Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: Pizza Brain, Philadelphia (Fishtown)

Few pizza joints have generated a buzz as Pizza Brain did for its September, 2012 opening. We're living now in the pizza renaissance, where true foodies are crafting lots of high-end pies (mostly Neapolitan) in the trendiest neighborhoods. In combining a pizza passion with a "museum" and art concept, Pizza Brain's owners rightly caught the media's attention.
Click any picture to enlarge

Wikipedia describes the concept as "a place that serves delicious artisan pies in a museum-like space that captures and commemorates pizza as a cultural icon."
Easy-to-miss exterior at Pizza Brain

Inside near counter and kitchen

I've been wanting to get there, even though there's been a lot more buzz about the museum angle and charismatic staff than about the pie. Many of the stories told us a lot about the owners, the concept, the history, the museum and its contents, the neighborhood -- and then concluded "Oh yeah the pizza is pretty good."
Guest pizza critics from Houston and Brooklyn

VACK (vegetable avoiding college kid)

"Pretty good" would have been GOLD Jerry, GOLD, just ten years ago, but now Philly offers a lot of great pizza competition. We've tasted and reviewed a lot of them here (click on any one to link to a recap) -- Tacconelli's, Gennaro's Tomato Pies, SLiCE, Zavino, Nomad, La Porta. Not to mention Stella and Osteria, as well.
A mural at the outside dining area

I shudder to even think about it

I had the task to be Philly tour guide to three young adults - one from Houston, two from Brooklyn. We didn't hit many of the typical tourist stops - not even Liberty Bell, Reading Terminal Market, Independence Hall, The Art Museum (these kids have never even heard of "Rocky.") Instead, we began with lunch at John's Roast Pork (a seriously awesome sandwich included in my Philly Cheesesteak ranking, HERE), then visited Rittenhouse Square, City Hall, The Mutter Museum of medical oddities (not really the place to whet your appetite), and Eastern State Penitentiary.
Eastern State Pen. Worth your time!

To reward myself for this tour guide task, I included a pizza stop and decided to visit Pizza Brain to see how gentrification is playing out in Fishtown, but more importantly to see the Pizza Museum and taste the pizza there. Fishtown is a longtime blue collar neighborhood north of center city now seeing some rising real estate prices and hipster movement with upscale shops and restaurants and clubs. It still looks rough to my suburban eye, but we saw a steady flow of young adult backpack hipsters on bikes and scooters.
From www.PizzaBrain.org
We arrived around 5pm on a Friday, well ahead of the crowds sure to show up later for a collaboration event with Federal Donuts (which I love - reviewed HERE - but I'm still not sure about donuts on pizza). Out front, a small crowd of extremely hip hipsters (bow ties and all) loitered in front of the adjoining Little Baby's Ice Cream shop.
More outdoor art

We were greeted warmly by a TALL guy with a wild shock of red hair; I recognized him - Brian Dwyer - from other stories I had read about Pizza Brain. He was sincerely enthused, gave us the overview, invited us to tour around and then come back to be seated and order our pies. Instantly, we liked him and the vibe here. It confirmed what we'd read on the Pizza Brain website: 
...it’s a community-driven business; a pizza shop with a conscience – meaning we strive to do things in a socially, ethically and environmentally responsible fashion. 
Pizza Brain does house a fabulous collection of pizza-related things - album covers, videos, tchotchkes, and some very funky art and murals in the outdoor seating area. "Museum" is probably an overstatement, but this stuff is authentic, varied, often unique, and a collection unlikely matched anywhere. We arrived parched from our day's trekking around Philly, and we were delighted to find some artisan bottled sodas. 
Our excellent server, and some of the LP-based pizza museum. From www.PizzaBrain.org
Strolling the museum and sipping on a green apple soda imported from Mexico, I liked this place even without tasting the pie. And importantly, the college-age kids with me were digging it too. It may have been a watershed moment for VACK (vegetable-avoiding college kid, a transplanted Brooklynite), who saw a gentrifying neighborhood that he may actually be able to afford after graduation, unlike Park Slope or Williamsburg.

The red pie

We decided to order two pies, one red and one white. Our red (my selection) was the "Forbes Waggensense" that include crushed tomato, mozzarella, fontina, grana padano, fresh basil, and smoked pepperoni. Spoiler: I have very few gripes about Pizza Brain, but I'd like to see more cured meats available. PB offers pepperoni and also smoked bacon, and that's it. It is very vegan-friendly and that's a good thing, but bring on the garlicky Italian sausage and maybe even meatballs and prosciutto. However, God bless PB for leaving out the Buffalo chicken!

We allowed VACK to choose the white pie, and he wanted nothing to do with the goat cheese,  bechamel sauce, or vegetable ingredients that topped many of them. I had made the mistake, earlier in the week, of allowing him to choose the pizza on our Baltimore trip to B.O.P. Pizza (reviewed HERE) and this was a risky proposition. Brian offered to craft a custom white pie, with mozzarella and smoked bacon, and without bechamel and goat cheese. It didn't sound too exciting, but I expected it to please our finicky VACK.


The red pie came, first, and it looked wonderful. Thin crust, beautiful golden browning on the cornicione, the pie looked to be cooked perfectly. The four of us dug in quickly and found negligible tip sag, even though the thin slices contained a generous amount of crushed tomato. 
Crust was beautiful all over

For any pizza, the crust determines if it can be a great pie, and this one qualified easily on that metric. The crust was crispy on the outside, firm enough to support the toppings, tasty all by itself, and still had an ideal al dente chew on the inside. I asked Brian how he categorizes his pie, and he said "thin crust American." It surely is not a Neapolitan; it has much in common with the wonderful tomato pies of Trenton and New Haven, but it's a little softer. This could be the pizza crust that so many pie makers aim for (and miss) when they claim to make "New York" pizza. Regardless of the name, this crust was close to perfect.

The toppings were high quality stuff, but this was a gestalt pizza experience. Clearly, the pizza chef(s) had thought about what works together on a pie -- both the ingredient choices and the proportions. These cheeses worked together with the brightly flavored crushed tomatoes, and the smoked pepperoni was surprisingly subtle in how it affected the overall experience. All four of us loved this pizza. It exceeded my expectations.
The white pie

The white pie came next. It had that same wonderful crust, but after a few bites we realized the mistake of straying from the pies on the menu as imagined by the chef. By omitting the goat cheese, veggie toppings, and the bechamel sauce, we missed a lot of the flavors. Nothing was wrong with this tame pie -- the cheese and bacon were excellent -- the only problem was our ordering error. We took home some leftover slices, to which I later added tomato and garlic before a reheat, and that helped a lot.

So what's the bottom line? Pretty simple. A fun and delightful space, with engaging staff who know and love pizza and have a keen sense of customer service (Brian was busy the entire time, even sweeping and polishing windows when not taking orders for pie). A very cool collection of pizza stuff, and most importantly, destination pie. American Pie (we wrote about it HERE, too). 

The crust earns a 10. The cheese, sauce, pepperoni all get a 9. The ambiance and service, 10. The cool sodas, 10 (wish it came with a cup of ice, though). If you care at all about pizza, this is a stop you have to make. Pizza Brain makes pizza that is a little different than any other, without being weird pizza. I rank it right alongside the giants of the Philly pie scene - Tacconelli's, Gennaro's, and La Porta.




Pizza Brain on Urbanspoon

5 comments:

  1. I visited Pizza Brain again last night, after drooling over your review. (We had been there last spring, shortly after it opened and enjoyed it, though not sure it was a "destination" pie place.

    We went there first, expecting to go to another Fishtown newbie, which is getting high/higher ratings, Pizza Hub, after...for comparison studies. However, that place was "closed" for a private party. Oh, well..

    I agree with you, the pies/crust are really good...an excellent north Jersey crunchy, chewy thin crust. Like you, I'd like if they didn't pre-plan the combos and allowed the customer to choose toppings, but the pre-named pies are part of their shtick, and work fine, judging from the crowds.

    On the Plain Jane pie, cheese, sauce, basil....I didn't really like the "aged" provolone thrown into the mix with the mozzarella. But, I generally don't like "aged" provolone; the smoky flavor is too much. Not sure if you can ask to leave it out. The pepperoni was, as you said, good and subtle.

    I certainly would take a ride to this place (and to try Pizza Hub and Beddia, another place that gets raves in Fishtown)if I craved pizza and wasn't int the mood to make it. There is nothing as good in Manayunk or the close Main Line. And, Fishtown is a food mecca now...lots of barbecue and pizza and other delicacies, and a great feel to the area.

    Brian, the redhead, from whom the name "Brain" evolved..wasn't there...Probably, even he needs a break from the zaniness.

    I'll be back.

    BeauneHead in Bala

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  2. BH,

    Beddia is next on my list, and also Stella Rosso in Downingtown. Had a wonderful Trenton tomato pie at La Villa in Morrisville. Not quite Papa's or DeLorenzo's, but no waiting, friendly service. Better than Joe's Tomato Pies, which (before it closed) was my deLo backup plan.

    PQ

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  3. Yeah....I've been to La Villa....and to Palermo's (in Bordentown), both of which sell Trenton tomato pies. But, neither place was worthy of a trip back. One problem I have is with places that dump a lot of sugar into their tomatoes or into their sauces. Palermo's is a poster child for that.

    Joe's was really good, I though...and they were open for lunch, but...they've been gone a long time, so I don't remember it all that well. Bottom line, IMO, there is no real "backup" for deLo...even Papa's.

    Look forward to your report on Beddia, though it sounds like the cost is really high ($18 for a "plain") and the lines too long for the limited time they're open to lure me down there.

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  4. This is a pizza forum thread you might like....http://www.pizzamaking.com/forum/index.php/topic,25401.new.html#new

    BeauneHead

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  5. BH - I've been there! Good site. If there is a deficit to my own pizza making, it's that I haven't figured out the proper time for the dough to rise, and I don't have the skill to stretch the dough.

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