Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Review: Lorenzo and Sons Pizza, West Chester PA

Philadelphia is one of the truly great pizza towns. While there may not be an iconic "Philly style" pizza (other than a Philly tomato pie - details HERE), the best in town can stand with the top places in New York, Chicago, and New Haven. Thus, it was exciting to see a branch of a Philly pizza place open up in West Chester.
Monster slices at Lorenzo & Sons, West Chester
Just ten years ago, Philly trailed nearby Trenton NJ (home to a completely different kind of tomato pie), but the exodus of the great pie makers from Trenton has let Philly pass it by as the top Delaware Valley destination.

Philly has only one legendary pizza joint - the venerable Tacconelli's in Port Richmond. But many of the brightest stars of the Pizza Renaissance call Philadelphia home: Beddia, Pizzeria Vetri, Capofitto, Gennaro's, Zavino, Slice, Osteria, Nomad
Lorenzo & Sons, West Chester
There are some stalwart slice joints, too. One is Lorenzo's Pizza, located on Christian Street in the Italian Market. Another is Lorenzo and Sons, on South Street. For years, I've confused these two Philly pizzerias with similar names. (And let's not even bring Trenton legend DeLorenzo's into the discussion.) 
The Philly Taco
Both are famous for big slices of thin New York style pizza, often served to drunks in the wee hours of the morning. The bigger slices at Lorenzo and Sons are used for the awful "Philly Taco" by which a cheesesteak sandwich is rolled up in a slice of pizza, taco style.
A beautiful char on our slice at Lorenzo's Pizza in Philly's Italian Market
About a year ago, we visited Lorenzo's in the Italian Market, and we loved the $2 slice there. It was a near-perfect rendition of an uncomplicated New York slice. The kind of pizza that was ubiquitous until the 1970s, but which began to disappear as the mom-and-pop shops began cutting corners with inferior ingredients from mass suppliers like Sysco.
Corner of Gay and High Streets, West Chester
Almost two years ago, news broke that Lorenzo and Sons was opening a branch in West Chester in a prime location at the corner of Gay and High Streets. This prime property had been vacant for a long time and seemed like a great location - near West Chester University - for a slice joint. 

I had been thinking that I'd get a West Chester version of that great slice I had in the Italian Market, but it's actually the suburban location for the South Street Lorenzo and Sons, which I haven't experienced.
Second floor dining room
We visited at lunchtime on a sleepy summer Saturday. There are plenty of tables for al fresco dining and a spacious room upstairs, too. We were struck by the sight of the enormous 28" pies and the huge slices. Although one $3.50 slice was probably adequate to feed two people for lunch, we ordered one plain and one with sausage and pepperoni.

Like many slice joints, Lorenzo & Sons makes only a few basic pies for slice re-heating. Here, there is plain and pepperoni. For any other topping, it's added to the slice for the re-heat. Hence, our meat slice had the baked-in pepperoni, with the addition of pre-cooked sliced sausage. This never works out very well, because the toppings aren't properly integrated into the pie.

The staff was very friendly, and our oversized slices came out quickly. Each sliced overflowed the two paper plates on which it rested, and the two slices together filled the entire surface of the tray on which we transported them to the dining table upstairs. 
Good color underneath
The slice was, in a word, ridiculous. Far too big to pick up and eat, even with two hands. If you engage in the bad habit of pizza folding (thereby turning your pizza into a calzone), this was still too big to pick up. Lacking silverware, we simply tore off chunks until each slice was manageable.

I found that the crust had good texture, in the classic crisp-but-not-dry style of the better New York slices. The cheese was a good role player, and applied in near-perfect proportion. The sauce was tame and barely a factor. 
Cornicione was white-bready and bland
The baked-in pepperoni was standard grade, but it certainly enhanced that slice by adding a savory and salty note. The added thin slices of sausage were reasonably tasty, but of course well short of the great boost that chunks of cooked-on-pie sausage can deliver.

We enjoyed these slices, which were a measure better than the standard slice joint in the area. Still, when reaching the cornicione, the crust was revealed to be pretty low on character and flavor. It would have been no sin to leave the bones behind here.
Better slices at Lorenzo's Pizza in Philly's Italian Market
I wondered why this slice wasn't as good as the slices we had at Lorenzo's Pizza in the Italian Market, but of course now I know that this is not Lorenzo's Pizza, but Lorenzo & Sons.

In Philly, then, Lorenzo's Pizza is the hands-down winner for Slice Joint King. The absurdly large slices at Lorenzo & Sons are great for Philly's South Street or this college town, a good $3.50 value to be wolfed down by inebriated college kids. Lorenzo & Sons just won the local "best bang for your buck" pizza award.

Superior pizza at nearby RapiDough
In West Chester, Lorenzo & Sons adds one more decent choice to an improving if not yet great selection of pizza places. This is good pie, akin to the pizza at nearby Couch Tomato, but trailing RapiDough, whose Neapolitan pies are currently tops in town.

Lorenzo And Sons Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review: Pupatella, Arlington VA

Whenever there is a discussion of the best pizza in the Washington DC metro area, Pupatella is part of the conversation. 

On previous visits, I've stayed in the confines of DC proper, and had authentic NY slices at Wiseguy NY Pizza, great hybrid stuff at Seventh Hill Pizza, great Neapolitan at Comet Ping Pong, and world-class Neapolitan at 2Amys.

But Pupatella - perhaps the granddaddy of DC Neapolitan - remained on my must-try list. I finally got the chance on Father's Day weekend, when we visited on Saturday at lunch hour.
The Neapolitan oven where pies cook at 800-100 degrees in 60 seconds

Lining up to place an order
We arrived just minutes before the lunch crowd began queueing up; the process is that you order and pay up front, then take a seat. The staff brings your food to you. This leads to confusion about who to tip and when to tip, and whether you should bus your own table. Not a terrible system, but not a good one either.
"Salad 1"
It was a pleasantly warm afternoon, so we opted for one of the tables in the rear courtyard. It was a cozy space, but the tables were wobbly and the aroma of nearby decaying trash was distinct. The management needs to pay a bit more attention here.
Perfect card for pizza blogging Dad
For our party of two, we ordered "Salad 1" ($7.50) which included organic baby arugula, prosciutto, shaved Parmesan, and balsamic dressing. We chose two pizzas to split: 

  • a white pie ($12) with Italian​ cream, sautéed mushrooms, garlic, brie cheese, and truffle oil
  • a red pie with sausage, sautéed onions, and provola (fresh smoked mozzarella)

We had just begun the salad when the pies arrived. Our server was friendly and efficient, but this was another detail that the management missed; you don't serve the main course 30 seconds after the appetizer. Yeah, these pies cook in 60 seconds, but hold the order for a few minutes.
Our white pie with mushrooms
The pizzaiolo at Neapolitan is a bit of a purist; the website warns that the pie will be and should be wet in the middle. 

The white mushroom pie was beautiful to see; it had an ideal leopard spotting and a lovely patchwork of dark mushrooms and chunks of ivory brie cheese. The crust wasn't wet in the center, but it was unpleasantly damp. Fully half of each slice had drunk in too much moisture from the toppings.
Red pie with sausage and smoked mozzarella
As with many Neapolitans, the slice improved with each bite nearer to the cornicione, which was that perfect balance of lightness and chewiness with a satisfying char. The mushrooms were the star of this pie; they packed a lot of rich and earthy flavor. I'd like this pie better with less brie, less cheese overall, and less moisture. Excellent stuff, but well short of what it might have been.
Extra tasty at the cornicione
The red pie was largely disappointing. It was wetter than the white pie, so that even more of the crust was damp and limp. The red sauce displayed little character of its own, and the lumps of provola were oversized and hence undercooked, even as they acquired a bit of oven browning. The sausage was tiny crumbles that were barely perceptible. The overall flavor was still good, but this would not be the pie to put Pupatella on the map.
Too much on top for the delicate crust
Pupatella made a big splash 6 or 7 years ago, when it moved from food truck to its current location.  It's still packing in the customers, but I fear that the magic has worn off - especially as a large staff of newer workers is churning out a high volume of pies.
Just about an ideal char
The quality of the ingredients is apparent, but a Neapolitan pie depends on the balance of ingredients, and they're off. That affects the flavor a bit and the texture a lot. At Capofitto in Philly, you can get a world class Neapolitan that has a wet center yet retains full harmony of the ingredients. Maybe Pupatella can still do that on a good day.

Of all the DC area pies I've had, 2Amys is the clear winner. Wiseguy, Comet, and Seventh Hill are also ahead of Pupatella. That said, I'd gladly return to Pupatella if I was in the area. I'd try simpler pies, like the Margherita, and other combinations with fewer toppings. That superb crust deserves a chance to be consumed without a limp center. 

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

Review: Vecchia Pizzeria Napoletana, Phoenixville PA

Authentic Neapolitan pizza remains a hot trend, and a very welcome one. The quaint hamlet of Phoenixville, PA is home to about 14,000 people, 28 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where the Schuylkill River meets the French Creek. And this lucky burb has one very authentic Neapolitan pizza slinger of its own.
Margherita con soppressata at Vecchia

Vecchia opened here in 2012, and quickly garnered acclaim from Craig LaBan, who favored the Regina Margherita pie:"Savor the roasty chew of the crust, the creamy cheese and bright fresh sauce in one bite." Vecchia has been on my short list since then, and I finally made the 30 minute trip there for lunch on a Tuesday.
Oven and interior at Vecchia

The menu is pointedly brief. No Buffalo chicken pizza here - just a short list of Neapolitans that includes a white pie, a Marinara (crust and San Marzano tomatoes), a Margherita (adds mozzarella), and the Regina Margherita (uses fresh Bufala Mozzarella). There is also a short list of toppings. Each pie is personal sized, but generously so.  I ate about two thirds of my pie for lunch.
Regina Margherita

Margherita with soppressata

On our visit, shortly after the noon opening, the small place began to fill but there was only one staffer (father of owner Frank Nattle) who tried to keep pace until his pizzaiolo nephew arrived. I love Bufala Mozzarella, but not on my pizza. For my taste, it is too wet and insufficiently salty for pizza. I understand that the soupy center it produces is known and expected on authentic Neapolitans, but I prefer a pie with more salt and with a consistently crisp or chewy texture.

Hence, I ordered the regular Margherita, topped with soppressata. Kevin joined me for lunch and he chose the Regina pie with no extra toppings. The pies cook rapidly in the 1000 degree oven, and they came out quickly. Somehow Vecchia was out of Diet Coke, but unsweetened bottled iced tea was a decent substitute.
Underside of a slice

Like the very best Neapolitan pies, mine was almost perfectly balanced. There was no wet center, the crust was light and puffy, yet with enough chew and substance to hold the toppings well enough that no knife and fork were needed. The crust had a fine flavor all its own, and the lovely browned and blistered cheese added more - but the tomatoes were the standout flavor. Deep orange in color, bright, fresh, tangy, and in harmony with the pie. The soppressata was applied in thin slices, but each imparted a near-explosion of flavor that made each bite rewarding.

Fuel source

Dough ready for pie making

I had a taste of the Regina pie - and it was very good. But it was wet in the center, and the flavors much more subtle than on my pie. I'd love to try the white pie and especially the Marinara, given how good the tomatoes are. Next time!

The ambiance was pleasant, but not very different than any other mom and pop pizza shop beyond the massive dome oven. The pizzaiolo spoke to us at length about the oven, its construction, and let us watch a pizza bake in 60-90 seconds.

A second location is about to open in Wayne, PA, on Philly's Main Line. Wayne is rapidly becoming the New Haven of Pennsylvania, with more great pizza-per-capita than any other city. Jules Thin Crust (reviewed HERE), Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza (reviewed HERE), Arde Osteria & Pizzeria (coming soon). While the Chester county seat of West Chester still waits for its first worthy pizzeria, Wayne will have four.

We spoke to the senior Mr. Nattle about the name "Vecchia," which means "old" and he noted that this pizzeria honors the old traditions of pie making.  My top American Neapolitan remains the pies from Scuola Vecchia ("old school") in Delray Beach, Florida (reviewed HERE), but this Phoenixville pie can stand with the best in the region, such as Stella and Zavino (reviewed HERE) in Philadelphia. It's clearly superior (and more authentic) to the good pie at Stella Rossa in Downingtown (reviewed HERE).

Any complaints about Vecchia?  Only one - it is too far from my West Chester home!  

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