Sunday, October 17, 2021

Review: Joe's Pizza (Carmine St) - Manhattan, NYC

While there are several wonderful newcomers to the expansive list of New York City's best pizza places, the city remains full of legendary pizza joints like Totonno's, Lombardi's, John's, DeNino's, DiFara, Grimaldi's, Joe & Pat's, L&B Spumoni GardensPatsy's, and Joe's. Until September 2021, I had tried them all except Joe's - perhaps due to a bias toward a "sit down and order a whole pie" approach. A reheated slice was not at the top of my list.

However, I've read plenty of experts extolling the virtues of a "New York slice" and Joe's (established in 1975) is always on the list of best slices in New York. A recent visit to Manhattan provided the opportunity to close my knowledge gap on the simple beauty of a reheated slice of pizza, eaten streetside.

Joe Pozzuoli Sr. immigrated from Naples Italy and got into the pizza business in Boston in 1959. He later moved to NYC and opened the original Joe's Carmine Street location in 1975. Joe had just one store as recently as 2012, but now there are several other locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and even Ann Arbor Michigan. At age 84, Joe Sr. remains the owner/operator for this Village location. 

The "Little Island" - a recent Manhattan addition

His son Joe Jr. leads the expansion team and recently announced plans for a Miami location.  If you want to know *lots* more about Joe and his pizza heritage (including his Boston connection), read this blog post:

As tourists, we had spent the day roaming from midtown to Greenwich Village, catching some new attractions (The Vessel, The Highline, and Little Island) along the way. 

The Vessel

We arrived at Joe's hungry, but due to the massive size of the slices we ordered just one slice each. Joe's is the "classic" New York slice - definitely *not* Neapolitan style. The offerings included a square slice, a fresh mozz slice, and conventional plain and pepperoni slices; we chose the pepperoni slices at $3.75 each.

We experienced the customary "gruff but efficient" counter service that is so normal in the east coast but rarely happens elsewhere. Anyhow, we nabbed a small standup table outside to consume our slices.

These big slices overflowed the paper plate, and were pretty messy to handle due to the volume of grease released by the large thin circles of pepperoni. I resist the regrettable New York habit of folding pizza (because it distorts the fundamental pizza sensory experience by transforming a slice into a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich), but there was no other way to handle this floppy and greasy slice.

Even with that misgiving, the first sloppy bite was delicious, a fine melding of tastes and textures of chewy crust, sauce, molten cheese, salt, and grease. It was not too different than any other re-heated slice you might find at any storefront pizza joint, but all the elements were in harmony.

A few bites in, however, and the magic of this pizza began to reveal itself. I suspect that the sauce and cheese are good quality, even as the pepperoni was a bit generic. But the real difference maker was the crust. It was the perfect marriage of pliant/chewy *and* a crispy bottom. And that feature alone made these greasy slices reach the pinnacle for a New York slice.

Beautiful browned & crisped undercarriage

It was quick, it was relatively cheap, and it truly hit the spot. I'll never be one of those who puts this street food above the legendary pies mentioned in the first paragraph here, but there is much to be said for this iconic rendering of a well-defined style. It may be only 5 or 10% better than other good street slices in NYC, but that's the difference maker.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Review: Caliente Pizza & Draft House - Pittsburgh, PA

Before a 2019 move to Austin Texas, I lived in Pennsylvania for more than 30 years. But it was always in a suburb near Philadelphia; other than one misdirected flight, I had never visited Pittsburgh in any capacity. 

A recent family reunion was the remedy for that, and we rented a house on East Carson Street (in a neighborhood that reminded me of Fishtown in Philly or Bushwick in Brooklyn) to spend 4 days exploring. Naturally, finding a worthy Pittsburgh pizza was a priority.

A scene in the Strip District

Given its rich history with Italian immigrants (no better evidence of that than the remarkable Strip District for dining and food shopping), one would expect a grand assortment of excellent pizza. One silly bit of clickbait rated Pittsburgh as America's 3rd best pizza city, based on dubious metrics like social media posts. 

Caliente, Bloomfield location

A much more reliable source offers a comprehensive listing, with pics and details, of all the pizza that is "good or better" in Pittsburgh. Another go-to source for pizza in any given city is Thrillist, which I frequently consult when traveling.

Interior at Caliente's

Caliente Pizza & Draft House was on both of these "best pizza in Pittsburgh" lists and we targeted it because of its "Mee-Maw" pizza. Their chef Eric Von Hansen went to Parma, Italy to compete in the World Pizza Championship. There, he won the award for "Best Pizza in America" with the Mee-Maw, a grandma-style pan pizza made with olive oil, aged Parmesan, rapini, peppered bacon, shallots, garlic, onion, crushed plum tomatoes, porchetta, and shaved black truffles. 

The Margherita

Caliente has five Pittsburgh locations; I was advised by a native Burgher to chose the flagship Bloomfield store, but we ordered from the Mount Lebanon location. We called ahead on a Saturday night for one Mee-Maw and one Detroit-style pizza with pepperoni, but we got a call back that due to the unavailability of porchetta, we could not get the Mee-Maw. 

Huge disappointment, but we selected a simple Margherita for our second pie, albeit the extra-large because we were a party of six. 

Great crumb, thicker at cornicione

Let's begin with that Margherita. Like many simple red pies with fresh mozzarella, this pizza was mischaracterized as a Margherita, because it's not a Neapolitan style pie. A minor quibble, and in fact the crust shared one feature with Neapolitan pizza - it was very thin in the middle, then it became quite thick near the outer edge, making for a big puffy bready cornicione. 

Underside of Margherita suggests "screen-baked"

The crust was preferable to Neapolitan in some respects; despite its thin sections, it was crisp and rigid, perfectly capable to hold up to the sauce and cheese (and toppings, had we ordered some for this pie). Beyond its excellent texture, the crust had a great bread flavor, and we used the massive cornicione pieces to dip in Italian dressing or simply add butter. 

The crust could have been improved with a little more consistency in its thickness; a puffy cornicione is welcomed, but about a third of the pizza had a massively thick crust and the inner circle was wafer thin. The character of the red sauce was spot-on. Bright, tangy, and a willing role player. However, this pie was woefully under-sauced, such that the sauce-to-crust ratio was way out of balance. Likewise, the mozzarella cheese was fine, but also under-represented here. 

This huge 18" pizza was beautiful to look at - the rich red sauce dotted with white clouds of cheese riding on a rustic style crust, but it was almost as though the sauce was applied with a brush instead of a ladle. The bottom line is that much of the pizza was too dry, lacking the right proportion of toppings for the thickest parts of the crust. I still enjoyed it (not everyone did!) but this was a good pie that could have been pretty spectacular with a more skillful pizzaiolo.

The Detroit pizza
The Detroit pizza was much more successful. A thick pizza baked in a pan, the crust was in the right zone of puffy yet dense, with great flavor and texture. It had a big payload of cheese, sauce, and spicy cup pepperoni, but absolutely in correct proportion to the crust. And the flavors were popping! I'm sure the pepperoni was a contributor, but the cheese mix was excellent. It was quite salty, but in a good way. We demolished this belly bomb, scrapping over the final slices. Not quite as amazing as the ethereal Detroit pizza at Via 313, but a worthy rendition.

This pizza was also imperfect in its construction. A key Detroit-style feature is how the cheese is spread to the edge of the crust, running over the side to create dark caramelization where the crust meets the pan. But in two of the four corners (the best part of any Detroit pizza), the dough had not been stretched to meet the pan edges. Hence, the cheese spilled over to the bottom of the pan to get beyond caramelized to "almost burnt." These are the kinds of mistakes you generally find at secondary locations when a pizzeria has expanded its operations.

Beautiful color and texture under the hood

So we missed the Mee-Maw, got an under-sauced round pizza, and a wonderful yet flawed Detroit style pie. You can perceive the skill that went into the recipe for each, as well as the quality of the ingredients. Perhaps the flaws might be attributed to an overworked kitchen in this Covid era; I'd order Caliente's pizza again and I surely want to try that award-winning Mee-Maw.

Caliente Pizza & Drafthouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Review: Lou Malnati's Frozen Deep Dish Pizza

While there are many heated debates about the merits of Chicago style deep-dish pizza versus "New York" or other thin-crust varieties, I've found they are similar in some fundamental ways. They contain crust, tomato sauce, and cheese - and they can be very good or they can be mediocre efforts not worth the calories. And there is no broad-brush way to approach to any style of pizza.

After many years of being skeptical about "tomato soup in a bread bowl," I had a few trips to Illinois that gave me the opportunity to sample some critically acclaimed deep-dish pizzas in and around Chicago. At the very top of my list is the deep-dish at Louisa's in Crestwood, ten miles south of Chicago. All the elements are in harmony on this terrific pie, but the vibrantly fresh red sauce is the most memorable.

Deep-dish pizza from Louisa's

In Chicago, I sampled three other highly regarded deep-dish pizzas. While the pan pizza at Pequods was disappointing, I loved the traditional deep-dish at Pizano's and the hybrid version at Exchequer, where a huge mass of molten cheese sits atop the pie. But Louisa's has been the clear winner; for all the deep dish I've eaten, Louisa's is the benchmark pie.

Deep-dish personal size at Pizano's

Recently, a neighbor found out that he could get frozen deep-dish pizzas shipped to him from Lou Malnati's via Goldbelly. He found a special deal on six pizzas where the average cost was about $15 per pie, and was thoughtful enough to supply me with a pepperoni pizza for evaluation.

I loved the idea, and I have enjoyed some other frozen versions of Chicago deep-dish pizza. The 8" version of Gino's East pizza was pretty satisfying, especially in light of its $5.99 price tag at ALDI (I haven't seen it in stock recently).

The Malnati's pizza clocked in at 1.7 pounds, and required 45 minutes of baking from its frozen state. It looked promising before the bake and even better after. The final product had a nice golden cornicione, a deep red sea of sauce, and some nice char spots.

Before baking

I sliced in into six servings (340 calories per slice, according to the package), and we dug in. The first impression is the red sauce, which was rich, deeply flavored, and salty (in a good way). The crust was especially good for a previously frozen pizza. Crunchy on the edges, a bit grainy and crumbly on the interior, with a buttery biscuit-y flavor.

Out of the oven

On the interior, everything was tasty even though the cheese, buried under all the red sauce, is almost an after-thought. It does a valuable service as a moisture barrier to the crust, but it's hard for me to get past thinking about how much better it would be if somehow the cheese got the benefit of oven browning. 

Deep-dish at Exchequer Pub

I loved how the deep-dish pizzas are constructed at Exchequer in Chicago, with the cheese on top. But who wants to hear a Trenton tomato pie guy tell you that an Irish pub has improved on the traditional deep-dish pie?

The Goldbelly special included three cheese pizzas and three pepperoni pizzas; my pizza was labeled as pepperoni, but I couldn't detect it. I didn't see pepperoni or taste pepperoni. Overall, nonetheless, I found this pie very tasty, and it seemed to get better with every bite. I ate three slices and could have kept going. The sauce, the cheese, and the crust worked very well together.

Underside of the crust

A few days later, I heated up the two remaining slices for lunch. Lo and behold, the sauce had dried a little and it separated, revealing slices of thin pepperoni above the cheese and below the sauce! Much like the cheese, I lament that the pepperoni is buried and denied the character and texture it could acquire with some oven browning, but that is the dilemma of a Chicago deep-dish pizza.

In the final analysis, this was certainly one of the tastier deep-dish pizzas I've had. The great sauce, crust texture, and overall balance more than make up for the obscured cheese and pepperoni. If you want an authentic bit of Chicago deep-dish no matter where you live, this frozen pizza gets the job done; I'd like to try a freshly-made version in Chicago to see if it can measure up to the excellent pizza at Pizano's or the hybrid version at Exchequer.