Thursday, August 25, 2022

Review: 40 North - Austin, TX

When I arrived in Austin's Hill Country suburbs in 2019, I quickly discovered the surprisingly great pizzerias near me like Pizzeria Sorellina, Pieous, Casa Nostra, 'Zza, and Toss. I had already experienced many of the top-line Austin pizza joints, like Via 313, Home Slice, and Salvation. Then, right before the pandemic, my barber alerted me to a place in Austin that makes great versions of both pizza and hamburgers.

He told me that the pizza was wonderful, but the burger might have been the best he'd ever eaten. That was all I needed to hear, and I found the time to make a trip to 40 North to find out. It was very difficult for a pizza guy like me to order the burger instead of the pizza, but I felt that I can easily get a solid Neapolitan pizza any time, so let's go for the burger.

It was almost three years ago, but I have a distinct memory of just how luscious that burger was. Naturally, it had a lovely high-quality seeded soft roll, but the meat was especially tasty and the texture was other worldly. I typically prefer a well-charred hamburger that has a serious al dente chewiness, but this was lush. 

My burger at 40 North

It was, at that moment, perhaps the best hamburger I'd ever had. More recently, we traveled further out in the Hill Country to Luckenbach Texas to see why Willie and Waylon were so keen on this tiny speck of a town. (I recommend an afternoon there if you're in the region). We met a colorful drunk/high local there who counseled us to visit Alamo Springs Cafe just outside Fredericksburg. 

The Burger at Alamo Springs, egg-topped

We took his advice (and saw him there later). At this lovely place in the middle of nowhere, the burger was indeed a revelation. I'd love to do a side-by-side comparison of the 40 North burger and the Alamo Springs burger, because they are not just the best burgers I've had in Texas, but the best anywhere since Rossi's Cafe moved from Trenton's Chambersburg section out to the Jersey suburbs.

The kale salad

Anyhow, let's talk about pizza! On another triple digit day in a relentlessly hot Texas summer, we made a trek to 40 North and arrived between the lunch and dinner crowds. Conveniently for suburbanites, 40 North has its own small parking lot behind the restaurant, and we even found a shady spot under an old oak tree.

The Margherita

The interior space was cozy and comfortable, and it looks like it was built as a home, not a restaurant. We were greeted at the counter, where you order first and then find a seat. We chose to split a kale salad (massaged kale, shallot, hazelnut, pecorino romano, dried cherry, apple, gorgonzola piccante, hazelnut vinaigrette - $12.40), and then ordered a straight-up Margherita (the best way to evaluate a Neapolitan pizzaiolo) and the "Barbe" (tomato sauce, mozzarella, grana padano, calabrian chili, red onion, basil, salumeria biellese coppa, house sausage - $19.40).

The Barbe

The salad was beautiful to look at and generously sized for sharing. All of it was delicious, and the toasted hazelnuts really popped. Because Neapolitan pizzas generally cook in 2 minutes or less, at some pizzerias the pies arrive quickly, even too quickly if you're having a salad or appetizer. But here, they were thoughtfully timed to come out (simultaneously) after the salad plates were cleared.

Both pizzas were beautiful, showing a deep red sauce and a classic leopard spotted puffy cornicione. These 12" pizzas seemed generously sized, perhaps too much for one person to eat a whole pie as you might expect with a traditional Neapolitan pizza.

Perfect char underneath

I began with a slice of the Barbe pizza. It was wet at the center, which happily didn't extend beyond the first bite of each slice. It was deeply flavored, with layers of umami and different textures. The coppa was applied in thin but boldly large slices, each of which had cooked like bacon to a chewy crisp while releasing flavor into the pizza. Each bite was quite spicy, and overall this was a genuine flavor bomb. Its "sum is greater than the parts" character was borne out by the fact that you wouldn't want to add anything to it, not red pepper flakes, garlic powder, or other toppings that folks rely on to give spark to ordinary pizza.

Puffy cornicione

The Margherita, beautiful in its simplicity, seemed like it would taste tame after that robust slice of the Barbe pizza. But in fact, it was better, and it reinforced a feature of Neapolitan pizza, that the "plain" Margherita is often the best choice; it's a perfect marriage of dough, sauce, and fresh mozzarella, garnished with fresh basil. Other than the damp center, this was a nearly perfect pizza.

Our server and the dining room

We had a little bit left over from each pizza, and a few days later I reheated the slices (in a frying pan, following the helpful directions on the takeout box). I was delighted that the pizza was as good, perhaps even better than right out of the oven. By heating the individual slices, the dry heat was able to cook off the excess moisture, and add a bit of crispy crunch to the bottom of that delectably chewy crust.

Bottom line - 40 North has served me one of the best burgers in my life, and also some expertly crafted Neapolitan Pizza. That's the good news. The bad news is that this version of 40 North - at 900 West 10th Street - announced that the last day of business there would be on October 9, 2022, at the close of its lease. 

Pizzaiolo Clint Elmore has indicated that the 40 North brand may continue, but in the form of pop-ups or special events for a while as he figures out the next best opportunity. His business partner Taslim Jamal added that "It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later." If you're reading this before the closing date, get there soon!

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Review: Quincy Hall Pints & Pizza - Arlington VA

Ballston, an area in Arlington VA where 75% of the population is under 45, is a magnet for science and tech workers. It's a nice pocket free of the noise and congestion in nearby DC, and it has become home to a growing number of shops and restaurants. 

While there is no shortage of beer gardens, indoor and outdoor, there has been a gap in worthy pizza joints. But after a few years of covid-related delay, Quincy Hall Pints & Pizza finally had its soft opening (April 2022) in Ballston.

Our group of four arrived at the start of happy hour and found a huge beer hall with several types of tables. We neglected to ask which beers were included for happy hour pricing, but we were delighted with our choices, including my delicious Cali Squeeze Blood Orange hefeweizen. 

The pizzas are 14" size, and we selected one white pie and one red: As Mush-Room as Possible ($20 - mushrooms, mozzarella, truffle oil, crushed garlic, garlic cream sauce), and Pepp'd Up ($18 - cup 'n' char pepperoni, mozzarella, organic tomato sauce). 

We began by sharing two salads. The Caesar ($12) didn't break any new ground but it was fresh, ample, and we enjoyed the creamy dressing. The Quincy’s Garden ($12) featured fresh baby arugula and cherry tomatoes garnished with sweet red pepper in a light, tangy, vinegary dressing.

The mushroom pie arrived first, and it was not only beautiful, but also a little bigger than the promised 14" pizza. The crust was terrific - a very crispy but not stiff undercarriage from the center toward the edge, and then a lovely puffy and chewy cornicione. 

Style-wise, I'd put this in the same category of many successful newer pizza joints - a  hybrid of New York and Neapolitan type pizzas, bringing the best of both styles. 

This pie was covered from edge to edge with mushrooms that supplied an earthy, deeply umami flavor. Despite the prominent mushroom flavor, the garlic notes also shone through. There was a generous amount of mozzarella, but not too much; this pie was wonderfully balanced in textures and flavors. 

The pepperoni pizza sported that same superb crust as its base, along with top quality cup 'n' char pepperoni, generously applied over a traditional orange mix of sauce and cheese. This pizza was hip, fresh, and modern even as it was a rendition of a familiar pizza style. I would have liked a tad more char on the pepperoni goblets, but that is a minor issue.

Bottom line, as always, great pizza requires a great crust, and this easily qualifies. I did a little research after our visit, and I found out why this crust is so special. I found this about Quincy Hall:

A massive Beer Hall featuring 3-day fermented pizza dough by global pizza guru Giulio Adriani, Quincy Hall touts an eclectic selection of draft beers, cocktails  wine, and a huge patio.

The key takeaway is that the pizzaioli at Quincy Hall were trained by Giulio Adriani (it's not clear if he has an ownership interest). In 2011, Giulio opened the pizzeria Forcella, first in Brooklyn and then in Manhattan. As chef and owner, he seized attention with his signature pie, the Montanara, a Neapolitan pie where the dough is flash-fried before toppings are added. Time Out New York bestowed it with their 2012 Reader’s Choice Award. I reviewed Forcella way back in 2011, HERE.
My Forcella Montanara pizza from 2011

Giulio is now engaged in training folks to make world-class pizza. ARLnow reports:

Adriani is from Rome and was taught how to make pizza by his grandmother. He worked under pizza-masters throughout Italy, opened restaurants across the globe, and has won four world pizza championships. Adriani’s passion is dough and constantly seeking illusive crust perfection. He created a challenging three-day fermented dough for Quincy Hall which Adriani insists is his ‘best ever!'

Giulio at Pizza Palooza, 2017
I met Adriano at the Washington DC Pizza Palooza in 2017, and had a taste of the Neapolitans he was making at that time. My impression is that like many other top pizzamakers, he's not content to perfect one thing and keep making it; this Quincy Hall pizza is wonderful but also very different from his 2017 Neapolitan and the Montanara at Forcella. The hipsters in Ballston are very fortunate to have this pie within walking distance, it is among the best in the DC region.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Review: Tony C's Coal Fired Pizza - Bee Cave, TX

When I moved to a suburb west of Austin in 2019, I knew about the excellent pizzas available in or near downtown: Home Slice, Salvation, and (most of all) the spectacular Detroit style pies at Via 313.

Out in my suburb, west still of the Bee Cave suburb but east of the current frontier to Old Texas where Willie Nelson lives on Luck Ranch (Spicewood, TX), I was surprised to find truly superb Neapolitans at Sorellina and Casa Nostra

Bee Cave itself, a prosperous suburb that reminds me of Exton PA and countless other towns that have seen rapid development in the last 20 years, is home to the very good TX-NY hybrid pizza at Toss and the St. Louis style hybrids at 'Zza.

But the one local Bee Cave pizzeria that intrigued me the most was Tony C's Coal-Fired Pizza, located in the Galleria Shopping Center. I had only great pizza experiences on the east coast with coal-fired pizzas at Totonno's and Grimaldi's in Brooklyn; John's, Patsy's, Lombardi's, and Arturo's in Manhattan; and any location of the chain Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza.

I made the mistake of not getting to Tony C's before the covid19 lockdowns, and I postponed the experience because I wanted to dine-in for the best pizza experience. However, having tried just about every pizza in the burbs west of Austin, I broke down and ordered a pie for takeout in January 2022.

I ordered a 16" large pizza with pepperoni; after tax and tip that came to about $23. There is a very convenient "bring the pizza to your car" service, with a parking spot right in front reserved for that purpose. Upon returning home, I gave the pie a quick reheat in my oven on a perforated pan, my standard process whenever I don't get to eat the pizza directly from the pizza oven.

As always, the crust is the critical feature. This one looked appetizing if a tad generic, but it showed a lot of flop as I loaded it onto the pan to reheat. Even after some oven crisping, this was a very soft pizza. It wasn't wet in the center, but it was very greasy; moreso that you might expect from the pepperoni on top. Much of the grease was somehow on the bottom of the crust.

There are several Tony C's locations in the Austin suburbs, and the "coal-fired" description is used inconsistently among the pizzeria website, its physical locations, and its social media. This pizza, with its even browning on the underside of its soft crust, showed no sign of coal-fired cooking. Given my high expectations, the crust was pretty disappointing until I got to the cornicione. There I found some decent hole structure, a crisper texture, and a hint of flavor.

Underside of crust

The full taste experience was salty and greasy, but in a good way. There was plenty of thin and spicy pepperoni that led to a nice balance in flavors and textures with the sauce and cheese. On a lot of New York style pies, the cheese and the sauce meld into a signature orange goo, and that was working pretty well here.

If you like a soft crust pizza, you can't go wrong with this tasty pie. But if you're looking to replicate any east-coast coal-fired experience, you won't find it here. This would be a great pizza for large gatherings, for kids' parties, for any event where the crust is going to lose texture anyway due to sitting in the box for a while.

I will certainly go back and try this pizza in the restaurant where it will have its best chance to shine. Right now, it's good pizza that could be a great with a thinner, crisper crust.