Friday, May 20, 2016

Review: Coppa, Boston MA

Boston is one of the great east coast cities that were home to the early waves of Italian immigrants, where legendary pizzerias populated the neighborhoods: New York, Trenton, Philadelphia, New Haven. Beyond the wonderful old-school pies at places like Regina and Santarpio's, Boston has some newer places that are making stellar pizza.
Margherita pizza at Coppa
One year ago, we visited Picco in the South End neighborhood, and it was not only the best pizza in Boston, but one of the most spectacular pies anywhere. About a block away, in an area peppered with a great variety of small and interesting restaurants, is Coppa. While pizza is featured on the menu, there is a large variety of salumi, small plates, pastas, and other dishes with unusual ingredients like sea urchin and beef hearts. I'd love to get deeper into that menu.

I visited Coppa on a warm spring afternoon as the lunch hour was waning. There are a few tables outside at this corner restaurant, but I was seated inside, where the narrow space hosts a bar and seating for just 38. It's a pleasant neighborhood setting with a casually hip feeling inside.

Plenty of interesting choices for the pizza (including one with bone marrow and beef heart), but I chose a basic ($14) Margherita. I also ordered a plate of marinated Castelvetrano olives ($7) as an appetizer, and an Earl Grey - Lemon soda.
The olive plate
The green olives were nicely presented, garnished with fennel, thinly slice Chinese radishes, and some tasty housemade wine biscuits moonlighting as croutons. Along with some slices of very fresh Italian bread and flavorful olive oil, it was an excellent starter. The timing was perfect, too, because my pie arrived shortly after I had finished the olives.

The pizza was a small personal size, about 9 or 10 inches in diameter. It had immediate eye appeal, even as the narrow cornicione on one side sported a very dark char. There were small pools of white cheese on the red sauce landscape, but at the center of the pie you could see how the mozzarella and the aged grated cheese had melded with the tomato sauce into a creamy orange mix. The entire pie was topped with chopped bits of fresh basil.

Each of the six slices was sufficiently sturdy and crisp to support the toppings without drooping. This thin-crusted pie with puffy leopard spotting on the cornicione had the appearance of an authentic Neapolitan, but the rigidly crisp bottom puts it more into the hybrid category. Beyond its al dente texture, this crust had its own good flavor, even the charred edges.

The red sauce and mozzarella cheese were subtly flavored; the sprinkling of aged Italian cheese added a salty kick. These simple ingredients were applied in about ideal proportion, so that the crust didn't get soggy, even in the center. 
Underside of the crust
It was easy to eat the entire pie and savor its uncomplicated marriage of crust, sauce, and cheese. I think I might have enjoyed it even more with a cured meat (sausage or pepperoni) topping, because the sauce and mild mozzarella presented an ideal base palate on which to paint some savory flavor.

Coppa's pizza is among the best anywhere. With the stellar Picco just a block or two away, the people living in South End have pie options that rival New Haven and Greenwich Village. I'm not going to pick one over the other; I'd eat at both places often if I had the chance.

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Review: Rize Pizza, Broomall, PA

Most of my pizza-eating lifetime has involved pies made in a round shape. There was the occasional diversion to a rectangular Sicilian style pie, but most pizza has been round, even the Chicago deep dish stuff.
But in contrast to that longer time period, so many of my recent pizza discoveries have involved thicker-crust rectangle pies. I'm not sure if the current trend is a revival of the simple tradition of home-style pan-baked square pies, or other mysterious market forces. But when I counted up the best pizzas I found in 2015, four of the top six were rectangles. 

I'm happy to report that the trend continues, strongly, into 2016. The newest contender is Rize Pizza, a small narrow space tucked into an aging strip mall in Broomall, PA (not far from Philly).
Rize seemed promising to me because, like the good folks at Denino's in Staten Island, it's all about the crust. Good pizza begins - and ends - with the crust. I also heard the term "al taglio" and wondered if indeed this was true Roman style pie.
Wall decor at Rize
The Rize website shows two pizza styles available as whole pies or by the slice:
1. "Rize Crust" - square and airy which we let rize for 2-3 hours
2. Traditional Neapolitan Crust - thinner and round like a traditional Neapolitan pie
Jim and Julia, Rize owners
We arrived around 7:30 on a weeknight, and we had about four different square pies from which to select slices, and one plain round pie. We chose to sample three different kinds of square slices and one slice from the round pizza.

