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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Salvatore's: "12 or 13" new stores by 2011?

A bit belatedly, I ran across an article in the Rochester Business Journal profiling Salvatore “Soccer Sam” Fantauzzo, the man behind the Salvatore’s Old Fashioned Pizzeria chain. Like most success stories, it’s interesting reading, chronicling Salvatore’s remarkable rise from a single pizzeria on East Main Street in 1978, when Fantauzzo was fresh out of high school, to eight stores by 2005, and twenty locations today. The article (which can be viewed on the RBJ website - free registration required) also explains some of what lies behind the success of Salvatore’s, such as staying ahead of the competition on some trends (according to Fantauzzo, his was the first local pizzeria to offer chicken wings, for example), and maintaining consistency among multiple locations.
What really caught my eye, though, was Fantauzzo’s stated goal of opening “12 or 13” new stores over the coming year. He particularly wants 32 Salvatore's locations for the 32 years Salvatore's has been in business.
I like to give credit where credit’s due, and Fantauzzo certainly deserves credit for the undeniable success of Salvatore’s, not to mention for his involvement in the local community. Still, I can’t say that I look forward to a Salvatore’s opening in my town. It’s nothing against Salvatore’s in particular, mind you. No, I’m not too crazy about their pizza, but that’s not the issue. I don’t really care to see any pizza chain blanketing the area.
Mostly, I’m afraid that it will cut into the business of stand-alone, independent pizza shops. Worst-case scenario, let’s say you've got a hometown pizzeria, a mom 'n' pop place that’s been there for as long as you can remember. Maybe they've been struggling a bit in recent years, but they're getting by. A chain opens up just down the street, and with its economies of scale, it's able to undersell the mom 'n' pop place. That ends up being the straw that breaks their back, and mom 'n' pop go out of business. In effect, your indigenous pizza place has been replaced by a chain, and the pizza you grew up with is no more.
And again, it’s not about whether the chain makes good pizza. That’s a matter of personal taste. It’s about - to borrow a much overused term - diversity. I love the pizza at the Pizza Stop downtown, but I wouldn’t want to see 30 Pizza Stops all over this area. I like the idea that I can go to 160 different pizzerias around here and try 160 different pizzas, each of which is unique to that particular pizzeria.
A chain, on the other hand, is fundamentally based on the concept of uniformity: that the pizza (or hamburger, or whatever the product is) that you get at one location will be virtually indistinguishable from what you would get at any other location within that chain. Not all chains achieve that ideal, but the successful ones generally do, and whether they achieve it or not, it’s what they strive for.
But there is a more optimistic scenario, too. In the RBJ story, Fantauzzo is quoted as saying that Salvatore’s, which offers a full menu, is “not competing with just pizza chains. We're competing with the sub chains, the taco chains, [and] the burger chains” as well. And maybe that’s the point - that Salvatore’s competes more against other chains than against independent pizza shops.
I hope that’s true, and that customers who enjoy the pizza from their local independent pizzerias will continue to patronize them, regardless of how many chains move into the neighborhood. (Of course, if the local joint turns out poor pizza, that’s a different story. I’m not saying you should patronize them just because they’re independent. But if they’re good, they deserve support.)
Again, this isn’t really about Salvatore’s in particular, except that it happens to be growing at a seemingly exponential rate right now. I wish them continued success; I just hope it comes at the expense of the even bigger chains, and not at that of the little guys.
In the end, maybe the story of Salvatore’s itself should offer some encouragement. Fantauzzo notes that in the early 1980s, “there were rumors that these national chains were going to come to town, and I was nervous.” Salvatore’s obviously weathered that storm quite well. Here’s hoping that the independent pizzerias of today can do so too.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bernardo's, Victor

Bernardo's Pizza & Submarines on Urbanspoon
I thought I was finished with Victor, after reviewing Lucca, Leonardo's, and Posella's, but then I received several comments from readers telling me that I'd missed what they swore was the best pizzeria in Victor, Bernardo's. I had never heard of Bernardo's, and it's easy to see why I missed it, as it's on a side street that I'd never been down before.
That omission has now been rectified, thanks to a recent midday dash out to Victor. I'm happy to say it was worth the trip back.
I got a pepperoni slice, which measured 8 inches along the side. It had a golden brown, screen-baked underside, with a somewhat crunchy exterior. The crust was thin, and folded easily.
The slice was topped with a generous layer of mozzarella, which was actually thicker than the crust in spots. (I found that folding the slice helped balance it out, as folding resulted in a more consistent ratio of crust to cheese with each bite). It appeared to have been dusted with parmesan as well.
The sauce had a basic tomatoey flavor and remained in the background, with the cheese taking center stage. The pepperoni, of the wide and thin variety, was moderately applied. The slice as a whole had something of a salty flavor, the source of which I couldn't identify. The thick lip was crunchy, chewy, and almost sweet, in a bready kind of way, and made for a rewarding finish to the slice.
Bernardo's pizza lineup is pretty basic, with eleven toppings and two specialty pizzas (chicken wing, and steak, peppers and onions). The rest of the menu is also relatively modest in scope, consisting of wings, hot and cold subs, and salads.
I was a little amused by the prominent proclamation, in boldface type, on Bernardo's takeout menu, that they are "Now offering Thin or Thick Crust Pizza!," as if that were quite a remarkable innovation. I don't point that out to poke fun - it's just suggestive that Bernardo's is not some trendy place where you're going to find exotic, bizarre, or cutting-edge pizza, and that's just fine by me. I can appreciate a pizzeria that doesn't try to do too much - better to do a few things well than a lot of things poorly. And based on my visit, I'd say that Bernardo's does what they do rather well. A lot of folks must agree, since Bernardo's has been in business for some 25 years now, under continuous family ownership and operation.
So, my thanks to the readers who let me know about Bernardo's. This was very enjoyable pizza. Its overall flavor was basic and straightforward, which, when you're talking about pizza, can be a good thing indeed. The components blended well, and it had a well balanced profile, the somewhat heavy cheese layer notwithstanding.
My one quibble would be over the use of a screen, which almost always seems to result in a crust that's not quite as crisp and toasty as I would like. This was a pretty good crust in spite of that, though, and unlike a lot of screen-baked pizzas, it had some crispness.
Well, actually, I've got a second quibble, though not about the pizza itself. At Bernardo's, you place your order at a small counter just inside the front door, and there's a large, informal dining area beyond that. On my visit at least, the slices (which, by the way, are available only at lunchtime, according to Bernardo's menu) were not visible from the counter. Had I seen the slices, I might've been more likely to order a couple instead of just one, which I ended up wishing I had done. Next time I'm in Victor, I'll see to that. In the meantime, I'm giving Bernardo's a B+.
Bernardo's Pizza, Subs & Wings, 160 School St. 924-3960
Mon. - Fri. 9 a.m. - 8 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m. - 7 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. - 7 p.m.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Krony's, Spencerport

Krony's Pizza Etc on Urbanspoon
Krony’s Pizza, established in 1975, currently has two locations, in Spencerport and Hamlin (I think there was briefly a third in Chili or somewhere, but no longer). I stopped by the Spencerport Krony’s a while ago for a couple of lunchtime slices.
They were pretty thin, with a dry, browned underside that was dusted with a fair amount of cornmeal. The flavor and texture were not exceptional, though the narrow lip had some welcome breadiness to it.
The moderately applied, homemade sauce had a sweetish flavor, although I also picked up a hint of basil or some other “Italian” herbs. The cheese - 100% mozzarella, according to the menu - was also applied in moderation, in good balance with the other components, and was just nearly browned. The slices appeared to have been dusted with a grated cheese of some kind, parmesan perhaps, and there did seem to be some cheesy tanginess in there somewhere. The pepperoni seemed rather spicy, although that may have just been because of the generous helping of pepperoni on my slice.
Krony’s has a decent list of pizza toppings, and just three specialty pizzas - white, pink, and Buffalo chicken. They also serve wings, “stromboni” (I’m not exactly sure what that is, but I assume it’s along the lines of a stromboli or calzone), hot and cold subs, “bombers” and other sandwiches, munchies, wraps and salads. They also offer chicken, fish and seafood dinners, and on my visit the blackboard menu advertised a few daily specials, including blackened tilapia. Desserts, soft drinks, beer and wine are available as well. I haven’t made it to the Hamlin location yet, but in Spencerport, it’s a counter-service operation with a fairly good-sized adjacent dining area.
This was pretty good pizza. If you read this blog much, you know that the crust is the main thing with me, and this one was, well, OK. It avoided the most common crust problems, like being too soft or greasy, but by the same token it lacked the crispness and toasty, bready complexity of the best crusts. Still, it had no real defects, and the pizza was well made, with some good flavor and the components in appropriate balance with each other. All in all, a nice job, and I’ll give Krony’s a B.
Krony’s Pizza Etc., 2139 N. Union St., Spencerport (in Barefoot Landing Plaza, next to Pineway Ponds Park) 352-1199
Mon. - Sat. 10 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. (closes at 10 p.m. Mon. - Thu. in winter)
Hamlin location: 500 Hamlin-Clarkson Townline Rd. 964-7111

Friday, January 22, 2010

Guida's, Elmgrove Rd.

Back in June, I did a post on Guida's on Empire Blvd. I liked it, but one cheese slice at lunchtime left me wanting to try a broader sampling of Guida’s extensive pizza menu. So not too long ago, I picked up a large “New York Thin Crust” pizza (half pepperoni, half red onions and fresh garlic) from the Guida’s on Elmgrove Road, just off the 531 expressway.
The first thing that struck me was how big the box was. I’d pictured a 16, maybe 18 inch round pizza. This was like a sheet pizza box.
When I got the pizza home and opened the box, I was almost relieved to see that the pizza did not quite fill the entire box. Its oblong shape led me to wonder if perhaps Guida’s had taken the same amount of dough that they would use for a large, round regular-crust pizza and stretched it out farther, necessitating the use of a bigger box. If so, then good for them for not simply using less dough for their thin-crust pizza.
The crust was indeed thin, but not ultrathin. It was somewhat charred underneath, though somewhat unevenly; the pepperoni side of the pizza was quite a bit darker underneath than the veggie side. The bottom was dry, with some cornmeal stuck to it.
In terms of texture, the crust was a little crisp, but not quite like a great New York pizza. I should point out, though, that many of my fondest memories of New York pizza are of slices that had gotten a fast rewarming in the oven, which tends to crisp up the crust very nicely. Tough to get that same level of crispness with a fresh pie that’s spent 15 minutes or so in a cardboard box.
The crust had some breadiness, which became more apparent toward the thicker edge. The narrow lip was pleasantly crunchy.
As far as the toppings are concerned, the sauce and cheese were consistent with what I’d had at the Empire Boulevard Guida’s. The sauce was thick and tomatoey, with some herbal overtones, and the cheese - all mozzarella, I believe - was baked just to the point of brownng, as I like it.
The thin pepperoni slices seemed very salty, though I heard no complaints from my six-year-old, who tends to eat her pizza from the top down - pepperoni first, then the cheese, and finally the crust.
The garlic and onions were terrific, though. The garlic had great flavor and aroma, and paired beautifully with the onions. Neither had the harsh flavor of the raw variety.
I don’t think there have been any significant changes to Guida’s since my June review, so I’ll refer you to that, and to their website for details concerning the menu, hours and such. I will mention their “Guida Bucks,” though - not sure of the exact details, but with my purchase I received a paper “Guida Buck,” ten of which will get you a free large pizza. Not bad.
Getting back to my pizza, well, I wouldn’t exactly call this a New York style pizza - that label gets tossed around a little too freely sometimes - but it was well balanced, well made, and tasty. This won’t be my last visit to Guida’s, I know that. As I did in June, I’ll rate this a B+.
Guida’s Pizzeria, 736 Elmgrove Rd. 426-6464
Mon. - Thu. 11a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sun. noon - 10 p.m.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

DiPaolo's

As I’ve mentioned before, Rochester is blessed with some great old Italian bakeries, and one of the oldest is Di Paolo. Its roots go back to 1910, when an Italian immigrant couple set up shop on Ontario Street, just north of where the Inner Loop is today. Ten years later, the bakery moved into an old church building on North Plymouth Avenue, then known as Frank Street. The original building was torn down in the 1950s and replaced by a new, modern facility (which sadly did not include the original’s coal-fired ovens - *sigh*), where it remains today, still owned by descendants of the founders.
In addition to a full range of breads and rolls, Di Paolo makes pizza, slices of which are available at lunchtime. On a recent visit, there were two types available: plain cheese, and pepperoni with sausage. I got a cheese slice.
The crust was medium thick, with a cratered, browned underside. It was a bit crisp underneath, and the outer edge was very crunchy, but it was not quite the kind of crunch you’d find on a loaf of crusty Italian bread. It seemed to me more reminiscent of a bread or roll made with an enriched dough, in other words a dough made with oil or some other fats, which tends to produce a softer crust.
The dough had clearly risen some, but the interior was not especially bready. The air holes were tiny, and the crust lacked the subtle yet complex flavors you’ll typically find in doughs that have gone through a long, low-temperature fermentation.
(Let me pause here for a second and say that I don’t pretend to know how Di Paolo or anybody else actually makes their dough. Nor do I claim to have anywhere near the experience or knowledge that the professionals do, where baking is concerned. These are just the impressions and speculations of an amateur baker who’s eaten a lot of bread and pizza over the years.)
The slice was topped with a heavy layer of browned cheese. It was a bit overcooked for my taste. I wondered if Di Paolo’s had used part-skim mozzarella, as it lacked any creaminess or smooth texture, and had hardened along the outer edge, not so much, it seemed, from burning as from losing liquid through evaporation during the baking process.
The sauce was moderately applied. It was a basic tomato sauce, and was thick and concentrated.
My overall impression of this pizza was that, well, it was OK for a quick lunchtime slice, but that’s about all. The flavor and texture just weren’t quite there, and the crust, cheese and sauce weren’t what I would call great, any individually or collectively. It wasn't bad, exactly, just kind of disappointing coming from a good Italian bakery.
Now don’t get me wrong - Di Paolo’s is a fine bakery, with a proud history, and they produce some excellent breads. If you haven’t been there, I can honestly recommend that you check it out sometime and pick up a loaf. I just wasn’t crazy about the pizza.
Funny thing is, Di Paolo is not the first Italian bakery where I’ve been let down by the pizza. You’d think it would be a no-brainer: good bakery, good bread, good pizza. But for some reason it doesn’t always seem to work that way. I don’t want to speculate on why that is, and after all, just because I’m not crazy about it doesn’t mean that somebody else might not think it’s the best stuff they’ve ever eaten. But for me, the pizza at Di Paolo rates a respectable, if disappointing, C.
Di Paolo Baking, 598 N. Plymouth Ave. 232-3510
Mon. - Fri. 6 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sat. 6 a.m. - 2 p.m.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Romeo's, Ridgeway Ave.

Romeo's on Urbanspoon
Although there are now quite a few places around Rochester making pizzas in wood-fired ovens, almost none of them are on the west side of town. They’re all either downtown or on the east side. In part, I think that’s simply a reflection of the broader culinary landscape, which finds more upscale or trendy places in the city or eastern suburbs, and more traditional fare on the west side.
At this point, the only place doing wood-fired pizza west of the Genesee is Romeo’s on Ridgeway Avenue. This location in a Greece shopping plaza was formerly the home of Bogey’s Wood Fired Grill. When Bogey’s closed in 2006, Romeo’s, an Italian restaurant with a long history, moved in from its previous location in Irondequoit, and inherited Bogey’s wood-burning oven.
I recently picked up a Margherita pizza from Romeo’s. Measuring ten inches across, it had a crust that was thin in the middle and a little thicker toward the edge. The underside was dry, not oily, with a little surface flour and some moderate charring. It was a bit soft in texture, leading me to wonder if there was perhaps some oil in the dough. The edge was formed into a soft, chewy lip, and the interior of the dough had some small air holes and bready flavor.
This was another Margherita made with sauce rather than fresh or simply crushed tomatoes, and it was indeed saucy. With less cheese than a typical American pizza, a Margherita probably calls for a somewhat lighter hand with the sauce. On the plus side, the sauce had a very straightforward, no-nonsense tomatoey flavor that didn’t get in the way of the cheese and basil.
The cheese consisted of five islands of thick-sliced, fresh mozzarella, which had melted quite nicely, with some shredded parmesan that added a little bit of cheesy tang. The moderately applied, shredded basil was a bit dried out, and contributed rather less flavor than on some Margheritas I’ve had. I also picked up a hint of garlic (I neglected to ask for fresh garlic on this one), suggestive of garlic powder, either in the sauce or lightly dusted over the pizza.
Romeo’s offers nine pizzas, nothing too exotic. Some of them have retained their Bogey’s-era golft-themed names (again, cutesy menu names are one of my restaurant pet peeves - I’d feel slightly ridiculous asking for an “Out of Bounds” pizza. Plus an “Eagle” pizza sounds like something that could get you.in trouble with the Fish and Wildlife Service). Or you can create your own from Romeo’s modest list of twelve toppings.
The rest of the menu is divided between Italian standbys (a friend of mine give the tripe here a thumb’s up - I’ll take his word for it) and basic American fare, including hot and cold sandwiches, burgers and other grilled items, and N.Y. strip steak.
If you choose to eat on the premises, you’ll find a dining area on the right, and a bar area with additional seating on the left. The atmosphere is casual throughout, and despite the strip plaza location, Romeo’s has a “neighborhood” kind of feel.
Most of the wood-fired pizza that I’ve tried around here has fallen into the “good but not great” category, and this was no exception. In theory, the high temperature of the wood fire should produce a fast-cooking crust that’s slightly but evenly charred, crisp yet chewy, perhaps with some subtle smoky overtones. Although a handful of local places (Tony D’s and Veneto come to mind) manage to pull that off, the majority, in my experience, do not. Instead, they tend to produce pizza that’s either crackerlike - nothing but crunch - or disappointingly soft.
This pizza fell into the latter category. It was tasty, and I enjoyed it, but it was virtually indistinguishable from pizza cooked in a conventional oven at relatively low temperatures. If this had been my introduction to wood-fired pizza, I’d have been left wondering what’s so special about it.
Again, though, I don’t mean to say that I didn’t like this pizza. The flavors were good, and on the whole it was well balanced, if a bit heavy on the sauce. I’d have liked to see better advantage taken of that wood-fired oven, but I still liked this enough to give it a B.
Romeo’s Restaurant & Bistro, 2500 Ridgeway Ave. 342-9340
Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. (Bar stays open later.)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wegmans, Pittsford

Yes, you read that right. Wegmans. Wegmans pizza.
Now why would a blog devoted to local pizzerias review supermarket pizza? Well, for one, this isn’t just any supermarket we're talking about here. This is Wegmans. Now I’m not one of those people who takes out-of-town guests to see Wegmans, but let’s face it: though Wegmans may have grown from a local supermarket into a Mid-Atlantic regional chain, it remains a local institution, and it's become a part of our communal identity.
And the fact is, it is a damn fine supermarket, maybe one of the best in the country (which is tantamount to saying one of the best in the world, since nobody does supermarkets better than we do here in the U.S. of A.). I'm sure it has its detractors, but Wegmans undeniably does a lot of things very well.
One of the things I’m always particularly impressed with is their bread. Wegmans makes some really excellent bread, far better than what you find at most other supermarkets, in this area at least.
So, I had to wonder, is their pizza any good? I see it all the time when I go there. It never looked especially good to me, but still, this is Wegmans we’re talking about here. And when I discovered that there’s actually a Facebook page created by and for Wegmans pizza fans, well, I had to see for myself just how good it is.
I chose, of course, the Pittsford Wegmans, the crème de la crème of local Wegmans stores. The pizza station is off on the far left of the store when you come in, over near the steps leading up to where Tastings Restaurant used to be. (Tastings’ replacement, Next Door Bar & Grill, is now open across the street, and advertises “very thin crust” pizza, which doesn’t necessarily sound promising to me, but I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve tried it.)
I was a little surprised to see a very small oven near the counter, until I realized that it’s simply used for rewarming slices. The full-size steel pizza ovens are in back of the counter.
The slices were normal size, so I got a couple, one plain cheese and one with pepperoni and hot peppers. The crusts were thin, though not super thin, with medium brown undersides that had been dusted with cornmeal. The exterior was crisp and crackly, to the point where each slice cracked along a fault line when I tried to fold it. They were also a bit gritty, which I assume was from the cornmeal.
The other components were applied in pretty good proportion to each other and to the crust. The sauce was slightly sweet, and the processed mozzarella cheese was lightly browned.
Oddly, where these slices most fell short, in my estimation, was in the crust. It was not especially bready, in taste or texture. Whereas a great pizza will typically have a crust so good that the outer edge is my favorite part, the edge on these was rather uninteresting. It was similar to a basic breadstick, golden brown and crunchy, but kind of ho-hum. And although I like a nice crisp crust, the best crusts are both crisp and pliable. These were definitely on the brittle side.
All in all, then, this was decent enough pizza, probably better than you’d typically find at a supermarket, but neither was it on a par with Wegmans’ bread in terms of overall quality. It was something like a rough approximation of New York style pizza, but if that’s what they were aiming for, it missed the mark in some respects. It would do in a pinch, but that’s about all. I’ll give it a B-.
Wegmans Pittsford, 3195 Monroe Ave. 586-6680

Thursday, January 14, 2010

La Bella Vita, Empire Blvd.

La Bella Vita on Urbanspoon
I’ll continue my tour of wood-fired oven pizzerias with La Bella Vita on Empire Boulevard in Webster.
This was formerly Café Fresco, which specialized in “gourmet” pizzas, but the wood-burning oven was not installed until the current owner renovated the place and reopened as La Bella Vita in 2008. It’s not a huge place, but it holds a full bar on one side and a dining room on the other.
Once again, I ordered a Margherita (as does Benucci’s, La Bella Vita’s menu misspells it as “Margarita”). The menu describes it as topped with red sauce, mozzarella, Asiago cheese and fresh basil, plus I requested fresh garlic.
The crust was thin - no surprise there - and although you can’t really tell from the photo, a bit charred. The reason you can’t tell is that the charring was uneven; you’ll notice in the middle photo that the upper left edge is a little blackened, and that quadrant of the pizza came out more well done than the rest. The underside in general was heavily floured.
The crust was crisp but not crackly, with a chewy texture. It was uniformly thin, with no bubbling or air holes. The edge was thin and crunchy, and had a good, slow-risen bread flavor, with almost a sourdough tang.
This Margherita was rather unusual for having been made entirely with processed, rather than fresh, mozzarella. The cheese was well baked and browned. There was a little grated Asiago scattered about, but it didn’t seem to impart much flavor.
Somewhat less unusual, but still a little nontraditional, is La Bella Vita’s use of regular red sauce. Margheritas are often made with fresh tomatoes or a simple, uncooked sauce of crushed tomatoes. This sauce seemed rather cooked down (although some of that will happen as the water evaporates in the heat of the oven), though it did have a straightforward, tomatoey flavor.
The shredded, wilted basil was moderately applied and evenly distributed across the pizza, and the fresh garlic was added in good proportion.
La Bella Vita offers seven pizzas, including a “Tradtional” with pepperoni, white and pesto pizzas, and a “Quattro Formaggio” (four cheese) pizza with mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan and Asiago. A whole-wheat crust is available on request.
La Bella Vita also serves panini, and a range of Italian specialties including pasta dishes, tripe, risotto, chicken, veal and seafood. The modest dessert menu includes homemade tiramisu, which, if I’d realized it sooner, I probably would have ordered, as I love a good tiramisu.
If I were judging this pizza solely as a Margherita, I might deduct some points for straying from the traditional criteria; aside from the addition of garlic at my request, it was basically just a regular sauce-and-cheese pizza with shredded basil and a smattering of Asiago.
But I’m not judging or rating this based on its conformity to a style or category, and I don’t want to get nitpicky about nomenclature. The bottom line is, was it good pizza?
Mostly, yes. I liked the crust particularly. Though I might’ve appreciated a slightly more charred underside, the dough had good flavor, and it was reasonably crisp. The various components - sauce, cheese, etc. - were well integrated and complemented each other nicely, although the cheese was a little overly browned for my taste. Putting it all together, I’ll give La Bella Vita a B.
La Bella Vita, 1759 Empire Blvd. 671-7220
Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sat. 4:30 p.m. - 11 p.m.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tell 'em Pizza Guy sent you

