Saturday, October 31, 2009

Gruppo Thin Crust Pizza

At the behest of one of my coworkers, I was told I had to try Gruppo. While I dig my fair share of crispy pies, I'm not much of a thin crust guy. I told him this, and he insisted: I had to try Gruppo.

Gruppo offers a pretty long list of fresh ingredients (I was told to try a pie with red onions, pineapple, and jalapeno peppers), but I resisted and ordered a small nine-inch "classica-" sauce, fresh mozz, fresh tomatoes, and basil. Five minutes later:

What a beautiful pizza- too bad it's so hard to eat. If you've learned anthing about me at this point, it's that I always have a problem with pizzas who 'write a check their crust can't cash.' By this I mean pies that don't know their boundaries, or rather how many (or few) toppings they can afford to let chill on top.

Don't get me wrong; Gruppo's ingredients are fresh, and very tasty at that. The thin, stringy mozzarella reminded me of Grimaldi's or Angelo's. The sauce has a somewhat sweet & tangy presence (especially in combo with those tomatoes) with a little oregano in there.

The undercrust is what you want in a (super) thin crust pizza; most crispy-crackery thin, though the sauce got the better of it towards the center, making it less crispy and more soggy.

There isn't much cornicione on this pie, in fact there's none at all. The sauce comes right to the edge, making grabbing a slice significantly more difficult. Like I mentioned earlier, you really can't even pick this thing up or even fold it. The undercrust turns floppy towards the center, leaving me no option but to turn toward my nemeses Fork and Knife (pictures of my experience with them omitted out of shame).

If thin crust is your deal, then definitely check out Gruppo (I'd go light on the toppings). The service and atmosphere are as quality as the ingredients. Just leave your New York, utensil-less ego at the door.

Stromboli Pizza

Saturday afternoon I found myself completely surrounded by pre-adolescent Spidermen and Spongebobs in the East Village. In a panicked frenzy, I decided to take refuge in Stromboli Pizza, a slice joint I'd been meaning to try for a while now.

I was happy to see that Stromboli offers a fresh mozzarella slice alongside their plain, so of course I ordered both.

Pretty photogenic slices, huh? Unsure of where to start, I opted for the plain slice.

Wowza! Pretty darn tasty! The cheese on this guy stands out more than most by-the-slice places in the city; it almost tasted like they threw some cheddar in with that aged shredded mozzarella, but the guys behind the counter wouldn't say for sure.

The undercrust and cornicione weren't anything special (notice the wire rack marks on the bottom) except for the fact that there was no tip sag to speak of- pretty decent considering the size of the slice.

I took a few more bites of the plain before diverting my taste buds to the fresh mozz slice. I went in for the fold and before I could take my first bite, I was struck with yet another pizza collapse! WTF!?

Chowing down on this mofo just got a lot messier. This slice wasn't off to a great start, and sadly didn't make up for it's disasterous meltdown by imparting superior flavor. Sure the sauce has a nice, fresh sweetness to it, but the cheese was flavorless and bland, and the same goes for the 'basil' shredded on top.

I was disappointed by the latter slice- a rare thing since usually fresh mozz slices are a better product than their plain counterparts. I can see why a number of people have listed Stromboli as their favorite slice joint in the city, though I can't heartily agree. While the rest of the plain slice found it's way into my belly, the rest of the mozz found it's way into the trash can.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Old" Domino's

Dear Anonymous:

You were right. In my recent post about Frank Pepe's, I may have been a bit brash- even scathing in my likening of Pepe's pie to that of a coal-fired Domino's "pizza." While I never write anything for the sole sake of being provocative, I will admit that it has in fact been quite a while since I ate a Domino's pizza. Immediately after reading your comment, I ordered a large of my childhood staple.

And yes, this pizza has absolutely nothing on Pepe's Margherita. I can't even tell where the cheese ends and the crust begins with this thing.

The overall taste of this pizza gave me the same guttural dissatisfaction I experience in the off chance I indulge in a twinkie or a Wendy's frosty knowing (or at least feeling) it's one ingredient away from being some sort of industrially synthesized plastic.

To be honest, I'd really be interested (and probably horrified) to see a Domino's pizza made from start to finish. How long before this thing was fired do you think the dough was made? (Any anonymous former Domino's employees out there care to enlighten me?) It's clearly baked on a circular wire rack and not directly on the oven floor.

This was the only shot of sauce I could get. It looks like a scar where the 'cornicione' and the cheese split. It doesn't matter; the sauce is nearly non-existent and tasteless at best. The cheese feels genetically engineered. The crust is chewy and artificially bready in the soggiest of ways- and to think I even did Domino's a favor by throwing the whole pie into my oven on my stone for a few minutes before taking a bite- all in vain. THIS is not pizza, and I needed a refresher to truly open my eyes to this fact.

So Anonymous, while I still feel Pepe's leaves something to be desired, my comparison with the aforementioned "pizza" was off-base. I vow to choose my words wiser henceforth; thank you for your contention.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Modern Apizza

As much as I wanted to try Sally's Apizza after finishing up at Frank Pepe's, they weren't open for a few hours and I was tight on time. Next option: Modern Apizza.

Modern's name is a bit of a misnomer- it first opened its doors in 1934 as State Street Apizza, making it one of the oldest pizzerias in New Haven. I'm not sure at what point the name was changed and for what reason, but the place is now owned and operated by Bill Pustari as of 1988.

As far as Modern's Margherita's go, they offer "plain," "mozzarella," and... "American?" The girl taking orders seemed about as confused as I was between the first two options, but clarified that the plain uses slices of cheese while the mozzarella version was shredded. I opted for a medium (16") mozzarella.

I had 15 minutes to kill, so never having been to New Haven I asked where Yale campus was so I could take in the iconic Ivy League locale. The same girl taking my order looked at me like I asked her for driving directions to Mars... I came back 10 minutes later just in time to take my pie to Wooster Square for a pizza picnic.

Here's a closer look:

Looks pretty yummy. My first reaction was that Modern makes their pizzas spherical, unlike their Wooster St. brethren Pepe's and Sally's. Shape makes no difference to me so long as the product is tasty, which I can't confidently say about this pie from Modern.

The first couple of slices were alright; definitely different than Pepe's. I can't really place it- does Modern use a cornmeal or Semolina flour dusting on the bottom of their crust? Upon closer inspection of the rest of the pizza, I found the majority of it badly burnt.

At first I thought it was just some nice charring from the oil-fired oven, but then:

Yikes. 70% of the pie had an undercrust like this. Say what you will about personal preference when it comes to how well-done you may like your pizza, but this thing tasted gross. As I ate my way through, I began to ponder the difference in definition and taste between "charred" and "burnt."

I know I committed a cardinal pizza sin by letting the pizza even sit in a take-out box for 2 minutes, but after the damage that was done to that crust I don't think it made much of a difference. I'm disappointed. I'm willing to give Modern the benefit of the doubt that I got a rare bad pie considering their dedicated following, but I would be embarrassed serving a customer something this torched...

Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana

Over the past weekend on my way home from Massachusetts, I finally had the opportunity to see what New Haven pizza is all about. For those who are unaware, New Haven, CT is one of the lesser-known but nevertheless important characters in America's unique pizza identity, kind of like Marlon Jackson in Jackson 5.

Mid-afternoon, I arrived at the infamous Wooster St., New Haven's Little Italy to order a pizza at Frank Pepe's.

While I was in line, I was hoping to chat up some locals and discuss the famous rivalry between Pepe's and Sally's and meet some fervent Pepe's clientele. While I did meet some die-hards (I met patrons from Long Island and North Carolina, but no locals), no one seemed to have any qualms admitting they also eat at Sally's, and some said they even preferred it over Pepe's!

After about a 20 minute wait, I was seated-

Quick Pepe's pizza history: Italian-born Frank Pepe immigrated to New Haven in 1909 at the age of 17, returning home shortly thereafter to fight for his country in WWI. After the war, he worked briefly at a bakery before opening his own pizzeria and peddled his pies at nearby Wooster Sq. in 1925. In '36, the Boccamiello family that owned the building gave Frank the boot to open their own pizzeria "The Spot," so he moved next door to Pepe's current location.

Not too long after the move, Frank started throwing clams on a white pie and the Clam Pie was born- arguably Pepe's biggest claim to fame. Frank made every pie himself until he passed away in 1969, and in 1981 the Pepe family bought The Spot next door. Gary Bimonte, Pepe's grandson, now manages the place.

Oh yeah, one more thing- pizza in New Haven is called "Apizza" (ah-beets), though I've never heard anyone actually call it that...

Doing my best to sidestep this odd term, I ordered a "large Mozzarella." While I waited, I went in for a closer look at that monstrosity of an oven-

Until I went to Tacconelli's last week, I had never seen such a massive oven. You can tell by the length of those pizza peels on the left that this coal-burner is pretty deep- and it has to be to accomadate the never-ending line outside the joint. At Ed Levine's suggestion, I ordered a Foxon Park birch beer to go along with my pie.

After about 20 minutes, the enormous pizza was slid onto my table:

It's hard to tell, but the pizza is sliced in the most irrelevant and haphazard way- it's not a complaint, in fact I think it adds to Pepe's character. As soon as my fingers could bear the heat, I pulled a 'strip' of pizza the size of my forearm onto my inadequately small plate.

The crust is absolutely the best part of Pepe's pizza. My pizza- er, apizza, was perfectly charred, something I have to admit I wasn't expecting considering how many pies are in that oven of theirs at any given time (someone's doing one hell of a job tending to their product).

It's light and crisp and even and slightly chewy towards the center. While New Havenites call this pizza thin crust (which it is), it's slightly thicker than your average NY slice. There isn't a whole lot of cornicione to speak of, something I wish there was more of, but that's fine. However, I think Pepe's biggest weakness is the quality of their cheese.

This stuff to me didn't have much flavor, and further was pretty damn greasy. It looks the typical Grande aged mozzarella from Wisconsin you see on 99% of New York slices. While these spots might settle for mediocrity, I was expecting a little more from the world-renowned Pepe's.

Is this a case of Pepe's product going downhill since he left the building? Or is this a standard representation of their product? Yes, the pizza was tasty, but not deserving of the "live and die by Pepe's" mentality I so often hear about. Here it comes: while I enjoyed the experience of going to Pepe's, and I would eat there again, to me it tasted like a thin-crust Domino's pizza if it were cooked in a coal oven (retracted 10/28). Am I going to pizza hell now?

On the way back to NYC via 95, I saw this billboard advertising for Pepe's new Yonkers location opening next month (amongst three other locations that have opened outside of New Haven, including at a casino). It reminded me of the all-too-common expansion and exploitation of owner-occupied pizzerias after the founder passes away (Patsy's, Totonno's, Grimaldi's, etc. etc.), and it made me sad.

Maybe this is fate's way of telling me I'm a Sally's man- I'll find out when I visit next month...


Last week after one hell of a soccer game at McCarren Park, I met a friend and hobbled down Beford Ave. to finally try out Fornino.

Last week they were celebrating their fifth anniversary by offering Margherita pies for $5- what a steal! Surprisingly the place wasn't too packed and we got a table immediately. Despite the tempting deal, I ordered a Margherita DOP like I do at any place that offers it. Fifteen odd minutes later...

What a gorgeous pie! Nick @ Pizza Rules! says it's one of his favorite Neapolitans, but admits that living around the corner from the place might have something to do with it. Regardless, it is indeed a great pizza. It was hard to snap some quality pictures with the low light, but you can tell they throw on some Parmesan or pecorino Romano after it comes out of the oven.

While the cornicione doesn't have hole structure anywhere near, say Keste, the crust is still perfectly charred and not too wet. I did have to eat the first couple bites of the first two slices with a fork before the cheese coagulated and I could pick up the slice and fold it (shh don't tell anyone).

As much as I'm trying to be a bit more discerning and critical of pizza joints lately, I can't find anything negative to comment on when it comes to Fornino. The buffalo mozz was really delicious and straddled the fine line of not becoming 'rubber-ized' and not becoming completely liquid (but you have to eat it as soon as it's served!). I did have to shift some basil to maximize my leaf-to-slice ratio, but now I'm just being picky.

While I only had the Margherita, I've heard their sopressata is incredible and it probably had a hand in influencing the menu of one of Fornino's biggest fans, Motorino's Mathieu Palombino.

I'll definitely be back.

Uno "Chicago Grill"

It had been quite a long time since I last indulged in a Chicago-style deep dish pizza from Uno (I was probably 11), so last weekend while in Worcester, MA I decided it was time to give it another go and put it under the pizza microscope.

(Courtesy of Hilton Garden Inn)

The first thing I noticed about Uno is that it's not called "Pizzeria Uno" anymore, but "Uno Chicago Grill." When did this happen? That explains the massive amount of non-pizza foodstuffs on the menu. The history of Pizzeria Uno in a nutshell is as follows: Ike Sewell founded Uno in 1943 in the River North neighborhood of the Windy City. Allegedly, Sewell had wanted to start a Mexican restaurant, but never having eaten such a cuisine before, gave up and opted to reinvented the (pizza) wheel by making deep dish pizza.

...Or should I say a deep dish pie. Woof. Since opening it's doors in '43, Uno spawned Pizzeria Due, Su Casa (both in Chicago), and some 216 Uno franchises around the globe. Just like any other restaurant chain, the menu (and I'd bet the food quality) becomes increasingly bastardized in conjunction with it's expansion.

Let's dig in-

I... am at a loss for words. I am so unaccustomed to slices of this girth. While I will (begrudgingly) call this a pizza, you'd have to be crazy to deny it's casserole-leaning attributes. The crust is arguably the strangest aspect of (Uno's) deep dish pizza; it uses corn or vegetable oil in addition to olive oil (plus soybean oil to coat the pan) which yields a flaky, pastry-like crust. And yes, it is delicious, albeit outlandish.

In my opinion, the cheese isn't anything to write home about. I'm not sure how fresh the mozzarella is, but as you can tell by the above picture it's plenty stringy (and devoid of any real character). Very similar to Papa John's.

The sauce, however, I do think is relatively tasty- I'm pretty sure they're using Roma tomatoes. Unfortunately, it tastes like they're throwing in some sugar, something they could definitely do without.

After two slices I was filled to capacity (but to be fair, I had just come from eating pizza elsewhere...). What I found most interesting about the preparation of the Uno's deep dish was what I found underneath the pie- a wire rack elevating the pie from the bottom of the pan.

I tried asking my waitress what it was for, but she had no idea (fail). I then sought out the manager who informed me that the wireform is inserted underneath the pizza as soon as its out of the oven to keep the crust crisp and away from the excess soybean oil in the pan (I'm still scratching my head about that soybean oil). I then asked him how he liked the pizza at Uno and where his favorite local pizza joint was, to which he responded, "I don't really eat much pizza."

Epic fail.
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