The Rize interior is typical strip mall - deep and narrow. There is a counter where pies by-the-slice are displayed, and just a handful of small tables. Beyond the pizzas, the menu included several intriguing salads, fries, soups, and desserts that we didn't sample, as well as an above-average selection of soft drinks.

Let's talk first about the round pie. Despite the name, it is not a Neapolitan nor even a Neapolitan hybrid. It's not baked at 900 degrees, and it didn't have that puffy, flexible, and leopard-spotted crust typical to authentic Neapolitan pizza. No matter - this crust was as good or better than most Neapolitans.
Sickly looking cheese hiding the merits of this slice
The crust was medium-thin, firm and crisp, yet light and airy on the inside. The underside and the cornicione had a beautiful golden brown that reflected its excellent taste and texture. The sauce was lively enough, but it was hidden under a layer of pale and lightly cooked cheese.
Looking good under the hood
The cheese seemed to be some mild mozzarella blend which blanketed the sauce and the crust. Because the crust was so good, this was an excellent slice of pizza, but it could get to another level with a different approach to the cheese. 

Our three squares included:

  • a conventional slice (red sauce and mozzarella) topped with nitrites-free pepperoni
  • a slice topped with sausage and roasted orange peppers
  • the "Venus" featuring fontina, fresh mozz, & feta cheeses, artichoke, spinach, roasted garlic, and red onion

On all three slices, the Rize crust was spectacular. It had a wonderfully crisp bottom, a light interior that offered both crunchiness and chewiness, and a golden edge that made for a near-ultimate cornicione experience. Underneath each slice was an odd but welcome scattering of sesame seeds.

The pepperoni pizza - excellent overall - was the most conventional. Like the round pie, this slice was covered with a generous amount of the mild mozzarella. The nice tomato sauce was a bit obscured under there. The crust was certainly up to the job of supporting all that cheese, but I'd like to try it with a different sauce to cheese ratio.
Underside of the square slice
The sausage pizza was quite a bit more interesting. I would not have ordered it with the peppers, but they served to break up the monotony of the cheese. The sausage was good quality, but it had been cooked and sliced before going on the pie. I suspect that this terrific slice might be improved by baking it with chunks of raw sausage that cook on the pizza.
Sausage with peppers
My usual approach is that a conventional sausage or pepperoni slice is the best way to evaluate a pizza. The novelty slices, where the toppings take the headline away from the crust foundation, are rarely my top choice. But it's a different story here - the Venus slice was clearly the star.
With no red sauce, the cheeses properly were the main focus. They were smartly blended to yield superb flavor without imparting excess moisture into the crust. I often resist vegetable toppings for the same reason, that they bring too much weight and water to the mix, but the texture and moisture factors were in ideal balance.

Despite the fairly generous application of both the cheese and vegetable toppings, each bite offered an optimal mix of flavors and textures. Unlike the other two pies, I wouldn't change anything about the Venus.
I made a second visit one week later, and sampled a Southern Belle slice featuring fried chicken, bacon, and maple syrup (akin to the flavor combo of chicken & waffles). It was weirdly wonderful. Beyond the regular mozzarella, the pie is finished with a thin coating of cheese that takes on a wonderful flaky texture.
Fried chicken and maple syrup
Because I felt the sauce didn't get a chance to shine on the slices I tried on my first visit, I ordered a slice of the Upside Down pie, where the cheese is under the sauce. This simple slice was perfectly balanced and I got a full appreciation of how good the slightly chunky sauce is.
Upside Down slice

The crust on the excellent round pizza is reason enough to visit Rize. The square slices are materially better, and that Venus slice was about perfect. After two visits, I have a good idea of which slice styles suit my palate.
Underside of my Upside Down slice
We spoke with Julia and Jim, the owners. Jim is the genius behind that crust, which is the result of a lifetime of pizza experience; his father once owned a pizza shop in nearby West Chester. 
Cheesesteak stromboli at Rize
I started this blog in 2011 to document my largely fruitless search for "pizza worth the calories" in or around West Chester. So much has changed in five years. West Chester now has RapiDough and Lorenzo's, with LaPorta, Milito's, Anthony's Coal-Fired, Snap and other good to great pies nearby. Jim and Julia let us know that they have plans to open their second shop in downtown West Chester. There's no better evidence of the pizza Renaissance than that delicious bit of news.

