Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Review: Joe Bologna's Pizza, Lexington KY

The drive from Lexington to Frankfort, Kentucky is a green (blue?) scenic vista of gently rolling hills populated with contiguous horse farms. Kentucky is known for its blue grass, its thoroughbred horses, and perhaps for cornbread, country ham, and fried chicken. But how's the pizza?
"Sfingione" pie
Lexington is home to the Kentucky Wildcats, the most successful NCAA Division I basketball program in history. We searched for the iconic local pizza and discovered Joe Bologna's, where locals have enjoyed the pizza served in a converted church since 1973, located near the University of Kentucky campus.

When I arrived at 4pm on a Wednesday in July, the large dining area was half full. By the time I left around 5pm, there was a wait to get a table. Clearly, Joe Bologna's is a popular destination. The menu offered lots more than pizza, but I didn't explore it. I had to choose between the regular round pizza and the pan Sicilian, and then between the regular and the thin crust variety. 

I settled on the smallest round 8" pizza, round pie, regular crust. Then I selected from the several specialties pies, and could not resist the intriguing "Sfingione" pie, which features a sauce made with diced onions and anchovies. 

I ordered this Sfingione pie topped with pepperoni, and I chose a draft Kentucky Ale to go with it ($3.95 for a pint).  The ale was crisp, cold, tasty, and an ideal match for a pizza.

When my pie arrived, it looked very small and I regretted not getting the 10" pie, but I did find later that this pie filled me pretty well. The narrow cornicione was a nice golden brown and glistened with an oily surface. 

The initial impression on the first bite was that of a deeply cooked and spiced sauce; I detected herbal notes, particularly oregano, but later the anchovy and especially the onion dominated the flavor. The sauce was a bit on the sweet side, too.

The crust was reasonably thin, doughy but not soft, with a denser chew than you'd find in a crisper East Coast pizza. The cheese was a fairly standard mix of mozzarella and Romano, mild and a little salty, but sporting lovely brown spots from skillful baking. I'm skeptical of pies baked on screens, but this one clearly was and still had good texture, flavor, and overall character in the crust.

Another pizza technique that generally fails is fresh tomato as a topping, but here each small slice had a slender half-moon slice of pale tomato atop the cheese and under the pepperoni. Because it was so thin, it didn't add troublesome weight or moisture - but it didn't likely add much flavor, either.

After one slice, I was thinking "good service, nice ambiance, excellent beer, slightly better than Pizza Hut" pie here. But this little pie grew on me, and each slice seemed to taste better than the one before. It had a very good balance of sweet and salty, and the ingredients were also in harmony in terms of flavor, textures, and quantities. This was a fun pie if not a gourmet experience, and ultimately pretty satisfying to my palate.

If I could draw a comparison it would be to two other unexpected pizzas I found in off-the-beaten-path locations: Sirianni's Pizza Cafe in Davis, WV, and West End Pizza Company in Fredericksburg, TX. 

What do these three places have in common? Each is making an authentically home-made style pie with scratch ingredients. Distressingly, too many cookie-cutter places in the East Coast look like mom and pop shops, but they are all using the same Sysco ingredients and perhaps recipes.

Joe Bologna's pies are unique, the setting is both charming and family friendly, and the service was top-shelf. The Sfingione is not entirely Sicilian authentic (because it includes tomato sauce), but who can quibble with this signature pie deep in the heart of Wildcat country?

Joe Bologna's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomatoa

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