Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review: Backdraft Pizzeria - Bee Cave (Austin) TX

Lakeway and Bee Cave are lovely outposts about 30 minutes west of Austin, Texas. There's rolling hills and captivating views of Lake Travis, but not many interesting dining choices. It's all so new that there's little history or character to the culinary scene; folks are excited just to have a big new H.E.B. grocery store.

Route 620 is the main artery through Bee Cave, and there we found a dusty roadside stop that featured a few picnic tables and three food trailers. All of them looked authentic and terrific; there was a Chicago-themed trailer featuring Chicago hot dogs, a BBQ outpost, and Backdraft Pizzeria. Naturally, we came for the pizza.



The pies at Backdraft are all 12", enough for one large hungry person, or enough for two to split at lunch, as we did. You can customize your pizza with a broad range of meat or vegetable toppings, but we decided to trust the experts and select from their five different specialty pies.

All of the pizzas are made with Caputo 00 flour, Wisconsin cheese, and canned San Marzano tomatoes. We were able to order a half-and-half pie, one side featuring the "Sweet Sow" that has thinly sliced pear, Canadian bacon, and fresh basil, while the other side was the "Shrooms to the Moon" with sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, and house made spicy sausage.
Scarlett and Izak Rock, from tinyurl.com/QuixoteBackdraft
Our pie took about 10 minutes for assembly and cooking as we waited at a picnic table on this warm day in February. The chef/owners, Scarlett and Izak Rock, are using a brick oven that reaches 800 degrees, but this is not a Neapolitan pie, as it has been mischaracterized. 

Neapolitan pizza has a soft, droopy, charred crust and a puffy cornicione. The crust here was thin, rigid, and crisp. I love a good Neapolitan pie, but I prefer a slice that doesn't droop.
A slice from the Sweet Sow side
The crust is the key to every pizza, and this one was superb. It had a wonderful toasty flavor, a good snap to the crunch, and yet a bit of tender chewiness inside. The toppings were of a like quality. With so many bold flavors from the bacon and the sausage, the red sauce was still shining through. It was remarkably bold and rich without dominating the other elements.
Shrooms to the Moon
The "Sweet Sow" was inspired by the sweet fruit with salty pork of a Hawaiian pizza, but this was far superior. Thinly sliced and crisped Canadian bacon is a serious upgrade to the square chunks of ham applied to most Hawaiian pies, and thinly sliced delicate fresh pears are a much better complement than cloyingly sweet wet chunks of canned pineapple. Wonderful stuff.

The "Shrooms to the Moon" side was also bursting with flavors, but a much bolder mix. The fresh mushrooms set a rich and earthy tone, while the pepperoni and sausage lent a savory note and a serious touch of heat. The best experience was to alternate slices of this fiery side with slices from the delicate pear/bacon side.
Thin, crisp, and tasty
I loved this pizza; it was easily the best thing I ate during a week in the region. It may be a dream, but Roberta's Pizza was a pioneer in Bushwick, transforming that industrial part of Brooklyn into hipster central. Could Backdraft be the Roberta's of Bee Cave?  I'll let you know after I try the neighboring BBQ and Chicago hot dogs.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Review: Brooklyn Pie Co. - Round Rock, TX

Folks don't think first about Texas when thinking about pizza, but I've found plenty of destination pie in the Lone Star state. In fact, Austin might boast as much great pizza per square mile as any city in America. 

For example, I've never been to Detroit but I'd be impressed if there's any place in Michigan making a Detroit pie better than the version coming out of Via 313 in Austin.

The suburbs of Austin pose more of a challenge. I spent a week in beautiful Lakeway, 30 minutes from Austin, and found little there besides dull chains, burgers, and Americanized "Mexican" food. Round Rock is a more mature neighboring suburb, and we were visiting family there on Super Bowl Sunday.
The "Spicy Sicilian Sausage" pizza
We decided to have pizza with the Super Bowl. That would be a challenge in Philly or New York; every pizza place would be bustling with take-out orders. We found no such difficulty in Texas - perhaps everyone there is ordering takeout BBQ?
Pepperoni, with half mushrooms
We chose Brooklyn Pie, a Texas mini-chain with a location at 2711 La Frontera Blvd in Round Rock, because their website indicated that they were attempting to create a New York style pizza. About 10 minutes before halftime (of a very boring game), I ordered two large pizzas - one with "spicy Sicilian" sausage, one with pepperoni and mushrooms - for takeout.

On arrival, I found a very quiet shop - one family dining outside al fresco on a lovely Texas February evening, and no one inside at the very few tables. The friendly counter guy had my pies ready, and the tab came to about $37 including the Texas 8.25% tax.
A slice of the sausage pie
It was a short drive back to our Super Bowl gathering, and we quickly dug into these pies while still hot and fresh. Each pie was a very large 18" in diameter, making for some huge slices.
Some nice color underneath
No question, this was authentic NY style. Many will argue about what that means, but to me it is a large pie (16" minimum) with a thin crust that is a little crispy and a lot pliable. (New Yorkers have a dumb habit of folding pizza slices to turn the magic of pizza into a sandwich, thereby destroying the aesthetics of pie consumption.)