The top tier of pan pizzas include the Detroit style slices at legends like Norma's Pizza and Via 313, the indescribable hybrid at Binge House Pizza, or the classic square at NY Pizza Suprema. The square pie at Rize Pizza now joins that elite group. This pie is so good that there should be a line out the door. Absolutely destination pizza.

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

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Review: Stella Public House, San Antonio TX

On a prior visit to San Antonio, I was able to visit a branch of the Grimaldi's chain and also Dough Pizzeria Napoletana. Both were very good, but they fell a bit short of destination pizza. This time, I visited Stella Public House, which is within walking distance (under 2 miles) from the tourist end of the River Walk.

Stella is located in the Southtown section, a trendy spot with bars, restaurants, stately old homes, and bikes to rent. It's very much a different world than the north end of the River Walk or the Alamo tourist area. Stella is among the the artisanal restaurants working in the "farm-to-table" mode, opting for local sourcing where possible.

From the website:
Stella’s “farm to pizza” concept is centered on strong partnerships with local growers, ranchers, and purveyors. The star is Texas-sourced wood-fired pizza baked in an Italian Modena oven, using oak and pecan wood. Shared plates, house-made cheeses, and fresh salads are made with locally-sourced ingredients. There are 20 rotating craft beers on tap and an internationally-curated wine list.

I arrived around 11:45am on a Sunday, and the airy open space was about half full. By 12:30, Stella was packed and buzzing loudly. There is a mix of seating options - conventional tables, bar seating, and long common tables. The space seems to be a converted factory or warehouse, and the interior has a pleasant hipster vibe.

The menu includes small plate appetizers, salads, and pizza. I would have liked to sample some of the non-pizza items, but I was dining solo and opted for just one pie. There are several interesting options for these large personal size (14") pizzas, and I chose the Spicy Italian Sausage pie ($15).

As with any pizza worth the calories, the crust is the key element. This one seemed to be a Neapolitan hybrid. It sported the leopard spots and puffy cornicione common to Neapolitan pies, but it was improved by being a bit sturdier and crisper. Unlike some traditional Neapolitans, it didn't have a wet center or soggy spots.

A bit more about that crust - beyond its terrific texture, it had a pronounced flavor of its own, and tasted almost like sourdough. The cornicione was more dense and chewy than most, too. All of these features elevated the crust and the entire pie.

The first flavor I noted in the pie was the sausage. The fennel-packed chunks were large, uneven, and had clearly cooked on and into the pie. Sausage that cooks on the pizza is so much better than the pre-cooked variety. I made a mental note that this sausage had an incredibly good flavor.

There was a generous amount of thinly sliced Calabrian red peppers on this pie. I suspect they may have been pre-cooked a bit; they had the ideal soft texture. They added a kick of heat but not so much as to burn out the other flavors.

The mozzarella appeared conventional, but it had a bolder taste than most and also an ideal stretchiness. Just as importantly, it was applied in proper proportion so that it didn't contribute too much moisture or weight to overwhelm the crust.

The sauce was a deep red, and it was rich and thick. Its flavor stood up to the spicy pepper and savory sausage.  It was a bit salty, which is a good thing to me, because I typically add salt to pizza. This pie needed none because its flavors were in harmony.

In fact, the overall theme here was that it was an optimally balanced pizza. The flavors and textures and proportions were ideal. The elements for this pizza were especially well-mated. So many times, topping combos that sound good don't work out so well. With this essentially perfect pie, any extra topping probably would have reduced its appeal (even as I was tempted by the option to add an egg to it).
Lamb meatballs
I returned for a second visit with colleagues. We ordered lamb meatballs as an appetizer, and they were superb meatballs in an intense red sauce. For pies, we repeated the spicy sausage, and added a "Bee Sting" pie which featured big slices of soppressata, mozzarella and grana padano cheeses, cilantro, serrano chilies, and a drizzle of honey.
The Bee Sting
This white pie had a perfect texture. The crust was crisper than the sausage pie because the toppings contained less moisture. The sweet fresh mozzarella was perfectly complemented by the aged grana padano. Likewise, the honey added a delightful sweet note on top of the salty soppressata and the fiery chilies.
Spicy sausage pie
Both pies were a little too spicy; we ended up removing some of the serranos and some of the Calabrian red peppers from the sausage pie. The red pie was superb, again, but we agreed that that Bee Sting was our favorite.

Is this destination pizza? Absolutely. It was a delightful reward for the 30 minute walk from the tourist center of San Antonio. It's the best pie I've had here and it would contend with the best in any city.

Stella Public House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato