Saturday, February 6, 2021

Review: DiGiorno Croissant Crust Pizza

 From its inception ten years ago, the purpose of this blog has been finding "destination pizza," especially in areas where you wouldn't expect it. Destination pizza is pie good enough to make the trip, whether that means across town or across the country. But two fundamental truths remain, even for pizza snobs. First, even bad pizza is better than no pizza at all. Second, the pizza you ate most as a kid remains stuck in your mind and your heart.

For many of us, commercially packaged pizza baked at home conjures up some memories. We ate some truly wretched Chef Boy-Ar-Dee kit pizzas at home; soggy thin dough covered with watery ketchup sauce and scant cheese. Much better were the short-lived "Poppins" mini-pizzas made to be heated in a toaster. When Elio's frozen rectangles became available, I couldn't get enough.

Most frozen pizza is pretty forgettable, but it's come a long way since Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. There's probably a pizza in your freezer right now. In my experience, many of the best ones are imported from Italy (available at Trader Joe's) or from Germany (at ALDI).

 My criteria for any pizza restaurant is asking "is it better than DiGiorno?" The frozen "rising crust" DiGiorno pizzas set the benchmark for national-brand frozen pizza. It is better than many mom-n-pop pizzerias that are using low-grade mass produced ingredients. It is better than Domino's or Papa John's

Right out of the box

Naturally, I was intrigued when I saw that DiGiorno had introduced a pizza with a croissant crust. I'm skeptical of most novelty pizzas (ahem, cauliflower crust), but also very open to bread varieties for a pizza base, such as English muffins, French bread, and flatbreads. I was very keen to try this croissant pizza, and made the leap when my local H-E-B Supermarket had a coupon deal for this $5.95 frozen pizza.

The DiGiorno croissant curst pizza is offered in three varieties: pepperoni, "three meat," or "four cheese," which is the pie I bought. I don't often select a plain pie, but this seemed like the fairest way to evaluate the crust and I resisted my instinct to add my own toppings. 

Fresh from the oven before slicing

The four cheeses are mozzarella, parmesan, asiago, and romano. In fact, it's really only a one cheese pizza, because all of the cheeses except the mozzarella are so far down the ingredient list that they are listed after the yeast. 

Although the pizza is only 10" in diameter, it has 1850 calories and 150% of your daily sodium, which you may want to know if you are tempted to eat the whole thing. Spoiler: you might indeed be tempted.

Out of the box, it showed no evidence of its croissant crust; it appeared to be a medium thick pizza on which the cheese went all the way to the edges, with the sauce buried deep underneath so that it looked almost like a white pie. 

I followed the package directions, baking it directly on a center oven rack at 400 degrees for 24-25 minutes. The edges puffed up in baking to take on the appearance of a puffy Neapolitan's cornicione. I cut it into 8 smallish slices and we dug in. 

Because the sauce was entirely beneath the cheese, it was particularly easy to burn the roof of your mouth, and it required a little extra cooling time. The first bite revealed a pleasantly pillowy/spongy bite with a touch of crisp on the golden bottom. I could sense that this croissant crust was laden with fat (the first fat listed in the ingredients is margarine), but it was an appropriate level of greasiness. 

Golden brown underneath

The cheese was tasty but mild, and the sauce was just a red presence with a remote tomato flavor. Nonetheless, the texture overall was surprisingly good and the ingredients played together in a harmonious way. The more I ate, the more I enjoyed it.

The best part was toward the cornicione, where the crust was thicker and you could really sense the layers of the croissant. It was crispy, flaky, chewy, still greasy, but damn good. I'd really enjoy this kind of a crust on a breakfast pizza, with the red sauce supplanted by bacon and eggs.

I stopped myself at four slices - half a pizza - clocking in at 925 calories and only 75% of my daily sodium. But I could have easily eaten more. In this way, it was kind of like Costco pizza (the kind sold by the slice in store) in that it was thick, greasy, pillowy, and loaded with fat, salt, and calories. A guilty indulgence.

If you're going to have a frozen pizza by choice, or if you keep some frozen pie around for the kids and you want a variety where you'd enjoy a slice yourself, this is a fun variant and surprisingly tasty. DiGiorno keeps its crown as King of the National Brand Frozen Pizzas.  Leave a comment if your go-to frozen pie is something else!

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Review: Pizza Hut Detroit Style Pizza

What is Detroit style pizza? Begin with a rectangular thick crust, baked in a pan, much like a Sicilian style pizza. But then apply the cheese all the way to the edge, even to the point where some of the cheese gets caramelized on the sides where the crust meets the pan. Bake it with toppings (any of the usual candidates, but especially with two kinds of pepperoni), but without any red sauce. After the pizza is baked, ladle two broad racing stripes of tomato sauce over the top.

Once a rarity outside of the Detroit region, this style of pizza is finally getting the national recognition it deserves. The iconic Detroit pizza comes from Buddy's Pizza, which now has 19 Michigan locations. 

I've never been to Detroit, but I got a feel for this kind of pizza in rural Mannheim Pennsylvania, where Norma Knepp baked superlative Jersey Boardwalk style and Detroit style pizzas (only on Tuesdays) before her 2020 retirement. 
Norma's Detroit style

Norma's Detroit style pizza was a revelation. Beautiful crunch underneath, an impossibly airy body to the crust, with all the good stuff riding on top. The point of adding the sauce after baking is to keep it from making the crust soggy at any point. Bonus, you won't burn the roof of your mouth as easily when you can't wait for the pie to cool a bit.

Via 313 pizza

I also happen to live about 25 minutes from the best-known Detroit-style pizza purveyor outside of Michigan -- Via 313 in Austin, Texas. Another unlikely location for Detroit pizza, but this stuff is fully authentic even down to the name, chosen from the Detroit metro area code.

In our review of Via 313, we said this: "The crust was properly thick, but somehow puffy and light without being insubstantial or white-bready. Golden crisp on the bottom, tender and chew in the middle. The sauce and cheese were wonderful role players, and there was a magical mix of textures from the crispy bottom, soft middle, and chewy layer of browned cheese on top. Add in the crispy brown edges of cheese for one more dimension of flavor and texture."

All this is table-setting for the biggest-yet national platform for Detroit style pizza, because here in January of 2021, Pizza Hut (headquartered in Plano, TX) has launched its own version of Detroit pizza. I was instantly intrigued.

I have mixed feelings about the big national pizzamakers, explored in detail in my post about chain pizzas. Among the giants, the only thing worse than Papa John's lousy pizza is its founder, John Schnatter; Domino's is better than no pizza at all; and Pizza Hut is generally better than you'd expect. None are as good as some of the excellent regional chains, like Grotto Pizza, Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza, Monical's, or Bertucci's.

Pizza Hut Detroit style

What the big chains have done is introduce pizza to a wider audience, and bring down the price point to make it a viable commodity purchase for ravenous college kids and anybody on a budget. Let's see how Pizza Hut did in its attempt to introduce Detroit style pizza to all of America.
Unsliced, before re-heat

It's about 20 minutes from my home to the closest Pizza Hut in Dripping Springs, Texas.  Too far for delivery, so I made the trip to place a carryout order for the new Detroit pizza configured in the most iconic way with two types of pepperoni ($11.99). I added an order of "spicy garlic" chicken wings (6 wings for $8.99). I rarely order food from a smartphone, but I was impressed with the Pizza Hut app and the ease of use.

Did you ever experience a food product where the actual dish looked better than the product portrayed in ads? This pizza appeared more appetizing than the picture that I had seen in the mail flyer. A promising sign, even though the two red stripes of sauce were applied a bit off center.

I ordered this pizza (and asked that it not be cut) about two hours before we consumed it; it sat in its cardboard box at room temperature until I reheated it on a perforated pan at 375 for 12 minutes. After I did that, which was the ideal time and temperature, I saw reheating instructions on the box calling for 5-10 minutes at 350 degrees. Minor point, my technique was clearly better for getting not just warm pizza but crisp pizza.

At Via 313, the double pepperoni pizza includes flat pepperoni buried under the cheese, and spicy cup pepperoni riding on top. This pizza, which claims to have 80 pieces of pepperoni, had both on top, with the cups placed atop the the flat rounds.

My impression on the first bite was "yup, chain pizza, tastes fine but clearly inferior to artisan pizza." My focus was on the crust, which was airy enough with a good golden crunch on the bottom, but seem to be lacking texturally. It's hard to articulate, but there was little detectable chew to the crust.

Nice golden color underneath

The cheese was perfectly cooked, with nice brown spotting all over, and the use of spicy cup pepperoni was a high-end touch. The shocker of this pizza was the red sauce. Deep red, thick, surprisingly zesty. The ingredients all worked together to make this very satisfying despite my vague qualms about the texture of the crust.

I had cut the pizza into 8 slices, and two or three of these rectangles should satisfy most appetites. I often add salt to pizza, but not here. This was intensely salty, especially that thick red sauce. After we had finished, I thought about the nature of that crust and found the perfect analogy.

Imagine an order of cheesy breadsticks, but they are all fused into one large rectangle. Add more cheese and a lot of pepperoni, bake it some more, then add red sauce stripes. Boom, Pizza Hut Detroit style! As someone who would rarely waste calories on puffy white "breadsticks" from Pizza Hut or Domino's or Olive Garden, I'm surprised that breadstick dough makes a workable base for a Detroit style pizza.

This pizza won't make you forget Buddy's in Detroit, Via 313 in Austin, or the remarkable pizza at Norma's, but I agree with some reviews that say it's the best thing from Pizza Hut in many years. I'd probably eat it again, and gladly, but on the other hand I need to travel only 5 minutes further to get Via 313 pizza.

By any account, this is a genuine winner and a nice surprise. Kudos to the Hut. If you're stuck at a kid's birthday party and the hosts are ready to call in the pizza order to Domino's, step up and pitch a switch to Pizza Hut and an order that includes at least one of these Detroit pizzas. 

Side note -- just as with the pizza, I had modest expectations for the wings. I ate one when I got home, after it had spent just 20 minutes in the takeout container. It was warm, but most of the sauce was swimming at the bottom of the container. When I reheated the pizza, I put the remaining wings on a small tray and poured the sauce over them. They got the same 12 minutes at 375 as the pizza did, and it was transformative. They were hot, of course, but the sticky sauce developed a nice crispy coating too. Much like the pizza, these wings were better than I would have expected. 

Pizza Hut Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Pizza Quixote's Top Five Breakout Pizzas of 2020

In a year when I stopped all in-restaurant dining around the end of February, pizza became the go-to food for takeout. You can bring it home, heat it up in the oven, and minimize the risk of covid19 transmission. And I did eat plenty of pizza in 2020, but much of it came from close-to-home favorite pizzerias. 

Our annual recap is all about the discovery of new pizzerias, often prompted by travel, so we have a pretty compact list this time (unlike 2017, which featured 21 different pizza places). The quantity is reduced, but not the quality!

Let's begin with a clear understanding of this list:  These are not the Top Five Pizzas in America, or my own favorite five, but simply the Five Best Pizzas Newly Discovered By Me in 2020. 

5. 'Zza Pizza & Salad - Bee Cave, TX.  The year began with this delightful surprise, when a St. Louis-style pizzamaker opened this location only minutes from my home. The long oval flatbreads (some under $10) are offered with a range of inventive toppings, and the salads were terrific too. 

We said "It is pizza? It is flatbread? Is it pizza-flavored nachos? Whatever you call it, it is scrumptious, and easily the best 'fast casual' pizza I've had, edging out &Pizza for that distinction." 

4. Whole Foods Fresh Pizza. If any national supermarket chain could crack a list of best pizzas, Whole Foods is the best candidate. I may never have tried it in a normal year, but tweaked grocery habits took me to Whole Foods and I was intrigued by the look of the pizza. The Friday special offering a whole large pizza for $6 was all the incentive needed.

I reported that "the crust on this pizza was just stunning" and "it reminded me of the ideal mix of chewy and crunchy that I'd found at some of the best pizza joints on the east coast." With a vibrant red sauce, this pie was wonderful.

3. Tonari Japanese Deep-Dish, Washington DC. My only air travel of 2020 took me to Philly and DC in late February. We visited Tonari, a restaurant offering pasta and pizza "wafu" style, which means "in the Japanese way." Of course, we had to try the deep-dish pizza, and it was like nothing I've had before or since. 

It shared much with Detroit-style pizzas, and we noted it had a "formidable crunchy crust" but "the interior of the dough is white, soft, and pillowy." Texturally, while it resembles some of the best thick and airy pizzas like the ones at Rize in West Chester PA and Via 313 in Austin TX, it was distinctly different from any pizza crust I've ever eaten. The dough is fermented for up to three days to develop a structure that is common to Japanese white bread. Beyond its delectable silky interior and crunchy edges, it had a wonderfully complex flavor even without the toppings.

We sought out the "most Japanese" pizza, opting for the Mentaiko & Corn pie that included brick cheese, mentaiko (cod roe) cream, Kewpie (Japanese mayonnaise) corn puree, and scallions. The toppings flowed like lava over this pie but the crust did not become soggy. Weird and spectacular stuff!

2. Casa Nostra, Spicewood, TX. Spicewood is home to Willie Nelson's Luck Ranch, and it's just five minutes down the highway from my suburban Austin home. To an east coaster like me, Spicewood is where residential Texas begins to yield to ranch Texas. I expect good BBQ, but not pizza. However, in 2019 I found that Pizzeria Sorrelina in Spicewood was spectacular. On each trip to Sorrelina, I drove past Casa Nostra thinking "that can't be very good."

I'm here to report that I was wrong. Every pizza is perfectly cooked, with no wet centers and a well-considered balance of ingredients. The simple Margherita ($11) rides on a delicate and puffy yet crisp crust with a tangy red sauce married to the mozzarella with basil and extra virgin olive oil. And Casa Nostra offers pizza ala tonno, (a white pie with mozzarella, tuna, carmelized onion, Kalmata olives, and pine nuts), which I had previously seen on on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

Casa Nostra was a lifeline in 2020. Great pizza, efficient curbside service, and during the terrible spring when grocery stores had shortages, Casa Nostra set up an online system from which we could order staples like red sauce, pizza flour, and beer! In fact, yesterday I made pizza at home with the excellent flour I bought at Casa Nostra. 

Apis Restaurant & Apiary Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1. Lake Travis Pizza, Lakeway TX. Given the travel constraints of 2020, it's no wonder that three of the top five are driving distance for Austin suburbanites, but all three of these Texas pizzerias would be on my list in any year. Operating out of a tiny red shack on Route 620 in Lakeway, Lake Travis Pizza was getting a lot of buzz. I avoid 620 when possible, because it's the most congested artery in the region and folks around here don't drive so much as they mosey. But when I knew I'd be passing by on a journey home from Round Rock, I called ahead for a takeout pizza.

On the 15 minute ride home, I noted that the aroma in the car was intoxicating; it's a smell that instantly conveys "great pizza ahead." The taste measured up; the crust was a Neapolitan hybrid with some of the textural elements of a conventional soft and puffy Neapolitan, but also plenty of crispness. It had its own rich flavor and was cooked about perfectly, right down to the leopard spotting underneath.

On our pepperoni pie, the cheese was very well balanced to the rest of the pizza, but it was a role player. The sauce, however, was remarkable; dark, thick, rich, and bursting with flavor. The spicy cup pepperoni was about a perfect accent, adding yet one more layer of umami. Overall, a nearly perfect pizza.

The folks at Lake Travis Pizza know what it takes to make terrific pie. The superb Lake Travis pizza is more proof that "it's the water" is a silly myth about great NYC pizza. Any non-native Texan knows that the water here is lousy. I drank tap water all of my life in NY, NJ, PA - but not here. Water has almost nothing to do with it; it's about quality ingredients and pizzamaking skills. Lake Travis pizza has that in spades.

On a personal note, I love the Texas climate, the Austin vibe, the hill country, and the BBQ. I thought I'd be giving up some things to gain all that Texas offers, like great pizza and watching the Eagles every Sunday in the fall. But the pizza here is better than in my old neighborhood: Sorrelina, Casa Nostra, and 'Zza are all within 10 minutes, the terrific Toss and Lake Travis Pizza are within 15 minutes, and Via 313 is perhaps 25 minutes away. And bonus, because they are in the NFC East with the Cowboys, the Eagles are broadcast right to my home most Sundays.

Let's hope that 2021 gives you and me the chance for more travel, more pizza, and a return to normal. And for the Eagles, a return to the playoffs!