Friday, November 22, 2019

Review: Trilogy Pizza - San Antonio, TX

After six months as a new Texan, some of my expectations in the Austin region have been confounded. Great Mexican food and BBQ are not ubiquitous here. On the other hand, there are three great pizza joints within 5 miles of my suburban neighborhood, and Via 313 is as close to me here as the standard-setting La Porta was in the burbs of Philly.

It's less than two hours to San Antonio, and there is where I finally found great Mexican food. Several visits over the years, though, have shown me that San Antonio, despite being the second largest city in Texas (1.5 million residents - bigger than Dallas - compared to 950,000 for Austin), doesn't have a great, standout pizza joint. I've had good pizza there, but never great. That won't stop me from trying, though!

On my most recent trip, my search turned up Trilogy Pizza, so named because they offer three regional varieties of pizza - New York, Chicago deep dish, and California style pizzas. 

Trilogy is located in a modern strip mall on the Northern edge of San Antonio, 17 miles from downtown (The Alamo, The Riverwalk). The interior has a comfortably casual look with a bar and dining rooms, and there were plenty of happy diners there when I arrived at dinner time.

All three pizza choices were intriguing; my server told me that the New York and California styles were similar, except that the west coast version is made with a whole wheat crust. I've had mixed results with whole wheat pizza crusts, but I decided to try the California pie, topped with pepperoni.

What's the issue with whole wheat pizza crusts? According to the Washington Post, "The problem is that the inclusion of the wheat bran and germ can make it problematic when it comes to baking, especially with yeasted breads. The bran, the outermost part of the grain, is sharp, meaning it can hinder rise by cutting into the dough and wreaking havoc on the gluten network. The bran is also extremely thirsty, able to absorb several times its weight in water."
California pizza with pepperoni
As I waited for my pizza, I saw many other orders come out (but none were Chicago style in my view). The New York pies looked thin and crisp at the cornicione. 

My California pie arrived, and its whole wheat crust was thin but dense, chewy, and flavorful. However, its texture was limp, not crisp. The pizza was fully cooked, as evidenced by the nice top browning of the cheese. Despite its good flavor, the crust was a disappointment. Much as the Washington Post article suggests, it seemed to have failed to rise and absorbed water, even though it wasn't soggy.

Above the crust, the pie was more successful. The cheese was pretty conventional as it melded with the sauce (which sported a distinct herbal note) into that familiar orange moonlike surface that typically covers a New York style pizza. Despite the limp and dense crust, I enjoyed each slice.
Nice browning underneath
Service was outstanding, and I enjoyed some good craft beer on tap with my pie. Overall, a good experience but I can't endorse the California pizza. There's plenty of good landing spots for whole wheat; pizza may not be one of them. I'd gladly return to try the New York or Chicago varieties.

Trilogy Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, November 15, 2019

Review: Salvatore's Tomato Pies - Madison WI

Authentic Trenton tomato pie in Wisconsin? Indeed, but first a little background.
Wisconsin's Trenton Tomato Pie
What's the difference between a pizza and a tomato pie? Some folks in the Philly and Jersey region use the words as synonyms, even though in Philadelphia a tomato pie is thick, square, nearly cheeseless, and served at room temperature while in Trenton a tomato pie is round, thin, and topped with cheese and tomato sauce like any conventional pizza.
Salvatore's Tomato Pies, Madison WI
The key, according to the most devout Trenton Tomato Pie enthusiasts (especially those in the Facebook group devoted to making and eating the real thing) is that with a pizza, the sauce goes on first, topped with cheese. For a tomato pie, the cheese goes on the thin crust and then the sauce - often chunky - is added on top.
Is this a pizzeria or a biker bar?
Trenton was once rife with tomato pie joints - Joe's, Maruca's, Tony Goes, DeLorenzo's, Pica's, Schuster's, Papa's (arguably the oldest pizzamaker in America), La Roma, Sam's, Frank's. (See for this and all sorts of Trenton history.) 

Today, there are no tomato pie places remaining in Trenton proper, but DeLorenzo's has three suburban locations and Papa's too has moved to nearby Robbinsville, NJ; Maruca's lives on at the Jersey Shore.
Our shot of the kitchen caught the pizzaiolo in mid-flip
The current pizza renaissance is largely about authentic Neapolitan pizzamakers popping up all over, but it's good to know that the Trenton tomato pie is thriving too. Most of the new places are making superb versions, but all within shouting distance of Jersey. One distant exception, though, has been on my radar for years - Salvatore's Tomato Pies. The first store opened in Sun Prairie Wisconsin, and Salvatore's has since added a Madison location.
The cozy dining room
A business trip took me to Madison, a capital city in the Midwest known best for its fried cheese curds, on a cold week in November. At the close of the conference three of us drove to the downtown isthmus (between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona) to see and taste this Trenton tomato pie. Madison is, along with Seattle, that rare major U.S. city built on an isthmus.
Puffy cornicione on the Fig & Bacon pizza
Chef and owner Patrick DePula grew up in Chambersburg, the Little Italy of Trenton. According to Salvatore's website, Patrick's grandfather immigrated from Casandrino (Naples) Italy and founded a grocery, the Trenton Unity Market. His father was a baker, his uncles and aunts owned restaurants, food supply businesses, and bakeries. "Salvatore" has been a family name since the first DePula came through Ellis Island. (For the record, my own grandfather came to Ellis Island from Naples in 1907 at the age of 7, and he remembered pizza being sold on the street when he was in Italy).
The Woodsman
I began this blog in 2011, the same year that Patrick opened that Sun Prairie restaurant, and it's been on my wish list the whole time. Could it live up to my high expectations? I understand that this pie is so good that there are hour-plus waits on weekends, and the neighboring taproom permits folks to bring their tomato pies in to eat. With about eight tables seating 30 or so, we were lucky to grab a corner table (on a frigid Thursday night) without waiting.
The Trenton Tomato Pie, with Sausage
The space itself is full of old time charm, with a high tin ceiling, glass block windows, and other touches that hint at a rich history. It could easily be your comfortable neighborhood bar or mom and pop restaurant; despite a few modern flourishes, it feels like the 60s or 70s there in all the best ways.
Fig & Bacon slice
The menu has salads, appetizers, and even tacos, but we kept our focus squarely on the pizza. Pies come in 10" and 16" sizes; I was happy to be with two east-coast pizza lovers who eagerly joined in to order Way Too Much tomato pie. In addition to our choices from a solid selection of bottled and draft beer, we chose:

  • Fig and Bacon (10") - Wine poached mission figs, gorgonzola cheese, balsamic red wine reduction, Jones Farm bacon
  • Woodsman (10") - Sauteed crimini mushroom, roasted shiitake and oyster mushrooms, leek, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, truffle oil, cracked black pepper, chive.
  • Build Your Own Tomato Pie (16") - Topped with Berkshire Italian sausage.

Tomato pie with sausage
The two smaller pies arrived first. Despite the exotic toppings, my focus was, of course, the crust. This did not look like a tomato pie; the puffy cornicione was more Neapolitan style in appearance. But unlike a soft and often wet-centered Neapolitan, these pies were crisp and rigid like a true tomato pie would be, and there was no soggy spot in the middle.
Happy east coast pizza experts Tracy and Rich
The fig and bacon pie was a great mix of savory and sweet, and the textures were ideal. Crispy, chewy, and bursting with contrasting flavors. The mushroom pie was a level up from that, with more complex flavors, earthiness, and umami. 
Underside of that amazing crust
For both pies, the crust was outstanding - full of crunch, flavor, and an al dente chew. I felt that these were some novel hybrid of Neapolitan and Trenton styles, and I loved it. Of course, with no red sauce, these couldn't be tomato pies!

The real test was the 16" tomato pie. It arrived shortly after the smaller pies and, in the dim light, I did not detect the signature concentric swirl of sauce that Salvatore's applies, much like Maruca's and the superb thin crust pizza at Norma's (Mannheim, PA) which she calls "Boardwalk style."

Salvatore's describes the tomato pie as "the classic - not a pizza, but built in reverse: crust, olive oil, mozzarella/romano, then sauce." I quickly forgot how good the smaller pies were, because this one was transcendent. That beautiful crust is made from wheat that is locally grown and milled by Lonesome Stone Milling. Can you improve on a Trenton tomato pie crust? Apparently!

Even though this is a modern hybrid of two ancient styles, the taste, the smell, the texture of this pie is throwback. Throwback to the times when every pizza was made from scratch by new immigrants and the next generation. The aromas alone were intoxicating here. 

I know the sauce and cheese were both top quality, with yet more local sourcing, but I was wolfing down slices with such gusto that I barely paused to notice. This simple sauce and cheese tomato pie was perfectly balanced, all elements in harmony.

When we ordered, I had grilled our server about the sausage, and she assured me that it would be applied raw so that it would cook on the pie, the only proper way. However, the pie arrived with large uniformly sliced chunks of sausage that revealed pre-cooking. Initially dismayed, I quickly got over because this was such flavorful sausage, cut in thick slices that didn't dry out on the second heating. But oh my, how good it would have been if done properly.
In a few months I'll be writing about the 19 top pizzas of 2019. Spoiler: Salvatore's is going to be a top contender. This is spectacularly good stuff, would be just as big a hit in Trenton as it is in Wisconsin. It was so good that I took the leftover slices back, stored them in my hotel mini-fridge, and took them back to Texas with me. In the ultimate act of kindness, I gave the only remaining slice of that sausage pie to my wife, who concurred on just how good it is, even re-heated.

Don't miss this tomato pie if you're in the area; if you're not in the area, it's worth the trip. Absolutely destination pizza.

Salvatore's Tomato Pies Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, October 14, 2019

Review: Motor City Pizza Co. - Detroit Deep Dish

Even the snobbiest pizza epicures will eat frozen pizza on occasion; there's generally an emergency pizza in my freezer. Some are good - for instance, Trader Giotto (from Trader Joe) and the German imports at ALDI are worth the calories. While none are great, some are even one level better, such as the decent facsimile of a Roberta's Neapolitan pizza that you can get at Whole Foods.

While I've never been to Detroit, I've developed a fondness for Detroit style pizza, which is a thick crusted rectangular pie, baked in a deep pan, featuring an airy crust and cheese that is deliberately spread all the way to and over the edges in order to form a crispy caramelized border all the way around. Toppings like pepperoni are baked on the pizza (riding on top and/or under the cheese) but the sauce is ladled on top in racing stripes post-bake.

I am enthralled with the version of Detroit pizza made at Via 313 in Austin, but the best I've had is the only-on-Tuesday pie at Norma's Pizza in the Roots Farmers Market in Mannheim, PA. It's cool that Via 313 makes an excellent thin-crust bar pie in addition to the Detroit style, while Norma fashions both her Detroit pie and what she calls a "Boardwalk pizza" that is a bit of a New York - Trenton hybrid.
Pre-bake, out of the package
Here in Texas, we're blessed with H-E-B supermarkets, which I'd describe to east coasters as "Wegman's quality at Shop Rite prices." It was in the H-E-B freezer case that I spotted the Motor City Pizza Co. "Detroit Style Deep Dish" frozen pizza in three styles: Cheeseburger, Supreme, and Pepperoni. Each costs about $9, and I opted for the pepperoni pizza.
Fresh out of the oven
The pans used by Norma and the iconic Buddy's Pizza in Detroit are (according to legend) fashioned after automotive parts trays. This frozen pizza, about 9" by 9" square, did come with its own baking pan, albeit one made from cardboard that can withstand oven heat.  

I probably erred when I scooped up the cheese bits that had fallen off the pizza as I re-arranged the pepperoni slices that had jostled around during handling; there was essentially no cheese able to coat the edges of the crust.

I followed the baking instructions and the pie took on an appetizing color when finished. The crust had a good crunch to it, but it lacked the airy structure at top-line places like Norma's and Via 313. 

It was also not as thick, and was a little dry and unmistakably the crust of a frozen pizza. And, unlike any other Detroit pie I've had, the inner cuts were better than the edge cuts because they were less dry.

Underside of the crust
The sauce had a pronounced herbal note, but combined with the cheese added only a very mild amount of flavor; it lacked salt and umami in general. The balance was off, too, because the substantial and dry crust needed a bigger amount on top, especially the cheese.

The pepperoni was perhaps the best part here, and it improved the overall experience. This pizza was just slightly better than average frozen pizza, but probably not as good as my benchmark frozen pizza - DiGiorno's rising crust pizza. Not bad stuff, I certainly enjoyed it, but I'm gonna restock with Roberta's frozen pizza.