Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Review: 290 Locale Winery & Pizzeria - Johnson City, TX

Finding great pizza has evolved a lot over the past decade. Not that long ago, it was difficult to find any pizza beyond the white-bready soft crust offerings from chains like Domino's or Pizza Hut. While mass-produced pizza has its charms, other more "authentic" pizzas have come forward. You can get a solid Detroit style pizza in every major city, legit Neapolitan pies are baking all over America in 900-degree ovens, and the classic Trenton and New Haven tomato pies are known beyond their neighborhoods.

New York style at 290 Locale

But what if you are craving that soft crusted pizza, perhaps slightly elevated? If that's your sweet spot for comfort food, has anyone taken soft floppy pizza to another level? Maybe so, at 290 Locale Winery & Pizzeria, located a half-block away from Highway 290 in Johnson City, Texas. 

Central Texas Hill Country has many small villages and towns that could have been places that time has forgotten, but instead have been transformed into fun day trip places due to their proximity to Austin. Fredericksburg probably leads that pack with its wineries, breweries, and distilleries to complement its German heritage. Wimberly and Dripping Springs likewise, once minor outposts in cattle country, now are home to boutique stores and restaurants and the lively local music scene. 

Pedernales Electric holiday lights display

A little more off the radar is Johnson City, just west of Dripping Springs along Highway 290. Johnson City was the boyhood home of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was named for James Polk Johnson, a cousin of LBJ's grandfather. That home is still there and can be visited by tourists (but even better is the LBJ Ranch, just a bit further west in Stonewall, TX). 

Interior at 290 Locale

Most Austinites drive right through Johnson City en route to Fredericksburg, but we found out that it's a worthy destination all by itself. We were drawn to the Holiday Light Show exhibit by Pedernales Electric Co-op (PEC), and we drove out there on a rainy Saturday after Thanksgiving. Waiting for the evening to see the lights, we walked through the town seeking a place to eat.

"Detroit" pizza at 290 Locale

The local brewpub had a 90-minute wait, and so we fortunately stumbled into 290 Locale before the crowds did. We found the host and the service team to be particularly friendly and helpful, moving two small tables together for our party of four. The restaurant, an open and comfortable space, filled up quickly as more people came into town to see the display of lights.

290 Locale offers two styles of pizza; a 12" round "New York" pie and a "Detroit" version that looked bigger than the 5" x7" size described by our server. She said that the two typles of pizza use the same dough in the same amount, and they are priced the same way.

Nice browning underneath the NY pizza

We ordered one New York pizza with pepperoni ($17), and a Detroit pizza with sausage and hot honey ($15 base price, not sure how much was added for the toppings). While we waited, we sampled some of the excellent draft beers on tap (starting at $6). 290 Locale also specializes in wines that pair well with pizza.

A "Detroit" slice

The New York pizza was beautifully assembled. It had a generous amount of cheese (mozzarella or a mozz blend) and was dotted with thin but nicely curled spicy cup pepperoni. If you want to know what good pizza tasted like in the 1980s, this is it. A soft and pliable crust, plenty of cheese, a sauce that leans sweet, and plentiful cured meat on top. 

Underneath the Detroit pie

This pizza was not breaking any new ground, and it was "New York" only in the sense that it was round. If I could find a comparable pizza, it would be the guilty pleasure of a slice at Costco, but of course much smaller. This pizza is comfort food, not artisan food. And judging by the happy sounds from the throngs of other diners (mostly families with young children), it was fulfilling its comfort food role.

The Detroit pizza was the thinnest version of that type I've had; it was as thick as a grandma pie. The cheese did go to the edge, but not over. It sported the signature red racing stripes of sauce on top, and the sweet sauce was made even sweeter by the addition of hot honey. The pre-coooked slices of sausage got a little lost under the generous layer of sauce.

We enjoyed both pies, but the New York-ish pie hit home for me. It really felt like a meaningful upgrade to the soft pizza that was hard to avoid in the 70s and 80s. The square pie was a noble attempt but was too thin to qualify as Detroit. Still, it did feel like a nice home-made pizza. I've tried the soft-crust Detroit pizza attempts by both Pizza Hut and Little Cesar's, and this one didn't seem to get beyond them.

Blanco County Courthouse in Johnson City

Overall, this was a lovely small-town experience in a suddenly hot outpost. It can be nice to take a break from pursuit of hip or innovative pizza, and just indulge in a familiar pleasure. 290 Locale delivers in that way.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Review: Oakwood Pizza Box, Raleigh NC

I first visited Raleigh in 1980. At the time, it seemed like a distant ugly cousin to the two gems anchoring the other corners of the burgeoning Research Triangle: Durham and Chapel Hill. Likewise, North Carolina State University was a plain and functional school lacking the lovely campus views and amenities of Duke and the University of North Carolina. I was delighted to see that so much has changed since then.

Raleigh today is a lovely city with abundant green spaces and a charming downtown full of great shops and restaurants. The N.C. State campus is vibrant. During six sunny days in November, we visited lovely (and free) state and county parks and ate in some spectacular restaurants (shoutout to Poole's Diner, Boulted BreadThe Pit barbecue, 42nd Street Oyster House, Brewery Bhavana, and MOFU Shoppe). Best of all, I had a list of some fine looking pizza joints to choose from.

Street view of Oakwood Pizza Box

I was intrigued by the rectangular pizza at Oakwood Pizza Box,which I had found in a list of "12 best Raleigh area pizzas" published by Eater Carolinas. It rose to the top of my list when I saw a picture of their 18" round pizza; its magnificent cornicione told me that there was some excellent dough going into these pizzas.

We arrived around 6pm on a Wednesday evening. Oakwood Pizza Box is located on a street bustling with restaurants and take-out joints. It would be easy to miss from its street-front appearance; in the dim light, I couldn't even see any signage. The restaurant is configured as a long narrow space with a counter and a few tables in the rear; our party of four was able to be seated without a wait.

The menu is short and simple; I've rarely seen fewer options in a pizza joint. Choices include an 18" round red pie (they call it "cheese"), an 18" round white pie, or an 18" x 12" rectangular red pie. We chose a round red with pepperoni and a square pie without extras. The square pie comes with the admonition that it requires a 20 minute bake.

The full menu

Oakwood Pizza box offers a nice variety of wines by the bottle or the glass and even champagne! I chose a $6 Narragansett pilsner from the two draft beer options, and it was both crisp and ice cold. We shared a "large" salad that was more than enough for our party of four, and it featured very fresh greens, olives, salami, red onion, and pecorino with a tangy oil and vinegar dressing. 

The square pizza arrived first. As much as I had been impressed by the appearance of the crust in pictures I had seen, what struck me first was the brilliant deep red sauce. Much like the classic Trenton tomato pies at Papa's and DeLorenzo's, the sauce is applied amply and unevenly, so that some slices will be cheesier and others more full of red sauce. All of it was topped post-bake with huge leaves of fresh basil and a generous sprinkle of Grana Padano cheese (as is done at Di Fara in Brooklyn).

Much like the special take on Old Forge style pizza served in places like Pizza Perfect in Trucksville PA, this rectangular pie is sort of pan fried; it is baked in a pan with oil underneath the crust. I couldn't discern if the oil here was peanut or olive oil or something else, but it enabled a lovely crunch on the underside of the crust.

Crispy oiled bottom of the square pie

This pizza was thicker than a conventional round pizza, perhaps thicker than a Grandma pizza, but not as thick as a Sicilian pie. While the bottom was uniformly crisp, the interior was al dente soft, and never wet or soggy (will explain why later). And crucially, the crust was full of its own rich flavor. In spite of that magnificent crust, the "wow" from the first bite was that red sauce - bursting with a fresh and bright tomato flavor.

Cheese assembly on the square pan pie

There are three cheeses on this pie, even though only one is shown on the menu. To provide substance *and* to keep that wonderful sauce from making the crust soggy, a thin layer of sliced low moisture mozzarella is placed across the surface. On the rectangular pizza, dollops of fresh whole milk mozzarella are added before the sauce; on the round pie, the sauce precedes the second round of cheese. And, as mentioned, the third cheese is a sprinkle of Grana Padano after it comes out of the oven. See the process here: Owner Anthony Guerra explains his pizza.

All that top-shelf cheese, though, is a role player to the perfect crust and that rich red sauce. We ordered this pizza without extras and it didn't need any enhancements; a great pizza doesn't need to have fancy or inventive toppings when the foundation is beyond reproach (having said that, I did transfer a few slices of pepperoni from the other pizza to a slice, and it was just one more wonderful layer of flavor).

Bottom line on the square pie: brilliant crust, abundant rich red sauce, top grade cheese in the right proportion, cooked to perfection, and ideally balanced in textures and flavors. My lofty expectations were exceeded.

As noted, it was a photo of the round pizza that was my major clue that there was some dough magic going on at Oakwood Pizza Box, and that pizza arrived as I was finishing my first slice of the square pie. We ordered this one with pepperoni, and it was generously loaded with the perfect style, spicy cup pepperoni that curls up into little cups with crispy edges.

The cornicione in person looked even better than the pictures, with an uneven shape and color variations that are the hallmark of a great loaf of rustic bread. This was a very thin pizza, but each slice was almost magically rigid, such that you could hold it by the edge with no droop. This can only happen when the cheese and sauce are applied in proportion to what the crust can support; and, of course, the slices of low-moisture mozzarella prevent the sauce from making the crust soggy.

I suspect that this dough is the same (or similar, perhaps a different rise time?) to that used in the square pie; it surely shared the same rich flavor. Without the oil underneath, it was drier but still brilliantly crisp and just a bit chewy in the best ways. The corniciones were a delight, enough to persuade almost any fussy pizza eater to eat the full slice, including the edges. 

Amazingly crisp and rigid, no flop

With the same sauce and cheese, this pie was another grand success. The pepperoni did elevate it by adding a huge umami punch. This is a pretty bold declaration, but I can't think of a better conventional round pizza; everything was perfect on this pie. Our group was split on whether the square pie or the round pie was better; my advice is to eat both, and eat them often if you get the chance.

Beautiful char underneath

There are a few hoary myths about the secret to great pizza. So often I've heard that "it's the water," especially in New York. Others focus on the oven -- "brick oven" pizza or "wood-fired" pizza. Both of those myths have been disproved countless times, and this was just more evidence. I have had world-class pizza in Spicewood Texas (near my home, where the water is terrible), Sedona Arizona, Boca Raton Florida, Boston Massachusetts, Portland Oregon, Seattle Washington, Charleston South Carolina, and now Raleigh North Carolina. It's not the water.

Likewise, it's not the ovens. Some great pizzas come from fancy ovens, but most (like the pizzas at Oakwood Pizza box) come out of conventional gas deck ovens. Destination pizza comes from great ingredients and the skill of the pizzaiolo. It's not complicated or mysterious. Oakwood Pizza Box is fabulous for these basic reasons.

Serendipitously, I was wearing my DeLorenzo's Tomato Pies t-shirt during our visit. A gentleman working there noticed and was astounded to see it in his Raleigh pizza shop (he didn't announce it, but I later learned that it was owner Anthony Guerra). He was wearing a t-shirt featuring Brooklyn's Best Pizza, and we traded notes on both legendary pie joints.

He has created something very special here; he's making two kinds of pizza, keeping it simple, and nailing it on both styles. The restaurant has a fun vibe, service was superb, prices were fair, and it's hard to imagine a more satisfying meal than the one we had. Ten out of ten for Oakwood Pizza Box.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Review: Winston's - Lakeway, TX

The last decade has seen the rise of some great pizza places that began as pop-ups. When great chefs don't have the funds to open a full brick-and-mortar shop, they can offer their pies in someone else's space. A great strategy is to find a restaurant or cafe that is open only for breakfast and/or lunch, so that the pizzas in the evening aren't in conflict or competition with the primary business; bonus if there's an oven suitable for pizzas already in place.

Co-owner Aaron Creamer with patrons Steve and Larry

Winston's, the newest pizza place in the Spicewood-Lakeway-Bee Cave suburbs west of Austin, is a single entity that embraces that concept of having two different businesses sharing one location. In the early AM, Winston's is a coffee shop/breakfast restaurant. At lunchtime, the transition begins. There are still some tables occupied by folks sipping lattes and pecking at their laptops, but the pizzas are available. 

The lunch and dinner menus are the same, with five starters and a selection of wood-fired pizzas. Let me clarify about wood-fired; Winston's has the large dome oven used for genuine Neapolitan pizzas; this one is fully in compliance with the Italian standards for how a Neapolitan pie can be made, except for the fact that it has a turntable oven which relieves the pizzaiolo from manually turning the pizzas to achieve an even bake.

With all that as background, three of us went to Winston's at lunchtime on a Friday. It was quite busy, and there are few tables for groups bigger than two, but we snagged one. It's a bright and modern interior where you order at the counter and then the food is brought to your table.

We sampled three different pizzas, each about $18: 

  • The Truffle, with mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, truffle oil, and sliced Parmesan
  • The Supreme, with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, bell peppers, porcini mushrooms, red onion, pepperoni, and sausage
  • The Pepperoni, with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, pepperoni, and parmesan cheese, with added sausage, hot honey, and red pepper flakes

The Truffle

While nearly everything except the oven turntable made these pizzas qualify as legitimate Neapolitans, the results were a bit different. The crust was somehow very tender yet more crisp and sturdy; no droop, no wet spots. The low gluten Caputo Italian 00 flour yielded a cornicione that was less puffy and denser than the typical Neapolitan. 

The Supreme

It's a stretch to say that this is Neapolitan/NY style hybrid pizza, but it's in that zone. Bottom line, this crust was damn near perfect. I loved its flavor and its texture and how well it was mated to the other ingredients. 

As the menu notes, the tomato sauce is made with imported San Marzano DOP tomatoes. Co-owner and London native Aaron Creamer shared with us that the mozzarella is Grande from Wisconsin. From the flour to the tomatoes to the cheese and the toppings, all of the ingredients are top-shelf and thoughtfully chosen. 

We loved all three pizzas and struggled to identify a favorite. I was fearful that the Supreme pizza, topped with two meats and three vegetables, would be overloaded, but the sturdy crust was up to the job of supporting all the great stuff on top, which had been applied judiciously. Bell peppers can overwhelm other toppings, but not here. The pizza was perfectly balanced and addictively delicious.

With the sausage added to the Pepperoni pizza, it overlapped quite a bit with the Supreme, but the addition of the pepper flakes and especially the hot honey gave it another layer of flavor. This was an umami explosion, and once again all the flavors and textures were in harmony.

Beautiful undercarriage

A lot of pizza places can offer up a good or even great white pie with mushrooms, but most places bungle any attempt to add truffle flavor. I've bungled it at home, and I suspect that there is a lot of inferior or counterfeit oil marketed as "Truffle" oil. But that was not a problem here! The porcini mushrooms added their own earthy goodness to that great fundamental base of crust and blended cheeses, and then the truffle oil lifted it to yet another level.

I had a few leftover slices, and reheated them in a toaster oven four days later; they were still terrific. Neapolitan pizza generally doesn't travel well, but this was just another testament to that superb crust.

Winston's is not just the New King of Spicewood-Lakeway-Bee Cave Neapolitan Pizzas, it can go toe-to-toe with the best Neapolitans of Austin. It's better than the acclaimed Bufalina Due, better than Pieous, and better than Jester King in Dripping Springs.

Courtyard & playground in rear

The Pizza Renaissance started, by my reckoning, when Chris Bianco began making Neapolitan pies in Phoenix in 1988. His wild success with Pizzeria Bianco inspired others, but the de-commoditization of pizzas spread very slowly, and I started this blog in 2011 to document my disappointing search for decent pizza after I moved away from easy access to the fine pizza in Trenton NJ. 

Pomodoro San Marzano

Over the next decade, craft pizza followed the path of craft beer, as foodies flocked to Detroit style, Neapolitans, and just about every kind of pizza popping up first in the cities and now just about everywhere, including the Texas Hill Country. There's never a reason to eat mediocre chain pizza in 2023.

Now that I'm minutes from this world-class Neapolitan pizza at Winston's and the astonishing Detroit, New York, and tavern style pizzas available at Brack's Backyard (10 minutes west of Winston's), it's hard to imagine that we're not living in a time of peak pizza. 


Aaron was nice to spend a lot of time talking to us even though Winston's was buzzing with customers. We enjoyed an indulgent little dessert of expresso poured over a scoop of vanilla gelato, and I'm eager to get back to try the coffee and the breakfast menu. An absolute gem of a restaurant!

Winston's *Coffee *Pizza *Provisions

4900 Bee Creek Road, Lakeway TX