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.