Friday, October 11, 2013

Nicli Antica Pizzeria

Continuing up the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beyond Portland, beyond Seattle, even beyond the U.S./Canada border, I found myself entering the beautiful city of Vancouver for the very first time. In the passenger seat, my beautiful girlfriend was navigating us through Gastown - the oldest part of town and original settlement of what was to become Vancouver - to a destination she would not reveal.

Lo and behold, she brought me to the only VPN-certified Neapolitan pizzeria in Vancouver, the well-regarded Nicli Antica Pizzeria. Nestled inside an old stable-turned jail for the city, Nicli owner-founder Bill McCaig did a magnificent job preserving the historical integrity of the building while simultaneously reinventing the space.

I really love the juxtaposition of the brick walls with the clean, white vaulted ceiling. And why not customize your oven to fit these aesthetics?

Gorgeous. Done so well, it feels like it was there back when it was a stable (wouldn't that be something?). Okay, enough of my blabbering about the ambiance, let's get to the pizza! Chefs Christopher Picek and David Tozer have done a great job preserving the Neapolitan authenticity required for their certification, while also getting a little creative.

Arugula doesn't get more fresh than that! After studying the menu, I ordered the obligatory Margherita, and another clever pie I've never seen anywhere else, but we'll get to that later.

Boom! Look at how vibrant this pizza is! To be honest, I usually hate when pizzaiolos place all the basil in a clump in the center of the pie, but this baby basil is too cute to pass judgement.

Awwww. The pizza, which sure enough was cooked in under 90 seconds, is exactly what I look for in an evenly balanced, evenly cooked Marg.

Soft, chewy, airy cornicione with a perfectly slightly-crispy shell, what more could you ask for in a crust? The sauce was bright, the fresh mozz not too liquidy, and a stellar balance all around. But what about this next pie?

Yumtown City. What might look like fennel sausage or meatball chunks is actually pork shoulder. Why is this not a thing?! I have to say, I love Neapolitan pizza, but at times I get a little sick of the same 10-15 ingredients that are 'acceptable' to use.

Oh yes. I'm having pizza flashbacks (the good kind). The pork was cooked to perfection, and keep in mind when pre-cooking/roasting/whatever they're up to, they need to account for an additional 90-120 seconds in a 900 degree oven, and there's nothing worse than dry, over-cooked meat.

For me, the pork stole the show, not necessarily in over-powering flavor (there's nothing I hate more than an unbalanced pizza), but as an idea. It was supported by an even layering of garlic cloves, basil, and dollops of ricotta that truly sang out in harmony.

Goodbye, pork shoulder pizza. I will miss you, but I will never forget you.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Serious Pie

Rounding out my trip to Seattle, I had to stop by Tom Douglas's esteemed pizzeria that ain't no laughing matter-

Serious Pie. I had heard that Tom, arguably Seattle's greatest restauranteur with 14 restaurants and multiple James Beard awards to his name, was behind some interesting pizza in the heart of downtown Seattle. Just steps from Pike Place Market where I had just spent the morning, who was I to say no?

I hit the joint at an off hour, which left the place rather quiet- though it was obvious SP gets packed at peak times so I was grateful. I knew straightaway, as I do everywhere I visit, that I had to order a Margherita (which at Serious Pie comes with mozzarella di bufala by default), but as I poured over the menu, I just couldn't shake trying his potato pizza.

And there you have it! Let's tackle the Margherita first-

Gotta love that oblong shape. Sure, there's nothing wrong with a symmetrical pie, but it's always nice to see some variation. This one in particular really reminded me of some of the pies at L'asso in NYC. Maybe it's just because I like grabbing square slices down the center, but consider me a fan.

I'll be honest, and I know I've made this point before: I'm not the biggest fan of julienned basil. In my opinion, basil has the best and brightest flavor when the leaf is first broken. After this point, the potency dissipates, particularly when you slice it to shreds. That aside, I really loved this pizza.

The sauce was light and sweet, and the mozz cooked perfectly to the point of almost liquidizing. What I couldn't place my finger on was what was being added on top for seasoning- it wasn't pepper or oregano, but it gave the pizza a little zing, rounding out a great product. But enough on that, I'm eager to show you this potato homeboy, the pizza that really sang for me-

Now I love pizza (obviously), and I've always loved potatoes in just about any form they can possibly come in, but a potato pizza is no easy feat to pull off well. At its worst, it manifests itself in big hunks like at Pizzeria Paradiso, when decent it can look like the mashed potato and bacon pizza at Bar in New Haven, but this- this is how potatoes on pizza is done, ladies and gentlemen.

Certain challenges present themselves when you decide to put potato on a pizza. First, you don't want a starch overload. How often do you see potato paired with bread? Not too often, because a little of both goes a long way.

Second, and more importantly, you essentially need to cook the potato twice- first on its own, then again on the pizza. In doing so, you really need to know (just as you would with any other par-cooked topping) when to stop cooking it the first time around. What Tom has done here has delivered, against the odds, beautifully moist, buttery slivers of spuds a top a perfectly cooked pie. My hat is off to you, sir.

Paired with the rosemary and post-oven Pecorino Romano, the potatoes are imparted with just the right amount of seasoning and salt to better tie these near-potato chips to the pizza.

But ultimately what Tom has on his hands here is some great goddamn bread. His dough recipe, whatever it is, is something I would eat plain every day of the week. He of course is fully aware, and opened Serious Biscuit to expand this market.

Using what seems to be a custom Woodstone gas-assisted wood-burning brick oven, Tom Douglas and his crew sure know what they're doing.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013


As I made my way north up the coast of the Pacific Northwest, I found myself entering a new city, filled with new experiences... and new pizza. Several years ago I received a tip from a reader that, if I ever made it out west, I had to try Delancey.

Okay! Located north of downtown in the hip, former blue-collar fisherman neighborhood of Ballard, Delancey was founded by Molly Wizenberg (a food blogger!) and her husband Brandon Pettit. Brandon missed the pizzas he left back in NYC when he was a music student, most notably Di Fara (can you really blame him?)

I got there just as they opened since I've heard it's quite the pizza destination in town. The space, which seems as though it was originally two units now conjoined into one, is well lit by natural light- unless you go after sundown of course.

The exterior of the oven is a bit dark in this shot, but they're working with a beautiful Mugnaini oven from where else? Italy. Delancey has two different versions of the classic cheese and sauce pies. One is a standard Margherita with the obligatory fresh mozzarella and basil, while the other ("The Brooklyn") comes with fresh and aged mozz and Grana Padano. Naturally I ordered both.

Here's your, or well, my Margherita, with a side of my favorite topping, fennel sausage. Before I get to the sausage, the pie alone without toppings is a gorgeous sight. This is, in my opinion, the perfect amount of basil for a pizza, and evenly distributed (and ultimately cooked) to perfection. 

But man, that sausage. This is what sausage on a pizza should look like! Slightly charred, manageable size, little fennel seeds poking out, my mouth is watering just remembering it. After taking a bite the truth was confirmed: both the Margherita and the sausage that adorned half were unbelievable.

Before I could savor all of the Margherita, the Brooklyn arrived (with pepperoni on half). Simply stunning in my book. If you take a closer look, you can see the white blobs of fresh mozzarella floating to the top over the more uniform yellow "aged" low moisture mozz (the kind you see on a typical NY slice).

And don't forget that grated Grana Padano! It stands out in this picture much better on the crust to give you an idea. Know who else grates Grana on top of their pies? Dom Demarco over at Di Fara (smooth move Brandon). I thought this was another fantastic pie, it's not every day that you get both fresh and aged mozz on the same pie.

The pepperoni, made by local purveyor Zoe's Meats, was also delicious and definitely a cut above your average 'roni. But let's talk about the crust-

Brandon, in his pursuit in recreating the familiar New York style of pizza, spent, from what I've heard, two years perfecting his recipe until he gave it his nod of approval. Whatever he was doing in his test kitchen paid off, because it's remarkable.

Coupled with a powerful wood-burning brick oven, Molly and Brandon have a great product on their hands. After just one bite I knew why I was beckoned to Seattle to give this place a try. Now it's your turn!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Ken's Artisan Pizza

I touched down at the PDX airport and hurriedly hobbled with my luggage to pick up my rental car. I was in a rush, in a city I'd never been to, suffering from an all-too-familiar hunger. I had 30 minutes to put the pedal to the metal and drive all the way across the darkened city of Portland before a certain wood-burning oven would go cold.

Yet against all odds, I made it just in time to Ken's Artisan Pizza in South East Portland. Founded just over seven years ago by baker Ken Forkish and chef Alan Maniscalco, the duo created KAP following the smashing success of their Monday Night Pizzas at Ken's bakery in the Alphabet District.

The photos speak for themselves- Ken's is spacious, welcoming, and certainly cozy. The first thing that caught my eye was their beastly oven, how could I do anything but stare at this beauty?

Simply massive. This is a Le Panyol from Maine, a larger indoor counterpart to some of its copper brethren like that seen at The Copper Oven. I love this fire-breather.

Shortly after being seated I came to realize that a lot of, if not all of the wood used the tables and bar at Ken's was made from re-purposed supports from local defunct amusement park Jantzen Beach which closed its doors back in the '70s.

Alright alright already, let's get to the pizza! Ken's offers a number of toppings to pick from, but in typical fashion I went for one Margherita and one fennel sausage pie, the latter comes with caramelized onions by default.

Just over two minutes later, this guy appeared at my table. Gorgeous is the word I'd use for this- smooth pureed tomatoes, perfectly melted cheese, and a cornicione that screams hearty deliciousness.

This was indeed a great pie cooked to perfection, but I have to say its successor was the real star-

To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of onions (even caramelized), but Holy Vidalia did these pair fantastically with the house-made fennel sausage, sauce, cheese and basil. At this point you know I love my sausage in crumbled chunks, but the smaller grain size used at Ken's worked just great.

If Portland is just a bit too far to travel, you can always take a stab at recreating Ken's pies at home with his James Beard award-winning cook book. This guy knows bread. All said and done, Ken's Artisan Pizza and its warm hipster vibes were exactly what I was in need of straight off the plane.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza

Wow, has it really been nine months since I told you to go to Pizza Brain? Holy cow, I'm back from the dead everyone, and just in time to tell you about my favorite pizzeria in Colorado, Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza.

Located in beautiful downtown Denver, just around the corner from Coor's Field, sits MCF in a tastefully refurbished brick building that emanates that familiar toasty pizza aroma around the neighborhood. Founded by Mark Dym nearly six years ago, Marco's is Colorado's only VPN-certified pizzeria-

Yes, I did say VPN. Any pizzaphile worth their salt, water, flour and yeast should know instantly that something here is amiss, but we'll get to that later. I arrived straight from the airport and promptly took a seat near the oven (where else?) to take in the action.

Beautiful spot, ammiright? After perusing the menu, I opted for a Margherita with sweet Italian sausage on half, and a Del Re (mozz, mushrooms, prosciutto, basil, and Pecorino Sardo truffle spread) for good measure. All that was left to do was to sit back, relax, and watch the pizzaiolo get to work.

I really love these ovens. Not only is it bad-ass to have two of these behemoths side-by-side, but they even have sliding doors atop the mouth of the oven. Wait, what the hell is that?!

Is that- yes, that's a barrel of wood shavings! What the hell, Marco?! Coal-fired? If the VPN certification wasn't enough to tip you off, it's now abundantly clear that this place is a misnomer, and should really be called Marco's Wood-Fired Pizza. That being said, Mark isn't really being disingenuous- while the pizza is in fact cooked via wood fire, he uses the second oven to slow cook his chicken and other meats that would otherwise get scorched in its 900 degree wood-burning counterpart.

Boom, first pie is up! It's clear to see how MCF got their VPN cred, but what you might not know is that Mark employed the help of APN (Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani) president and friend of mine, Roberto Caporuscio. And who better? If you remember, I bumped into Roberto at Spacca Napoli in Chicago a few years back doing the same thing- teaching pizzaioli how to make the best pies in town.

Simply stunning, and really well-balanced to boot. The fresh mozzarella is cooked to that perfect slightly-scorched gooey-ness that you can rely on a VPN joint to serve.

The sausage, seasoned with just a hint of fennel and black pepper, was also tasty. However, and this is just personal preference, I much prefer my Italian sausage in crumbled hunks, as opposed to say sliced or cubed like in this case. No matter, the flavor is there and that's what matters most.

Next up is our Del Re, another babe of a pie if I do say so myself. As far as 'traditional' Neapolitan pies go, this one is pretty unconventional. I was really digging the combo of prosciutto and mushrooms, not to mention the seemingly-hidden layer of Pecorino Sardo truffle spread.

In all honesty, I have a little bit of a love/hate relationship with truffle, just as I do for garlic for the same reason: in the wrong, shaky hands, too much can kill and completely overwhelm whatever other ingredients are in your mix. It's hard to balance, but when it's done right, you just melt.

Mark/Marco, you're doing it right. It's also worth noting that since I've visited, Mark has added pizzi fritti to his menu, the only place to my knowledge doing fried pizza in the States outside of NYC. If you weren't 2000 miles away, I'd be back in a heartbeat (in fact, my parents were recently back in town and couldn't help but return for another pie). But don't take my word for it...

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