Friday, December 19, 2014

Pizza Genius: Norma's Pizza, Roots Country Market, Manheim PA

I love Lancaster County, Pa. Home to large settlements of Amish and Mennonite farmers, the beautiful rolling countryside draws tourists from great distances. It's common to see the Amish horse-drawn buggies on the roads there, as well as the school kids on foot or scooters, dressed in black. 
I made this one! Click any pic to enlarge

My home in West Chester PA is close enough for regular visits, and my biggest reason to trek westward on Route 30 is the great quality and variety of produce and other farm products at roadside stands and farm markets.
Roots Country Market

However, I've grown a bit weary of the meat-and-potatoes overload "Amish style" food in the popular tourist restaurants. The approach seems to be "We will serve nothing green, and if it ever was green, we'll cook the green out of it." Lancaster County is not an epicure's destination, and hence truly one of the last places I'd expect to find top shelf pizza.

But for several years, on Facebook pizza groups and and at, I kept seeing pictures and posts from Norma Knepp, described as a "pizza obsessive" who took a keen interest in making pizza and set out to learn all that she could.

I found that she has her own pizza shop, a narrow stand in a huge farm market -- the Roots Country Market in Manheim, which is open only on Tuesdays. When I got the opportunity to have a free Tuesday, visiting Norma's Pizza became a priority.

The Roots Country Market is enormous, at least by "farm market" standards. It is a wonderful throwback kind of place, with long narrow corridors featuring an eclectic mix of vendors. One stall is the vacuum repair guy, the next stall is the coin dealer, then an Amish pastry seller, then a butcher, then the junk store with $3 tools, then the wood carver, then the candy store, and so on. It shares much in common with the long-defunct Pennsauken Mart, and with the Columbus (NJ) Farmers Market, and the Booth's Corner (Boothwyn, PA) Farmer's Market.
The Dough-Li Lama, Norma Knepp

Grand-daughter Drea

I met up with Norma about 11am, just before the lunchtime traffic began to swell.  It was a rainy day and relatively slow, but Norma, with the superb assistance of her granddaughter Drea, was selling pizza (whole and by the slice) as fast as she could make them in her 3-deck gas oven. 

Drea gets special props not only for her pizza skills (which Norma documented on Facebook) but also her smoothly efficient handling of customers while Norma and I chatted about pizza making.
Boardwalk pizza, dressed before baking

Norma is a genuine pizza scientist, and one of her market pals rightly dubbed her the "Dough-Li Lama" for her genius. She has done her homework, studied the experts, and experimented with all the key variables that can make or break a pizza dough: flour type, moisture level, timing of additional ingredients beyond the flour and water, adding malt, rise time, rise temperature. 
A pepperoni boardwalk pie

I learned so much in just a few hours, and I'm hopeful to mimic the wonderful elasticity of her dough the next time I attempt pizza at home.

Norma's mainstay pizza is her thin-crust "Boardwalk Style." The thin and crisp-but-chewy, foldable crust might also be classified as New York style. 

For the first hour or so, I watched Norma make pies. She pats each dough ball with flour, flattens it out with her fingers, then stretches (and sometimes, tosses) the dough into a lovely thin 18" disc.  She applies half the cheese (she experiments, but her base cheese is a white cheddar). Next goes on the sauce (uncooked) in a swirl pattern that mimics Mack's (of the South Jersey shore) and also used at the Grotto pizza chain in Delaware. Finally, the rest of the cheese goes on with any toppings.
Detroit style slices

Norma also makes a Detroit style pizza - something I've never tried.  She uses 9 ounces of dough (the same dough as for her Boardwalk pies) which she presses into a deep rectangular pan.  The cheese goes on, then the sauce in two rows (this smaller pie is cut into just 4 lovely square slices).
Detroit pie, right out of the oven

Because it was lunchtime, I was able to sample slices as pies came out of her oven, fresh and hot.  I waited for a Detroit style slice with pepperoni. Norma uses a spicy pepperoni from Citterio, and it adds a lot of flavor to her pies. A Detroit style pizza is thick and pan baked, but it is not much like Chicago deep dish. It is more akin to a Sicilian-style, but it is improved greatly because the cheese is deliberately spread beyond the borders of the crust, so that each piece gets a crispy edge of wonderfully browned and caramelized cheese.

