Saturday, November 17, 2018

Review: Pizza Hut Spicy Beef Pizza - Chengdu, China

Pizza Hut has restaurants all over the globe, and they tailor the product offerings for local tastes. There is a Chicken Tom Yum pizza in Thailand, Fish Roe and Cream Cheese pie in Hong Kong, and the Grilled Pork Trout Soy Sauce and Prawn Mayo Bacon pizza in Japan. 

We spotted a large and elegant Pizza Hut at the airport in Chengdu, a large city in Southern China, and decided to take a short break from the wonderful Chinese food we'd been eating in Chengdu and Beijing.

Unlike American Pizza Huts, this location sported a very upscale decor. Service was pleasant, but a bit disorganized. I saw very few other westerners in Chengdu, including this airport.

We experienced some exotic street food in China; scorpion on a stick, roasted rabbit head, and chicken wings stuffed with sticky rice. Would Pizza Hut in China stretch the definition of pizza?
Scorpions on a stick
Roasted rabbit head
Chicken wings stuffed with sticky rice
I imagine the menu is more customized to local tastes at other Chinese Pizza Hut locations; here at the airport in this major city, they seem to have crafted a menu to appeal to both natives and to western travelers. The pizza choices were pretty tame. 
Pesto pasta
The "New Orleans" pie included shrimp topping, there was a typical "The Works" pie with gobs of toppings like peppers, onions, sausage, pepperoni, etc. I was tempted to try the simple pepperoni pizza to compare it to the American version, but we instead got the "Spicy Beef" pizza to see if it was some East-meets-West attempt.
"Spicy Beef" pizza
Our hungry table for three also ordered a lasagna and pesto pasta, which I found to be surprising menu options for a Pizza Hut, especially in China. The lasagna was a little bit soupy with red sauce, but otherwise pretty standard stuff. 

The Pesto dish seemed to be spaghetti noodles, which were amazingly al dente. We'd found that in China, noodle dishes get the same respectful preparation as in Italy, pairing perfect texture with rich and complex flavors. That kitchen skill carried over to this pasta dish in a Pizza Hut, a delightful surprise.

The pizzas are offered as small (personal size), medium, or large. I ordered the small version, and this "Spicy Beef" pie was topped with some modest bits of meat, bell pepper, corn, mushrooms, onion, cherry tomatoes (no sauce), and conventional cheese.
Golden oiled crust underneath
Other than the corn, it was a pretty standard pizza. There was a nice golden hue to the cornicione and good browning of the cheese. Underneath, you could see how a layer of oil helped the bottom of the crust get crisped and browned as well.

The crust was very white bread-ish, thick and soft. I couldn't detect a hint of spice in the beef, even though Chengdu is in the heart of Sichuan, which is known for fiery hot cuisine. 

Overall, though, this was a tasty and balanced pizza, more satisfying than I would have expected. I don't have much use for American Pizza Huts when there are so many other better options, but this Chengdu location exceed my expectations.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Review: BIGA Pizza and Beer - Bryn Mawr, PA

There's a lot of great restaurants on Philadelphia's storied Main Line, but this prosperous stretch of western suburbs hasn't fully participated in the pizza renaissance blossoming nationally. Other than a cluster of good pies in Wayne, such as Jules Thin Crust and an outpost of Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza, Main Line pizza eaters have been stuck in the 90s.

BIGA opened in May of 2016, and quickly got onto the radar of local foodies when legendary Philly food critic Craig Laban wrote a review seven months later. On a Wednesday night in October, I visited with three others to try four different kinds of their 12" personal size Neapolitans.

From the outside, BIGA looks like a place that has been around forever; flat gray walls on an old boxy building. The interior, which seats about 40, has a cozy brick and wood decor that makes you instantly feel welcomed.

Owner Sean Weinberg cites Brooklyn's Roberta's and DC's 2Amys as inspirations for both the pizza and the decor, and those are both superb destinations.

Weinberg has a high end restaurant Alba in Malvern (at the Western-most end of the Main Line). Here, according to Laban, "he and chef Steve Fulmer have put a lot of energy into refining their dough (a 48-hour process that fosters complexity of flavor), a bright raw tomato sauce just touched with basil, and a series of toppings that range from traditional ('Margherita') to unconventional."

BIGA offers a nice selection of draft beers and over 80 kinds of bottled beer (though I can't understand why anyone would choose a bottle over draft beer). The Saint Benjamin Belgian Wit I had paired nicely with our pies, but there are plenty of more serious IPA style beers too.
Margherita with pepperoni
We shared as an appetizer of  the buttermilk-crusted fried cauliflower, served with an almond-thickened base of red pepper romesco sauce. It was as light as fried food can be, and the texture was perfect - delicate and soft inside without being wet or mushy. It was garnished with some nice pickled onions.
The Daytripper
Our four pizzas were:
  • Margherita -  tomato sauce, basil, fresh mozzarella, olive oil; topped with pepperoni
  • Classic Cheese -  tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella, Parmesan; topped with beer-braised onions
  • Da Bomb - tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, soppressata, basil, Calabrian chilies
  • Daytripper - mushrooms, roasted garlic bechamel, fontina, pecorino, scallion
"Da Bomb"
Like all good Neapolitans, these pies cook quickly in the high-heat wood-fired oven. 
The Classic Cheese
The Margherita is always the baseline to assess a pizzaiolo, even though we added the pepperoni to ours. The crust was perfect - ideal leopard spotting on the puffy cornicione, thin and chewy throughout, and no soggy spots anywhere. As with any great pizza, the crust was good enough to eat without any toppings.
"Da Bomb" slice
Tomato sauce on a pizza can be old-school long-cooked gravy style, or it can be applied to the pizza without any previous cooking, as it was here. I like both ways, but this style - fresh and vibrant - suited these Neapolitans perfectly. The cheese was excellent quality but kind of a role player to hold all the other ingredients together. The pepperoni was outstanding - large thin circles that curled and crisped even during the brief time spent in the oven.
Daytripper slice
After our meal, I asked the pizzaiolo about the pepperoni, and he told me it was made by DiGiacomo Brothers in nearby Conshohocken, PA.
Classic Cheese slice
The Da Bomb pizza had quite a bit in common with the Margherita, with an identical crust, sauce, and fresh mozzarella. The soppressata was not very different from the pepperoni on the Margherita, but what made this pie sing was the Calabrian chilies, applied judiciously in a way that gave it a very warm but not overpowering heat. It was a favorite of our group, an especially well-balanced pie.

We chose the Classic Cheese because one member of our party prefers standard aged mozzarella to the fresh variety (I do too, on any non-Neapolitan pie). He was intrigued by the beer-braised onions and ordered those as a topping. This pizza - in my view - is offered as a compromise to those who want their pizza to look and taste like the ordinary pies they ate before the pizza renaissance.

It certainly looked conventional, with that pale orange melange of cheese and sauce. However, those unremarkable toppings riding on this fantastic crust, enhanced by the beer-braised onions, made for a very satisfying pizza. Despite a big cheese payload, that Neapolitan crust was not overwhelmed, and like the other pies, the Classic Cheese was an ideal balance of flavors and textures.

The pie that most surprised me was the Daytripper. This white pie was just a flavor explosion; I'm not sure what kind of mushrooms were used, but they were bursting with umami, and it was doubled by the cheese blend, the garlic bechamel, and the liberal application of diced scallion.

Four pies, four winners. The crust here is wonderful; perhaps not better than Vetri or Capofitto in Philly, but you can talk about them all in the same sentence. What elevates BIGA above other Neapolitan pizzerias is how thoughtfully-chosen and well-balanced these pies are. A lot of failed pizzas result from unartful pairings of toppings that are good or great but not ideal on that particular pie. Clearly, there is enough culinary skill here to avoid any such miscues.
Ideal char underneath
I've stood in line for a lot of pizza - an hour at Frank Pepe, two hours for DiFara, three hours for Pizzeria Bianco. It's always gratifying to find great pizza where you can walk in, get seated and get a beer, and then place your order. 

We arrived around 5:30 and the place was nearly full by the time we left, but it seems you can get your fix of first-rate pie here with a minimum of hassle; you can even park at the broken (hence: free) parking meters on the side of the building.
Delicious mutant bubble
BIGA was a top-shelf experience; don't overlook this gem in the heart of Philly's Main Line.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Review: Napizza - San Diego, CA

In Rome, pizza is often made and sold "al taglio" - by the slice. A Roman style pizza is not a round pie cut into triangles, but an elongated oval/rectangle from which large slices are lopped off with a big knife, and then weighed to determine the price.
Old School slice (left) and La Lasagna slice (right)
I first experienced this kind of pizza at Forno Marco Rosciolo in Rome, and it set the standard for my expectations. That was in 2012, and I wondered why no one was making this kind of pizza in the USA. Fast forward to 2018, and it's much easier to find Roman style.
Napizza, San Diego
Philadelphia offers two authentic renditions in center city -  Alice (pronounced "Ah Lee Chay") is the first American branch of a major Italian chain, and Rione is a smaller BYOB that also offers remarkably genuine Roman pizza.
Some of the Al Taglio slices available
On visits to San Diego, I found solid Chicago deep-dish pizza at Berkeley, amazing New Haven style apizza at Basic, and ethereal modern twists on Neapolitan/American pies at Tribute Pizza. Beyond all those great choices, I found Napizza, a casual al taglio spot with four San Diego area locations for Roman style slices.
Bapo slice (left) and Truffle Porcini slice (right)
Much like the medium-thick and airy crusts on the slices at Alice and Rione, the dough at Napizza develops for 72 hours, giving these substantial slices a surprising lightness despite the crisp edges and chewy interior. Each slice is cut into two for serving, so with a dining partner I was able to sample four different slice varieties.
Bapo up close
The crust was identical on all four. It was uniformly crisp underneath, full of airy pockets, and chewy like good Italian bread in the middle. It was a bit more oily than other Roman slices, but mostly in a good way. The crust is the key component of every pizza no matter the style, and this crust is good enough to eat without any toppings.
Crispy undercarriage
We ordered four different slices:
  • La Lasagna, topped with Bolognese sauce, fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano, and besciamella
  • Bapo, featuring potato, bacon, fresh mozzarella, and fresh rosemary
  • Old School, with house-made red sauce, fresh mozzarella, and pepperoni
  • Truffle Porcini, made with porcini mushrooms, truffle pate, fresh mozzarella, and parsley
Old School slice
La Lasagna slice
Every slice was delectable in its own way, but my clear favorite was the Truffle Porcini for its rich combination of flavors. Truffles and the porcini mushrooms made this a umami explosion.  
Truffle Porcini slice
Likewise, fresh rosemary really pumped up the Bapo slice. Potatoes on pizza can become a wet and heavy mess if not executed properly, but this slice contained a judicious amount of diced/smashed potato. I'd like to have that slice topped with an egg as a perfect breakfast pizza.
Conventional gas ovens
The slices with red sauce had a more traditional pizza flavor, and could have passed for excellent slices of Sicilian style with a slightly thinner crust. We easily polished off all four slices; I could have eaten more. 

With Napizza, Berkeley, Basic, and Tribute Pizza, you can now add San Diego to the (growing) list of great pizza towns.

Napizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato