Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Tony D's, Corn Hill, Rochester
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-.