This was a wonderful slice of pizza, and the only pan-baked rival that comes close is the square pies at Di Fara in Brooklyn.  I'd gladly wait an hour to get a $5 slice at DiFara, but why not spend $2.25 and get a slice with no waiting at Norma's? 
Boardwalk pie with sausage

Soon after, I tried a slice of the Boardwalk pie. You can get a broad hint of how spectacular your slice is going to be when you hear the crust crunching under the big blade as she slices the pie. She makes a huge 18" pie (which doesn't quite fit in a full-size pizza box), and then cuts it into six gigantic slices that sell for $2.00 (plain cheese).  How good can a two-buck slice be?

Perfect hole structure

It can be awesome, indeed. The thin, light, crisp, foldable crust brought to mind the great old school pizza I had at Pizza Brain in Philly, Ramagi in Brooklyn, and Wiseguy NY Pizza in Washington DC. And the hole structure in the cornicione was without peer - this crunchy handle is upper echelon by any measure.

I have the decadent habit of adding salt to pizza, but Norma's home-made sauce (she adds garlic, basil, and oregano) and cheddar cheese made the slice so fully flavored that it needed no extra seasoning. 
My work with the dough

Norma also gave me the chance to make a pie. When I make pizza at home, I struggle to get the dough to be sufficiently elastic for hand-stretching. I usually end up using a rolling pin, which destroys the hole structure.  Here, I felt like a genuine pizzaiolo when working with this pliant dough. I didn't stretch it quite so expertly as Norma; my pie came out a little thicker and not quite the full 18". I followed her sauce and cheese assembly method, put it into the oven, and even turned the pie during its ~6 minute bake.  It must have been a success, because no customer complained about the six slices she sold from that pie.
Norma with the pie I made

Norma also makes a sausage pizza, and she uses fresh Italian sausage that she buys right there in the Roots Country Market. It goes on the pie raw in rough chunks, the way that all the best pie makers do it. I took home a sausage pie for the family and we were unanimous in our love for this pie as we scrambled for the last slices.
Detroit style veggie slices

Great Jersey shore pizza and authentic Detroit style pie at a farm market in Lancaster? I had to experience to believe it. This is not just good pizza - it is wonderful pizza with all these other good aspects: low prices; terrific produce and other great things to buy from other vendors at Roots; Norma's encyclopedic dough knowledge and willingness to share it.
Detroit pies

I had a lot of terrific pizza experiences in 2014, but this one easily tops the list. I can't think of a better way to spend a Tuesday.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: Clank's Bar, Marcus Hook, PA

Destination pizza is usually found in one of two different styles of pizzerias. One type is the venerable pizza joint that has been serving the same kind of old-school pizza to generations of patrons. That type of pizzeria often enjoys fame beyond its region, and it includes legendary places like Joe & Pat's in Staten Island,  Santarpio's in Boston, Papa's Tomato Pies near Trenton NJ, Sally's Apizza in New Haven, and Totonno's in Coney Island.
Click on any picture for full-size resolution

The other major category of destination pizzerias includes the new artisanal places that, to the delight of foodies everywhere, are springing up all over America. Many of these are crafting authentic Neapolitan pies in wood-fired domed ovens at 900 degrees; the best of them include Scuola Vecchia in Delray Beach, FL, Forcella in Brooklyn, Zavino in Philadelphia, Pane Bianco in Phoenix, and Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco. Others are making throwback style pies, such as La Villa in Morrisville PA and Gennaro's Tomato Pies and Pizza Brain, both in Philly.

There is one more much smaller category - the cherished local place, somehow undiscovered by the foodies, flying under the pizza radar. One such place is a neighborhood taproom in tiny (2400 residents) Marcus Hook, PA

Clank's Bar was established by Clank and Bert Mongoia in the 1950's. It has changed hands a few times over the years; Dawn Clymer is the fifth and current owner; at age 12, she began working there by helping to make pizza boxes. Clank's website notes that the pizza recipe hasn't changed since inception. 
View of the bar from dining room


From the exterior, Clank's looks like it was once one of the neighborhood row homes; the entry way even has a storm door. There is a bar in the front (where smoking is permitted!) and a long, narrow dining room in the rear. There is an odd but charmingly camouflaged faux brick on the inside of the front door, and an old shuffle bowling arcade game next to the bar. It was immediately homey and comfortable; an old-fashioned shot-and-beer type of watering hole. My guess is that most of the patrons live close enough to walk there.
Wall lights are fashioned from liquor bottles

Shuffle bowling arcade game by the bar

We arrived before 5pm on a Saturday. A handful of happy regulars populated the bar, and one other dining room table was occupied by a large group enjoying the food and the Army-Navy game on the wall-mounted TV. The tipsy laughter coming from the bar made me wonder what it would be like there as the evening wore on.

The menu featured a lot of typical bar food - appetizers, sandwiches, a few salads. The bottled beer selection is mostly domestics; we had a Blue Moon and a Magic Hat ($4 each).  Clank's highlighted menu items are the pizza, the stromboli, and the fried pepperoni appetizer. On our visit, we tried only the pizza. 
Slate serving slab on each table

Men's room decor

I usually prefer sausage on my pizza, but only when it is genuine Italian sausage, applied uncooked in rough chunks. At Clank's, though, our server told us that the sausage was the crumbled, pre-cooked variety, so we opted for a pepperoni pizza. All the pies are rectangular and cooked in a pan; it has much in common with a Sicilian pie and a Philly-style tomato pie. 
Pica's pizza

Much like the better-known Pica's restaurant (also in Delaware County, PA), this is an "upside down" pizza where the cheese is under the sauce. Even though I like the cheese on top to get some oven browning, I had very much enjoyed the pie at Pica's. Our large pizza here at Clank's was $15.00 ($13.25 plus $1.75 for the pepperoni topping).
Pepperoni pie at Clank's

The pizza was served in its well-aged oven pan; on our table it rested on a thick bed of slate that carried a Clank's logo that oddly resembled the Chicago Bears "C" logo. (The Bears reference was particularly peculiar, in light of the crude but funny Philadelphia Eagles deco in the men's room).

There were twelve slices to this thick-crusted rectangular pie. The sauce was a lovely deep red color and visually striking; a generous cover of thick and lightly charred pepperoni circles adorned each of the slices. The uneven edges around the thick cornicione gave the appearance of a home-made pizza.

This pizza crust was a little thicker than the typical Sicilian style pizza, yet lighter in density. It was not quite as airy as the bakery-style crust of a Philly tomato pie (read about that style HERE). It was, actually, about ideal for a thick crust - nicely oiled and crispy on the bottom and light but not "white bread" through the center. We agreed that the crust would be excellent bread; it had its own distinct flavor and delightful crunch. That sets it apart from the typical Philly tomato pie, where the crust is often insubstantial and bland despite its thickness.
A view of the pizza pan

The rich color of the red sauce promised a full flavor, and then delivered on that promise. I loved the red gravy nature of this sauce, although it was messy to eat because it was generously applied and it did ride on top of the cheese.  The cheese - buried under the sauce - seemed to be conventional mozzarella and it was a useful role player.  The generous cuts of pepperoni added that salty and greasy aspect that I like from cured meats on pizza.
Perfectly crisped underside

This is not - obviously - a high end, gourmet undertaking.  This is a simple square pizza rendered from ordinary ingredients, with a terrific result. It won't make you forget the legendary pies or the artisanal Neapolitans, but it has a place in the hearts and bellies of pizza eaters who want to try and enjoy all varieties. Clank's is a special kind of place that once populated urban corners all over, and which has been vanishing since the advent of cheap and convenient chain pizza. We had great service, even though we were outsiders to this cozy neighborhood venue.

