wonderful stuff and easily worth the trip from Anaheim. We met the chef/owner Linda on our exit and discovered that her roots matched ours, growing up in South Jersey. 
Chef/owner Linda Johnsen
She clearly has both the training and the passion for Italian food and I'd return often if I lived nearby. Great stuff, destination East-coast style pizza. Don't miss it.

Filomena's Italian Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato