Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: Couch Tomato Cafe, West Chester PA

West Chester, PA is the town that inspired this blog.  Because, even though West Chester is a very livable college town with a wide variety of wonderful restaurants, when I moved here in 2009, it was Pizza Kansas.  Every pie I tried was another sad, soft, floppy Sysco-sourced bland belly-filler.
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Much has changed in the time since 2009. The wonderful Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza opened a location in nearby Exton, and it's not a long drive to world-class Neapolitan hybrid pies from La Porta in Gradyville. Spatola's in Paoli makes some excellent New York round pizza and some spot-on square Trenton and Brooklyn pies.

As the Pizza Renaissance continues, more pie options can be found in nearby Wayne, PA. Dave McGrogan offers up good (not great) pizza at Barra Rossa in Downingtown and Red Star Craft House in Exton. And Philly's famous Lorenzo & Sons is opening a branch in downtown West Chester. 


In 2003, Craig Mosmen and Michael Cassano opened the original Couch Tomato Cafe in Philly's Manayunk neighborhood. They opened this West Chester location late in 2014. We went to this attractive BYOB on a warm Monday night in April.

Located on Gay Street, a lovely boulevard of shops and restaurants that lends a lot of character to the town, The Couch Tomato Cafe has a spacious seating area on the first level and a modest rooftop deck with picnic tables after you climb a long set of stairs.

Just about everyone there - working or eating - looked to be a college student. There is no table service. You order (from a menu of pizzas and sandwiches) and pay; when your name is announced, you come pick up your food.

We opted for the $16.49 Italian Stallion 16-inch pizza with a white (vs. wheat) crust, fresh and aged mozzarella, provolone, crushed tomato, sausage, basil, and fennel. There is a nice fountain offering New Hope soda for $2.19.

The pie came quickly, along with paper plates and paper napkins. It had a lovely appearance, and by every indication, it was cooked properly. Not burnt, not wet, not floppy, no toppings sliding off. The crushed tomatoes might have been distributed a little more evenly, but that was easy to fix.

The flavor was terrific. The fennel seemed lightly pickled, but it blended nicely with the vibrant tomatoes, the cheeses, and the sausage. The sausage seemed authentic, but it was in smaller chunks than I would have preferred. Overall, you can tell that the chef behind this pie blended the flavors expertly.

The crust, however, fell short. It was bland and white-bready in a way that suggested it was mass-sourced. I'm pretty religious about eating the cornicione, but here you could toss them without much regret. This dough was indeed expertly cooked, but it was not qualified to carry the high-quality toppings.  

The upstairs deck was lovely, and the gestalt experience was positive. The ambiance earns an 8, the (limited) service also an 8, the topping combination was a 9, but the crust was a 4. Overall, the pizza at Couch Tomato earns a 6. 

Couch Tomato Cafe', West Chester on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Rise—and Fault—in Pizza Lists

We have a guest blog post by one of our favorite pizza writers. Liz Barrett, author of Pizza: A Slice of American History, offers her thoughts on the merits and the traps of pizza rankings.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed the number of “Best Pizza” lists growing over the last few years. We used to see one or two big lists released per year, drumming up huge disagreements over which pizzerias made the list and which did not. I remember when Alan Richman’s 25 Best Pizzas in America list came out in GQ back in 2009. Personally, I thought he named some great places, many of which still make the cut years later, but therein lies the fault with lists—they’re personal.


Don’t get me wrong. I love “Best” lists. I read any I can get my hands on. When I first started working at PMQ Pizza Magazine in 2007, I kept all of the “Best Pizza/Pizzeria” lists that were released. My plan was to make it to every pizzeria that made the list. It went OK for a while there, but then the lists started coming faster and I started falling behind (think Lucy in the chocolate factory). In addition to long-standing historic pizzerias, brand new places started showing up on the lists. How could I make it to all of them without working from an RV?

It suddenly became very apparent that I would never make it to every “best” pizzeria. Besides that, there are more than 70,000 pizzerias in the U.S., so there had to be some missing from the lists I was finding.

I get asked regularly about my “favorite” or “the best” pizza, and I’ve easily eaten enough pizzas to run the comparison, but I very rarely answer the question. 

You see, the odds of my favorite pizza turning out to be your favorite pizza are highly unlikely, and vice versa. We’re all products of our own culinary upbringing and individual likes and dislikes. I recently broke down and participated in a couple of “Favorite” lists, but only because after eight years of writing for the industry it’s getting harder and harder to escape the question.

The bottom line is, “Best Pizza” lists should be read and enjoyed for what they are—a list of someone else’s favorite pizzas. They’re great for promoting pizza and getting the pizza conversation started, but they are by no means the final word in what your best pizza will be. Leave the judging to your own palate, and never stop exploring and searching for your own favorite pizza.

Liz Barrett
Author of Pizza: A Slice of American History (www.writtenbyliz.com/the-pizza-book.html)
Editor-at-Large, PMQ Pizza Magazine (www.pmq.com)

Blogger, The Pizza Insider (http://thepizzainsider.pmq.com/)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Review: Neapolitan Pizza - La Brea Bakery, Disneyland, Anaheim CA

On previous visits to Anaheim, I had given up on finding any pizza worth the calories. Visiting Anaheim is like going to the mall - the familiar chain stores and chain restaurants. All the best food is in Disneyland. It's not quite authentic, but Disney always does a good job imitating any category of food.
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Still, I managed to stumble on some intriguing pizza, quite by accident. Downtown Disney is an area of shops and restaurants that does not require admission to the parks. I went there to have breakfast at La Brea Bakery Cafe. La Brea is a huge bakery, making bread on both coasts, but also operates a cafe in Los Angeles and another at Disneyland.

Looking at the breakfast menu, I searched for something that emphasized the bread which has made the bakery famous. But then I saw the pizzas! I was going to resist pizza for breakfast until I saw the "Eggs in a Nest" option. This pie featured two eggs over easy, prosciutto, spicy marinara, and a big pile of arugula "nest."


I ordered a decaf coffee, not the usual beverage for pizza, but it seemed right for the bread-and-eggs dish that this pizza promised. The coffee was remarkably good. Better than the good K-cups I've been drinking, better than Starbucks. The waiter told me is was "Silverback single origin" coffee, sourced from Rwanda. Powerful flavor but with a silky smooth finish.


The pizza arrived swiftly, and it was a pretty big personal pie. Beautiful to look at, with the huge puffy charred cornicione that is typical of the best Neapolitans. The deep piles of wonderfully fresh arugula were lovely but also served to hide the rest of the pie.

Ordinarily, I love arugula, but I like my salad on the side instead of piled onto my pizza.  But it worked very well with the egg, spicy sauce, and crust, even as it made for a messy slice.

The crust was superb.  Better than 4 out of 5 authentic Neapolitan pies I've had. This is the magic of Disney (or Disney-approved places) - somehow great food is churned out by the kids they hire to staff these places. The cheese was sparse, appropriately, and a bit of a role player. The sauce was likewise applied sparingly; otherwise, the weight and the moisture of the sunnyside egg would have made for a wet pie.
Underside

In fact, this pie had a wonderful texture, terrific balance, and no soggy middle. Each slice could be picked up and eaten with little sag. The one shortcoming is the quality of the prosciutto. It was pale pink, cut a little too thickly, and didn't have a fresh aroma. It still added to the pie, but other cured meat (bacon, speck, soppressata) might have worked better.

Wonderful coffee, a nearly-perfectly executed Neapolitan, good service -- all this made for a delightful pizza experience in a town where I'd given up on finding decent pie. The pie was $15, the coffee (free refills) was $4. Not cheap, but a grand bargain in Disneyland. I would eat again at La Brea Bakery without hesitation. Breakfast may be the best time to be there, before it gets populated with sunburned crying kids well past nap time.



  La Brea Bakery Cafe on Urbanspoon