Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review: Paulie Gee's Hampden - Baltimore, MD

Perhaps you saw the 2012 Jane Pauley special on Paul Giannone, aka Paulie Gee, who at age 56 swapped an IT career for a shot at pizza making. His first pie shop was in the uptrending Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn. He was on the early edge of Neapolitan pizza makers in the U.S., and one of the first to put his own twist on it.

He's been wildly successful doing the things he loves, and there are now four more Paulie Gee's locations including Chicago, Columbus, Miami, and Baltimore. I got to meet Paulie last summer at the Pizza Palooza event near Washington DC, and I sampled a slice of his signature pie the Hellboy. Terrific stuff, but I still needed to get to a Paulie Gee's restaurant. For the record, Paulie was warm and genuine - and that was true of nearly every pizzaiolo that day in DC.
Paulie Gee's Hampden, Baltimore
I still haven't made it to Paulie's flagship Brooklyn operation, but a trip to Baltimore gave me an opportunity to visit his Hampden shop. Baltimore is a crab town, above all else. When you think of all the great northeast pizza cities (NY, Philly, New Haven, Trenton, Boston), you'd never think of this almost-Southern city on that list.
Interior, from the front door

Interior dining and kitchen spaces
Previous Baltimore trips had yielded mixed results - the highly-regarded B.O.P. Brick Oven Pizza near Fells Point was pretty ordinary. On the other hand, we loved the thin square crisp pies (and the vibe) at Joe Squared in the Station North district.
Kitchen and wood-fired pizza ovens
Once an isolated working class neighborhood, Hampden was reclaimed by artists and like-minded hipsters beginning in the 1990s, and the neighborhood attracts a great mix of stores and restaurants. There are many parallels to uptrending neighborhoods like Greenpoint in Brooklyn and Fishtown in Philadelphia (home to the wonderful Pizza Brain). 
Neapolitan with fennel sausage and cremini mushrooms
The menu is filled with inspired pizzas and clever names (Barry White, Stinger Bell, Mo Cheeks), but for this purpose I had to go with the pizza that put Paulie on everybody's map, the Hellboy. This Neapolitan is made with fresh mozzarella, Italian tomatoes, Berkshire soppressata picante, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Mike’s Hot Honey. My dining partner ordered a Neapolitan with mushroom and sausage toppings.
The Hellboy
Let's talk about that pie first. Most importantly, Paulie does sausage the only proper way - big chunks of raw sweet fennel sausage that get cooked on the pie. Also noteworthy, at most pizza places the question around the mushrooms is "canned or fresh?" Here, not only fresh but sliced cremini mushrooms go on the pie for an added flavor boost.

My Hellboy shared the same Neapolitan crust, and it was a superb rendition. Each pie was a large personal size yielding six slices (there were no leftovers!). The cornicione was puffy with ideal leopard spotting. The bottom surface was light and soft without being floppy, and there were no wet or soggy spots even though it was prudent to eat the first bite of each slice with knife and fork.
Perfect leopard spots underneath
The crust was a little thicker closer to the cornicione, and it had an ideal chewiness. Most importantly, the crust (containing only  flour, water, salt and yeast) had its own wonderful flavor. Shame on anyone who doesn't eat the cornicione of this pizza.

I was a little fearful that the combination of spicy soppressata and the hot honey would make this pie so fiery that I'd not be able to taste the other elements, but it was suprisingly mild. You don't need a lot of heat tolerance to enjoy the modest spiciness that these ingredients deliver. I did find the subtle sweetness of the honey played very nicely with the salty/spicy/savory combination of flavors coming from the sauce, the cheese, and the cured meat.
From Click for larger image
On some pies, the sauce or the cheese will stand out. While I'm sure that both here were top shelf quality, what happens with this pie is that all the elements come together. With each bite I wasn't thinking "great crust" or "wonderful sauce" but instead "holy crap this is good." The parts are all great, the sum is greater than the parts.
Even with an expanding operation where quality control can be a challenge, this Paulie Gee's location is making a nearly flawless Neapolitan pizza. It stands right up with the best I've had - Roberta's in Brooklyn, Capofitto and Vetri in Philly, Zero Otto Nove in the Bronx. Hats off to a great guy and a great pizza.

Paulie Gee's Hampden Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Review: DeLorenzo's The Burg - Levittown, PA

I got to know Trenton NJ during the 1980s, which in retrospect were the glory years for Italian dining options. The city's Chambersburg section was bursting with a full range of Italian restaurants from the homey and casual to the elegant upscale options. 

And of course, Trenton was still full of many great tomato pie joints: Papa's, Joe's, DeLorenzo's on Hudson Street, and the "rival" DeLorenzo's on Hamilton Avenue. Around 1985, I scoffed when a Pizza Hut opened in Trenton. Who would buy a chain pizza in this iconic tomato pie town?

Trenton, though, has long been a city of new immigrants. The Italian and Polish neighborhoods began to change in the 1990s as the second and third generations took on new interests. Today's Trenton is home to a new wave of Latin American immigrants, and just about every Italian restaurant and tomato pie joint has closed or moved to the suburbs. You can track the new bodegas and everything else in this evolving town at the wonderful website Hidden Trenton.

Casual booths, in front
Papa's Tomato Pies and the Hudson Street DeLorenzo's are prospering in Robbinsville, NJ. There is also a brand-new Pennsylvania outpost for that same DeLorenzo's in Yardley, and we found it to be very much equal to the Robbinsville location.
Fresh out of the oven
Back when both DeLorenzo's were in Trenton, I always felt that the pies from Hamilton Avenue were a distant second to the square-cut pies on Hudson Street, my favorite all-time pizza. If Hudson Street was a 10, Hamilton Avenue was a 6. 
A sausage slice
I'm lucky that a long-time colleague and friend from the Trenton region alerted me to DeLorenzo's The Burg, which is a restaurant that opened in suburban PA in 2017. There, a nephew of the Hamilton Avenue DeLorenzo's is fashioning the same tomato pie. I was skeptical that I'd like it any better than the original, but my friend was consistent in his praise.
A pepperoni slice
I stopped in around lunch time to get a pie to take home for dinner. After confirming that their sausage topping is properly applied raw, I ordered a large tomato pie with half pepperoni and half sausage, which came to about $18.
Good color and texture underneath
The restaurant, housed in a brick strip mall on New Falls Road, has a cheery casual dining area in the front and a surprisingly large formal dining room in the rear. The staff was particularly friendly, too.
Box features the iconic "Trenton Makes" bridge to PA
On my recent visit to the (Hudson St) DeLorenzo's in Yardley, I took the same approach of ordering a pie at lunchtime to reheat for dinner. Despite years of experience in re-heating pizza with mostly good results, I found that I had dried out the very thin crust. But because I had been so familiar with the pie, I knew the fault was mine and not that of the pizzaiolo.

Because it's probably been 15 years or more since I had tried a (Hamilton Ave) DeLorenzo's tomato pie, I needed to sample this one fresh from the oven. I took the pie to the car, placed it in the trunk, and grabbed a slice to sample. 
Formal dining room in back
Just two bites, and it was a revelation. Even though this tomato pie was a little bit overloaded with sauce and cheese, the thin crust had an ideal snap and it held up to the payload. I was instantly transported to the glory days of Trenton tomato pies by the sweet red sauce commingled with the cheese.

I can't explain why I was never impressed with the Hamilton Avenue DeLorenzo's, but my thoughts after two bites in the parking lot were "the best Trenton tomato pie in 2018 may be in this strip mall in Levittown." There was a brightness and freshness to this pie that are hard to find.
Strip Mall location on New Falls Road in Levittown
The pizza remained in the box in the trunk until 6pm, when I heated it for about 10 minutes at 375 degrees on a perforated pan. I'm sad to report that I once again dried out the crust on a tomato pie. Its flavor was intact, but it was dry and crunchy where it had been crackly and chewy right out of the oven. Again - entirely my mistake.

As I noted, the fresh Italian sausage is added in chunks and it cooks on the pie. The sausage here was generously applied and it remains the premiere pizza topping when done right, like this. The red sauce is sweeter than the sauce at the other DeLorenzo's, but it works perfectly on this pie.
"Not Just Pizza"

The pepperoni was the one less-than-stellar feature. I'd love to see these thin-cut standard pepperoni circles replaced with smaller but thicker "spicy cup" pepperoni. This is a very minor quibble, because this tomato pie was close to perfect in taste, texture, and balance. 

Can you judge a pizza by two bites?  Indeed I can. This is spectacular tomato pie. For 35 years, I never had any doubt that Hudson Street was superior to the pie made by cousins on Hamilton Avenue. I need to eat them side by side to know which is best, but let's say just that people in Robbinsville, Yardley, Levittown, and Hamilton cannot go wrong visiting any DeLorenzo's. The cousins remain past, present, and future kings of Trenton Tomato Pie. 

De Lorenzo's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Review: DeLorenzo's Tomato Pies - Yardley PA

Over 35 years ago, a colleague in Princeton took me to Trenton's storied tomato pie place, DeLorenzo's. From the very first bite, I was smitten. Here was a thin and crunchy pizza that was better than any I'd had in my life, including Rosa's, my childhood favorite from Riverside, NJ.

I've had hundreds of pizzas since then, all over America and even around the globe, but DeLorenzo's has maintained its spot as #1 on my list of favorite pies. I visited the original Hudson Street location about a week before it closed (review HERE) and I've been to their new flagship operation in Robbinsville NJ (review HERE). 

The new DeLorenzo's location in Yardley PA
Robbinsville captures almost all the flavor and texture that we found on Hudson Street; if the pies differed at all, they seemed less oily in Robbinsville. Soon after the Robbinsville transition, we learned in 2014 that DeLorenzo's was exploring a Pennsylvania location in Newtown, Buck County. That never came to be, but in February of 2018, the western branch finally opened in a new building complex in the historic Edgewood Village in Yardley.
Spacious dining room 
There's a cruel irony here, because this new location is less than five minutes from where I lived in Yardley for 22 years, and from which I'd trek across the river to Trenton to score a decent tomato pie at Papa's, Joe's, or DeLorenzo's. Today, I now live an hour west of of Yardley, so the DeLorenzo pie remains a holy grail quest for me.
Fresh out of the oven
When I got the chance to be in Yardley, I phoned in an order for a large sausage pie to go. Calling in a tomato pie order was quite a privilege itself; the Hudson Street location had been so popular that they stopped answering the phone within 5 minutes of opening because the day's orders were already filled.

It was about 4 hours later when I gently re-heated the pie for dinner (375 degrees for 8 minutes on a vented pizza pan). Any pizza is best when you consume it on site, but a re-heated pie captures perhaps 95% of the original fresh experience and restores a crispness to the crust.

Underside of the crust
What makes a DeLorenzo's tomato pie so special? The crust is very thin, golden brown without char, and has an ideal mix of crunch and chewiness. I do miss the extra oil from the Hudson Street pies, especially on the home re-heat, because the crust can become a little over-dried.
Owner Sam Amico in the kitchen
The tomato sauce had the same flavor I recall from Trenton and Robbinsville, but seemed less chunky. DeLorenzo's has its own signature cheese blend, though I've never been sure what cheeses are included. One one visit, we noticed some Sargento mozzarella. On this pizza, I felt I detected some cheddar notes. 

The key, though, is that each bite delivers something a little different - some where you get a big batch of tomato, some with more cheese, some with that delectable Italian sausage that cooks on the pie.

Given that I've eaten so many pizzas - legends and newcomers - the gap between DeLorenzo's and all the others has narrowed. The biggest challenger for that #1 spot has to be Picco in Boston, a newer place making pizza in a very old-school way.

It may be partly for sentimental reasons, but DeLorenzo's keeps its top ranking. The Yardley pie is every bit as good as the Robbinsville version, and this means that more people than ever can enjoy this very special tomato pie.