Ratings?  The crust earns a 9, the sauce a 9, the pepperoni 8, and the cheese a 5. Destination pizza? Absolutely. We made the wretched drive on Route 322 (the Conchester Highway, a.k.a. the "Con-gested Highway") to get there and I'm glad we did. If you like Pica's, you should like Clank's. And if you want to know what pizza and beer was like in a blue-collar town in the 50s and 60s, this is about as close as you can get in modern times.

Clank's Bar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review: Rosati's Authentic Chicago Pizza, Bloomington IL

Bloomington, Illinois is a small city of about 75,000 people. It has its own tiny airport, but otherwise sits 2 or 3+ hours from four major metro areas - Chicago to the North, St. Louis to the South, Des Moines to the West, and Indianapolis to the East.
Thin crust pizza from Rosati's

The Bloomington-Normal metro area is home to Illinois State University, but it is the home office of State Farm that puts Bloomington on the map. 
Jake: wears khaki, likes pizza

One year ago in Normal, I stumbled upon Monical's, a regional pizza chain. It looked faceless and bland - as most chains are - but it turned out to be surprisingly good.  I chose a thin-crust party-cut pie, and liked the flavor, the construction, and the friendly Midwestern service. See full review of Monical's HERE.

This fall, I had a return visit scheduled for Bloomington, and I did some research before the trip. Pie makers on my radar were Stolfa's, Tobin's, Lucca Grill, and Rosati's. A two-day visit offered a chance to sample two different Bloomington pizzas.
Click on any image for full-size resolution

The night I arrived, I navigated my rental car to the hotel in the rain on a bitterly cold night. That factor alone pushed me to choose Rosati's for dinner that evening, because the nearby location would deliver to my hotel room. (I visited Lucca Grill for lunch on the following day - full review HERE.)

I had modest expectations for Rosati's. While most of the web reviews are positive, Rosati's is a Chicago-based chain with more than 50 locations in Arkansas, Arizona, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, Nevada, and North Carolina.  When a chain gets that big, the recipe needs to be simple enough for new hires to execute properly.

Rosati's offers four crust styles: thin crust, double dough, stuffed pizza, and Chicago-style deep dish. The deep-dish was tempting; I want to re-examine my bias against deep-dish pies. But I decided that to give deep-dish a fair shake, I should be in Chicago and eating one of the great ones, not a chain pie in the suburbs. Hence, I opted for the thin crust pizza ($11.50), with sausage topping ($1.59).

My 12" small pizza was delivered within the promised one-hour time frame by a friendly deliveryman braving the wet and cold night. It was still hot, and - perhaps due to the plastic mesh between the pie and the box - not steaming itself soggy. The pie arrived in almost "fresh from the oven" condition."
Plastic mesh under the pie in the delivery box

Underside of the crust

Like Monical's, Lucca Grill, Rubino's in Columbus OH and Vito & Nick's in Chicago, this thin-crust pie sported the party cut, with bite-size squares instead of triangular slices. The more I have this kind of pizza, the more I appreciate it. 

To my delight, the topping was genuine chunks of authentic Italian sausage, and not precooked slices or crumbles. The deep-red sauce was lively and well-spiced. The cheese was a role player, but applied in proper proportions. The crust was also a winner, but was perhaps the weak link here.  It had the right texture and served well to hold the toppings, but it was a tad bland and dry - borderline cracker-like. It might have benefited from a bit more oil.

The crust was the most significant drop-off from the thin-crust pies at Lucca Grill, Rubino's, and Vito & Nick's. The pizza at those three old-school pizzerias is superb; this was a surprisingly good version as rendered by the Rosati's chain. Comparing Rosati's to Monical's, the other regional chain: the crust is better at Monical's, and everything on top is better at Rosati's. Neither pie will make you swoon, but either makes a fine choice.

Rosati's gets a 6 for the crust, 7 for the cheese, 8 for the sauce, 9 for the sausage. It joins Monical's, Bertucci's, Grotto, Russo's, Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza, and California Pizza Kitchen as a chain pizzeria that is worth the calories.

Rosati's Pizza on Urbanspoon