Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My NY Pizza Adventure, Part 2 - Di Fara

1424 Avenue J
Brooklyn, NY 11230
(718) 258-1367

Emerging from the subway tunnel, I strolled down the dark, debris-strewn Brooklyn avenue and saw my destination on the corner ahead: Di Fara. Its wraparound sign read simply Di Fara • Pizza • Italian Heros, as common as any number of cheap sub joints across the country. It lacked fancy gimmicks, neon, or any other visible means of drawing in customers, at least from an aesthetic point of view.
But the smell...
The air around Di Fara was rich with the scent of baked dough and melting cheese, as enticing a lure as anything I can imagine. Much has been written on the internet of the long lines at Di Fara stretching out the front door, and with the tantalizing smell of pizza clinging to the street corner like this, I knew now these tales had to be more than mere myth.
Surprisingly though, there wasn't much of a line now, around 8pm. I opened the front door and stepped inside to find only three or four people at the counter. Incredible! As it happened, that number quickly grew to about twenty in the span of time I was there, so thankfully I got in my order before the rush.
Di Fara is notorious for the complete lack of structure when it comes to serving its customers. To call it a line is a compliment: it's a shifting mass of people, a cluster of sociopathic minds and a total disregard for common courtesy, so large that it has no choice but to form some semblance of a "line" that more closely mimics an amoeba. Customers crowd the counter in a state of utter chaos, elbowing others aside to get their order in first.
As I said, I missed all that by a brief amount of time, thank God. For a while, I was able to just stand at the counter and watch Dominic DeMarco go to work.
I won't delve into Dominic's history here--you can read A Slice of Heaven or check out the Slice blog for that. I'll leave it at this: Dom DeMarco is 72 and has been making pizza for 50 of those years. He's spent 45 of them at this Brooklyn location, making every single pie himself. Let me say that again: he makes every single pie himself. That night one of his sons was helping him grate the cheese and slice the pies, but apart from that, only Dominic touched the pizzas. He's slow, almost comedically slow, but watching him make pizza is akin to watching a great artist transform a blank canvas into a breathtaking landscape right before your eyes, or a sculptor bring lifelike human features to a formless lump of clay. You're mesmerized.
Pies come in two varieties at Di Fara: round and square. The round pie is your typical New York pizza, with large, crisp-bottomed slices. The square pie is a sort of Sicilian/grandma-style hybrid, with a thicker crust and more sauce. Both are cooked in Dom's multi-tiered gas oven, with several pies in there at any one time. Dom watched them all, adjusting their location when necessary, while his son kept track of how many pies were currently inhabiting each tier.
What separates Di Fara from most of the other slice joints in America is that its slices are not pre-made and then reheated in the oven when a customer orders one. Instead, they come directly from a fresh-cut whole pie, and they don't last long. The wait for a slice can be excruciating, as you must contend with everyone else waiting for one, as well as the people who have ordered a whole pie. How discouraging it is to see one of Dom's enormous pizzas come out of the oven piping hot, only to have the entire thing disappear into a box and be handed over to someone else! Bastards!
I started with one of the regular slices while I waited for the next square pie to cook, and by now I had been waiting there at the counter about, oh, I'd say half an hour. I was famished, even though I'd gorged myself on pizza at the Pieman's Craft event earlier that day. Then it happened: Dominic pulled out one of the regular plain pies and set it not in a to-go box, but on a tray. This is it, I told myself. Here it comes.
Before Dom sends the pie out, he drizzles more olive oil onto it (the second application of olive oil, it must be noted--the first is applied before the pie enters the oven), spreads a generous handful of the grated padano on top, sprinkles some fragrant oregano around, and brings out his kitchen shears to snip fresh basil on top. Only then does the pizza cutter make its appearance, and when Dom mans it, each lateral slice is made deliberately, carefully, so that each slice is as close to being the same size as every other slice as possible.
Though my slice was so hot it was steaming, I foolishly bit straight into it and scorched the roof of my mouth. Pizza burn...how embarrassing. I should know better. After giving the slice a minute to cool off, I tried again.
I knew almost immediately that it was the finest NY-style slice in the city.
There is so much right about this pizza, I don't know where to begin. I suppose the biggest contribution to its greatness had to be the crust. It's crunchy, but not cracker-crunchy; that is to say, the inner layer is dense and chewy. This crust tastes incredible. It's salty, but not overly salty, evoking the qualities of the very best bread. I loved it, and could have eaten it without any of the toppings.
The rest of the ingredients blend together so well that, with the exception of the overabundance of olive oil, it's hard to imagine any component being omitted. The sauce is vibrant, chunky, and tastes of the freshest tomatoes. The mozzarella/padano combination is salty, gooey, and just the right thickness for the crust, neither weighing it down nor leaving you wanting for more. The freshly snipped basil is potent and plays well with the cheese and tomatoes. The olive oil, while heavy-handed, worked its way into the other ingredients and tied everything together. This was one outstanding piece of pizza.
Another twenty minutes later and I finally got my square slice. This crust is markedly different from the one on the round pizza. Dom pours several ounces of olive oil onto the square pizza pan this pie cooks in, transforming the bottom of the crust into a thick layer of crunch. The majority of the slice is comprised of Dom's tomato sauce, and I think this is this slice's downfall. It just overshadows everything else, even the buffalo mozzarella and grated padano that has been nicely browned on top. Perhaps if I had ordered some meat on this slice it would have shifted the balance a bit, but in its current form, it was just too much tomato sauce for me.
Still hungry after all the pizza I had eaten at the Pieman's Craft event and the two slices I had had here, I wanted one more of the regular slices to end the evening on a high note, and lucky for me my dining companion Christa managed to cajole two girls at a neighboring table to sell us one of their slices at the same price Dom charges: five bucks. They seemed shocked to even be asked, but in the end they sold us the slice, God bless 'em.
I'm glad I got that second slice, because it revealed how wildly inconsistent Dom's pies are. While the first slice had bordered the verge of being too oily, this slice had blown right past that into the realm of Far Too Oily. It had more oregano on it than the first slice, and somehow the crust on this slice was even more flavorful than the first! It was so good, in fact, that I wasn't bothered by the deluge of extra olive oil whatsoever. This was just an amazing, amazing slice of pizza.
I probably could have eaten two more slices, but I had not the constitution to brave the crowded counter again. It was probably for the best, if for no other reason than that day's skyrocketing caloric intake...
As I mentioned earlier, Dom charges $5 a slice here, the highest of any slice in the city. Many have asked if the slices are worth that. I can say in no uncertain terms that the regular slices are, unquestionably, worth every cent, especially if you order the whole pie. I wouldn't order the square slice again, but I'm still dreaming about the regular plain slices. I doubt very much that anyone else makes a better pie in that style. May Dom live a thousand years, and may he bless us with this unparalleled pizza for every one of them!
To be concluded...

Monday, October 19, 2009

My NY Pizza Adventure, Part 1 - Pieman's Craft Event

349 East 12 Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 777-2644

Anthony Mangieri, in certain circles, is considered pizza royalty. The authentic Neapolitan pies he slung at his NY-based Una Pizza Napoletana were considered among the very best in the city. Then the news came: Mangieri was closing shop.

I was devastated. After reading rave reviews of the place in Ed Levine's A Slice of Heaven and on Jeff Varasano's website, I had placed Una Pizza Napoletana at the top of my list of pizzerias to try whenever I made it out to New York. Now, it was never going to happen.

Shortly thereafter, a post on the venerable Slice blog caught my eye: Mangieri was coming back to make a few more pies for the Food & Wine Magazine's annual Pieman's Craft event, a two-day pizza extravaganza hosted by Ed Levine and Slice founder Adam Kuban. Tickets were going fast, so fast that the event's first day was already completely sold out. But, but...there were still a few tickets left for the second day. Charged by adrenaline, fueled by impulse, I typed in my credit card number and scored two tickets. I gave no consideration as to how I would actually get to New York, just that I would find some way of doing it.

It wasn't easy. I procrastinated on the plane tickets and ended up paying far more than I would have liked. Hotel options for the weekend of the event were extremely limited, and even at the budget traveler's level, pricey. I paid dearly, but now all the logistics were taken care of. I would be flying to New York City, the greatest city for pizza in the United States. Needless to say, I was giddy as a schoolgirl. A schoolgirl with a borderline pizza obsession.

After months of waiting, the day arrived, and through the window of the plane I watched the entire country roll by beneath me. I was deposited at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, caught a shuttle that wound for two hours through the traffic-choked streets of Manhattan, and eventually arrived at the first of the two hotels I had booked for the trip (only two nights could be secured at one hotel, so I had to book my first night here). After a filling dinner at Shake Shack outside Madison Square Garden, I had a good night's rest, then set out the following afternoon for the East Village branch of Motorino, the site of the Pieman's Craft event and the replacement for Mangieri's Una Pizza Napoletana.

I was the first to arrive, and soon enough met Adam Kuban, who knew me immediately by my Slice moniker, WikiAdam. I took a seat near the front windows, which was a smart decision, as the fresh breeze helped alleviate some of the heat trapped inside this tiny restaurant. Before long I was surrounded by fellow pizza fanatics, including Brooks Jones of Me, Myself, and Pie and Nick Sherman of Pizza Rules! I had the time of my life chatting with Brooks about NY pizza, Jeff Varasano's pizza recipe, and places he recommended I try around the area.

Then the big dogs arrived: Ed Levine, our charming host; Anthony Mangieri, looking exactly as he did in all the videos I'd seen filmed at Una Pizza before it closed; and Mathieu Palombino, owner of Motorino. I had read a lot of very positive press about Motorino's Neapolitan pies in the weeks leading up to this trip, and I couldn't believe how young Palombino looked. Could someone so youthful make truly sublime pizza? I was about to find out.

But first, for the purpose of comparison, we were served two NY-style slices. And believe me when I say to you that the difference was like night and day.

The first slice came courtesy of one of the Manhattan branches of Totonno's, the famous coal-fired pizzeria whose main base of operations is still undergoing repairs at Coney Island. The original Coney Island Totonno's is legendary, and many consider it to be one of the very finest pizzerias in the country, but its Manhattan branches do not carry the same clout in the estimations of most pizza aficionados. After trying this slice, it was easy to see why.

Most noticeably, the slice had a stale quality to it, as if it had been left to sit out overnight. The crust had decent char to it, but it lacked crispness and was chewier than I expected. Also, and I assume this is because of the coal-fired oven, there was the distinct flavor of cocoa in every bite; the smoke released by the burning coal had to be the culprit. As for the rest of the slice, the sauce seemed slightly thick, but I kind of liked the flavor of the mozzarella -- it tasted more than a little bit like macaroni and cheese. All in all, it was a pretty underwhelming slice, and I didn't finish it.

Next up came a substantially larger slice from Pizza Suprema, whose location was apparently close enough to the Slice offices to warrant inclusion in the taste-testing. As disappointed as I was with the Totonno's slice, I liked this one even less.

Again, being delivered halfway across the city had taken its toll on the slice, and it had lost much of its crispness in the process. The sauce was surprisingly sweet, and the cheese had perspired so much grease into it that I had a difficult time swallowing it. As with the Totonno's slice, I'm positive Suprema's pizza is much better when eaten at the source of its inception.

Once the waitstaff carried away our paper plates and mostly uneaten slices, they returned with a sign that foretold of better things to come: the red wine. Our glasses filed, a palpable sense of excitement rippled through the crowd like a stone dropped onto the surface of a lake. It meant only one thing: we would be eating the real pizza now. And after a pretty lackluster antipasti plate, it came.

The first full pie to hit our table was the Soppressata Piccante. It was immediately obvious that the crust took center stage here, with a very puffy cornicione, leopard-spotting galore, and perfect char blisters on the upskirt. This crust was crispy on the outside and marvelously chewy on the inside, light and airy and well-crafted. Topping this magnificent display of wood-fired dough was a San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh fior di latte, spicy soppressata (the gourmet's pepperoni), sliced garlic, chili oil, and thin slices of red chilies that most likely accompanied the bottle of said chili oil. Not knowing what to expect, I mistakenly bit into two of these innocent-looking little red circles and felt like I'd been stung in the mouth by a wasp. Those chilis bit down on my tongue harder than my own teeth had bit into the slice, and with my eyes filling up I chugged some ice water and gave my dining companions a thumbs-up sign to let them know I was still conscious. Note to all those planning on ordering this pizza from Motorino in the future: take it easy with those chilis. They are very flavorful, but they're packing more heat than John Dillinger.

I have to be honest: I liked this pie, but I didn't love it. I think the chili oil permeates too much of the pizza, infusing all of the sauce and cheese so that I could barely distinguish their individual properties. All I could taste were chilies. It's still a delicious pizza, but as it turns out, it was to be my least favorite of the three "real" pizzas served to us that day.

Next came the Filetti, Palombino's ode to Anthony Mangieri's notoriously sparse menu. Forgoing red sauce for a simple canvas of mozzarella, basil, cherry tomatoes, and olive oil, the Filetti was a more subdued--but in my opinion, far more successful--pizza than the Soppressata Piccante. Do not mistake this to mean it lacked flavor, because that couldn't be further from the truth.

The Filetti was dynamite, a spot-on Bianca pie that tasted fresh, delicious, and authentically Italian. That same great crust made a return appearance here, its smoky char lending itself well to the creamy mozz and sweet, juicy tomatoes. I really liked this pie.

Finally, the house Margherita was set down before us, and with one bite it was clear they had saved the best for last. This was everything a Margherita should be, from the tang of the tomato sauce to the soft creaminess of the mozzarella di bufala. I could find no fault in it, and I would have eaten more if only I hadn't gorged myself on so many slices from the Soppressata and Filetti.

Between rounds of pizza, we were also treated to a discussion of pizza from Levine, Mangieri, and Palombino. Mangieri and Palombino both delved into their deep passion for pizza and the journey that had led them to New York. It was inspiring, and that enthusiasm came through visibly in the food we were consuming. I had assumed from the description of the Pieman's Craft event that we would be eating pizzas from both Mangieri and Palombino, but I later learned that all three of the pies served to us that afternoon were entirely Palombino's, and that Mangieri's contribution was to simply man the oven (the oven he had built, no less). I was more than a little disappointed upon hearing this revelation, but thankfully, there was a bright light at the end of the tunnel: Mangieri told us he was moving to San Francisco and would reopen Una Pizza Napoletana there sometime in 2010. Hooray!

My stomach full and my head swimming with the wine, I made my way toward the exit and struck up a conversation with Adam Kuban. We discussed how I'd come all the way from Portland, Oregon to come to this event and to try as much New York pizza as possible, and he pressed upon me the absolute importance of getting out to Brooklyn that night to sample the slices at Di Fara, as this would be the last night they would be open before I had to return to Oregon on Tuesday. The decision was made: it was Di Fara or bust!

To be continued...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Impressions: Pizzeria Bianco

623 E Adams St
Phoenix, AZ 85004
(602) 258-8300

It was the volleyball that did it.

Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco has, for several years now, basked in the ebullient exaltations of Oprah, Martha Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel, and, far more importantly, pizza aficionados Ed Levine and Peter Reinhart. He is widely regarded as serving the best pizza in the U.S., and in the opinion of Mr. Levine, the best in the world. That's high praise.

I knew I had to get to Phoenix as soon as was humanly possible to see if these superlatives were being thrown down haphazardly or if maybe, just maybe, they were accurate. But a trip to Arizona to try a single restaurant? Insanity. I'm not made of money (not yet, anyway...)

Then, as fate would have it, a friend of mine and fellow pizza fanatic from Los Angeles scored a press pass to photograph the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) championships in Glendale, the city adjacent to Phoenix's western edge. This upped the stakes considerably: fly to Phoenix to eat great pizza and see a good friend? How could I pass this up?

The answer was, I couldn't, and I didn't. What follows is my Phoenix experience from the moment I touched down at the airport to receiving not the first, but the second check of the evening at Pizzeria Bianco.

The Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is an enigma of mind-numbing proportions. It is comprised of four disconnected terminals in the least-intuitive arrangement you can fathom. Unlike most airports, you can exit PHX from two directions, both the north and the south sides. Convenient? In theory, yes, but in actuality, no. Confusing? Absolutely. Read on.

Upon stepping off the plane into Terminal 4 at 2:55 in the afternoon, I knew I had several hours to kill before my friend arrived from Los Angeles at 9:00 that evening. Performing some quick calculations in my head, I toyed with the idea of hitting Bianco solo: Let's see here, it's 3 o'clock now...Bianco opens at 5pm...I can do this.

Lacking any transportation of my own, I immediately strolled over to the Information booth, at which sat a surly-looking elderly man who looked like he'd rather be absolutely anywhere else in the entire world than behind said booth, to inquire about bus services. After ascertaining which bus I would need to catch, I then received instructions to locate its stop at the terminal. Here are his directions, verbatim:

1. Turn left and follow the wall on your right past three or four baggage carousels.
2. About halfway across the room, make a 45-degree turn to your left toward the far corner.
3. Continue in that direction until you reach the elevators in the corner nook.
4. Ride the elevators to Level 2, then step out and make a right turn.
5. Watch the right wall (not the left, that's the north side!) for Door #22, about thirty paces, and go through those doors.
6. Outside, turn right and walk approximately 50 feet past the shuttle bus stop to the city bus stop.

There is no reason on God's green earth why catching the bus at an airport should be so convoluted, or why I should ever have to make a 45-degree turn anywhere. In every other airport I've flown into, the buses are waiting just outside the baggage claim area. That's where they always are, because that's where it makes sense for them to be.

But I digress. Eventually the bus showed up and I took it to the closest stop to Pizzeria Bianco, about a block away, and stepped out into 104-degrees sunshine so bright my hair immediately went five shades lighter. I kid, but this heat was nigh-unbearable. How could anyone live in these conditions? I wondered. I was out of the cool cradle of the air-conditioned bus for fifteen seconds and already I was starting to perspire from every pore on my body. Lovely.

Pressing on, I made the walk down 7th Street to Pizzeria Bianco, which itself is situated in a quaint little plaza called Heritage Square. The time was 3:30pm. There to my surprise I saw a man standing outside Bianco's, a soul who had actually braved the heat to be the first person in line. I took the #2 spot, leaned against one of the shaded wooden tables outside the restaurant, struck up a conversation with the man, and began the one-and-a-half-hour wait.

By 4 o'clock the line behind me had grown to thirty strong, and the neighboring Bar Bianco opened. I asked Jim (yes, I was on a first-name basis with the guy at the head of the line by now) to hold my place while I went to buy a cold pint of ale. I went through three pints by the time the restaurant opened, and by then the line was approaching 75 hungry patrons.

Fast-forward to the dining room. I'm sitting against one wall with the rest of Jim's family, who had graciously permitted me to join them for dinner. This allowed me the opportunity to try more than one pie on this visit, God bless them.

Craning my neck to see over the counter from our table, I was shocked to see that the man himself, Chris Bianco, was not present in the restaurant. This was quite astonishing to me because, well, much talk has been made of how Bianco makes every single pie himself. I had never heard of him taking a night off, have read no one else's report that he had not been present at their meal. I immediately got a bad feeling, but once the food arrived, all fears that his absence would aversely affect our dinner were thoroughly smashed.

We started with the house Anitpasto Plate ($12), a delicious platter piled with vegetables roasted in Bianco's wood-fired oven, soppressata, some cheese, and a few slices of Bianco's excellent homemade bread with olive oil. Everything on the plate was fantastic, particularly the sampling of eggplant parmesan. It was a good sign for what was to come, as we had also ordered four pizzas.

Let's begin with the Margherita ($11). It was, hands-down, the very best Margherita I have ever tasted. There are four reasons for this, but no more are needed: incredible crust, fantastic tomato sauce, creamy mozzarella, and flavorful basil. It's really that simple. Chris Bianco makes his own mozzarella, and it is superior to any I have yet had on a pizza. His red sauce is simple, bright, and salted just right, with just a hint of oregano. It is also superior to any sauce I have yet tasted. But I want to make special mention of the crust. It is clearly not an authentic Naples-style crust, but that's not what he's shooting for. It's light, airy, pliant, alternately puffy and flat, with charred (not burnt) air bubbles dotting the rim. It was very flavorful, just as the bread in the antipasto plate was, and slightly soft, a far cry from the more solid NY-style crust. All pizzaiolo should strive for crusts as perfect as Bianco's. If any fault whatsoever could be found on this Margherita, it's that Bianco's second-in-command (or whoever it was making the pies tonight) did not put enough basil on the pie after it was pulled from the oven. The way it was cut, one slice did not even have any basil on it, but I'm sure it was because Bianco himself wasn't at the helm.

Our second pizza was the Sonny Boy ($13), which includes the aforementioned tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, Gaeta olives, and large slices of salami. If the Margherita hadn't been so spot-on, this would have been my favorite pie of the night. It's quite salty, with a strong olive taste, so those with delicate palates may be turned off by it, but I found the flavors intense and pleasurable. The crust isn't quite strong enough to hold up to the mass of toppings on this pizza, so be prepared for folding.

The Biancoverde ($14) was the first of our two "white" pies. The Biancoverde eschews the red sauce for fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, ricotta, and arugula. Typically I do not find white pies as interesting as red sauce pies (as the ricotta usually overpowers everything else), but the Biancoverde manages to avoid this criticism by turning the conventions on their side. The peppery arugula leaves are considerably smaller than the ones offered in just about every other pizzeria, and while they bring immense flavor to this pizza, they don't overwhelm it. The mozz, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and ricotta work in perfect harmony with each other, with no one cheese overshadowing the other two. This is a great white pie, and not one I was expecting to like so much.

Finally, we have the Wiseguy ($14). This pie also lacks red sauce, opting instead to top the same great crust with mozzarella smoked in Bianco's wood-burning oven, wood-roasted onion, and fennel sausage. The smoked mozzarella is dynamite, bringing a new dimension to the already-magnificent cheese. Cut into long strips rather than crumbled, the fennel sausage was thick and had a great snap to it when bitten into. The onion was good, slightly sweet, but didn't have that same punch of flavor the rest of the ingredients on this pie had. All in all, this was probably my least favorite pie of the night, though "least favorite pie" may be misleading: it's still better than 99% of the pizzas available in the rest of the country. My companions and I all agreed it would benefit greatly from the addition of the red sauce.

Pizzeria Bianco offers no desserts, so once we were done with the pizza, we paid the bill and vacated our table for the next eager group, who by then had been waiting in line nearly two hours. I thanked Jim and his family for letting me dine with them, then caught the next bus back to the airport.

Once my friend Mark arrived and we had secured a rental car, he mentioned that he had not eaten anything for several hours and was famished. Pizzeria Bianco came up. It was fifteen minutes to ten o'clock. Could we make it in time? Mark was willing to find out.

Slamming the accelerator to the floor, Mark cruised down the freeway to the 7th Street exit, navigated around a series of Road Closure signs, and pulled up outside Bianco's with minutes to spare. While he drove off to find a parking space, I got out and secured our names on the waiting list. The hostess (who vaguely recognized me from that afternoon, but assumed I had eaten there previously on a different day) informed me the wait would be an hour-and-a-half to two hours; I was just grateful (and amazed) Pizzeria Bianco still took names right up until closing time.

The wait ended up being only about an hour, during which time Mark and I sat on a bench outside in the relatively cooler 90-degrees air, sipping on pints of cream ale. When we finally got into the restaurant, the last group served that night, Mark knew just what he wanted: a Margherita, a Sonny Boy, and a Wiseguy. I still wanted to try Bianco's Marinara and Rosa pies, but I was in no position to argue, having already eaten there once that same day. Mark loved the pizzas, particularly the Margherita, and informed me he could devour three of them by himself. Our waiter, overhearing him, gestured to a young man sitting at the bar, clearly a regular. "That kid's the record holder," he told us. "He's eaten five of them." On our way out, Mark stopped by the bar to challenge the lad to an eat-off the next time he was in town, and the kid gladly accepted, much to the amusement of our chuckling waiter.

So there you have it, my dual experience with Pizzeria Bianco. I am not a huge fan of the city of Phoenix, but I can say this: I will return to Pizzeria Bianco in the future, as many times as possible. My favorite single pizza may still the Hot Soppressata and Basil pie at Ken's, but overall, Chris Bianco is serving the very best pizza I have ever eaten. I cannot envision better pizza being made anywhere, but my quest shall continue regardless. If you call yourself a lover of pizza and have not sampled Chris Bianco's pies yet, they are absolutely worth a foodie trip to Phoenix, even if you have no other reason for being there. They're that good. No. They're that great.

Next time, though, I'll skip the volleyball.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Review: Apizza Scholls

4741 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Portland, OR 97215
(503) 233-1286

In Portland, Oregon, a veritable melting pot of tree-hugging hippies, tech-savvy yuppies, organic food junkies and white trash, a pizza revolution is beginning to take form, and the most popular iteration of this burgeoning pizza haven must certainly be Apizza Scholls.

Nestled between a chocolate shop and the Bar of the Gods on hip Hawthorne Boulevard, Apizza Scholls dishes out whole pies to legions of local fans seven days a week (5pm - 9:30pm Monday thru Saturday, 4pm - 8pm Sunday). Such is the enthusiastic fervor surrounding the pizzeria that lines can form thirty-strong or more an hour prior to opening on Fridays and Saturdays, making a simple walk-in-sit-down-and-order an impossible affair on busy weekends. To-go orders are available only Monday through Wednesday, but after that, expect a long wait if you're not there when the doors open.

After the moment of heart-stopping elation that comes when the hostess calls your name, you're ushered to one of the ten or so tables in either of the dual dining rooms. D├ęcor is sparse, with simply painted walls adorned with the occasionally piece of framed artwork. It's really nothing special. But you're not here for the atmosphere, you're here for the eats!

Thankfully, Scholls has several beers on tap to get you nice and buzzed, all at $4.50 a pint (except for the Schneider Hopfen-Weisse at $6), as well as nearly 30 more bottled. Several red and white wines are also readily available, along with an impressive array of Boylan's soft drinks.

(photo courtesy Apizza Scholls)

The menu is as expansive as the drink list. Beyond the usual house and Caesar salads ($7 and $8, respectively) you'll find some delicious antipasti options, such as an assortment of delicious cured olives ($5), a veggie plate with roasted red peppers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, cherry peppers, Fior di Latte, and grilled artichoke hearts ($10) and a meat plate with proscuitto rosa, salame Gentile, soppressata, salame Siciliana, and mortadella ($10). Your best bet is the House Antipasti Plate, which offers a hearty mix of both the meat and veggie plates. All of it is cured to perfection and a steal at $12.

And that brings us to the pies, and what pies they are. An unabashed mash-up of New York and New Haven styles, pizzas at Scholls are large 18-to-20-inch discs with a well-charred, crisp crust that holds up well to the toppings, whatever they may be. The air pocket-filled outer crust is bubbly and perfect, with a nice crisp crunch giving way to a light, chewy center. Owner and head pizzaolo Brian Spangler closely monitors every pie in his electric oven with an infrared thermometer gun, watching them char under controlled 700°F+ heat and making sure each one comes out perfect. As far as I can tell, he has succeeded every time.

Scholls neophytes should begin with their version of the margherita, known here as the 'Margo'rita ($20). Atop the impeccable crust you'll find a vibrant tomato sauce, a mix of both fresh and aged mozzarella, pecorino romano, plenty of fresh garlic, olive oil, and basil. The garlic and aged mozzarella meld in the oven and give every bite of this pie a solid punch of salty, garlicky goodness.

Even better is Apizza Scholls's incredible Sausage Pie ($20). Hefty chunks of sweet fennel sausage (made in-house!) are scattered in perfect balance over the plain pie, and after repeated trips I can safely say I have never had a better version of it. If and when you come to Scholls, do not pass this one up. It is absolutely delicious.

(photo courtesy Apizza Scholls)

Though I am not the biggest fan of white pies, Apizza Scholls's New York White Pie ($22) is one of the best I can recall having. Here the red sauce is forgone for layers of mozzarella (both fresh and aged), pecorino romano, fresh garlic, herbs, black pepper, sea salt, and olive oil. Bring an additional element to the white pie with the Bacon Bianca ($22), which adds the house-smoked bacon to the party. The luscious pork belly brings out the flavors in the cheese, herbs, and garlic, and is a revelation.

Scholls offers a single item on their dessert menu: It's-It Ice Cream Sandwiches from San Francisco ($2). These tasty little sugar bombs are composed of a scoop of vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two oatmeal cookies and dipped in dark chocolate. They're good, but after stuffing your face with three or four large slices, chances are you won't have room for them.

If you're in Portland for any reason and consider yourself a fan of pizza, skipping Apizza Scholls is the most cardinal of cardinal sins. A Slice of Heaven author and Serious Eats founder Ed Levine named it one of the "Top Five Pizzerias in America," and after just one of Spangler's masterpieces, you'll understand why.

OVEN: Electric

RECOMMENDED: House Antipasti Plate, Margherita with Sausage

Friday, October 2, 2009

Impressions: Wy'east Pizza

3131 SE 50th Ave
Portland, OR 97206

This tiny trailer resting in one corner of a near-vacant parking lot in a less-than-hip neighborhood may not look like much on the outside, but like so many things in this life we wander through, it is what is beneath the shell that truly matters.

In this case, it's good Neo-Neapolitan pies prepared by a mustachioed man known only as "Squish."