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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tony D's, Corn Hill, Rochester

Tony D's on Urbanspoon
Although there are by now several places around Rochester making pizza in wood-fired ovens, Tony D's in Corn Hill Landing is the first and so far only local pizza restaurant with a coal-fired oven. Why is that a big deal? Well, some of the most renowned pizzas in NYC and elsewhere have been made in coal ovens, which burn at very high temperatures, generally without producing as much smoke as wood.
A quick aside: in Naples, considered the birthplace of modern pizza, wood was the traditional fuel; coal was used in the old days by Italian immigrants in New York because it was readily available. As with many pizza-related topics, there's a whole debate about what's better, coal or wood, and natural gas has its adherents too, but that's beyond the scope of this review. Just take it from me: a pizzeria with a coal-fired oven in Rochester is a big deal to pizza aficionados.
Tony D's is a full-service restaurant, with table service as well as a counter in front of the open kitchen, where you can sit and see your pizza, or other food order, being prepared. In the corner of the back wall is the cobblestone-faced oven, with a stack of wooden pizza peels standing nearby. I should've turned the flash off on my camera because the flash tends to drown out the orange glow of the coals, which is much more visible than the picture would indicate. The aroma from the fire is noticeable but not strong, and not really smoky, since coal burns pretty cleanly.
(The D&C, incidentally, describes the oven at Tony D's as "gas assisted," which I assume means that it uses a combination of gas and coal, but unless you're a real purist, it's a legitimate coal-fired oven, and is clearly hotter than the average pizza oven.)
I ordered a margherita, which was razor thin except for the puffy edges. It was charred and blistered underneath and along the edge, to the point of being burnt in spots, but thanks to the heat of the oven it retained some bready chewiness and the pieces were foldable, meaning that they hadn't dried out to the point of becoming crackly. Clearly, though, this is pizza that needs to be watched and tended to carefully in the oven; a minute or two one way or the other, or a failure to rotate the pizza when needed for even cooking, can make all the difference.
I had read that at one point Tony D's had turned down the heat in the ovens because patrons were complaining that their pizza was "burnt," but that they had since gone back to the high temps. I'm glad they did. What would be the point of a coal-fired oven if you're not going to crank up the heat? The menu, by the way, warns that Tony D's pizzas are "well done" - you want golden-brown pizza, there are plenty of other places you can go to.
The sauce was applied thinly - heavy toppings won' t do on thin pizza - and had a nice, sharp tomatoey flavor. The sauce was topped with a thin layer of shredded cheese, browned on top, and applied sparsely enough to allow pockets of sauce and the occasional tomato chunk to poke through. In the center of each of the four slices was a creamy, melted island of fresh mozzarella, and scattered throughout were wilted shreds of fresh basil. (It struck me while eating that one benefit of folding a thin slice is that it squeezes the toppings together, so that you still get a healthy dose of toppings with each bite.)
The overall impression was of a mix of diverse flavors rather than a homogeneous blend. With each bite, the crust, tomatoes, cheeses and basil each came through individually, unlike your basic corner pizza joint slice, in which the flavors tend to meld together.
As I've said before, that very corner-pizza-joint style is, to me, the ideal pizza, so it wouldn't be fair to measure Tony D's against that standard. The basic approach here is different, whether you want to call it high-end, artisanal, rustic, authentic, etc. Simply approaching it on its own terms, I thought it was quite good, with a range of contrasting, yet complementary flavors and textures that made it easy to finish off my 9" pie. I'll give it an A-.


  1. Nice blog ... I like a nice thin crust with a char on the bottom ... hard to find around her.

  2. Thanks. It is hard to find the real thing around here. I think we're just beyond NYC's culinary sphere of influence where pizza is concerned, unfortunately.

  3. We have enjoyed Tony D's immensely and look forward to returning. We blogged our last experience there:

    We travel for pizza, and if you do, too, you might want to come to Syracuse for NY Gianni's Bronx Style Pizza, 1428 Burnet Ave, Syracuse NY. It's the real deal. The crust is thin, though not as as thin as Tony D's, and there are few tables at which to enjoy eating it. It's essentially a take-out joint, but we always eat right there. We wish they had the same space and atmosphere as Tony D's.

    Our blog post on Gianni's pizza has gotten more rave reviews, by far, than any other post we've done:

  4. Yum! That looks good! I think a trip to Syracuse is in order.

  5. To bad they don't make their own dough!!! It's made by a local bakery...... So if you love the crust don't pat them on back for a great dough...

  6. The dough, I've read, comes from Baker St. Bakery. But the way it's used is still a huge factor, and the end product is what I'm most concerned with. But you're right, and thanks for pointing that out.

  7. Margherita pizza was the worst pizza I have ever had. Red sauce covered with canned tomato chunks totally overwhelmed any delicacy. Basil was unnoticable due to taste of canned tomatos. The crust was not thin or crisp- soggy from all the sauce and canned chunks of tomatos. I would have complained but was the guest of gracious hosts who had raved about the pizzas here. Ish. I would never recommend going here based on their interpretation of what should be a delicate taste experience of a real margherita piza.

  8. That's quite surprising to me, but thanks for sharing your experience. I'd be interested to hear others'.

  9. We have tired on numerous occasions to get into Tony D's, only to find the wait 2 hours or better. Finally last night, with much planning we went and got in...I was so excited to finally try this place! That soon ended, Iwas deeply disappointed in our pizza last night. We ordered the "special" which was a white pizza with artichokes, spinach and red onion. While I understand the coal fired oven being very hot (1000 degrees I heard) they need to watch the pizzas better...our was mostly burned...and had that bitter burned taste. Not to mention while the other 14" pizzas were once price the "special" was $18....for a 14" pizza, that was burned....VERY disappointed. We sat at the "Chef's Table" and watch numerous pizzas come out...some clearly overcooked, some perfect. I will have to say, I would NOT recommend them. Thankfully there are plenty of other wood fired pizza places in Rochester to try.