Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: Vecchia Pizzeria Napoletana, Phoenixville PA

Authentic Neapolitan pizza remains a hot trend, and a very welcome one. The quaint hamlet of Phoenixville, PA is home to about 14,000 people, 28 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where the Schuylkill River meets the French Creek. And this lucky burb has one very authentic Neapolitan pizza slinger of its own.
Margherita con soppressata at Vecchia

Vecchia opened here in 2012, and quickly garnered acclaim from Craig LaBan, who favored the Regina Margherita pie:"Savor the roasty chew of the crust, the creamy cheese and bright fresh sauce in one bite." Vecchia has been on my short list since then, and I finally made the 30 minute trip there for lunch on a Tuesday.
Oven and interior at Vecchia

The menu is pointedly brief. No Buffalo chicken pizza here - just a short list of Neapolitans that includes a white pie, a Marinara (crust and San Marzano tomatoes), a Margherita (adds mozzarella), and the Regina Margherita (uses fresh Bufala Mozzarella). There is also a short list of toppings. Each pie is personal sized, but generously so.  I ate about two thirds of my pie for lunch.
Regina Margherita

Margherita with soppressata

On our visit, shortly after the noon opening, the small place began to fill but there was only one staffer (father of owner Frank Nattle) who tried to keep pace until his pizzaiolo nephew arrived. I love Bufala Mozzarella, but not on my pizza. For my taste, it is too wet and insufficiently salty for pizza. I understand that the soupy center it produces is known and expected on authentic Neapolitans, but I prefer a pie with more salt and with a consistently crisp or chewy texture.

Hence, I ordered the regular Margherita, topped with soppressata. Kevin joined me for lunch and he chose the Regina pie with no extra toppings. The pies cook rapidly in the 1000 degree oven, and they came out quickly. Somehow Vecchia was out of Diet Coke, but unsweetened bottled iced tea was a decent substitute.
Underside of a slice

Like the very best Neapolitan pies, mine was almost perfectly balanced. There was no wet center, the crust was light and puffy, yet with enough chew and substance to hold the toppings well enough that no knife and fork were needed. The crust had a fine flavor all its own, and the lovely browned and blistered cheese added more - but the tomatoes were the standout flavor. Deep orange in color, bright, fresh, tangy, and in harmony with the pie. The soppressata was applied in thin slices, but each imparted a near-explosion of flavor that made each bite rewarding.

Fuel source

Dough ready for pie making

I had a taste of the Regina pie - and it was very good. But it was wet in the center, and the flavors much more subtle than on my pie. I'd love to try the white pie and especially the Marinara, given how good the tomatoes are. Next time!

The ambiance was pleasant, but not very different than any other mom and pop pizza shop beyond the massive dome oven. The pizzaiolo spoke to us at length about the oven, its construction, and let us watch a pizza bake in 60-90 seconds.

A second location is about to open in Wayne, PA, on Philly's Main Line. Wayne is rapidly becoming the New Haven of Pennsylvania, with more great pizza-per-capita than any other city. Jules Thin Crust (reviewed HERE), Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza (reviewed HERE), Arde Osteria & Pizzeria (coming soon). While the Chester county seat of West Chester still waits for its first worthy pizzeria, Wayne will have four.

We spoke to the senior Mr. Nattle about the name "Vecchia," which means "old" and he noted that this pizzeria honors the old traditions of pie making.  My top American Neapolitan remains the pies from Scuola Vecchia ("old school") in Delray Beach, Florida (reviewed HERE), but this Phoenixville pie can stand with the best in the region, such as Stella and Zavino (reviewed HERE) in Philadelphia. It's clearly superior (and more authentic) to the good pie at Stella Rossa in Downingtown (reviewed HERE).

Any complaints about Vecchia?  Only one - it is too far from my West Chester home!  

Vecchia Pizza Napoletano on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: ALDI Specially Selected Pizza Kit

Given my satisfaction with other refrigerated or frozen pizza offerings at ALDI (such as Mama Cozzi's, reviewed HERE), I was intrigued when I saw a weekly special for a $3.79 "Specially Selected" Pizza Kit in the refrigerated section. The kit is a long narrow box, which contains only a small jar of "sweetly spiced sauce" and a small rectangle of pizza dough, rolled up with parchment paper. 

Following the package directions, I pre-heated the oven to 425 and assembled the pie. I added some grated Gouda cheese and slices of ALDI "Country Style Chicken Breakfast Sausage."

I was tempted to bake it directly on my Pizza Grate (full story here on that cooking surface) but instead laid the parchment on the grate. I was also tempted to cook it at a higher temp, but I kept it at 425.
Just dough and sauce in the box

Before baking

The directions called for 15-20 minutes, but the pie looked pale so I left it in for 25 minutes. Even after that, it was not crisp or rigid as I removed the pie; instead the crust was limp.
Out of the oven

I cut it into 8 square slices. The thin crust was sturdy enough to eat it without knife and fork. This pizza (product of Austria!) was tasty enough, but no better than an average frozen pizza. Its soft crust and sweet sauce will probably appeal to children. The Gouda and sausage were nice enhancements, but did not lift the pie above average.
Pale underside of a slice

The crust could be better if I cooked it right on the Pizza Grate or my Baking Steel at 550 degrees, but that sweet sauce is a limiter. The crust - thin, limp, pale when prepared as directed - gets a 3.  The sauce gets a 5. The parchment paper is a nice touch. This is a decent buy at its sub-$4 price, but unless you are feeding kids, why bother?  

Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: Malvern Pizza & Beer, Malvern PA

For an office event, a colleague brought in several pizzas from Malvern Pizza & Beer. The pies were well-received, and I had the chance to take several slices home to re-heat and evaluate.

I had one slice of pepperoni, two mushroom, and several plain. I added some Chianti-infused slices of hard salami to the plain slices. I heated them on a perforated pan for about 10 minutes, then gave them a few minutes under the broiler for top browning.  I did not eat any of the pizza when it was first delivered, but I'm pretty sure my re-heat improved it from its original state.

This pizza has an appearance that is different than the typical storefront pizza joint. The crust had a big thick cornicione on it, and for a moment I thought it might be Greek style. However, one bite disspelled that notion. The crust was thick, yet crisp, light, and very airy. I first felt the crust was akin to a thinner, round, Sicilian crust, but in fact this crust has more in common with the "bakery style" crust found on Philly region tomato pies.

You can click HERE for a full primer on varieties of tomato pie, but the Philly version (aka "Conshy" tomato pie) is a rectangular "pizza" made typically at a bakery, cooked in a pan, with a thick yet light and airy crust that may or may not be crisp. It's generally meant to be eaten at room temperature, and it is topped with a lot of sauce and little to no cheese.

I haven't verified it, but this pizza seems to have been cooked in a round pan, with some oil underneath to give it crispness. I enjoyed the texture of this crust, and it was sufficiently sturdy to hold the modest amounts of sauce and the overload of cheese riding on top.
Cross section of the cornicione

The flavors were modest. The sauce, buried under the cheese, was barely a role player. The cheese seemed to be mostly conventional mozzarella and stayed bland even with my broiler browning. The crust added little flavor. We added red pepper flakes and salt to give this pie some pop.

Overall, Malvern Pizza is a well-constructed pie. The toppings adhered well to the crust, there were no soggy spots, and I appreciate the unique approach to the crust. But I'm lukewarm in general about a Philly tomato pie, so I can't get too excited about the bakery style crust; it is too much like toasted white bread. I'd probably enjoy this much more as a breakfast pizza with bacon, egg, and cheese instead of red sauce.

If you enjoy Philly tomato pie, you may well enjoy this pie. Malvern Pizza & Beer gets high marks from other online reviewers, and they value the service, the beer, and the take-out and delivery options. It's a good place to have in the neighborhood.

Malvern Pizza on Urbanspoon