Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: DiMeo Pizza, Berwyn PA

I've been hearing a lot of good things about DiMeo (or DiMeo's) pizza in the Philadelphia region. A web search for DiMeo pizza yields several local results - in Philadelphia on Henry Avenue, in Conshohocken, in nearby Wilmington DE, and in Berwyn on Philly's Main Line.  Furthermore, the Philadelphia DiMeo's is adding a location in Wayne, very close to Berwyn.
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Before I learned that the authentic Neapolitan pizza at Philly's Pizzeria DiMeo's (and its cousin DiMeo’s Pizzaiuoli Napulitani in Wilmington) is getting all the buzz, my DiMeo confusion led me and my dining companions to DiMeo Pizza in Berwyn.

Our group of three arrived expecting a high-end Neapolitan place with the wood-fired domed oven. However, upon entering, DiMeo Pizza looked like your average strip-mall storefront pizza joint that uses mass-sourced ingredients to make cheap, tasty, but ultimately ordinary fare. 

The Capricciosa

The pizzas behind the counter indeed looked very ordinary; we agreed that they showed little promise. Nothing here made us think that this pie would rise above the ubiquitous storefront joints hashing out mediocre pie. We did see a glimmer of hope in that the menu offered a good variety of red and white pies; we chose the "Capricciosa" featuring prosciutto, black olives, mushrooms, tomato sauce & mozzarella.

The pie came out relatively quickly. It was mostly an attractive presentation, other than the pale and sickly look of both the mushrooms and the prosciutto. On the first bite, we noticed that the sauce had a lively tang. The cheese was standard grade dry mozzarella, and merely a role player. The mushrooms were canned and the prosciutto was low-grade in appearance, texture, and flavor (but still tasty).
An excellent crisp and chewy cornicione

Every pizza lives or dies by its crust. And, surprise - the crust, thin and crisp, had an excellent texture and nice flavor! Each bite closer to the cornicione, it got better. This is definitely a place where you should be sure to eat the pizza bones.

DiMeo uses a conventional oven, and apparently the pie cooks on a screen or a screened tray. Despite that dubious technique, the good crust elevates this pie above the other mom and poppers. If I were to return, I'd keep it basic and get a pepperoni pizza here; low-grade pepperoni is a better topping choice than low-grade prosciutto.
Cooked on a screen

Service was pleasant, except for the cigarette smoke wafting in from the kitchen. DiMeo Pizza in Berwyn earns a 6 out of 10.  Better than a frozen pizza -- and many strip-mall pizza places can't beat that fundamental metric.
Pizza tasters

Dimeo Pizza on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Regina Pizza, Boston (North End)

The great Eastern cities often have a venerable and legendary pizza shop, whose popularity with the locals has attracted national attention. These pie makers win acclaim for their old-school stylings; none of them are selling Neapolitan pizza, designer pizza, or Buffalo Chicken pizza. The signature pie will have a thin, crisp, generally sturdy crust that rivals the finest Italian bread.
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In New York, it's Lombardi's (and DiFara); Philly has Tacconelli's, the Trenton area has DeLorenzo's, New Haven has Frank Pepe's. Boston has the terrific Santarpio's, but the flagship pie for this town since 1926 is Regina Pizza, in the North End. 

From that original location at 11 1/2 Thacher Street, Regina has leveraged its popularity and today there are over 20 locations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. Seven years ago, I got a slice from "Regina Pizzeria" (the name for Regina's quick service locations) in a food court at a Boston shopping mall. I found it to be unremarkable - not meaningfully different or better than Pizza Hut.

That is why I first targeted Santarpio's when visiting Boston two years ago. However, on my latest trip, I felt I was overdue to visit the original Regina Pizza location in the North End. I've heard more than once that the pizza there is better than the other locations.
Waiting for Regina Pizza

We arrived around 6:15 on a chilly Saturday in October. The entire North End was abuzz - locals and tourists were flocking to the high end Italian restaurants and pastry shops as well as to the Bruins game at the nearby Boston Garden. We paid $30 to park a few blocks away.

We found a long line outside, and it grew yet longer after we joined it. It took about an hour to reach the front door (the last few feet, you get the benefit of standing under heat lamps). Once inside, we were seated quickly and our server arrived promptly.
Old-school radiator next to our table

The interior is a rustically attractive place, with a happy bustling ambiance. We ordered a large pie with half sausage (the waitress assured me that it goes on the pie raw) and half meatballs (like the sausage, house-made). We each ordered a glass of wine. The mid-grade red was served at room temp; the low-end house Chianti was served cold, an odd habit also practiced at Rossi's Tavern, Trenton's famous hamburger joint. 

The pie came relatively quickly. It looked promising but not pretty; the generous meat toppings were scattered unevenly across the top. When we removed our first slices, we saw lots of cheese and sauce oozing onto the serving pan, which can be a sign of an overloaded pie.
Sauce and cheese overflow
I'm not reluctant to eat the first bite (or two) of a slice with knife and fork; it protects you from burning the roof of your mouth and from the bad habit of pizza folding. The tip of each slice is where any toppings overload will have the most effect.  After that, this pizza was easy to eat in the conventional way.

The first bite told me the the sauce was good. In fact, the sauce was superbly rich and tangy without being salty or spicy. The crust was a bit drowned (but not soggy) on the first bite of each slice, but every inch closer to the cornicione yielded a bite more al dente, with real crunch and good chewiness.

Equally important, the crust had a wonderful flavor on its own. The cornicione was thick, crunchy on the outside, densely airy within. One of the best pizza crusts I can recall, and it is the crust that really sets this pie apart. The underside had an almost perfect char.

The cheese was good, but it was a role player. The crust and the sauce are the stars.  The meatballs were clearly high quality and smartly seasoned, but they lose points for being sliced too thinly. We would have preferred big fat half-globes of meatballs to the thin slices that got a little too dry in the oven.

When a great pizza place puts Italian sausage on a pie, they shred or rip the raw sausage onto the assembled pie, and the sausage cooks in the oven. This yields odd-sized and shaped sausage on the pie, but near-perfectly juicy and savory bites. (I prefer not to think about the fat that cooks out of the sausage and leaches into the pie, though of course it enhances the flavor).

Here, oddly, the thick and juicy sausage chunks were uniformly cube shaped, which made it appear that the sausage had been pre-cooked before being added to the pizza, but the flavor and texture signaled that indeed the sausage was uncooked before the pie went into the oven. I'm confused, but this was top-notch. I did re-arrange the sausage chunks to get a more even distribution.

Often, an overload of sauce and cheese is a sign of an unskilled pizzaiolo, or an attempt to disguise an inferior crust. Clearly, the crust needs no protection here, and the overload was tolerable. Sometimes, the messy aspect of eating pizza can be a good thing, and it was here.

Regina Pizza clearly deserves its lofty reputation; this is destination pizza and easily worth the wait. If I get a chance, I will again try another location to see how it measures up to the original Thacher Street location. Boston's North End is a foodie's dream destination; if you go, try to leave the car at home.

Pizzeria Regina on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Review: Barbuzzo, Philadelphia PA

Not too long ago, there was only one pizzeria of note in Philly - the thin crust legend at Tacconelli's. While New York had dozens of classic pie makers, Philly was more of a cheesesteak town.

Philly still IS a cheesesteak town, no doubt. (Here's a rundown of the best ones in the region.) But very quickly, Philadelphia has become home to several world-class pizza joints. Gennaro's, Nomad Roman, SLiCE, and Pizza Brain join Tacconelli's in offering old-school thin and crisp pies. 
"Beastia" pie at Barbuzzo

Most of the other newcomers are working in the Neapolitan zone, with authentic pies flash baked at 900 degrees or so, yielding a thin crust that is puffy on the edges, chewy and a little crisp, with lots of leopard spots. Great Neapolitans in Philly include Zavino, Nomad, Pizzeria Vetri and its upscale cousin Osteria, Bufad, and Stella. 

On a warm October evening, I visited Barbuzzo (13th Street, near Sansom) to try the highly-regarded Neapolitan style pie. I arrived at 5pm, opening time, and naturally the place was nearly empty. It's a handsome space, long and narrow, with tables and a long bar with seating. 

The list of personal-size Neapolitan pies contained some novel choices - but the combinations all seemed to be well thought out. A few of the white pies were intriguing - for example the 'Uovo' pizza with brussel leaves, guanciale, secret white sauce, parmesan, fior di latte, and truffled farm egg - but I was drawn more to those with the conventional tomatoes. 

I chose the $16 'Beastia' with San Marzano tomato, fior di latte, hot coppa, wild board sausage, pepperoni, provolone picante and chili flake. I also had a nice blackboard special pumpkin ale draft for $6.

The pizza arrived quickly, and it was a beautiful sight. The three meat toppings were applied (much like the tomatoes and fior di latte cheese) in almost perfect proportion; enough to have some in each bite, but not so much as to throw the pie out of balance. It was indeed spicy from the chili flakes. The pie was served with two tiny jars, one with chili oil and one with dried fresh oregano still on the stem. Very nice touch, but the chili oil was redundant for this spicy pizza.

The crust was a well-executed Neapolitan, thin, crisp yet chewy, and (importantly) not wet or soggy in the center. It had an excellent flavor of its own, detectable even as it served as the tablula rasa for all that artisan stuff riding on top.

In the category of fresh mozz style cheeses, fior di latte is perhaps my favorite. This one was bright white, and unusually stringy. The tomatoes had the full flavor you'd expect, and they were properly seasoned (meaning little or not at all, so that their flavor can best mesh with the other toppings). The three meats were all wonderful, but the hot coppa was my favorite because of the texture it took on in the oven.

The thick yet light cornicione provided a perfect handle for each slice, yet somehow was the weakest part of this pizza. Each bite up to the edge was a near-perfect blend of well-chosen toppings on a superb crust, but the pizza bones here were (relatively) indistinctive. I'm still not sure why - but it's a minor point.

Barbuzzo is adjacent to Zavino on 13th Street, and that area is pretty rich with attractive restaurants and sidewalk cafes. Later that same evening, I came past around 8:30. Barbuzzo, Zavino, and every nearby place was full and spilling over. For a city that once had but one worthy pizza joint, it's now an embarassment of riches to have TWO great pie slingers back to back. 

Do I have a favorite between Zavino and Barbuzzo? I do, but it's pointless to pick sides here. Both are so good that I'd go for whichever has the shortest wait for a table. Both also have a lot of other interesting menu items which I've yet to try. Barbuzzo gets a lot of acclaim for its salted caramel budino dessert, a compelling reason for me to return.

Two huge thumbs up for Barbuzzo. 

Barbuzzo on Urbanspoon