Monday, February 24, 2020

Review: Tonari Japanese Deep-Dish Pizza

What would happen if an Italian restaurant in Tokyo customized a Detroit-style deep dish pizza to the tastes of its local Japanese customers? Perhaps the result would be something like the pizza on the menu at Tonari, a Washington DC spot for wafu (Japanese-style) Italian noodle dishes and pizza.

Tonari is not Japanese-Italian fusion food, but instead pasta and pizza wafu, meaning "in the Japanese way." Although the pizza was the draw, we made a point to sample the appetizers and two of the pasta dishes.

We had two appetizers, both of them simple, fresh, and uncomplicated. We enjoyed a small dish of warm olives that were adorned with a few cloves of roasted garlic and some mild peppers. Even better was a plate of roasted shishito peppers, enhanced only with salt and olive oil. These small greens served as a backdrop for the complex flavors and textures to follow.
Every pasta sounded wonderful; it was hard to turn down the "Napolitan" with onion, piman, kurobuta sausage, button mushroom, tabasco, ham, ketchup sauce, and pecorino over spaghetti. "Ketchup sauce" seems off-putting at first, but Spaghetti Napolitan is the earliest and most basic Japanese attempt at Italian food with its ketchup-based sauce that stays sweet but intensifies in the pan.
Shirasu pasta
We did lean toward the "most Japanese" dishes, which took us to seafood pasta choices. The Shirasu pasta, a dish of tagliatelle noodles, was both umami laden and elegantly simple with olive oil, baby sardines, garlic, and red pepper flakes. 
Uni (sea urchin) pasta
Several umami levels up was the Uni pasta, featuring uni (sea urchin), soy, mirin, butter, sake, kombu dashi, and aonori over bigoli noodles. One small bit of that earthy sea creature lent a depth of flavor to the entire dish. It was spectacular.

All of the pizza here is - deliberately or coincidentally - Detroit style. Each pie is baked in a deep pan greased with rice oil that yields a thick, square crust made from Hokkaido wheat flour. The edges are dark brown, crunchy, and caramelized but in the dim light we weren't sure if the edges were brown with overflowing cheese or just the oiled dough. 

Despite that formidable crunchy crust, the interior of the dough is white, soft, and pillowy.  Texturally, while it resembles some of the best thick and airy pizzas like the ones at Rize in West Chester PA and Via 313 in Austin TX, it was distinctly different from any pizza crust I've ever eaten. The dough is fermented for up to three days to develop a structure that is common to Japanese white bread. Beyond its delectable silky interior and crunchy edges, it had a wonderfully complex flavor even without the toppings.

Like our pasta strategy, we also sought out the "most Japanese" pizza, opting for the Mentaiko & Corn pie that included brick cheese, mentaiko (cod roe) cream, Kewpie (Japanese mayonnaise) corn puree, and scallions. Riding atop this sturdy base was a lavaflow of that creamy concoction. It was quite slathered with this rich topping, but the crust was up to the task, even as it was messy to eat without knife and fork.

This pizza was almost as spectacular as the uni pasta with its wild mix of textures and flavors. We savored every bite, and I'd love to go back to try the clam pie or the simple pepperoni version that includes canned Jersey tomatoes.

We finished with a dessert called grapefruit granite, made with shaved grapefruit ice, campari, vanilla gelato, and shiso (an herb from the mint family). Just as the green appetizers served as a platform to dive into the deep end of the umami pool populated by the pasta and pizza, this cool concoction was the perfect exit ramp, tart and sweet and crunchy and creamy.

We came for the pizza, but this was a transcendant meal from start to finish. Go out of your way to get to Tonari; wafu waiting for?

Daikaya Izakaya Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review: Midtown Pizza (by H-E-B)

H-E-B, a chain of 350 supermarkets in Texas and Mexico, ranks 12th among the largest American private companies. I describe it in east coast terms as "Wegmans quality at ShopRite prices." It has quickly become one of my favorite things about Texas, and so I had some confidence in buying an H-E-B branded frozen pizza.

While the low end of frozen pizza isn't much better than it was 30 years ago, today there are some still-cheap versions that are worth the calories. Some of the best ones are replicas of the pizzas sold at iconic pizzerias like Roberta's (Brooklyn) or Gino's East (Chicago). The other reliable path to a decent frozen pizza is to seek out those that are imported, like the Italian varieties at Trader Joe's or the surprising German imports at ALDI.

Midtown Pizza at H-E-B boasts that the stone-baked crust is imported from Italy, which makes for an interesting hybrid when the toppings are sourced and added in Texas. This particular pie is topped with spicy Italian sausage, red peppers, caramelized onion, tomatoes, provolone, and mozzarella. H-E-B carries several varieties of Midtown Pizza; they clock in at 14-16 ounces and are priced from $5 to $6 (more for pies with meat). 
Frozen pizza, before baking at home
It looked promising even before I baked it, but I did need to redistribute the sausage and the red peppers, which had clustered on one side of the pizza surface. It had spent a few months in my freezer and some of the toppings may have come loose on the trip home from the store. 
Remarkable texture
The entire pie clocks in at 880 calories, which is pretty modest by frozen pizza standards. Like a typical Neapolitan, this pie was personal-size, but big enough to share for two.

Visually, the crust had the look of a genuine Neapolitan pizza, with a puffy leopard-spotted cornicione. I baked it at 425 degrees for 12 minutes, directly on an oven rack, and sliced it into 8 small pieces.

The flavors of this pizza were spot-on. The mozzarella had a creamy element and the provolone added some nice sharp notes. The sausage was both plentiful and tasty; the tomato sauce was a role player to bring it all together.

The crust itself had an excellent flavor; in fact at some H-E-B stores you can buy a two-pack of these crusts to concoct your own custom pizza. Mine was a little moist in the center and dry at the edges, but I suspect that the imperfect moisture distribution was due to the fact that it had been in my freezer too long.
Authentic Neapolitan style crust
There was remarkable flavor, texture, and balance for a frozen pizza. Imagine you froze leftover slices from a legitimate Neapolitan pizza in your neighborhood; this pizza tastes like that reheated leftover Neapolitan might. Not as good as oven-fresh, but better than the stuff from the big chains.

It's hard to beat a legitimate $6 Neapolitan pizza in your freezer; H-E-B has a winner with Midtown Pizza.

Café Mueller by H-E-B Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, February 14, 2020

Review: Pizzeria Casa Nostra - Spicewood, TX

Spicewood TX, an unicorporated community with 7,942 residents 22 miles northwest of Austin, may be best known as the home of Willie Nelson's Luck Ranch. The two-room schoolhouse there saw its last graduating class in 1949 when the school system merged with Marble Falls. 

TripAdvisor's list of top dining destinations in Spicewood is heavy on BBQ joints, Mexican food, road houses, and diners. As a recent transplant, I get the feeling that people in Spicewood are the real Texans.
The old schoolhouse in Spicewood
With that as background, I'm astonished to report that there are *two* superb pizza places in Spicewood, less than ten minutes from my home  - Pizzeria Casa Nostra and Sorellina Pizzeria.  Nearby Bee Cave has two fine pizzerias too, the St. Louis flatbread pizza at 'Zza and the Texas-twist-on-NY pies at Toss.

During my first six months as a suburban Austinite, I often made the 10 minute drive to Sorellina, each time driving past Pizzeria Casa Nostra. My snap judgment was that this might be gimmicky pizza, and I based that on thinking that the name was a play on "cosa nostra."  I now very much regret that it took me so long before I finally visited.

I've visited three times, and found great appetizers, pizzas, and service each time. With a large group on my first visit, I was able to sample the caponata (eggplant) appetizer, and it was superb. It's wonderful how eggplant thrives in so many ways in different cuisines - Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Chinese, and more. 
Carbonara pizza
The  memorable focaccia bread is finished with coarse sea salt, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, rosemary, and grated Parmigiano Reggiano, but it's basically a pizza crust so it may be a tad redundant if you're here for the pizza. It does give you a preview of how great this pizza can be, because every top grade pizza depends on the crust.
Salsiccia e Funghi pizza
The true measure of any Neapolitan pizzaiolo is the Margherita, and it shines here. The pie man is still so new to America that his English is limited; meanwhile, he's turning out some wonderful pizza from the authentic dome oven. 

Every pizza is perfectly cooked, with no wet centers and a well-considered balance of ingredients. The simple Margherita ($11) rides on a delicate and puffy yet crisp crust with a tangy red sauce married to the mozzarella with basil and extra virgin olive oil.

The Salsiccia e Funghi ($13) pie may be my favorite, where the tomato sauce and mozzarella is topped with Italian sausage in real chunks, mushrooms, and onions. 

Casa Nostra is only the second place where I've seen pizza ala tonno, rendered here as a white pie with mozzarella, tuna, carmelized onion, Kalmata olives, and pine nuts. I love it, just as I did the red version at Enzo's in the Bronx.
Imported, just like the pizzaolo
I relish egg on pizza any way I can get it, and the Carbonara pie here is lovely, but its subdued flavors seem best suited to breakfast. What's not to like about mozzarella, bacon, scrambled egg, Parmigiano Reggiano, and parsley riding on this impeccable crust?
Perfect char underneath
As the spread of Neapolitan pizza grows deeper into the American suburbs, we can celebrate that many of the new pizzerias make a hybrid Neapolitan, with a crisper crust that can better stand up to the amount and variety of toppings that make American pizza a worthy category all its own. Soupy centers may be hip in Naples or Milan, but a crisp bottom rules in my pizza world.
The bar inside the dining room
Beyond the great food and previously mentioned service, Casa Nostra has a friendly, casual, and very Texan ambiance. The ranch-style interior is open and airy, and curiously was once the home of the Down Under Deli/Draughthouse that for a time offered "Boomerang Pizza."

I genuinely expected that I would need to make the 18 mile trip to Downtown Austin in order to get great pizza, heading for Salvation Pizza, Via 313, or Home Slice.  I'll still do that, but there is world class pizza right here in my (and Willie Nelson's) backyard.

DoubleDave's Pizzaworks Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato