Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: Malvern Pizza & Beer, Malvern PA

For an office event, a colleague brought in several pizzas from Malvern Pizza & Beer. The pies were well-received, and I had the chance to take several slices home to re-heat and evaluate.

I had one slice of pepperoni, two mushroom, and several plain. I added some Chianti-infused slices of hard salami to the plain slices. I heated them on a perforated pan for about 10 minutes, then gave them a few minutes under the broiler for top browning.  I did not eat any of the pizza when it was first delivered, but I'm pretty sure my re-heat improved it from its original state.

This pizza has an appearance that is different than the typical storefront pizza joint. The crust had a big thick cornicione on it, and for a moment I thought it might be Greek style. However, one bite disspelled that notion. The crust was thick, yet crisp, light, and very airy. I first felt the crust was akin to a thinner, round, Sicilian crust, but in fact this crust has more in common with the "bakery style" crust found on Philly region tomato pies.

You can click HERE for a full primer on varieties of tomato pie, but the Philly version (aka "Conshy" tomato pie) is a rectangular "pizza" made typically at a bakery, cooked in a pan, with a thick yet light and airy crust that may or may not be crisp. It's generally meant to be eaten at room temperature, and it is topped with a lot of sauce and little to no cheese.

I haven't verified it, but this pizza seems to have been cooked in a round pan, with some oil underneath to give it crispness. I enjoyed the texture of this crust, and it was sufficiently sturdy to hold the modest amounts of sauce and the overload of cheese riding on top.
Cross section of the cornicione

The flavors were modest. The sauce, buried under the cheese, was barely a role player. The cheese seemed to be mostly conventional mozzarella and stayed bland even with my broiler browning. The crust added little flavor. We added red pepper flakes and salt to give this pie some pop.

Overall, Malvern Pizza is a well-constructed pie. The toppings adhered well to the crust, there were no soggy spots, and I appreciate the unique approach to the crust. But I'm lukewarm in general about a Philly tomato pie, so I can't get too excited about the bakery style crust; it is too much like toasted white bread. I'd probably enjoy this much more as a breakfast pizza with bacon, egg, and cheese instead of red sauce.

If you enjoy Philly tomato pie, you may well enjoy this pie. Malvern Pizza & Beer gets high marks from other online reviewers, and they value the service, the beer, and the take-out and delivery options. It's a good place to have in the neighborhood.

Malvern Pizza on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: The Pizza Grate

Making pizza at home can be a fun, if occasionally frustrating exercise. I'm not an accomplished baker - and so while I feel confident in choosing the right types and amounts of toppings, I've struggled to produce a crust that is better than that of even the most mundane corner pizza shop. And, with rare exception, the crust is the key to pizza success.

Home pizza makers face one built-in disadvantage - the oven typically gets no hotter than 500 or 550 degrees. Commercial pizza ovens begin at 600 degrees (gas types) and go up to 900 degrees or higher, allowing some pies to cook in 90 seconds. This high heat allows for all kinds of magic to take place both in the crust and in how the toppings meld to the crust.

Another hurdle is the cooking surface. Commercial ovens have a baking surface that is already hot when the pie goes into the oven. Home pie makers typically make their pies in round or rectangular pans which are room temp before entering the oven, or they use a pizza stone.
Pizza Stone

The pizza stone is a great advance. You can put it in your oven, let it pre-heat as your baking surface, and then insert the pie. The stone is sufficiently porous that excess moisture can escape. However, the stone is often the same size as your pizza, so it requires a lot of dexterity to get your pizza onto the hot stone for cooking.  Some folks just put the pizza - in a pan - onto the stone. Others have had success with swapping quarry tiles for the stone, using up to four 12" square tiles to get a big 2 feet by 2 feet baking surface.
Not long ago, I discovered the "Baking Steel" - a quarter-inch thick slab of rectangular steel. It cost me $72, but once it is pre-heated for an hour, you get a hot cooking surface that comes pretty close to that of a commercial gas oven. It is heavy, difficult to clean, clumsy to store - but it produces wonderful pizza crusts. See my full review HERE. It is a clear upgrade over the pizza stone, and it allows easier transfer from your pizza peel to the baking surface.

Then, a few months ago, I saw a Kickstarter campaign for the "Pizza Grate." Like the Baking Steel, the designer sought to craft an optimal surface for baking pizza at home. He tested and found better results using aluminum over steel. He built prototypes with large ventilation holes, to allow excess moisture to escape. It is big - about the full size of an oven rack - and it has a backstop to prevent you from sliding your pie off the rear edge. It is lightweight and easy to handle, but it is clumsy to store (due to its size) and difficult to clean.  The key question is - how are the pies baked on the Pizza Grate?

My first attempt produced a very tasty pie, but I did burn the bottom (not quite to the point of inedible) even though the top was cooked about perfectly. I concluded that, because the aluminum conducts heat to the crust faster than does the steel, I needed to raise my oven rack higher to get a better balance of top cooking (my gas oven goes to 550 degrees).
My pie from Roberta's in Brooklyn

On my third attempt, I made several adjustments. I did move the rack higher, and I followed a crust recipe as closely as I could. I used the recipe from Roberta's in Brooklyn (a hipster restaurant which I have visited and reviewed HERE). You can find the recipe in the New York Times HERE. I made the dough on a Saturday, refrigerated it for 24 hours, then let it warm to room temp for about an hour before making the pies.

I used 50% Italian imported "00" flour and 50% conventional all-purpose flour, with a little salt and olive oil; I resisted the urge to stray from the recipe by adding some sugar as I otherwise might do.
Red wine was not an ingredient; but still vital to success

The recipe was enough for two 12" personal pies, and for the first time in my pie-making experience, I did not use a rolling pin to expand the diameter of the crust.  I actually "hand-tossed" the pie (not airborne), stretching it only with my thumbs and gravity. I did a clumsy job, but they both came out in rough 12" rounds, albeit with uneven thicknesses.

I followed my norm for the sauce - a simple can of diced tomatoes (from ALDI), drained, and then hand-crushed.  I added some fresh garlic and dried basil and a bit of olive oil. I never cook the sauce before it goes on the pie. The one standard can of tomatoes was enough for both 12" rounds.

Roberta's Neapolitan pie calls for fresh mozzarella cheese, but I opted for the cheese on hand in my fridge. I grated a combo of about 2/3 Dubliner (Irish cheese) and 1/3 Grana Padano. The cheddar-like Dubliner supplied the requisite creaminess, and the Grana Padano added a pungent tang. I've learned that the key to successful pies is to go lightly with all toppings.

Finally, I had some Chianti-infused cured salami (also from ALDI), which I cut as thinly as possible for a topping better than pepperoni. It was essentially a sweet soppressata. As a rookie dough handler, I used lots of flour on my hands, the prep surface, and the peel. The resulting pies had that telltale white dusting. I've always regarded that a sign of artisanal baking, but some family members wish I could make crust without the unmoistened external flour.
My Roberta's-recipe pie, cooked on the Baking Grate

Results? After about 7 minutes, I checked the underside of the pies. Cooking, but not at all burnt. I then turned off the baking setting and switched to broil (high) for two minutes more to watch the cheese bubble and the salami become crisp on the edges.

The pies came out with more hole structure and puffiness than anything I've made.  Texture-wise, it was ideally like a puffy Neapolitan that is somehow crisp and a little rigid underneath, exactly as I would hope.  Due to the uneven thickness, some parts were more doughy than ideal. But on balance, this crust was better than about half of the Neapolitan pies I've had, and there was no soupy wet center.

The sauce was close to perfect, but not quite the magic I recently experienced at Vetri and Bufad in Philly (review of Vetri HERE, and Bufad HERE). The cheeses were fine, but the Dubliner may have been a bit too bland. I've really enjoyed tallegio on pies lately, and need to get some. The salami added the perfect salty, meaty, smoky edge - but hot soppressata might have been even better.
Tallegio cheese

The Pizza Grate has taken on some major stains after just three uses. The creator suggests cleaning with steel wool or in the oven on the "clean" setting, but I may just regard this added color as seasoning.

Gorgeous undercarriage

This is the best pizza I've made at home. Certainly much of the credit goes to the Roberta's recipe and a little goes to my slowly improving pizzaolo craft. But without question, the Pizza Grate is a wonderful tool for the home pizza chef. 
"Seasoned" Pizza Grate - after I cleaned it

Which is better - the Baking Steel or the Pizza Grate? I think I need to bake and eat a lot more pies before I can say. For me, both are clearly superior to a pizza stone. If you are a home pizza maker, I recommend you get one or both.

Disclosure: Several months back, I did THIS interview with inventor John Daniels. Although the Kickstarter campaign did not reach its goal, he proceeded to build some prototypes and sent one to me for my analysis. In other words, I paid $72 for my Baking Steel, but got the Pizza Grate without charge. Still, I wouldn't recommend either if I did not have success with them.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: Bufad Pizza, Philadelphia PA

Three years of writing about pizza had led me to some firm convictions and preferences.  One of my pizza tenets had been that only a pie with a thin sturdy crust can compete for "best pizza."  For me, that meant top contenders must be like a Trenton tomato pie such as Papa's (reviewed HERE), a New Haven apizza as fashioned by Modern (reviewed HERE), or perhaps a classic "American pie" such as I found at Pizza Brain in Philly (reviewed HERE). No Sicilian thick pies or Chicago deep-dish need apply.
Antipasti, potato slice, Rosso Amatriciana

And though I love a good Neapolitan pie and especially value how the Neapolitan surge has brought back the craft of pizza-making, every Neapolitan was always a clear second to the rigid crust pies. However, in Delray Beach, Florida, I found a Neapolitan pizza so nearly perfect that it confounded my long held bias for thin, crisp, Northeast pizzas. Scuola Vecchia (full review HERE) is making the best Neapolitan pizza I've ever tried, and it can challenge any pizza, any style, any place. My long-held rigid crust bias was confounded.
Bufad, in Philly

Well. What to which fundamental pizza commandment may I still cling?  How about this Golden Rule: any pizza defined by its toppings, and not by its crust, is bound to be second rate. Get outta here with that Buffalo chicken pizza! 

Let's find out if that great truth yet stands.

On a Wednesday at lunchtime, we traveled to Bufad Pizza, just north of center city Philadelphia, at 13th and Spring Garden Streets. It was easy to find metered parking nearby. We were the first ones in for lunch, but the small venue filled up shortly after.
Great staff, wood fired oven

At the site of a former Chinese restaurant, Bufad opened in 2013. To my suburban eyes, it looks like a neighborhood on the rise, and its proximity to center city will make it an attractive and relatively affordable location. This area is Philly's Loft District, and it perhaps has something in common with Bushwick in Brooklyn and Fishtown in Philly - both gentrifying neighborhoods anchored by hipster pizza joints.

Like nearby Vetri (reviewed HERE), Bufad offers a wood-fired Neapolitan pizza and Roman-style "al taglio" rectangle slices. And it was the Roman pizza that drew me to Bufad.

In this attractive and cozy space, we saw a daily specials chalkboard. There were several attractive options; we chose a crostini trio that featured crisp yet chewy triangles topped with a creamy spread made from potato, poquillo peppers, and baccala. Other than being a tad messy to eat with your fingers, this appetizer was a delight in flavor and texture. I might have guessed the peppers in the creamy topping, but the potato and salted cod were mild and understated. I have no picture of the trio because we eagerly scarfed them down before I remembered to take a picture.

Click to see this beautiful app full size

The staff also gave us another appetizer - a luscious scoop of cold burrata cheese over warm asparagus, pine nuts, golden raisins, and some other wonderful ingredients. It was heavenly, and just a masterpiece for the eye, too.

Lunch here might be the best value in the city. We each chose the lunch special of any two slices of the "SPQR" al taglio pizza with a side antipasti salad - just seven bucks.  I opted for a slice of the potato pizza and the spicy "Rosso Amatriciana." Tracy, with the cool fingernails, chose a potato slice and one with asparagus and prosciutto.
Asparagus pie in the middle

The antipasti featured white beans, chick peas, and tiny cubes of cured meat and cheese. Dainty yet robust, it was an ideal lunch appetizer. The only change I would make would be to provide a spoon instead of a fork.
Underside, and Tracy's cool fingernails

The rectangle slices had immediate eye appeal. Potatoes on pizza is a gamble; if they are cut too thickly, they just add weight and moisture than can ruin a pie. But we had the chance to see the whole rectangle pie behind the counter, and the thin slices of potato developed a crispness that enhanced the overall texture. This slice included fennel, rosemary in abundance, and Pecorino Romano cheese. Tracy and I agreed it was wonderful, but it was the second-best slice for each of us.
Good hole structure in the crust

Tracy's other slice was the asparagus pie. Smartly, the asparagus was sliced into small pieces so there was a bit of asparagus in each bite.  The prosciutto added the right salty tang. Floating on top was some delightfully pungent Grana Padano cheese. Tracy loved this full-flavored pie; I got a taste and concurred.

My second slice was the Amatriciana, and it was the highlight of the meal. Flecked with red pepper flakes, it was spicy as advertised. It had a bit of pancetta and some Pecorino, both of which added a salty tang, but the star was the red sauce. It was thick and liberally applied in a way that might drown a lesser pie, but here it compounded the luscious nature of this slice. The red sauce was perfection, an ideal balance of sweet tomato and robust earthiness.

Wait, what about the crust? The crust - the foundation - is the most important element of any pizza, according to my last surviving pizza commandment. 

Well, it may no longer survive.

This was not a thin, crisp, rigid crust. It was not thick like a Sicilian, but about as thick-yet-light as a Philadelphia tomato pie (defined HERE).  This light golden brown crust had a good hole structure, much like the crostini we had as an appetizer.

This crust was a role player. Despite its medium-thickness, it was sturdy and almost crisp, and it provided the palette on which the pizzaolo painted the well-matched sauce, cheese, meats, and vegetable toppings. Unlike the al taglio pie I had in Rome (reviewed HERE), the crust was not thin, crunchy, or the star of the pie. It stayed in the background and let the toppings shine. It was an excellent dough and can stand on its own, but it played a supporting role.

Is this destination pizza?  Absolutely. There is a masterful touch in the kitchen here, and it's hard to imagine a better lunch experience. So another tenet is destroyed - the crust does not have to be the star of a great pizza.

I'd go back to Bufad for a hundred reasons - but the obvious one is to try the Neapolitan pies there. I did see some coming out of the oven, and they looked spectacular. Great vibe, great service, inventive and satisfying delectable fare. This BYOB is firing on all cylinders.

Bufad Pizza on Urbanspoon