Monday, November 5, 2012

Pizza Brain

Recently I hopped a bus home to the greater Philadelphia area to see some family, relax with friends, but most importantly, check out the highly acclaimed and world-renowned Pizza Brain- the first pizza museum and pizzeria.

Opening just shy of two months ago, Pizza Brain may seem unassuming on the outside...

...but it's a never-ending pizza party on the inside! Folks, full disclosure here before I get right into it- I effing love this place, and as a Kickstarter contributor, I'd like to be completely transparent in just how radical Pizza Brain is.

How can you not get behind a mission statement like this? Earlier this year, Syracuse native Brian Dwyer claimed the Guinness record for world's largest collection of pizza-related memorabilia.

In the meantime, Brian and friends Joe, Mike and Ryan began gutting a space in the neighborhood of Kensington in Philadelphia (just a few blocks from my favorite Philly brewery) and making it their own in anticipation of their combination museum and pizzeria.

Immediately on entering I was blown away by the combination of overwhelming friendliness, inviting interior design, and one serious pizza menu-

It took me a second to fully grasp it, but I love how they've laid it all out. Essentially they have segregated their menu into red/white pies, then have a separate display to show you what slices are available from said pizzas on any given day.

While I tried to make up my mind, the generous dudes hooked me up with a slice of their house white, or "Leonard Bookman" (mozz, ricotta, fontina, black pepper, oregano). Don't be deceived by its uniform pale shade- this is one well-balanced, flavorful 'za here.

Eventually I opted to start off with a "Forbes Waggensense" (tomatoes, mozz, fontina, grana padano, basil, and some serious pepperoni). For whatever reason, it's rare to find a pie that has both basil and peps, which is a shame because I think they pair relatively well.

Man, I just love when legit pepperonis turn concave in the oven like that, it reminds me of these things from my childhood. Next up I decided to diversify my bonds by ordering the white pie "Granny Divjack" (mozz, blue cheese, carmelized onions, shaved almonds, and granny smith apples).

I was really eager to try this guy, as I've made a few similar pizzas back home. Carmelized onions and blue cheese are both very strong flavors and it can be a challenge to balance them out, but team Pizza Brain was able to pull it off, mainly due to the not-too-wet/not-too-dry slices of apple.

While both pies were spectacular, they worked even better in unison. I'd take a bite of the white, then back to the red, so on and so forth, occasionally washing it down with some apple soda from Pizza Brains' eclectic soda selection.

As soon as the crowd at the register dissipated and I wolfed as many slices as possible, Brian eagerly showed me all that his awesome collection had to offer, here are a few of my favorites-

This is a section of the Philly wall of fame in their back patio painted by the talented Hawk Krall. There's so much going on in this mural I stood there for 10 minutes trying to pick everyone out!

I loved that the guys built an iPad into the wall with their tumblr account up, so you can browse through their plethora of pizza gifs and content.

Watch your step!

Exercise your inner pizza peeping tom with their secret peepholes!

I loved this cheesy rendition on an Exploited album, especially the pizza mohawk. And yet, no trip to Pizza Brain is complete without a visit to the adjacent Little Baby's Ice Cream with whom PB shares a roof.

Made with hints of oregano and tomato, I was hesitant to take a bite to say the least...

...but I really have to say- it's good, it really is. I don't know if I'd get down on more than a scoop (especially after housing 5 slices), but it was the perfect finish to my experience at Pizza Brain.

No, I take it back, this is the perfect finish. Serious pizza, serious memorabilia, seriously entertaining. Pizza Brain is a blast, and I can't wait to return.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pizzeria Pellone

Just as shops and stores were beginning to close up for their riposo (Italian post-lunch siesta), I made it to my last stop for the day, just north of the Napoli Centrale train station: Pizzeria Pellone.

Notice the (albeit cleaned out) street-side display case, just like Di Matteo and Antica. Highly recommended by Scott, I was eager to check a place coming from a trusted source. That being said, after 3 pies in 2 hours, I was starting to feel a bit burned out by Naples and pizza in general (yes, even I have a limit). Without any ado, I asked for a table, and for whatever reason, was lead around the block to the side entrance.

Our waiter brought out some Peronis and menus with a smile- something I honestly hadn't seen since I set foot in Napoli. With no hesitation, I ordered the last Margherita of the day and was happy with the results-

Not too damn shabby! Sure, the basil needed a little redistributing, but after the disappointment at da Michele, I was pleased with my pie.

It really is beautiful, isn't it? The mozzarella was cooked just right; the crust was absolutely gorgeous, perfectly fluffy and chewy.

My one and only complaint, and I know this comes with the territory, but the last time I had a pizza this oily was at the heavy hand of Dom Demarco at Di Fara a few years back. These shots don't quite do it justice, but at times it felt as though this was a miniature wading pool filled with extra virgin olive oil.

That being said, while a little extra EXTRA virgin olive oil tips the balance of a well-composed pie, I have no problem with having copious amounts of the stuff and happily dug right in.

Maybe it was because I was rounding out my day, maybe because I could finally sit and relax and for once didn't feel unwelcome, maybe it was because someone in this damned city finally smiled at me, but this was my favorite pizza in Naples.

Okay, OKAY, I'm done taking pictures of your oven! And with that I happily got the hell out of town and headed to the Amalfi coast for some well-earned limoncello (but not before my pocket was picked at the train station). Che cavolo, Napoli?

Da Michele

Shortly after stumbling on a pool of blood upon leaving Antica, I headed south to intersect with Corso Umberto I, one of Napoli's main thoroughfares. In fact, it was the construction and ultimately the completion of this road that brought King Umberto I and his wife, Queen Regina Margherita to the city in June 1889.

It was this trip in which she serendipitously had a pizza served to her by Raffaele Esposito at what was then called "Pizzeria Pietro" (now Pizzeria Brandi), and she loved it so much he named it after her.
Unfortunately Brandi was closed that day, so I headed instead to the infamous Antica Pizzeria da Michele, just off Corso Umberto I.

Immediately on arriving there was a wait, so I grabbed a number like everyone else and did my best to understand the Italian digits being shouted every so often. Built in 1870, the lunch clientele didn't just consist of your average Neapolitans who have known good pizza for 142 years- no, there were clearly other out-of-towners looking to have "a relationship with their pizza" ala Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love.

(courtesy of Serious Eats)

Puh-lease. I've been having a relationship with my pizza since I started eating it 27 years ago. Eventually something like my number was called and I found myself herded in and crammed into the corner of the joint.

Charming, eh? I know this place has a legendary history and reputation, but 20 foot white walls and open fixture fluorescent lighting wasn't exactly what I had envisioned the interior to look like.

So here's the menu- essentially you have your choice of Margherita or marinara in several different sizes, beer, and soda. Excellent. Plain and simple, let's do this.

Oh, okay. That's cool, half my pizza didn't need cheese anyway, but thanks. I understand the rigors of slinging pies to meet a packed house, really I do, but this just seems lazy.

While this was by no means a bad pie, I was left less than impressed. Anywhere else and this pizza probably wouldn't have been served, but it's da Michele, so it's okay /sarcasm/.

2/3 of the pie was pretty good- not too wet, flavorful mozzarella and evenly cooked. That being said, I felt duped. With the most people waiting outside than any other pizzeria I'd been to in Italy, I really didn't get what the big deal is when they're serving pies this unbalanced.

I finished my pie, had one last look around, and promptly left underwhelmed. Maybe they were having an off day, or the pizzaiolo was going through relationship woes with his pizza, but consider me unimpressed by da Michele.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba

After wolfing a pie at Di Matteo, I lurked out the door and continued shuffling my way down Naples' famous Via Tribunali, a chaotic pandemonium of cars, trash, pedestrians, and high-speed scooters.

Eventually Via Tribunali turns into an even narrower alleyway known as Port'Alba, a familiar name to any pizza lover worth their dough. What lies beyond the gateway onto this street is a small, unassuming pizzeria- Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba, beholden as the oldest pizzeria in the world.

First popping up as a sort of designated food cart hang out in the earlier half of the 18th century, Antica became a brick-and-mortar pizzeria and were slingin' pies by 1830.

Wow, that's older than my country. Unfortunately they weren't firing up full-on Margheritas while I was there, but they (along with most other pizzerias in Naples) had their 'to-go' cart out front serving up smaller room temp pies, which I promptly bought and ate the hell out of.

This is a poor photo, but the foodstuff is meant to be folded into quarters, wrapped in paper, and eaten on the go. It's basically a 10" pre-made pizza with sparing amounts of cheese. Di Matteo had one left as a ran out the door, here's an idea of what's at hand-

I guess this is the Neapolitan equivalent to a slice on the go, eh? Despite not being formally open for business, I was able to weasel my way into the building to get a quick look around. I was shown the kitchen, and ultimately their big-ass brick oven.

Again, I started to feel my presence wasn't wanted by the staff, so I started making tracks towards my next pizzeria destination, but not before stumbling across a blood-soaked rag and a puddle of blood outside of a church!

I'm still unsure which place is more welcoming: Naples, or hell itself.

Di Matteo

So where was I? Ah yes, having just left Roma, I found myself dozing in and out of consciousness on a train bound for arguably the most important pizza-related city in the world.

(courtesy of Italy Link)

Napoli. Well-regarded as being founded between 2000-1000 BCE, Naples isn't just one of the oldest cities in Italy, it's one of the oldest in the world. Situated just north of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano has bestowed its ashy soil upon the city providing an excellent resource for pizza making for centuries. From oven bricks and floors to locally-sourced San Marzano tomatoes, Naples (and pizza) would never have been what it is today without that lava-spewing giant and its Vesuvian ash.

(courtesy of EU Infrastructure)

Unfortunately the city has seen better (...and worse) days. Widely understood as being predominantly under mafia control and with an unemployment rate between 20-30%, it's understandable why Napoli isn't on every Italian tourist's must-see list. Unless of course you're a pizza nerd.

Shortly after checking the majority of my luggage at the train station, I set out in search of the famed "Via Tribunali," the alleyway in which a large number of pizzerias reside. Not before long I ended up at stop numero uno: Antica Pizzeria de Friggitoria- Di Matteo. Highly regarded by close friends and pizzaphiles, I couldn't wait to scarf my first authentic Neapolitan pie.

Immediately upon walking in I was met by a handful of dudes just chilling, and this beautiful oven. With my oversized camera in hand and clearly Americanized attempt at Italian, I explained I had come from NY to try their pizza, which yielded the coldest of gazes from everyone in the kitchen. I think the oven gave me a warmer welcome.

I quickly grabbed a coke and a table in the adjacent 'dining room' (read: 2 tables in a dark hallway) and ordered myself what would be the first Margherita of four in the next 3 hours. Seemingly without any effort or time elapsed, there she was:

Aaaaaaaand we're off with a bang! Gorgeous pie, out of the oven and onto my table in under 90 seconds. Could have used a little more basil but I'm not picky (or am I?)

I find few things more beautiful than the way oil, tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella interact on a well-balanced Neapolitan pie. Pizza was cooked perfectly with just the right finishing on top and a well-charred undercrust.

In traditional fashion, the pizza is served uncut and you are given a fork and knife to dissect it yourself. I intentionally skipped my much-coveted breakfast to make room for all the pies I was planning for lunch, so needless to say this beaut only lasted a few minutes before vanishing completely.

Still perturbed by the cold welcoming I receive, I slinked out of the joint just before a crowd of like-minded lunchers filtered in- but not before getting a quick shot of their bench:

With my tail between my legs and stomach just getting underway, I continued down the claustrophobic Via Tribunali in search of more 'za...
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