Friday, March 27, 2015

Review: SimplyNature Uncured Pepperoni Thin & Crispy Pizza (ALDI)

Having tried and liked several varieties of frozen pizza from ALDI (as well as THIS take-and-bake pie), I was intrigued by the appearance of an "Uncured Pepperoni" thin and crispy pizza bearing the SimplyNature brand.  
Click on any image to enlarge

What is uncured pepperoni? The USDA defines uncured as products that have not been preserved by adding sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate. ALDI tells us that this uncured pepperoni contains "no nitrates or nitrites except those naturally occurring in in sea salt and celery juice powder." See?  I told you that pizza is a health food! 

I generally check the calorie count, and I must reject some frozen pies when I see the obscene numbers. This pie, though (which cost about $4) had only 840 calories for the entire pizza.  Some are over 3,000 calories.

When I took it out of the box, it was easy to see why it has a modest calorie count.  It's a very thin crust, and at most 12 inches in diameter. Any adult male could easily eat the whole thing; I prepared it for two, along with a big garden salad.
Out of the oven, party-cut

Following package directions, I baked it at 425 degrees directly on the center rack for 9-12 minutes (closer to 12).  The top looked fully cooked, but the bottom could have benefited from another minute in the oven.

Given its resemblance to the thin-crust Midwestern kind of pies you'd find at regional chain Monical's (reviewed HERE), I sliced it in the square party-cut style common to bar pies and Midwestern thin crust pizza.

The crust was whole wheat, and you could see the darker color and tell by its taste. Overall, the texture was chewy and satisfying but lacking the crunch I prefer. The sauce was thin and sweet. No off notes, but it did not deliver any full flavors. The cheese was a role player, too. Not bad, but not special.
Underside of the whole-wheat crust

The pepperoni, with generous amounts of big circles, was the highlight. It had a savory-salty flavor and a good chewy texture. But in general, this is the kind of pie that sends you looking for something to sprinkle on top (cheese, pepper flakes, oregano, garlic powder, or salt) to give it some oomph.

This pie - and its ambition to be a healthy version of pizza - earns a 5. Not a bad $4 emergency dinner to have in your freezer, but not a pizza I would seek out again.  It pales in comparison to the other ALDI $4 frozen pizza - Mama Cozzi's Caprese - which is made in Germany. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: Red Star Craft House, Exton PA

Dave McGrogan is among the top tier restaurant stars of Chester County PA and nearby areas. On several occasions, I've visited his signature Doc McGrogan's Oyster House in downtown West Chester. 
Pizza at Red Star Craft House, Exton

There, the great seafood, casual-yet-elegant ambiance and consistently fresh food make for a regularly excellent dining experience. There are three other Doc McGrogan's locations in the region.


Barra Rossa, Downingtown
The Dave McGrogan restaurant group also includes Kildare's, a West Chester Irish pub, Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar (five locations), Barra Rossa in Downingtown (reviewed HERE before the name changed from Stella Rossa), and now Red Star Craft House in Exton PA.
Mall entrance to Red Star

Red Star was designed to be a variant of Barra Rossa, with more emphasis on casual fare. It is housed within the Exton Square Mall, in the site formerly occupied by Houlihan's.  Along with its new neighbor Main Line Health, Red Star is just the kind of place that this sleepy mall needed to give it a boost of traffic and interest.
Cafe and takeout area

Much like the nearby Pour House on Route 100, Red Star has enjoyed a flood of traffic upon opening. Exton area diners don't have a lot of interesting choices beyond the wonderful and growing crop of Indian restaurants in the "Dosa Belt" as described by Philly food critic Craig Laban. If you want an authentic dining experience, you generally head to West Chester or Phoenixville; Exton is a bit crammed with dreary chain restaurants.

Bar and dining area

We tried to go early on a Friday night without reservations - and faced a 90 minute wait. We chose instead to go across Rt. 30 from the mall to Biryani King. There, the service is a bit confused but the Indian food is wonderful and expertly presented. The Mongolian cauliflower is other-worldly. Ask for a table in the back of this converted old mansion.  But - let's get back to Red Star.
Dining room and bar, from opposite end

We tried next on a Sunday at 6:30pm, with reservations. We arrived 15 minutes early, but could not be seated early - the place was buzzing.  Folks without reservations faced a 30 minute wait. Hence, with great anticipation, we were seated in the hip-but-comfy dining room and began to examine the menu.

Our server was excellent and spoke knowingly of the menu. We had come for the pizza, of course, but we decided to split an appetizer (shrimp lettuce wraps), a burger, and a pizza.  I was delighted by the interesting cocktail selection, at a reasonable $7 each. I ordered a craft beer from the extensive list while my wife had a basil-infused martini.
Shrimp lettuce wraps

The lettuce wraps were fine, but I thought the sauce was a little too sweet and that the green peppers dominated the milder flavors of the shrimp and the excellent mango strips included.  

We made a mistake by ordering the smokehouse burger "medium well."  It was a nicely constructed burger, but the meat was cooked "well done" and was a bit dry. The lovely brioche roll was probably a day past its prime, as well. The fries, smartly served in a metal cup, were undercooked and limp. This may have been "Sunday night at a new restaurant" syndrome, because several things on the menu were not available.  Bottom line - good but not great for both the burger and the appetizer.

We had visited sister restaurant Barra Rossa in Downingtown on two occasions. On our first visit, we had excellent pasta and almost-great Neapolitan pizza. I tried the pizza again on my second visit, and I came away thinking that the ingredients were right, but the execution was not. Too much cheese and an undercooked crust made for a tasty pie that lacked the character and texture of the best Neapolitans.
Pepperoni Neapolitan

Here, the pizza seems to be very much the same. There is an authentic wood-fired dome oven, but the magic isn't happening.  Our pepperoni (with long hots) pizza had excellent cheese and pepperoni. The "long hots" came out as green dollops of pepper pesto, which was a nice touch but lacking any real spicy fire.

The crust, though, was a failure. It was good - not great - in flavor, but its major defect was texture. It was limp (but not wet) and lacking substantial char, crisping, or hole structure. Terrific opportunity to take this pie from OK to wonderful by getting the crust right and cooking it properly.
Droopy slice

Overall, Red Star is a big plus for Exton. We instantly loved the ambiance, and much like Barra Rossa and Doc McGrogan's, the staff was friendly and efficient.
Underside of crust

The pizza is the second-best pizza in Exton, trailing Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza by a large margin. But it could be so much better. This pie earns a 6 out of 10. We'll be back, though - Dave McGrogan has a good idea of how to keep his patrons happy.


Red Star Craft House Exton on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: Pizza Hut Pretzel Crust Pan Pizza

While the main purpose of Pizza Quixote is finding unique pizzerias serving destination pizza (pizza worth the trip), we live in a world also filled with convenience pizza.  That includes frozen pizza, refrigerated bake-at-home pizza, and chain pizza. We enjoy quite a few of the smaller chains (round-up HERE), but it's been several years since I've eaten pie from Domino's, Little Caesar's, or Pizza Hut.

Perhaps in response to the rise of better pizza in America, Pizza Hut recently revamped its menu with some bold new choices. The ordering process is very confusing! There is a lot of advertising about specialty crusts, but that is really just about some extra flavorings brushed onto the cornicione.

You begin by choosing from several crust foundations that include:

  • Hand-tossed
  • Thin 'n' crispy
  • Pan pizza
  • Skinny
  • Original stuffed crust

You next have a choice of sauces:

  • Marinara
  • Crushed tomato
  • Garlic Parmesan
  • Honey Sriracha
  • BBQ
  • Buffalo

Then you pick a flavor drizzle to top your pie:

  • Balsamic
  • Honey Sriracha
  • BBQ
  • Buffalo

Finally, you select a flavor for your cornicione:

  • Toasted Parmesan
  • Salted pretzel
  • Honey sriracha
  • Toasted asiago
  • Fiery red pepper
  • Toasted cheddar
  • Garlic buttery blend
  • Curry
  • Ginger

It's a dizzying array of choices.  I wanted a reasonably traditional pizza, so I chose the pan pizza crust, crushed tomato, no sauce drizzle, with sausage and pepperoni for toppings. To make it a little more interesting, I chose the salted pretzel cornicione.

One more element of confusion - I had a print ad with advertised specials, including a two-topping large pizza for $7.99. However, the physical location Pizza Hut store could not honor that price, which applies to internet orders only. So I (and another patron in that store) used smartphones to place an order online while standing in the store! The store owner (Exton, PA) apologized for the system, which is beyond his control.

The pie was ready in less than 15 minutes. "Large" by Pizza Hut standards is not a very big pie; this one was about 13.5 inches in diameter.

How did it taste?

The crust was actually quite good. It had some good browning and crispness on the bottom. It was properly thick, but it had a nice hole structure and overall texture. Surprisingly, it had its own good flavor, which is rare in any big-chain pie.

The salted pretzel edge was a disappointment. I wanted pretzel crust, what I got was salted pizza crust. Still good, but not what it might have been.

The sauce also disappointed. Crushed tomatoes are standard in the superb tomato pies of Trenton, and the best pies have a distinct tomato flavor. This sauce (and the cheese) were simply pleasant role players with no distinct character.  There was a bit too much cheese, and it could have used more and bolder tomato sauce. 

The toppings were ordinary, featuring standard-grade pepperoni, very thinly sliced. The sausage was pre-cooked, and I regretted that I hadn't opted for the new "premium salami" instead.

All told, this pie was tasty and of course filling. It was a little better than a DiGiorno frozen pizza, for not much more money. I'm in no hurry to eat Pizza Hut again, because there are so many better choices.

A pizza is about crust, sauce, cheese - and mostly about the crust. Whenever there is an emphasis on toppings or other unusual flavors, the purpose is typically to distract from a mediocre crust. And that it true, for the most part, with this new Pizza Hut menu.  But for a big chain, "mediocre" is a step forward. I had remembered Pizza Hut as lousy pizza - but this pie was pretty good. Not memorable, but there are a lot of worse ways to fill your belly for $8.

Pizza Hut on Urbanspoon