Anyway, this crust was spot on in that aspect. Happily, no one in our party was a folder. The best NY pizza crusts also sport enough flavor that you'd eat them without any toppings; this one was tasty but fell a little short of that mark. As a bonus, it sported a huge fluffy cornicione.
Oversized cornicione
Another key characteristic of a New York slice is that the cheese and sauce are applied in the right proportions that they meld into an orange goo that clings to the crust. I love a bright red sauce, but the key color of a New York slice is orange. Here again, spot on. Neither the sauce nor the cheese was a standout - they were role players here but very nicely integrated into the gestalt of this pie.
Pepperoni slice
Whether Philly, Trenton, New Haven, New York, or Chicago, there is but one correct way to top a pizza with sausage, and plenty of wrong ways. The only proper method is to squeeze out chunks of raw sausage from a fresh rope of Italian sausage so that it cooks on the pie, browning there and leaching flavor into the rest of the pizza.

The worst way is sausage pellets, the Sysco rabbit poop that some mom and pop shops use; next worst is sausage crumbles, precooked stuff that lacks character. Also less than ideal is real sausage, pre-cooked, then sliced onto the pie where it then gets a second cooking.

That's what we had here. It was better than most pre-cooked sausage, and it was quite spicy. If the topping had been called "DC half-smokes" (the spicy hot dog sausage sold at food carts around the nation's capitol) instead of "spicy Sicilian sausage" I would have found that the topping matched the description. It was a hit with my Texas crowd.

The pepperoni was standard grade. The freshly sliced mushrooms were so beloved by my dining partners that I didn't get a slice with mushrooms on it!

Overall, there was not a single standout component here, but the parts were well balanced and perfectly integrated. I read some online comments from transplanted Easterners grateful to get this kind of pizza in Texas, and I fully get that.

Would I go to Round Rock just to get this pie? Perhaps not, but if I'm in Round Rock and I want pizza, I don't think I could do better. Authentic NYC pizza, deep in the heart of Texas.

Brooklyn Pie Co. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: Pete's New Haven Style Apizza - Arlington VA

What is New Haven style apizza? To a casual observer, apizza ("ah-beetz") is not too different from conventional pizza. It has a thin, and ideally rigid, crust like a Trenton tomato pie. It may or may not come from a coal-fired oven, and the pie may be more of an oval than a round shape. It's rarely sold by the slice. 

Of course, you can get terrific versions in and around New Haven, at stalwarts like Sally's, Zuppardi's, Modern, and Frank Pepe's. Suprisingly, there are some pretty fine apizza makers in locations far to the west. San Diego's Basic Urban Kitchen is simply superb, and could stand alongside any Connecticut-sourced apizza. Apizza Scholls in Portland Oregon has likewise earned a lot of deserved praise for its massive New Haven style pies.

On a recent trip to the Washington DC area, I scouted for destination pies. The region is blessed with plenty of good pies, such as the Jersey style pizza at All-Purpose Pizza or the Neapolitans at 2Amys. Given the success of apizza places in Portland and San Diego, I was drawn to the regional mini-chain (currently two locations) of Pete's New Haven Style Apizza, so we visited the Arlington VA location for dinner on a Saturday night.
The "New Haven" clam apizza
There are three different sized apizzas on the menu: 10 inch small, 14 inch medium, and 18 inch "very large." To maximize the variety for our party of four, we ordered (at the counter) three medium pies, one soup, and one pitcher of beer, which came to $99.
The "Merritt Parkway"
Our selected apizzas included:
  • The New Haven, a white pie with clams, garlic, oregano, EVOO, and Pecorino Romano cheese
  • The Merritt Parkway, a red pie with prosciutto, Kalamata olives, caramelized onions, fresh basil, and EVOO
  • Original Cheese, a red pie to which we added pepperoni and roasted mushrooms as toppings
"Original Cheese" apizza with pepperoni & mushroooms
The signature New Haven pie arrived first. These 14 inch "medium" pies were pretty big, and this one was also beautiful. It sported a thin and wonderfully rigid crust that provided an ideal al dente chew followed by a crisp snap at the cornicione.
 A slice of the New Haven clam apizza
The flavor was dominated not by the clams, but by the garlic. Unlike the apizza I had at Zuppardi's, which was covered in fresh-shucked clams, the clams here were more of an accent. The pie was round and not oval, but it did have an excellent char that is characteristic of a New Haven apizza. 
Thin and rigid crust
The crust had its own excellent flavor on all three pies. Overall, the flavors and the textures were in balance, and two of us felt the New Haven was the best pie of the night. 
The "Merritt Parkway" apizza
Next up was the Merritt Parkway. This was the most intensely flavored pie of the night. All of the elements were distinct - the salty olives, the savory proscuitto, and the post-bake fresh basil. But the leading flavor here was the caramelized onions, applied liberally. 
Nice char underneath
The red sauce was a role player to bring the other elements together. The downside here is that the weight and moisture from the olives and especially the onions caused the crust to get a bit soggy in the center. Overall, though, a very successful apizza and the same satisfying crunch at the cornicione.
A slice of the Merritt Parkway apizza
The original cheese pie, topped with pepperoni and roasted mushrooms, was a winner on its own merits but it lacked the snap of the other two pies. The mushrooms brought a good earthy flavor, but also a bit too much moisture. 
A slice of the Origiinal Cheese with pepperoni & mushrooms
The pepperoni was thin and conventional; it could have been so much better with the thick "spicy cup" style of pepperoni. Texture wise, this pie was like the Merritt Parkway; a bit soggy on the first bite, but well balanced otherwise. 

Overall, I felt this was excellent apizza across the board, but not as good as I'd found in New Haven, Portland, or San Diego. To my surprise and dismay, all three of my dining companions found it to be "just OK" pizza. I think this reveals my bias for traditional thin and crisp pizza; others would have preferred a Neapolitan.

Pete's was a great stop for me; I'd go often if it was in my neighborhood. If thin and crunchy crust is your thing, this is a nice slice of New Haven.

Pete's New Haven Style Apizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato