Friday, December 24, 2010

Impressions: Casanova Pizzeria

1204 South Vista Ave.
Boise, ID 83705
(208) 331-3535

Somehow I found myself in Boise last week amidst temperatures cold enough to make me seriously consider purchasing a Hummer on the remotest chance it might contribute to global warming. My former Idahoan friends Kevin and Sarah Wilson recommended Casanova Pizzeria to me, and their recommendation was spot-on. You can read more about my visit over on Slice, but below you'll see a few more shots of the pizza than you'll see there. I apologize for the level of noise and general lack of quality in these photos, as Casanova has some of the dimmest lighting in any restaurant I've visited!

From top to bottom, these are shots of the Margherita, the Don Ho (essentially a Hawaiian with black olives), the Comet (pepperoni with garlic and tomatoes, easily the best pie of the lot, and that's a slice of it above), and the Mondo (their version of the Supreme).

All photographs by Adam Lindsley.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Impressions: Acropolis

500 Central Way
Kirkland, WA 98003
(425) 827-2727

(Photograph: Adam Lindsley)
Wrote a brief impression on the sausage and green peppers pizza over at Acropolis in Kirkland. Check it out on Slice!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Impressions: Giannoni's

2600 SW Barton St. #C3
Seattle, WA 98126
(206) 935-1800

My review of Giannoni's in West Seattle is up! Head on over to Slice to check it out.

[Photo: Adam Lindsley]

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Return to Serious Pie

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. Not yet.

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. Both aren't particularly strong in the flavor department, and the mushy texture just felt wrong in my mouth. 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.

I apologize in advance for the quality of the photographs below; they weren't taken with my usual camera, and we were seated in the very back corner of the restaurant, which was darker than a black steer's tookus on a moonless prairie night.

Truffle Cheese & Roasted Mushrooms; Margherita
Delicata Squash & Roasted Garlic; Pumpkin, Pistachios, & Pork Belly
Sausage & Roasted Peppers; Soft Egg, Arugula, & Guanciale

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ristorante Picolinos - The Photos

Ristorante Picolinos
6415 32nd Ave NW
Seattle, WA 98107
(206) 781-8000

Hot off the presses: I am now the Seattle correspondent for Slice, the #1 pizza blog in the world and a site I often refer to here on This Is Pizza. I'll still contribute here from time to time (and I'll let you know via Twitter when I do), but the majority of my reviews will appear on Slice for the foreseeable future.

My first "professional" review? Ristorante Picolinos in the Ballard neighborhood. You can read the entire review over on Slice, but since they weren't able to use all of the photos I took, I'll display them for you right here.

All photographs by Adam Lindsley

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Impressions: Mia's Pizzas

4926 Cordell Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814
(301) 718-6427

(Photographs: Adam Lindsley)

After a nasty 24-hour battle with a debilitating virus sheared the schedule of my final days on the East Coast and pushed my available time to a minimum, my friend Christa and I made a mad dash toward Washington D.C. to check out as many sights as possible--and eat some pizza, naturally. I had hoped to cajole fellow pizza blogger, er, Pizzablogger, into joining us on the excursion, but time further slipped through my fingers at the conspiratorial hands of both Google Maps and the Maryland Department of Transportation.

This wasn't the first time Google Maps had failed me (see my recent trip to San Francisco), but trying to find my way to Mia's Pizzas in Bethesda with incomplete directions and the added frustration of MDOT's deplorable freeway signage meant the battle was over before it even began. At one point Christa and I encountered a split in the road and two signs indicating the highway continued down both offshoots, though we soon discovered this was completely false. We got off at the next exit--in Virginia--was forced to pay an exit toll, then got on the nearest onramp, paid another toll, and eventually navigated the convoluted route to Mia's.

Fuming, famished, we found the restaurant nearly empty at three in the afternoon and felt our spirits lighten a little at the welcome sight of the goldenrod-tiled wood-fired oven in the kitchen at the back. I dug into their Margherita ($12.95) hoping it would help me forget the mediocre pizza at Coal Fire I'd eaten a couple days prior, and while it didn't blow me away like I hoped it would, it still proved an overall step up. The sauce is a simple blend of crushed tomatoes spiced up with what I would guess to be ground red pepper, but it didn't have that punch of freshness that sauces from places like Delfina or Pizzeria Bianco deliver. In fact, it tasted quite similar to the ho-hum tomato sauce I make at home, a fact I mostly attribute to not finding good quality tomatoes. The mozzarella, fresh, didn't make much of an impression on me; it could have been better salted.

What managed to stand out, though, was the crust. On one hand, it's thick (about 1cm) and dense, quite doughy, without much airiness or spring to the crumb. On the other hand, it's very flavorful, yeasty, perfectly salted, and decently charred on the undercarriage. While I found the rest of the pizza just slightly above average, I came back to that crust again and again. Probably too bready for some, but I thought it made a great snack, even hours later. Think of a chewy, moist bagel smashed flat and you won't be far off. They even offer a Pizza Bone Dipping Sauce to dunk your end crusts into for a mere 95 cents, though I thought they were plenty flavorful on their own.

Also gracing our table was the Alsace ($12.95), which eschews the disappointing red sauce and mozzarella in favor of gruyere, parmesan, pancetta, caramelized onions, and thyme. It sounds rich--and it is--but those four ingredients are smartly chosen. The saltiness and fat of the smoky pancetta plays off the sugars in the soft caramelized onions like a symphony, offering a mature sweet/savory contrast. The gruyere, perhaps my favorite cheese, was not skimped on; its thickness rivaled that of the crust. Nutty and full-bodied, it provided an irresistible base for the other toppings to sink into. I'd like see it used more on pizzas. Our server offered to grate more parmesan over the finished pie, and we accepted. The additional sharpness was a welcome supplement to the already bold flavors on the Alsace, and I wish we had done the same for the Margherita.

Mia's is definitely onto something here in Bethesda. Certain aspects of the pies could be improved--the tomato sauce and mozzarella, namely--but the crust is delicious, and if they come up with a way to make the dough a little lighter and airier, they'll have something few will find fault with.

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: Alsace pizza 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Impressions: Coal Fire

Coal Fire
5725 Richards Valley Road
Ellicott City, MD 21043
(410) 480-2625

(Photographs: Adam Lindsley)

I first heard about Coal Fire from its inclusion on the 2010 Pizza Madness bracket, composed by the editors of Slice. The place didn't get very far in the matchups, but it was near where I was staying in Westminster, Maryland at the end of my most recent cross-country road trip, so that was enough incentive for me to try it.

Coal Fire's oven does indeed utilize coal to impart heat onto its pizzas and other baked items, but the coal's heat is augmented by gas-fueled flames on the opposite side of the oven. So I guess it's possible that the pies closest to the gas flames won't have nearly as much coal-fired flavor and char as those farthest from it. The oven's third component (and this information was garnered from Pizzablogger's in-depth review) involves an infrared heating element in the oven floor, which keeps the floor at a minimum of 619°F.

The pizzas served at Coal Fire are thin, the crust crispy on the outside and chewy inside, and can come with one of three sauces: Classic, Signature, and Spicy. The Classic, in their words, "follows along Italian tradition with a delicious plum tomato taste," and this is what comes on the Margherita ($12.95). Unfortunately, the description of the sauce has nothing to do with what it actually tastes like. A true classic Italian plum tomato sauce consists of crushed plum tomatoes and a little salt, that's it. The Classic sauce at Coal Fire is peppery and extremely tangy, as if some lemon juice or vinegar has been added, and it's thick, the consistency of tomato paste and the deep color of an open wound. I've tasted sauce like this in many small-town American pizza parlors, but not in any place that really takes its pizza seriously.

For whatever reason, the triple heat-source oven mentioned earlier did not do much to char the pizza's cornicione or underside beyond a little blistering, quite the opposite of what Pizzablogger experienced during his 2009 visit (just look at the photos he snapped and you'll see the difference at once). Pizzablogger interviewed Coal Fire's co-owner, Steven Santos, and he claims the dough is allowed a 48-hour cold rise in their walk-in, in order to allow the fermentation to develop and deepen its flavor. That may very well be, but the crust on this Margherita had no more taste to it than a saltine cracker. There's also not much rise to this dough, so the outer rim is only slightly higher than the crust under the toppings, and the crumb is dry and hollow. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing here at Coal Fire, which I'll soon explain.

Thankfully, the house-made mozzarella picks up some of the slack, as it's salty and flavorful. It's placed on the pies in thin, round slices that melt perfectly over the sauce in the oven. The basil chiffonade also brings a bit of freshness to the Margherita that the sauce fails to deliver. As you may have guessed, the unevenness of the Margherita's components results in an uneven pie. It's tasty enough, but not anything you'll be dreaming about two weeks later.

As middling as the Margherita might be, it is far more in balance than the Sausage and Sweet Peppers pizza ($14.95), at least in the form my party ordered it. This time, instead of the Classic sauce, we opted to try the Signature sauce, which is a blend of the Spicy sauce and honey. Interesting in theory, but from the moment I first tasted that sauce, I knew we had made a mistake. It is achingly sweet, completely engulfing the flavors of the cheese, sausage, and peppers resting on top of it. That said, I tried a chunk of the sausage on its own, and while the bits of fennel in it were welcome, they were few and far between, leaving the gristly little pieces of pork underseasoned and timid. Had I known how sweet the Signature sauce would be, I would have ordered the spicy peppers instead of the sweet peppers; they had good flavor, but coupled with that sauce, they were a sugary sock to the gut of even a notorious sweet tooth as myself. This is where the bland crust actually became desirable: it offered a necessary reprieve from the sauce-and-pepper combo, which started to make the inside of my mouth sore after only a few bites. Take my advice and stay far, far away from that Signature sauce; you may as well be eating honey out of the jar.

As it happens, the real star at Coal Fire isn't the pizza, but their Grilled Caesar Salad ($7.95), which was absolutely the best of its kind I've ever had. Their spin on this classic salad--grilling the romaine--is so simple, but it rockets it into the stratosphere of salad greatness, if such an accolade exists. One bite into the still-crunchy lettuce immediately took me back to the summer barbecues of my youth; it tasted as if the romaine had been plucked off Dad's trusty old Weber and deposited right onto my plate. The romaine stalk is blackened from the grill and then tossed with the perfect amount of dressing and grated parmesan. The dressing also managed to skirt two problems I have with most Caesar dressings in that it wasn't too salty and didn't overwhelm my mouth with the taste of garlic. Really, really well done salad, and a must-order if you eat here.

Obviously I'd need to make a couple more visits to confirm this, but based on my one dinner here, I can't recommend the pizza. If you're coming to Coal Fire specifically for that, you're going to be disappointed, at least if your standards are high. But the Caesar salad was so good that I'd be willing to try some of the other items on the menu (the roasted wings sounded particularly enticing). If you're a fan of Coal Fire or you end up visiting, be sure to write in and tell us about your experience there; I'd be curious to know if it differed from mine.

OVEN: Coal/Gas

RECOMMENDED:  Grilled Caesar salad

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Impressions: Marco's Coal Fired Pizza

2129 Larimar Street
Denver, CO 80205
(303) 296-7000

(all photos by Adam Lindsley)
I'm on a cross-country road trip right now, and since I was passing through Denver, I knew I wanted to take Paulie Gee's son's suggestion to stop by Marco's Coal Fired Pizza downtown.

Let's get one thing out of the way right now, in case you hadn't heard: the pizza served here is not baked in a coal-fired oven. Marco's has two ovens, one coal-fired and one wood-fired, and the pizza is baked the wood-fired one. The coal-fired oven is used to cook most of the other items on the menu. So the name of the joint is a total misnomer, which probably won't matter to most customers, but to those who actually pay attention to these things, it's baffling.

Semantics aside, the pizza here is very good, and very much in the Neapolitan tradition (it's even VPN certified). Let's take a look at the Margherita ($11). The crust is made with Italian 00 flour, paper thin in the center with a puffy cornicione. The intensely hot wood-burning oven imparts fantastic leopard spotting on the crust's outer rim and excellent charring on the underside.

The tomato sauce, made from crushed canned San Marzanos, is slightly sweet and tastes fresh off the vine. The mozzarella is creamy (at least while it's still piping hot from the oven) and salted well. The basil is sparse, but what's there is plenty flavorful. It's a delicious Margherita that tastes almost exactly like every other VPN-certified pizzeria's Margherita (such as those from Tutta Bella or Ristorante Picolinos in Seattle). Everything's in balance. Do take note that the Margherita served in the $9 lunch special is smaller than the full-size pizzas.

The Margherita lunch special also comes with this simple green salad. The fresh mozzarella that comes on it is fantastic. Saltier and more like cheese curds than any other fresh mozzarella I've tried.

Also in perfect harmony are the many toppings on the Sicilia ($17). This behemoth is stacked with genoa salame, thin-sliced ham, artichokes, mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, and ricotta. So many toppings, and yet somehow they all work perfectly together. I had feared the ham might taste a little too much like Easter dinner, but it's light and sliced thinly enough that you can still taste the artichokes and mushrooms. The ricotta has a slight grain to it, but it's still pretty creamy overall. All of that together sounds very heavy, but it really isn't. It's hard to explain; you'll just have to try it for yourself to see what I mean. It was easy to down four or five slices of this pie in a short time.

I also tried an Italian Sausage and Red Onion pizza ($16), and unfortunately the balance wasn't here. I've ordered this combination of toppings before and had it come out divine, but this version tipped the scales of sweetness. The diced fennel sausage is surprisingly sweet, the red onions are very sweet, and the red sauce, as previously mentioned, is also sweet. Nothing really all that savory going on here. They were also heavy-handed with the mozzarella, so much so that its thickness surpassed the width of the crust beneath it. It wasn't terrible, and it's a damn sight better than a majority of the pizza in this country, but it fell short of the other pies I tried here.

Denver should be proud to have a place like Marco's within its midst. They really ought to change their name to Marco's Wood Fired Pizza to avoid false advertising, but if you can get past that little annoyance, you'll find some great authentic Neapolitan pizza here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Impressions: Portobello

1125 SE Division St
Portland, OR 97202
(503) 754-5993


UPDATE: Will Fain is no longer the pizzaiolo here at Portobello. Instead, he can now be found slinging pies at Pizza Depokos at the N. Killingsworth & Greeley cart pod. 

Let's get this out of the way right now: I like meat. Strike that, I love meat. Beef, lamb, pork, chicken, platypus, whatever. They are all my tasty, tasty friends, and I try to make new acquaintances as often as possible. Conversely, I tend to treat vegan food as an infectious disease that will inflict upon my esophagus a flesh-eating virus so gnarly it will spread throughout my entire nervous system and leave me a twitching mess on the floor. It's unfair, but then, so is life.

(all other photos by Adam Lindsley)

Part of the problem with vegan food (or rather, food that is explicitly denoted "vegan") is that it is so often prepared by people whose philosophical ideals are perhaps stronger than any prowess they might exhibit in the kitchen. They believe in the cause first and foremost, and so many vegans end up eating vegan food simply because it doesn't contain animal products, not because it tastes good. This is exactly the opposite of how I approach food, and it is for this reason that I almost never frequent "vegan" restaurants. Yet it was no accident that, last Thursday, I found myself sitting at the bar in Portobello, Portland's premier vegan trattoria (though I did wear my leather jacket to preserve my sense of self).

Portobello's pizzaiolo, Will Fain, is a pizza obsessive (even Slice thinks so). At a pizza party at his home in April earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of sampling a number of his pies, all of which were vegetarian and some of which were full-on vegan. I enjoyed those pizzas, and figured I would experience something similar from him now that he was manning the oven at Portobello. What I didn't expect was just how much better his pizza has gotten in the past five months.

Let's start with the Portobello take on the Margherita ($9). Now, Portobello's typical version of this pie includes Daiya cheese, a dairy-free cheese alternative, in addition to the tomato sauce and basil. But at Will's suggestion, I substituted the Daiya for a house-made cashew cream. I'm very happy I did. The cashew cream doesn't so much replicate the texture of mozzarella as it does provide a nice contrast to the bright, garlicky tomato sauce. Whereas the crushed tomatoes deliver a tangy acidity, the cashew cream evens things out on the palate, keeping the whole slice in balance. As far as I know, the cashew cream is not on the menu, so you'll have to request it (and you should).

Will's crust has taken several enormous steps forward from his home experiments. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the Baker's Pride gas oven now at his disposal, which bakes his pizzas at a much hotter temperature than anything he could achieve in his home oven. The oven chars the crust perfectly, particularly on the underside, without risk of burning it. Biting into it produces a satisfying crunch that gives way to a springy, chewy interior. Will mixes the dough entirely by hand nightly; no mixer here.

The other pie I tried was the Chili-Fennel ($12), which tops the same garlic-tinged tomato sauce with shaved fennel, hot red and green chili peppers, chili oil, Daiya cheese, and thin slices of field roast "sausage," which is actually comprised of wheat gluten but seasoned like the real stuff. The field roast sausage is far from an exact replica of its true pork namesake, but it does adequately give you the sensation of eating a meaty substance, which is as good as it's going to get for vegan establishments like Portobello. I actually rather liked it, but the field roast Italian fennel sausage I tried back in their kitchen was even better, and closer to the real thing.

What I liked best about the Chili-Fennel pie was the crunch. You get crunch from the crust, crunch from the peppers (spicy, but not too hot), and crunch from the fennel (pleasantly sweet). The one aspect I could do without (and next time will substitute for the cashew cream again) was the Daiya cheese. It isn't the flavor (it really doesn't taste like anything) so much as it is the texture. It's gummy and sticky and clings to your teeth long after you've finished the slice on which it was placed. Be smart and swap it out for the cashew cream.

As a starter my dining companion and I ordered the Pepadew Peppers ($7), which are stuffed with cashew cheese. You actually get more than three of them in an order, but we had devoured a few of them before realizing I hadn't yet photographed them. Again, the peppers have some kick to them, but they're not so spicy that more timid eaters should be afraid to try them. The cashew cheese, which has the texture and flavor of creamy crushed nuts, is nothing like any real cheese I have eaten, but it's still tasty, and compliments the piquant peppers admirably. They went well with a glass of Malbec, which had been recommended to me by Portobello's outgoing and knowledgeable bartender, Lauren.

As I was leaving the restaurant, Will told me he looked forward to reading my reaction to the food on TIP and asked for some constructive criticism. Problem is, Will, I think you've taken vegan pizza about as far as it will go. The food at Portobello bucks the trend of vegan food having to suck; it's actually quite delicious. If you pointed a gun to my head and demanded one suggestion, maybe...a pinch more salt to the crust? But that's pushing it. Honestly--and owners Aaron Adams and Dinae Horne are going to kill me for saying this--I think the only thing that would improve Will's pies would be to put real cheese and real meat on them, instead of their animal-free versions. But then he wouldn't be at Portobello, and that would be a serious blow to the owners, the kitchen, and the customers, vegan or not.


RECOMMENDED: Margherita w/cashew cheese (instead of Daiya)