Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: Joe Squared, Baltimore MD

When you thinking of Baltimore food, first thoughts belong to Chesapeake crab. The crabs here, steamed and seasoned with Old Bay, are as good as it gets. While the other old cities of the east coast (Philly, Trenton, New Haven, Boston, New York) have great pizza histories, Baltimore doesn't. Technically south of the Mason-Dixon line, you have a better chance of finding good grits here than pizza. But we took our best shot.

On a prior visit, we searched for worthy pizza in the Fell's Point area. I prefer that preserved stretch of harbor-front to the bigger and more popular rebuilt Inner Harbor, and it's full of shops and restaurants. We had a nice time but fairly ordinary pizza there at B.O.P. Brick Oven Pizza. On this trip, research pointed to just a few places; we didn't get to Matthew's Pizzeria, which features a pizza topped with backfin crab meat, seasoned with Old Bay, or to Isabella's Brick Oven, which appears to make a nice old-school kind of pie.

We opted for Joe Squared, which is about a 10 minute ride from Camden Yards to its location on West North Avenue. Like Roberta's in Brooklyn's Bushwick section and Pizza Brain in Philly's Fishtown, Joe Squared is the hipster pizzeria that serves as an anchor attracting other businesses and restaurants to the gentrifying but once-desolate Station North neighborhood. Before its relocation to this neighborhood, Joe Squared was featured on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
First floor dining area

View from the bar
We arrived early on a Friday night, attempting to get some pie ahead of the Orioles - Red Sox game. The first floor and bar area were packed, but it was only a 10-minute wait to get a table in the basement dining area, a pleasant space with some psychedelic lighting at one end where live music was scheduled for later in the evening.
Basement dining room
Though the entire menu looked appealing (and has been positively reviewed), we were going pizza-only and decided to share two different pies. Our group of four chose one 12" square from the menu, the clam and bacon pie. We made our own creation for the other, with red sauce, cheese, ground meatballs, and roasted mushrooms. We also split an $18 pitcher of pilsner.
Clam and bacon pizza
The pies - baked in a 900 degree coal oven - came quickly, served on a metal screen. I'm guessing that the screen was used to keep the crust from sweating and getting too wet. Joe bought his starter dough in Italy, and it's alleged to be 200 years old, from the island of Ischia near Naples, Italy. He uses 00 finely milled flour, the Italian standard in Neapolitan pies. The pies cook in just 60-90 seconds.
Meatball and roasted mushroom pie
The crust was very thin, crisp yet flexible, with nice spots of char, a great chew, and a good flavor by itself. The blend of fresh mozz and asiago cheese on the white clam and bacon pie adhered perfectly, and the (frozen) clams and bacon were good salty companions on top. Large chunks of vidalia onion and a base of garlic sauce rounded out the flavors. All the ingredients were well balanced so that flavors and textures were in harmony.

While most of my dining colleagues preferred the white pie, I enjoyed the red pie just a bit more. Excellent red sauce and the earthy zing of the meatballs and mushrooms took this pie to just a slightly higher umami place. It was also cooked a few seconds longer, which gave it a crisper texture. Like the white pie, the ingredients were expertly proportioned.
Veteran pizza eaters
Our two pies sported a total of 12 slices - which meant three slices for each diner. I will say that I could have eaten 6 slices myself, because the crust was not the belly bomb you'd find in regular pizza.
That wonderful crust
This was certainly the thinnest square pie I've had, not counting the flatbread style you'd find at a place like Jules Thin Crust. It's a unique kind of pie, but the crust had a lot in common - texture-wise - with the grilled pizza at Al Forno in Providence, RI. It also had a bit in common with the delectable marinara pie I had in Rome at La Montecarlo.
Underside of the crust at La Montecarlo, in Rome
Under the hood at Al Forno in Providence RI
Underside of the pie at Joe Squared, Baltimore
Is is destination pizza? Absolutely. Like some other top-shelf pizza (such as La Porta), this is a Neapolitan hybrid, packing all the flavor of flash-cooked pizzas but improving on the texture and eliminating the wet spot. 
... Later that evening
Great flavors and textures, expert preparation, chic and funky setting. I'd love to explore deeper into the menu there. Baltimore may rise and fall on the fate of the blue claw crab, but it's now in the club of east coast cities sporting great pizza.

Joe Squared Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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