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

Friday, May 20, 2016

Review: Coppa, Boston MA

Boston is one of the great east coast cities that were home to the early waves of Italian immigrants, where legendary pizzerias populated the neighborhoods: New York, Trenton, Philadelphia, New Haven. Beyond the wonderful old-school pies at places like Regina and Santarpio's, Boston has some newer places that are making stellar pizza.
Margherita pizza at Coppa
One year ago, we visited Picco in the South End neighborhood, and it was not only the best pizza in Boston, but one of the most spectacular pies anywhere. About a block away, in an area peppered with a great variety of small and interesting restaurants, is Coppa. While pizza is featured on the menu, there is a large variety of salumi, small plates, pastas, and other dishes with unusual ingredients like sea urchin and beef hearts. I'd love to get deeper into that menu.

I visited Coppa on a warm spring afternoon as the lunch hour was waning. There are a few tables outside at this corner restaurant, but I was seated inside, where the narrow space hosts a bar and seating for just 38. It's a pleasant neighborhood setting with a casually hip feeling inside.
From www.CoppaBoston.com

Plenty of interesting choices for the pizza (including one with bone marrow and beef heart), but I chose a basic ($14) Margherita. I also ordered a plate of marinated Castelvetrano olives ($7) as an appetizer, and an Earl Grey - Lemon soda.
The olive plate
The green olives were nicely presented, garnished with fennel, thinly slice Chinese radishes, and some tasty housemade wine biscuits moonlighting as croutons. Along with some slices of very fresh Italian bread and flavorful olive oil, it was an excellent starter. The timing was perfect, too, because my pie arrived shortly after I had finished the olives.

The pizza was a small personal size, about 9 or 10 inches in diameter. It had immediate eye appeal, even as the narrow cornicione on one side sported a very dark char. There were small pools of white cheese on the red sauce landscape, but at the center of the pie you could see how the mozzarella and the aged grated cheese had melded with the tomato sauce into a creamy orange mix. The entire pie was topped with chopped bits of fresh basil.

Each of the six slices was sufficiently sturdy and crisp to support the toppings without drooping. This thin-crusted pie with puffy leopard spotting on the cornicione had the appearance of an authentic Neapolitan, but the rigidly crisp bottom puts it more into the hybrid category. Beyond its al dente texture, this crust had its own good flavor, even the charred edges.

The red sauce and mozzarella cheese were subtly flavored; the sprinkling of aged Italian cheese added a salty kick. These simple ingredients were applied in about ideal proportion, so that the crust didn't get soggy, even in the center. 
Underside of the crust
It was easy to eat the entire pie and savor its uncomplicated marriage of crust, sauce, and cheese. I think I might have enjoyed it even more with a cured meat (sausage or pepperoni) topping, because the sauce and mild mozzarella presented an ideal base palate on which to paint some savory flavor.

Coppa's pizza is among the best anywhere. With the stellar Picco just a block or two away, the people living in South End have pie options that rival New Haven and Greenwich Village. I'm not going to pick one over the other; I'd eat at both places often if I had the chance.

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