Monday, May 25, 2015

Review: Picco - Boston, MA

Four years ago, I made a short list of the Boston-area pizzas that I wanted to try. The top four included Cambridge 1, Regina, and Santarpio's - click on any of those names for pics and full review.
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On a beautiful spring weekend that coincided with graduation ceremonies at Tufts in Somerville, we met up with friends for Pizza at the fourth and final place on the list - Picco.

Regina and Santarpio's are the classic old-style eateries crafting old-style classic pizzas, and doing so beautifully. Picco, by its modern exterior look, seemed to have more in common with Cambridge 1, a newer venue for modern fare and hip diners.

We arrived around 5:30 on a Saturday, and had to wait (at a comfortable and friendly bar area) for about 45 minutes in order to secure a table for our large group of eight.  We ordered a few drinks (some great craft beers on tap) and two salads for the table. Both starters were excellent, but the salad of arugula garnished simply with olive oil and aged shaved cheese was memorable.
The Margherita

We ordered four pizzas:  a plain margherita with fresh mozzarella; another margherita-type pie topped with pepperoni; a pizza featuring mushrooms, sausage, and smoked mozzarella; and a pie sporting a mix of vegetable toppings including banana peppers and sauteed greens.

Margherita slices

Picco warns you that "our pizzas are cooked well done." In other words, the charred spots are a small price to pay for getting the rest of the pie perfect. We've seen similar warnings to novice pizza eaters at Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza and Philly's Zavino. For me? Of course - I'll take a charred edge every time over a pale and floppy undercooked pie. 

Pepperoni slices

The pies came out in swift succession from the open oven. Each had its own visual appeal, but the plain margherita and the pepperoni held the most beauty with the contrast of the milky white mozzarella, the deep red sauce, and the leopard spotted crust.

Mushrooms, sausage, smoked mozzarella

Let's begin with the crust. While the first impression might have been "Neapolitan," this crust was much firmer and sturdier than a Neapolitan, even as it shared the thick, tender, air-filled puffy cornicione. It was one of those wonderful pies that sits somewhere between a Neapolitan and the thin, crisp style of old-school pies like Regina, Totonno's, or Lombardi's.
The veggie pie

In a word, even with some serious spots of char, the crust was about perfect.
Awesome char

Even the burnt edges tasted wonderful

Happily, the excellence did not end there. The red sauce was a standout - rich, dark, with an intense tomato flavor. I often prefer standard dry mozzarella, but this fresh mozz was not overly wet and it was baked to a wonderful texture.
Waiting for our pizza

That was the margherita: a perfect crust that could stand alone with the best of breads, topped with impeccable sauce and fresh mozzarella.

That was kicked up yet another level on the pepperoni version.  Full thick circles of dense, small-diameter pepperoni dotted the pie, and curled up into delightfully crisp and chewy cups. The oil yielded by the pepperoni added to the flavor. The margherita was an A+ pizza; the pepperoni gets A++.
Open flame coming from one side of the oven

I was a bit leery about the smoked mozz on the mushroom pie, but the smoke flavor was properly subtle. This was an excellent pizza in every way, and so was the mixed veggie pie. Like the first two pizzas, they sported a perfect crust and showed off the skill of the pizzaiolo. No complaints about either, but the simpler pies were the star of the day.

Astonishingly good stuff. Nice ambiance and service, too. As always, great pizza begins with the crust, and this base was superb. Everything worked on these pies - flavors, textures, balance, and combination of sauce, cheese, and toppings. Picco is destination pie for any discriminating pizza eater.

After four years of traveling to Boston, Picco is the clear winner of the pizzas that I was able to sample. In fact, I cannot find a flaw in this pie. It is, simply, one of the best pizzas I have had anywhere. I can rank it within the same league as Frank Pepe, DeLorenzo's, and DiFara

Picco on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review: Lorenzo's Pizza, Philadelphia Italian Market

The Italian Market, the famous stretch of 9th Street in South Philadelphia, just celebrated its 100th Anniversary. published a nice article HERE detailing its history and current state.

On a recent warm spring day, we walked the entire stretch - from Pat's & Geno's (tourist cheesesteaks) at Passyunk Avenue on its southern edge to Sarcone's Deli on the northern terminus.

Rocky's famous run through the 1970's Italian Market

In that general area of South Philly, one can find a lot of worthy pizza places. Santucci's (briefly reviewed HERE for its appearance at the South Philly Pizza Olympics), the hipster spot Birra, the old-school red gravy restaurant Marra's, and the widely-known corner shop Lorenzo's Pizza, at 9th and Christian Streets.

I've walked past Lorenzo's on several occasions, with little to indicate that it might be worth a visit. Online reviews are mixed, but I decided that I finally needed to experience this pizza. We stopped in and sampled a plain cheese slice.

The friendly counterman popped a few slices into the oven and they were quickly ready. Perhaps a little too quick, because the pizza was somewhere between warm and hot.  It was a big slice for its modest $2 price.

My expectations, too, were modest. We were delighted, then, to find that this thin-crust pizza had an almost ideal balance of crisped edge bottom and a sturdy chewiness as well. The sauce was sweet and lively, and the standard mozzarella cheese blended into that mottled orange that characterizes most pizza.

A look at the nicely charred undercarriage revealed that this was not a mass-sourced dough, and that there is some skill in the preparation. Great crust, punchy sauce, and cheese as a role player. This was a true throwback slice, and a reminder that at one point many decades ago it was easy to find a genuine slice of good New York style pizza.

Lorenzo's in the Italian Market is a gem of a find, and a grand bargain for a two-buck slice. We're at a stage in the nationwide pizza renaissance that you can find a decent Neapolitan pie in almost any major city, but a good slice remains a rarity, even in New York. Simple, elegant, classic. We loved this pizza.

Lorenzo Pizza on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 1, 2015

Review: Primanti Brothers, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Primanti Brothers are famous for their Pittsburgh location and the habit of putting cole slaw and french fries into a variety of sandwiches. Elsewhere on this blog, our Western PA correspondent shared a review of the food at the Grove City PA location. He gave the pizza there a B+ rating. Primanti Brothers has 19 (and counting) western PA locations, as well as two in West Virginia and two in Florida. 
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South Florida is blessed with a lot of great pizza, and on a recent trip to Fort Lauderdale, we experienced some very good coal-fired pie at Luigi's Coal Oven Pizza. Walking the beach, I spotted the Primanti Brothers location on North Atlantic Boulevard, which runs parallel to the water. I had modest expectations for a chain location this far from the original spot in Pittsburgh's Strip District, but I was curious about those famous sandwiches.

This spot looks like an old greasy-spoon luncheonette, and it had its own casual charm. We arrived early afternoon on a Sunday and the place was busy at the counter, but we easily found a table. The overworked waitress was friendly and helpful. We decided to split one famous sandwich and one slice of pizza. 

We saw a whole pie when we entered, and it looked ordinary - large and unremarkable, like the countless mom and pop pizzerias using low-end mass-sourced ingredients. When I learned that the sausage topping is applied pre-cooked, we opted instead for a pepperoni slice. 

It appears that they make only plain pies, then toss on the toppings when your slice is re-heated in the oven. Another otherwise-excellent pizzeria does that too - New Park Pizza, in Queens.  It's a terrible habit - the meat should spend the entire time with the pie.  But it's less of a sin with pepperoni than with sausage.

Our slice came out quickly, and it was huge, dwarfing the standard paper plate. The pepperoni had yielded generous puddles of orange grease that stained the plate (no objection to that). 

Taking some quick photos of the underside before we ate it, I could see that something special was going on. The crust was thin, with a generous puffy cornicione. It sported a lovely char underneath, and it was rigid and crunchy while retaining an al dente inner chew. It was a classically rendered New York slice. 

We saw one staffer opening the huge cans of tomato product, Saporito brand. The sauce and cheese were both role players here - no outstanding characteristics other than blending perfectly and providing proper balance to this slice. We immediately regretted not ordering more slices, but we did need room for the sandwich.

We had chosen the "Pitts-burger" which is the #2 seller (though the menu fails to inform what is the #1 selling sandwich). It was a normal size hamburger patty with provolone, cole slaw, tomato slice, and a pile of french fries encased in two thick slices of soft Italian bread.
The "Pitts-Burger"

The patty was good, not amazing. I removed about two thirds of the fries to eat on the side (heresy to Yinzers). I was skeptical, but the combo was very tasty. The cole slaw was a little sweet and finished with vinegar, not the mayonnaise style. That sweetness played nicely with the saltiness of the other ingredients. The fries had good flavor but I would have liked them to be a bit crispier.

I can recommend the sandwich, and it cost less than $7. The slice of pizza came to about $3.30, which is not bad given its size. And it was delectable. It qualifies as destination pizza, and that's pretty good for a place with more than 20 locations that doesn't even specialize in pizza. Great crust, ideal balance -- it was a New York slice better than 95% of slices actually served in New York. It compares favorably to the wonderful NY style pie at Wiseguy NY Pizza in Washington DC.

Primanti Brothers on Urbanspoon