Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review: Paulie Gee's Hampden - Baltimore, MD

Perhaps you saw the 2012 Jane Pauley special on Paul Giannone, aka Paulie Gee, who at age 56 swapped an IT career for a shot at pizza making. His first pie shop was in the uptrending Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn. He was on the early edge of Neapolitan pizza makers in the U.S., and one of the first to put his own twist on it.

He's been wildly successful doing the things he loves, and there are now four more Paulie Gee's locations including Chicago, Columbus, Miami, and Baltimore. I got to meet Paulie last summer at the Pizza Palooza event near Washington DC, and I sampled a slice of his signature pie the Hellboy. Terrific stuff, but I still needed to get to a Paulie Gee's restaurant. For the record, Paulie was warm and genuine - and that was true of nearly every pizzaiolo that day in DC.
Paulie Gee's Hampden, Baltimore
I still haven't made it to Paulie's flagship Brooklyn operation, but a trip to Baltimore gave me an opportunity to visit his Hampden shop. Baltimore is a crab town, above all else. When you think of all the great northeast pizza cities (NY, Philly, New Haven, Trenton, Boston), you'd never think of this almost-Southern city on that list.
Interior, from the front door

Interior dining and kitchen spaces
Previous Baltimore trips had yielded mixed results - the highly-regarded B.O.P. Brick Oven Pizza near Fells Point was pretty ordinary. On the other hand, we loved the thin square crisp pies (and the vibe) at Joe Squared in the Station North district.
Kitchen and wood-fired pizza ovens
Once an isolated working class neighborhood, Hampden was reclaimed by artists and like-minded hipsters beginning in the 1990s, and the neighborhood attracts a great mix of stores and restaurants. There are many parallels to uptrending neighborhoods like Greenpoint in Brooklyn and Fishtown in Philadelphia (home to the wonderful Pizza Brain). 
Neapolitan with fennel sausage and cremini mushrooms
The menu is filled with inspired pizzas and clever names (Barry White, Stinger Bell, Mo Cheeks), but for this purpose I had to go with the pizza that put Paulie on everybody's map, the Hellboy. This Neapolitan is made with fresh mozzarella, Italian tomatoes, Berkshire soppressata picante, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Mike’s Hot Honey. My dining partner ordered a Neapolitan with mushroom and sausage toppings.
The Hellboy
Let's talk about that pie first. Most importantly, Paulie does sausage the only proper way - big chunks of raw sweet fennel sausage that get cooked on the pie. Also noteworthy, at most pizza places the question around the mushrooms is "canned or fresh?" Here, not only fresh but sliced cremini mushrooms go on the pie for an added flavor boost.

My Hellboy shared the same Neapolitan crust, and it was a superb rendition. Each pie was a large personal size yielding six slices (there were no leftovers!). The cornicione was puffy with ideal leopard spotting. The bottom surface was light and soft without being floppy, and there were no wet or soggy spots even though it was prudent to eat the first bite of each slice with knife and fork.
Perfect leopard spots underneath
The crust was a little thicker closer to the cornicione, and it had an ideal chewiness. Most importantly, the crust (containing only  flour, water, salt and yeast) had its own wonderful flavor. Shame on anyone who doesn't eat the cornicione of this pizza.

I was a little fearful that the combination of spicy soppressata and the hot honey would make this pie so fiery that I'd not be able to taste the other elements, but it was suprisingly mild. You don't need a lot of heat tolerance to enjoy the modest spiciness that these ingredients deliver. I did find the subtle sweetness of the honey played very nicely with the salty/spicy/savory combination of flavors coming from the sauce, the cheese, and the cured meat.
From Click for larger image
On some pies, the sauce or the cheese will stand out. While I'm sure that both here were top shelf quality, what happens with this pie is that all the elements come together. With each bite I wasn't thinking "great crust" or "wonderful sauce" but instead "holy crap this is good." The parts are all great, the sum is greater than the parts.
Even with an expanding operation where quality control can be a challenge, this Paulie Gee's location is making a nearly flawless Neapolitan pizza. It stands right up with the best I've had - Roberta's in Brooklyn, Capofitto and Vetri in Philly, Zero Otto Nove in the Bronx. Hats off to a great guy and a great pizza.

Paulie Gee's Hampden Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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