Sunday, September 23, 2018

Review: A Tavola, Cincinnati, OH

This blog features occasional guest reviews. "The Franklin Expedition" previously reviewed Primanti Brothers in Grove City, PA. Here's a new one:  

Cincinnati is full of surprises. 
The William Howard Taft birthplace/historical site is a fascinating place to spend a morning or afternoon. The Cincinnati Art Museum has, among many worthwhile holdings, a stunning collection of Islamic calligraphy from the 17th and 18th centuries. Krohn Conservatory displays thousands of beautiful and exotic plants in a pleasant setting. The latter two institutions are in large, lovely Eden Park.  

Downtown is easy to drive in and there are at least three vibrant and attractive neighborhoods, Over the Rhine, Walnut Hill, and Mount Adams.  But among these and other surprises, perhaps the least expected was superb pizza. 

Cincinnati is definitely a Midwestern city and its primary ethnic heritage seems to be German. For someone used to pizza crafted by New Jersey/New York Italians, neither of those Cincy descriptors sounds promising. But a necessary visit to the Ohio River city and a bit of research led us to think we should give a place called A Tavola (“to the table”) a try. 
Interior at A Tavola
We drove into the trendy Over the Rhine section and easily found parking (another surprisingly common thing in this busy city). The restaurant is in a beautifully preserved commercial building and has an attractive interior, with the exposed overhead ductwork and refinished hardwood floors that typify these restorations. 
Gorgonzola and sausage pizza
From the extensive drinks and wine list, we selected a Fantasia (limoncello made in house, plus prosecco and sorbet) and a Bellini. Both were refreshing and tasty. Our ‘red and bleu’ salads combined Bibb lettuce, radicchio, cherry tomatoes, red onions, and Gorgonzola in a balsamic vinaigrette.  Ingredients were perfectly fresh and the combination was excellent. 
Red and bleu salad
Our Margherita pizza emerged from the wood fired Stefano Ferrera oven with a somewhat charred, remarkably light crust. The tomato sauce had rich flavor that blended well with the fiore i latte mozzarella. Shreds of fresh basil were scattered over the pizza—I may have added a bit more, but that is a small quibble. The overall taste of each slice was, simply, delicious. 
Stefano Ferrara wood fired oven
We were so pleased with the Margherita, and it was so light, that we decided we could have a second pie. We opted for a house specialty that includes tomato sauce, mozzarella, Gorgonzola, sausage, and pepperoni.  Recognizing the Pizza Quixote dictum that a pizza is spoiled by too many toppings, we asked them to omit the pepperoni. 
Perfect char underneath
The resulting pie was first rate. The sausage is cured in house and is more American than Italian, but was very flavorful, with both spicy and sweet elements. The strongly flavored Gorgonzola could easily have overwhelmed the other toppings, but instead served to balance the spiciness of the sausage. 

Our knowledgeable server noted that A Tavola emphasizes local sourcing of ingredients (even the beers on tap at the bar are from local microbreweries) and in-house preparation of everything, including curing their own meats. 
Fantasia (L) and Bellini (R) drinks
When we learned that this included homemade gelato, we had to ask to wrap the last two slices of pizza so that we could try it. We both chose stracciatella, and were rewarded by the perfect ending to a superb meal—rich, creamy, and smooth. 
Stracciatella gelato
We don’t have a specific reason to return to the “Queen City” anytime soon, but our experiences were so pleasant that we might try to find one. And if we do, we’re certain to pay another visit to A Tavola. 

A Tavola Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Review: Wewalka Classic Pizza Crust - European Style Dough

For home pizza makers, the biggest challenge is the crust. There are plenty of good recipes to make your own dough - this one to emulate Roberta's pizza is one of my favorites. I often opt for a shortcut, buying a ball of pizza dough from a bakery, Trader Joe's, or Whole Foods.

Earlier this year, I tried a pizza-ready dough by Pillsbury, where the crust is rolled in parchment paper. Unroll it onto a baking sheet (including the parchment paper), add toppings, and bake. I was pleasantly surprised by the result - a thin, chewy, and tasty crust that held up well to my toppings.

Thanks to a reader comment on that review, I discovered a similar product by Wewalka, made in Austria and carried in Giant supermarkets in my region of Pennsylvania. I found a "buy one get one" sale and picked up the "Classic" (14.1 ounce rectangular crust)  and the "Bistro" (7.8 ounce round crust). 

To compare it to the Pillsbury product, I chose the rectangle crust for my first attempt. There is a big calorie difference here, worth noting. The Pillsbury crust has 600 calories, which works out to 75 crust calories per slice if cut into eight servings. This Wewalka Classic checks in at 1040 calories, which comes to 130 calories per slice. The Wewalka Bistro, weighing 6 ounces less, has 560 calories.
Summer tomatoes
The dough rolled out a bit more easily than the Pillsbury dough, and it filled most of a large baking sheet. For my sauce, I diced some red and orange summertime garden tomatoes, and drained them for a few hours. I saved the juice and boiled it down with some olive oil, salt, and a pinch of sugar. I then took that thickened liquid and combined it with the fresh diced tomato. (I generally avoid fresh tomatoes on pizza due to the excess moisture, but this labor-intensive process solved the water issue.)

I used two cheeses - some Priano fresh mozzarella (from ALDI) and some Asiago. I added some red and orange sweet peppers (mostly for color) and thin slices from a large clove of fresh garlic. Finally, I squeezed out 4 ounces of fresh (raw) Italian sausage from its casing to make lovely chunks that cook on the pizza. 
Following package directions, I baked the pie for about 18-19 minutes at 425 degrees. Out of the oven, I topped the pie with fresh chopped basil. The overall product was delicious, but that was mostly due to the sauce of summer tomatoes, the excellent cheeses, and the sausage. The crust was thin, dense, golden brown, chewy, and sturdy enough to support the toppings.

Out of the oven
However, the crust was blandly flavored. I remember the Pillsbury crust being oddly reminiscent of a Chinese dumpling in texture and flavor, but this crust had little distinct flavor. It served nicely as a vehicle for the toppings, but did not stand out in any other way. 

Based on results to date, my top choice for home pizza dough (beyond make your own) remains the $4 dough ball at Whole Foods. The $2 dough ball at Trader Joe's would be my next choice. Due to its convenience and low calories, the Pillsbury dough comes in third. I enjoyed our pizza on the Wewalka Classic crust, but it's in fourth place here.
Underside of crust
I'll update this post if I get a different result with the Bistro crust. Add your experience in the comments section.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Review: EVO Pizza, North Charleston, SC

Coastal Carolina is a wonderful place for visitors - historic mansions and plantations, pristine beaches, the charm of Charleston, and of course that low country cooking. During an 8 day stretch spent on Kiawah Island and in Charleston, I had (and fulfilled) great expectations for local fare like shrimp and grits, fried chicken, and okra gumbo.

My pizza bar was set a bit lower - but I did some scouting ahead of time and found four pizza places of interest in or near Charleston. I expected nothing better than ordinary tourist stuff around Kiawah, but we were astonished and delighted to stumble upon La Tela in a modern shopping center just a mile or so outside the island.

We struck gold again on our short trek from Kiawah to Charleston, stopping at Crust Wood-Fired Pizza on James Island. Before we even got into our hotel room in the French Quarter we'd found two wonderful Neapolitan-style pies. That's already two more than I had anticipated.

Our last day was a Sunday with a short agenda. We had visited the wonderful Drayton Hall on the outskirts of Charleston and found ourselves in a remote area with time to kill before a late flight home. Since we hadn't yet visited the top pizzeria from my scouting report, we decided to head to EVO in North Charleston on a hot afternoon.
What remained of our corn salad
EVO ("Extra Virgin Oven") is located on a quiet boulevard that looks like an old-time Mayberry-ish strip of downtown storefronts, except that every one had been updated to a hip destination for dining or yoga or other services. We felt that we could likely get a good meal in any spot there.

The interior was comfortable and casual, and we were greeted promptly and warmly. Because the personal size pies were listed at 12" and we had no capacity for taking home leftovers, we decided to split one salad and one pizza.

The salads come in two sizes, and the large size ($11) is big enough to be a meal. From an inventive list, we chose the Corn Salad, which featured tender mixed greens, fresh roasted corn, and a cured meat that (I think) was bacon, all in a savory dressing. We were hungry and that salad was terrific, which explains why there is only a picture of it after more than half was eaten. 

The pizza menu likewise offered options that were inventive without venturing into the weird or the excessive. We settled on a special "speck and mushroom" pizza ($15) that featured that wonderful cured meat (speck is - to me - the best take on prosciutto), deeply flavored mushrooms, and basil pine nut pesto.

The pizza arrived at our table cut into 6 slices. It looked beautiful, top and bottom. A big and puffy cornicione, plenty of leopard spotting, and a generous distribution of curled and crisp speck.

EVO is both a bakery and a pizzeria, and it seems they have some special bread skills. The pies at Crust and La Tela had both sported flawless Neapolitan or Neapolitan hybrid crusts, but this crust was at another level. It had all the elements of great bread - flavor, a tender chew, structure to support the toppings, and a crisp crunch.

But the crust was only the beginning here. Some white pies can be tame in flavor, lacking the acidic punch of a good red sauce. Here, though, was an explosion of deep savory flavors. I wish I had taken note of what kind of mushrooms were used (shittake?), but there was an umami party going on here.

While the cured meat and mushrooms provided the first burst of flavor, it was the basil pinenut pesto that brought all the elements into harmony. I'm sure the cheese was top grade, but it took a bit of a back seat to the intense flavors even as it was an essential element to balance the textures.

Mrs. Quixote rarely battles me for the last slice, but here we instantly lamented when it was gone. This was about a perfect pizza, and she said it was the best pizza of her life. I'm not ready to go that far, but it's the most flavorful pizza I can recall and this pie should make anybody's Top Ten list.

The "Extra Virgin Oven"
There's a thousand reasons to visit the Charleston area, and EVO may be the best of them. Absolutely destination pizza, worth the trip no matter where your starting point may be.

Evo Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato