Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Impressions: Pyro Pizza

SE 12th and Hawthorne (in Cartopia)
Portland, OR
(503) 929-1404

No city in America is more associated with food carts than Portland, Oregon. Czech, Mexican, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Polish, Turkish, Venezuelan, Southern, name it, Portland's probably got it in a convenient on-the-go form.

Neapolitan-style pizza, there's a rare commodity in the food cart scene.

Until today, I was aware of only one food cart serving this kind of pizza in the city, and that was Wy'east over on SE 50th. There, proprietor "Squish" cooks his Naples-and-New York-inspired pies one at a time in a tiny gas-fired oven, and does a very fine job with it.

But then a friend of mine alerted me to another food cart in Portland over in SE 12th and Hawthorne's "Cartopia," one that was serving Neapolitan/NY-style pizza from a wood-burning oven. A wood-burning oven. In a cart. My mind was effectively blown.

How could that work? A wood-burning oven in one of those diminutive shacks-on-wheels certainly seems like an accident waiting to happen, at worst a death wish for some suicidal pizzaiolo wishing to submit his body to the conflagration with which his product so desperately communes. Gathering my neighbors from across the street (who with their far superior camera graciously provided some of the photos for this piece), I set out tonight to see just what sort of madness was at play here on this cold autumn's eve.

Pyro Pizza is a more intimidating cart than most of the others clustered in "Cartopia." It sits higher than the others, requiring the use of a deck to reach the service window, through which owner John Eads's surprisingly large domed oven can be viewed plainly. As we approached the cart, Eads was gathering what looked like alder wood for the oven. He brought the wood to the side of the cart, where a chopping block and maul lay waiting. Yes folks, he proceeded to chop the wood then and there, splitting it to a size better suited to the oven. I can think of no better way of measuring Eads's pride in his work, that his love of pizza would permit the necessity of the most primeval means of manual labor: splitting firewood. Not for a brick-and-mortar pizzeria, may I remind you, but for a pizza cart. That's dedication, my friends.

Filled with an immense sense of respect for the man, my friends and I ordered two pizzas off the menu: the traditional Margherita (with mozzarella di bufala!), and the daily special, which was the roasted garlic, plum tomato, spinach, and gorgonzola pizza. Both were ready in five minutes, twelve-inch wonders served simply on wax paper in reusable baskets.

I sampled the Traditional Margherita ($8) first. Eads spreads his dough very, very thin, and this makes for a marvelously crisp crust with light-to-moderate charring on the underside. The cornicione is large, puffy, and chewy, with a nice hole structure. I should note that Eads makes his dough fresh every day with Bob's Red Mill whole wheat flour, but for whatever reason, it doesn't smack of whole wheat like the many other versions I've tried over the years. Eads's crust has the flavor of good bread, and thankfully is neither fibrous of texture nor "healthy" in taste. You know what I mean. I think the crust is pretty great, and with the heavenly black blisters making periodic appearances, worthy of being eaten in its entirety.

The red sauce is not yet perfect. It was alternately too sweet or too salty, depending on the bite, and at times I swear I could taste something akin to aluminum, perhaps from the cans the tomatoes had been packed in? Hard to tell. Sometimes you just get a bad tomato in the can. It's not a bad sauce by any means, but it could stand some improvement. (Ed. -- I just heard from Eads that the sauce contains no sugar. Instead, the sweetness in the sauce comes entirely from the tomatoes and the roasted red onions blended in with them. Fascinating!)

I'm curious to know where Eads gets his buffalo mozzarella, because while it tasted fine on the Margherita, its time spent in the oven disintegrated every ounce of it into ricotta. It's tough to tell by looking at the pictures, but trust me, it was evident on the first bite. Very peculiar.

I'm also curious to know where he gets his gargantuan basil. I mean, just look at the basil in that first shot of the Margherita. It's huge. Took up the whole slice! It tasted great, too. Fresh, vibrant, and full of flavor. Speaking of the basil, I washed down my pizza with Eads's homemade Basil Lime Soda ($1.50). This was an initially strange yet oddly satisfying soda in which you could very much taste the basil of its namesake. I don't know how Eads makes it, whether he uses fresh basil and extracts its essence or achieves it by some other means, but this is a winner.

The second pie, the Daily Special ($8), was much heavier on the toppings, and as such the crust wasn't quite able to support them (though a quick fold remedied that). There are a lot of strong flavors working together here: the gorgonzola is aggressive with a very pleasant bite, the bits of plum tomatoes provide wonderfully sweet explosions of juice, and the huge chunks of roasted garlic ooze their fragrant oils over the entire pie. I couldn't quite taste the spinach, but given those first three ingredients, it's easy to understand why.

I liked the special with its complex, robust flavor set, but it was hard to eat more than a slice of it. It may be too rich for my palate, but others bored of the more basic pies may find just what they're looking for here. It's a great pizza for sharing.

Before we left, I managed to speak to Eads briefly about Pyro Pizza and the fact that it has been open for only two weeks now. We also chatted about his oven, which is comprised of a brick floor and a refractory dome. Eads says he built the oven first on the four-wheel flatbed, then built the trailer around the oven. It's now crammed full with a work counter, coolers in the back to store the various ingredients and sodas, a fully functional sink, shelves, and even a rack of fancy lights (which you can kind of see in the photo above). This was clearly a planned operation, and if it wasn't, then I'm even more amazed. Eads already owns another pizza cart in downtown Portland called Give Pizza a Chance, an establishment I have not yet frequented but certainly will after my experience here.

It's still early in the life of Pyro Pizza. There are some kinks to work out, but so far the pies coming out of John Eads's oven are surprisingly good for pizza from a cart of all places. Next time (and there will definitely be a next time) I'm going to try some of the other items on his menu, including the pepperoni and the Cuattro Formaggi. I've also heard that Eads on occasion makes a bacon-and-egg pizza, which I'd love to sample.

For the prices Eads is selling these pies, you're getting a heck of a deal. If you're not in the mood to wait in line at one of Portland's more popular pizzerias, I highly encourage you to swing by Pyro and get your fix. It's quick, it's good, and Eads's love of pizza comes through in every bite.

And you may as well get some poutine from Potato Champion while you're there, since you're in the neighborhood...

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: Margherita, Basil Lime Soda

Friday, November 13, 2009

Impressions: Pizzicato

Various Locations

In the realm of local pizza chains, Portland's got a few: Pizza Schmizza, Hot Lips, and Pizzicato spring most readily to mind. I'm naturally inclined to expect pizza below the caliber of Portland's best from them, but considering the franchising and sheer volume these chains put out, I don't think that's unreasonable.

Sometimes, though, you just don't feel like waiting in line for pizza.

This was the case last night when I was craving pizza but really wasn't up to the physical drain that came with waiting for a table at the uber-popular Ken's Artisan. No, last night was all about picking up the phone, calling my local Pizzicato (only a few blocks away!) and ordering a large cheese pizza ($17) which I could pick up in only 20 minutes.

Pizzicato was established in Portland in 1989 (good year for music!) and has since blossomed to 23 locations, including one in Denver, Colorado of all places. Pizzas come in small (10"), medium (12"), and large (16") sizes, and often come with a wide variety of toppings, such as barbecued chicken, artichoke hearts, and garlic-marinated shrimp. Tonight, though, I stuck with the simple plain pie. As soon as I got it home I flipped open the box, snapped a few shots, then dug in while it was still hot.

It becomes pretty clear early on that Pizzicato is striving to replicate a NY slice with their pies. The crust is dense, chewy on the inside but crispy on the outside, and dusted with cornmeal, presumable to slide it into and out of the gas-heated ovens more easily. I don't really walk into places like Pizzicato expecting char, and apart from some browning on the bottom of the pizza, there isn't any. No matter; char is hardly necessary on a NY-style slice.

The tangy, heavily-salted tomato sauce hides beneath a layer of salty aged mozzarella, salty grated parmesan, and what the Pizzicato menu calls "herbs," which as far as I could tell consisted primarily of finely-chopped bits of parsley and maybe some oregano. Tough to say, as the herbs held virtually no flavor as far as I could tell.

So how does it taste? Decent, actually. Nothing amazing by any stretch of the imagination, but a pretty standard NY-style slice nonetheless. I've had better, and I've had worse. As you may have surmised, the pizza is a tad on the salty side, but that's a good thing, because without the salt this pizza probably wouldn't taste like anything. The dough used for the crust is almost completely devoid of flavor, standard for this type of pizza. I had mistakenly presumed it was mass-produced in a Pizzicato warehouse somewhere, but an employee (see the comments below) informed me that it's actually made fresh everyday, which I do appreciate.

That's really all I have to say about it. It's hardly the worst pizza in town, and if you're throwing a party and need some pies to feed the hungry masses, Pizzicato is more than up to the task, though I do think they charge a bit much for what they're offering. Okay, yes, they overcharge. I haven't tried Hot Lips or Pizza Schmizza yet, but once I have, I'll decide which is the best of the local chains. Until then, I have some leftover slices to attend to...


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Impressions: Serious Pie

316 Virginia Street
Seattle, WA 98101
(206) 838-7388

If any chef in Seattle is a household name, it's Tom Douglas. A James Beard award-winner twice over, he owns no less than six restaurants, all of which are located in downtown Seattle. All are known for something specific (seafood at Etta's, pastries at Dahlia Bakery, etc.). At Serious Pie, the name of the game is pizza, though after eating there recently, I can't help but wish Douglas would read Peter Reinhart's book, American Pie, particularly the chapters concerning pizza dough.

I got to Serious Pie around 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and the place was just packed. There were people crowding the waiting area, waiting to be seated, and all I could do was stand there and marvel at the popularity of this place (and the meat coolers positioned front and center). I mean, a full house on a Saturday at off-hours? If that's not a very good sign indeed, I don't know what is.

Soon enough I was seated at one of Serious Pie's communal tables, sharing the dining space with several other patrons. Sitting directly next to me was a young couple who eyed my camera and notepad with curious sideways glances, nothing new to us food-blogging geeks who stand out like sore thumbs no matter how diligent we are about blending in. I secretly prayed they wouldn't be irked by my obtrusive dining routine and pretended they just weren't there. Like I do with the monsters in my closet every night.

Serious Pie has a great Happy Hour deal: the pizzas on the menu are served in personal sizes for a mere $5. Unfortunately, this is a Monday through Friday offer, so I was out of luck. Constricted to a single pie, I chose the house Margherita, which, as the menu attests, is made with buffalo mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes. Another good sign.

While waiting for my pizza, I managed to strike up a conversation with the previously-ignored young couple to my right, who introduced themselves as Chris and Zen. They had ordered one of the other items on the menu I had wanted to try, the fennel sausage and cherry bomb pepper pizza, and after explaining who I was and what I was doing there, they cheerfully offered to share their pie with me in exchange for a few slices of my Margherita. They were so charming and personable and fascinated with the idea of a pizza blog, how could I refuse?

Then the Margherita ($15) arrived. Pizzas at Serious Pie are oval, not round, and are served on a rectangular slab. The pizzas are surprisingly small, especially considering the prices being charged. They're cut into eight fairly square slices, with the slices on the four corners consisting almost entirely of crust.
And here we come to Serious Pie's crushing downfall. Despite hearing assertions to the contrary, I cannot say that this is a good crust.
At first glance, though, it looks like a good crust. Like the pizza at Mozza in Los Angeles, the cornicione here at Serious Pie is enormous. It is impossibly airy, filled with gaping air pockets you could land a jumbo jet in. But this is the sole strength of the crust. A crust can be as airy as helium for all I care, but if it doesn't taste good, then what's the point? And the Serious Pie crust, it must be said, doesn't taste all that great. The base of this surprisingly greasy Margherita was dusted with cornmeal which had soaked up some of the oil, and the cornicione was caked with what looked and tasted like clumps of very buttery flour. It was very unappealing.

The toppings fared no better, and in fact managed to be even less appetizing than the crust. The menu said this sauce was made with San Marzano tomatoes, but to taste them you sure as hell wouldn't know it. I make a basic San Marzano sauce on my homemade pizzas, and it's a thousand times more flavorful than Serious Pie's. Their sauce is also very chunky--large hunks of tomato lay scattered on the pizza like red hills on a Kansan plain at sunset. The so-called buffalo mozzarella used here was completely bland and lacked the creaminess of the buffalo mozz I've had, well, just about anywhere else. And the basil, sliced and minimal, was undetectable on the tongue.

What was going on in that kitchen? I couldn't believe that such mediocrity could garner this ardent praise among the Seattle food community. Staring at my half-eaten Margherita, I wondered what they were seeing that I wasn't. Or rather, what they were eating that I wasn't.

I was just about to write Serious Pie off completely when my new friends Chris and Zen received their Fennel Sausage and Cherry Bomb Pepper pie ($16). Smelling it as it passed by, I knew at once it had to taste better than my Margherita, and this was confirmed the moment I sunk my teeth into it.

Oh the crust was just as disappointing as the one on my Margherita, but the toppings on this pizza more than made up for it. The fennel sausage is sweet, and delivers a robust, meaty punch the Margherita desperately needed. The peppers were even better: sweet, not at all spicy, but peppery enough to add a new dimension of flavor to the pie. These two ingredients rested atop the same bland tomato sauce, but they were so flavorful that I barely noticed anything else. This was a much tastier pizza than the Margherita, so much so that the presence of the Margherita on Serious Pie's menu is actually providing a great disservice to the restaurant's credibility. I mean, these two pizzas were like night and day. Do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to order their Margherita. For $15, it's outright thievery.

But do order that sausage and pepper pie.

Maybe I caught Serious Pie on an off day. Maybe I didn't. Who knows? I do know I'll be back again to try more of their pizzas and find out once and for all whether this is a place I'll recommend to others or shun forevermore. For now, all I can do is quote my wise neighbor, Sarah Wilson: "Serious Pie...Serious Disappointment."

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: Fennel Sausage and Cherry Bomb Pepper pie

Update 11/11/10 -- Finally made it back to Serious Pie to give it a second chance after the first underwhelming visit. My brother joined me despite the pouring rain, and together we tackled six of the eight mini-pizzas available on the Happy Hour menu. My overall reaction? More positive than the first visit, absolutely. I still don't hesitate to say this is not great pizza, though.

Some thoughts:

1.) The crust still bugs me. It tasted a lot better this time around than it did before, but the underside is still caked with a thick layer of flour and cornmeal, so that when it enters your mouth, it flakes off and forms a kind of mush on your tongue. So bizarre, and not pleasant.

2.) The Margherita this time was a hundred times better than the one I ate on my first visit. There was an ample amount of shredded parmesan on top to provide the saltiness that was missing from the first Margherita, and the sauce was heavily herbed, whereas the first Margherita's was a flavorless red paste.

3.) I enjoyed the sausage and peppers pie on my first visit, and once again, it was the pizza of the night. Great fennel-spiked sausage and peppers that deliver just a hint of heat.

4.) Pumpkin and squash are not idea pizza toppings. We tried two pizzas with these gourds, the pumpkin with pork belly and the delicate squash with roasted garlic. Both needed the addition of the second topping.

5.) The truffle cheese and roasted mushroom pizza was surprisingly sweet, and light on flavor. The sweetness came from the cheese, overpowering the mushrooms. Nothing memorable.

6.) The most interesting pizza of the evening was the guanciale, soft egg, and Beacon Hill arugula pie. The egg was cooked through, which I appreciated, as I don't particularly enjoy runny whites. Tasted great, too. Nice fresh arugula, slightly peppery. The pizzaiolo was pretty stingy with the guanciale, though. It really needed that pork flavor to tie the other two toppings together.

In conclusion, it appears that Serious Pie is like many other pizzerias, in that consistency varies greatly from one day to the next. My first visit here was a massive disappointment. My second visit...not totally redeeming, but a vast improvement. If they could cut down on the pantry-full of flour and cornmeal inundating the bottom of the crust, they'd be taking another huge step in the right direction.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Portland Pizza Crawl with Adam Kuban

1401 SE Morrison St
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 234-2427

2738 NE Alberta St
Portland, OR 97211
(503) 253-6766

Pizza blogs are a dime a dozen, but one blog stands head and shoulders above the rest (including this one). Do I even need to tell you?

It's Slice.

Adam Kuban, a former Portlander, moved to New York City around the turn of the century and founded Slice as an ode to his one true love: pizza. Okay, maybe he has a different true love, but I don't know him that well, so let's just assume it's pizza.

Anyway. Slice. It is the pizza blog to read on the internets. Slice got picked up by Ed Levine's Serious Eats, which just happens to be the food blog to read on the...yeah, you get it. Both sites have benefited from the association with the other, and both are mega-popular among the foodies. If you want to know about pizza--not just in NY, but across the world--you read Slice.

So imagine my excitement when I learned that Adam Kuban was about to embark on a serious pizza research expedition of the West Coast, and that his first stop would be Portland, Oregon (you know, where I live), and that he wanted me to join him on his two-day Portland pizza crawl.

As the writer of a pizza blog, I am shamefully indifferent to the idea that a site like mine (well, mine specifically) should offer its readership such amenities as, oh, daily updates, or comprehensive pizza coverage. I'm just too slow and lazy to be on top of things like that. In Portland, this tiny speck of a metropolis, you can count the notable pizzerias on one hand (plus one or two extra fingers if you're feeling generous). Of these six or seven pizzerias, I had visited a grand total of three. Just disgraceful, yeah?

That was all going to change now with Adam Kuban's arrival. Since he wanted to hit as many of Portland's best pizza joints during his brief stay in town, and since I was going to pal around with him the whole time, I was going to get to try two new places I hadn't hit yet and probably wouldn't for another few months of procrastination. It was perfect: work and play, living together in joyous harmony like the slogan on some peacenik bumper sticker on the back of a brown 1987 station wagon.

We hit Ken's Artisan Pizza first. You all know how I feel about Ken's (and if you don't, just read about it here). I wanted so desperately to have that high opinion validated by hearing Adam say he loved it too. I knew my plan couldn't fail. You see, I had a secret weapon: it's called the Soppressata Basil pie, and Ken's makes a masterful version of it. I knew that if Adam tried this pizza, he'd become a believer.

Then God in His infinite jest proved once again how little control we have over this world of ours and halted the production of the soppressata Ken's uses for one week. The one week Adam Kuban of Slice was in town, he would not be able to eat my absolute favorite meal in Portland. This is the definition of suffering.

We still had a great meal at Ken's. The hit of the evening was the fennel sausage & onion pie, to which we added hot Calabrian chilies, and Adam loved it (or at least he said as much to placate me). You can read his thoughts on the experience here.

From Ken's we went directly to Wy'east Pizza, the cart two blocks north of Powell on 50th (you can read my impressions here and Adam's here). We ended up getting the last ball of dough for the evening, but had to wait about two hours for the finished pizza (Wy'east cooks only one pie at a time, you see, so the queue fills up rather quickly). It tasted the same as it did the first time I was there, which is to say that it's a decent pie (made even more so by the fact that it's from a cart, though that crust was still lacking in flavor.

On Day 2, the schedule was tight: Apizza Scholls, followed by Nostrana, then concluding with Al Forno Ferruzza.

Had I any foresight whatsoever, I would not have gorged myself at Apizza Scholls. I am in love with Brian Spangler's sausage pie, and tonight's was no exception. Just the best sausage pizza in the world. We also tried the 'Margo'rita, the Apizza Amore (a 'Margo'rita with hot capicola), and the house special, which had some kind of pork, onions, and Italian spices sprinkled on top. All were magnificent, and Spangler was a gracious host. He even handed out free T-shirts. Cool! You can read Adam's opinion here.

There was no delay between Scholls and our next destination, Nostrana. Nostrana is a full Italian restaurant, offering many great entrees on its menu, but we were only there for the pizza. Nostrana has the distinction of being the only pizzeria in Portland with VPN certification (CORRECTION: Nostrana is not VPN-certified. They have a Vera Pizza Napoletana sign up for "decoration" inside the restaurant, but no actual certification). This can mean anything, really, as it's no true indication of the quality of the pizza, only that it has been made to the precise specifications of the Verace Pizza Napoletana organization in Naples, Italy. So it was with high hopes (and a full stomach) that we sat down and ordered a single Margherita.

The pie was out of Nostrana's wood-burning oven lickity-split and placed before us piping hot. Nostrana, in the true Neapolitan tradition, does not cut its pies, instead opting to present its pizzas to the customer as whole discs. They do, however, provide some durable kitchen shears that do the job nicely. There's some kind of joyous youthful nostalgia that comes with picking up those scissors and cutting into your pizza as if it were construction paper, and Adam and I actually did a pretty good job of dividing the pie into six equal slices with them.

As for the pizza itself, it didn't rock my world. It's far from the best Neapolitan-style pizza I've had in the United States, and not even close to the top of the list for even the Pacific Northwest. The best thing about it is the sauce, as it's a pretty standard San Marzano blend. The rest of the pie seems a step down in quality from other VPN-certified pizzerias I've visited, such as Tutta Bella and Ristorante Picolinos in Seattle. The crust that night--crisper than most Neapolitan pies--was a little bland, and the mozzarella was on the thick side. It's not a bad pie by any means, just not an outstanding one. And next-day reheating is out of the question: I tried it, and it was a disaster, turning the crust to rubber and the collective flavors to something very unappealing. I still recommend you get a pizza when you come here, but get one with more toppings on it, and finish it there.

Last stop of the crawl: Al Forno Ferruzza, the former PSU-adjacent cart-turned-brick-and-mortar pizzeria. Adam and I were joined by one of his old Portland pals, and the three of us dug into the house Margherita. I think Adam said it best: "It smells and tastes like the pizza I make at home." This is actually a dead-on assessment of the pizza at Al Forno Ferruzza. The crust is salty and chewy, not astoundingly airy but not overly dense either. The sauce is alternately smooth and chunky (I got an enormous cube of tomato on my slice) and just a little too salty, often pushed aside by the mounds of too-thick cheese that hasn't been in the oven long enough to melt fully. Rounding out the toppings is a nice grated Argentine parmesan that helped give the pie a little more character, which up to this point had been lacking.

Like Nostrana, this isn't bad pizza. Far from it, actually. It's just not blow-your-mind pizza like Ken's Artisan or Apizza Scholls. If you're hungry for pizza and you're in the neighborhood, and don't feel like driving/waiting in line at either of the two Big Ones, you could do worse than Al Forno Ferruzza. I've heard the calzones are killer, too; next time I'll try one.

So that was the two-day pizza bonanza with Adam Kuban. I had a blast, and I hope Adam did, too. He flew off the next day to hit a few places in Seattle (among them Serious Pie, which I'll be writing up next), followed by San Francisco, L.A., and Phoenix, so his pizza binge was just getting started. Me, I had enough leftovers in the fridge from these shenanigans to cover lunch for a week, but somehow I couldn't bear to look at another slice for...well, at least a day.

Hey, there are starving kids in Africa. Can't let this perfectly good pizza go to waste.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Impressions: Delancey

1415 NW 70th Street
Seattle, WA 98117
(206) 838-1960

I can't think of a single pizzeria in recent memory that's opened with more buzz than Delancey in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. Mega-popular food blogger Molly Wizenberg of Orangette used her not-inconsiderable charm on her flock to champion her husband Brandon Pettit's vision for sublime Neapolitan and New York-inspired pies long before anyone had tasted a bite, but the hype didn't stop there. Pettit managed to build up an impressive following on Twitter (at last count, nearly 2,500 followers) as he detailed the day-to-day minutiae of putting together an artisan pizzeria in a space that needed substantial renovations. News that he had fine-tuned his recipe after visiting such pizza goliaths as Di Fara in Brooklyn, Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Ken's Artisan Pizza in Portland, and Mozza in Los Angeles had the foodies foaming at the mouth. Even New Yorkers heard the whistle of the rumor train barreling down the tracks toward them, demanding their attention: a serious addition to American pizza would soon be birthed, not in Manhattan or Brooklyn, but in the country's grey-swathed shoulder. No, not Maine, the other shoulder.

Naturally, such fervent expectations are eventually met with the inevitable smack of reality, and oftentimes it can be sobering just how spectacularly those assumptions of greatness have misfired. Praise the pizza gods then that this was not the case with Delancey.

I first visited Delancey a few weeks after it had opened with my siblings and a friend, arriving at the restaurant fifteen minutes before it opened. A line had already started to form at the door, so we took our places dutifully and watched as the tail behind us lengthened with each passing minute. Soon enough, though, the doors open, the smell of baking cookies drifted out, and we were ushered inside to a four-top possessing the distinct advantage of being located next to the restaurant's large street-facing windows, allowing much natural light to fall beautifully on our food.

We began with a salad of sweet corn, basil, and cherry tomatoes tossed in a shallot vinaigrette, which was clean and crisp and very fresh. Delancey offers a nice selection of beers on tap, though one we had wanted to try, the Chucanut Helles, had been tapped out the night before, and they had not yet procured a replacement. We chalked it up to First Month Syndrome and went with the tasty Hales Red Menace instead.

It wasn't long after we placed our order that our pizzas arrived (oh how I love the abbreviated cooking times in a blazing hot wood-fired oven!), steaming and giving off the irresistible scent of freshly baked bread. The sauce looked bright, the cheese gooey and inviting. We quickly tore into our fare and were not disappointed.

We split two pizzas that visit. The first was the Brooklyn ($12), a cheese-lover's go-to pie with the house tomato sauce topped with both fresh and aged mozzarella (a combo I always find impeccable for pizza), along with basil and grated Grana, a hard cheese from Italy that's very close to Parmigiano-Reggiano, salty and sharp (essential qualities in a cheese, I say).

This really was a great pie. Brandon's sauce has superb tomato flavor, with tones of garlic playing in the background. His crust bears the appearance of a more artisanal pie, with plenty of blackened bubbles and blisters, but is as soft as any Neapolitan pie I've eaten. The hole structure is airy and light, with a wonderful chewiness to it.

This crust tastes of sourdough and the terrific smokiness of burning wood, and to leave the cornicione uneaten is unthinkable. It's too good to leave behind on your plate, and I doubt very much you'll have any other notion than to finish each slice in its entirety.

Our second pie was the Pepperoni ($13.50), which is the Brooklyn with the addition of gourmet pork shoulder pepperoni from Seattle-based Zoe's Meats. This pepperoni is leaner than most pepperoni you'll find, and as such is a little less greasy than most. It tastes great, though I wish it were cut just a little thinner so it would crisp more in the oven. This is just a matter of personal preference, though; there's absolutely nothing wrong with this pie, and the addition of this fine meat to the Brooklyn took it to a level I for one found very satisfying.

Rounding out our first trip to Delancey was the Bittersweet Chocolate Chip Cookie with Grey Salt ($3.50). At first glance this dessert appears to be just your ordinary average chocolate chip cookie that someone had spilled large-grained salt on, a prospect some might find confusing in theory. However, having sampled the unparalleled sea salt-enhanced butterscotch budino at Mozza in LA, I knew just how powerfully the addition of good salt can transform a dessert from the decent to the decadent. So I dove right in. The cookie, still warm, is soft, chewy, and thick, the bittersweet chocolate chips melting on your fingertips. On its own, it's a fine version of a standard chocolate chip cookie, but that sea salt...too good.

About a month or so later I hit Delancey again with nearly the same crew as before. Brandon had worked out some of the kinks in his new venture (though somehow that Chuckanut Helles was still tapped out!), and I'd heard the pies coming out of the oven were better than ever. He also offered a wider variety of pizzas on the menu, and I was very eager to sample his take on the sausage pie.

Of course I ordered it straight away. The Sausage Pie ($15) begins with the base of the Brooklyn and includes pork fennel sausage, which is made in-house. This excellent sausage is crumbled over the whole of the pizza, assuring that every slice will pack that sweet, meaty goodness you're expecting. So far, this is my favorite pizza at Delancey, and the one I will recommend to fellow pizza enthusiasts, though next time I'll see about tossing some peppers or chilies into the mix.

Having inexplicably skipped it during my first visit, I also ordered the house Margherita ($12). It's a first-class Margherita, on par with the best I've eaten in Seattle. That great tomato sauce, creamy fresh mozz, potent basil (cooked on the pie), and swirl of olive oil works so well, it's hard to imagine improving on it. If this is your first trip to Delancey, order it.

We also tried the Zoe's Coppa this trip, a sort of antipasti plate with deliciously salty capicola sliced so thin you could read through it and house-made pickled peppers that were alternately spicy and sour, sweet and potent. This dish lasted about ten seconds before our party removed every trace of its existence from this world. It's a great little dish, but at $8 a tad on the pricy side. Mitigate the cost, as we did, by splitting it among several diners (and fight dearly for those pickled peppers).

In just a few short months Delancey has raised the bar for pizza in Seattle and established itself as the primary destination for the city's lovers of the pie. Wait times can be brutal, so I recommend getting there within 10 minutes of opening time, or after 8 p.m. But no matter how long you end up having to stare at the seated diners and curse their existence for taking up precious table space, I can promise you this: your meal will be well worth it.

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: Sausage Pizza, Grey Salt Cookie

Sunday, November 1, 2009

My NY Pizza Adventure, Part 3 - Keste & Artichoke Basille's

271 Bleecker St
New York, NY 10014
(212) 243-1500

328 East 14th St
New York, NY 10003
(212) 228-2004

(all photos by Adam Lindsley)

The final leg of my New York immersion had me hitting two of the more recent pizzeria success stories: Keste and Artichoke Basille's.

Keste prides itself on its Neapolitan pizza, but it doesn't strictly adhere to the VPN's stringent rules, and it's all the better for it. I only had the Margherita there, but it ended up being one of the best Margheritas--and certainly the best Neapolitan-style Margherita--I've ever had.

Though the crust was fantastic, I think it really came down to the cheese and sauce with this pie. The sauce didn't hit me with the burst of TOMATO like it does on just about every other Neapolitan pizza I've eaten. It felt closer in nature to Chris Bianco's sauce, though still distinct enough to set itself apart. Simple and elegant. I thought it was amazing, and along with Keste's exceptional house-made fior-di-latte--which unlike most fresh cow's milk mozzarella was extremely flavorful--made every bite better than the last.

Yes, all the usual components of pizza greatness were present, the perfect char and airy hole structure of the soft and pliant crust, the smoky flavor of the wood-fired oven coming through loud and clear. If you're in town, I highly recommend it, and I eagerly await my next visit.

The final stop on this mini pizza tour was the much-hyped Artichoke Basille's in the East Village. Many New York food critics seem to love this place, and because it was so close to my hotel, I knew I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Artichoke Basille's claim to fame is its "artichoke slice," which is essentially a plain slice of NY-style pizza covered with a thick layer of artichoke dip. I am not kidding you. I'm not a big fan of artichoke dip at all, but I knew I had to try it. So I ordered a slice of that, a Margherita slice, and one of their Sicilian slices.

Let's just get this out of the way: that artichoke slice is an abomination. It isn't the flavor, because I actually thought the "dip" that comprised 60% of the slice was mildly tasty. No, I think it's the quantity of the dip that got to me. There's just too damn much of it, and I cannot imagine eating an entire slice of that stuff. I had only about a third of it and my stomach tilted rapidly toward the queasy side. I knew I couldn't get another bite down.

I moved on to the Margherita slice. This is your average, run-of-the-mill NY slice, very mediocre and nothing special at all. The crust is hard, brittle, and bitter, with a too-thick cornicione that breaks apart like a saltine cracker. It was the worst crust I'd seen in a long while. The one thing the plain slice has going for it is the bright, delicious tomato sauce. If only there had been more of it to counteract the bland mozz and grated parmesan on top...

The third slice I ordered blew the other two out of the water. Artichoke Basille's Sicilian slice is superb and without question the best thing on their menu. The crust is very crispy, crunchy, and unlike the NY-style slices here, has a lot of flavor (though, as you can see in the pic, mine was just a tad too blackened -- and before you ask, no, those aren't my dainty black-nail-polish fingertips holding up the slices). Even better is the copious amount of the house tomato sauce on this slice. This sauce tastes exactly like the freshest, ripest tomato on the vine, and I couldn't get enough of it. The same boring mozz and parm floated atop the red sea of goodness, but I just ignored the cheese altogether and savored every bite of that tomato sauce. They ought to think about ditching the round pies and selling this sauce in jars instead. I'd buy it.

Two of the three food critics of New York Magazine cited Artichoke Basille's Sicilian slice as their favorite pizza in NY. It's quite good, but I cannot agree with them. Instead, I must side with NYM's third critic, Adam Platt, who declared Di Fara his pizza of choice. Di Fara definitely had the best pizza I ate in New York, and absolutely worth the trek to Midwood.

If I had to rank every pizzeria I visited (because I know how much everyone loves a damn list), I'd put Di Fara at the top, followed by Keste, then Motorino, with Artichoke Basille's at the bottom, and if I knew someone was visiting the city, that's the order I'd recommend to them. You'll find something worth your while at every one of those places, which is pretty exciting, if it's any indication of the quality of the rest of New York's premier pizzerias. I can't wait to go back and try another batch.

Anyone feeling generous enough to front a plane ticket?