Occasionally readers tell me that they are going to try, or have tried, a place based on my reviews or recommendations. More often than not, I've gotten thanks for steering somebody toward a good pizzeria, which is gratifying to know.
If you do go to a place because of what you've read here, do me a favor and tell them so. Long range, I plan to start doing more interviews, features, business profiles, etc. - and it would be helpful if local pizzeria owners, managers and employees were aware of this blog and knew that it had a certain readership. If I ask somebody for an interview, or just for some information about their pizzeria, I think I'd probably find it a lot easier to get a positive response if the person I'm speaking with has already heard good things about the blog. Otherwise, they may think I'm just some crank who's not worth their time. Thanks.

Benucci's, Pittsford

Benucci's Contempory Italian on Urbanspoon
I’ve been on a bit of a tour lately of wood-burning oven pizzerias, so continuing in that vein, we turn to Benucci’s in Pittsford Plaza.
This is one of those places that’s locally owned and independent, but feels like a chain restaurant. You can take that however you want to - for some people it may be a good thing, for others not. But Benucci’s has been open for over 10 years now, so clearly it’s built a solid customer base.
As I typically do on my first visit to a place doing wood-fired pizza, I ordered a Margherita, which at Benucci’s comes with Roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and roasted garlic. I was glad to see the garlic on the menu, since that’s how I like my Margheritas.
The first thing I noticed about the pizza was its unusual oblong, roughly football-like shape. The crust was thin, as expected, with a well floured underside that was well browned here and there, with just a hint of charring in a couple of spots.
It was crisp but not crackly on the outside. Unlike some wood-fired pizza I've tried, this one wasn't all crunch and no chew; it had a thin but chewy interior. But while some pizza dough will rise or puff up a bit when it hits the hot oven floor, this one hadn’t, and I found it a bit dense in texture, save for the thin, crunchy edge.
Although the menu only mentioned fresh mozzarella, there were actually two different cheeses here, with slices of fresh mozzarella atop a bed of what I took to be processed mozzarella. While that’s a little unusual, the melted, processed mozzarella added a nice tanginess to the overall flavor of the pizza, though it threatened to overwhelm the much more delicate flavor of the fresh variety. I don’t know if it was all the cheese, but the pizza surface was a little oily. (It’s also possible that the chef gave it a quick shot of olive oil when it came out of the oven. If I had a more discriminating palate I guess I’d have been able to tell from the flavor.)
The tomato slices, I’m afraid, didn’t really add much here. They were better than the awful things you sometimes get on salads or burgers, but not especially flavorful, no big surprise at this time of year, I suppose.
The garlic, on the other hand, was a welcome addition. I’ve had some pizzas purportedly made with fresh garlic where I could barely taste the garlic, but here it was unmistakable. This was not a harsh flavor, either, like raw garlic, but almost sweet, the way that roasted garlic should be. The fresh basis was also added in good proportion with the other components, complementing but does not dominating the other toppings.
Besides the Margherita (which the menu misspells as Margarita - that’s a drink, not a pizza), Benucci offers seven other pizzas, from a basic pepperoni pie to a pear and Gorgonzola pizza that’s also topped with toasted walnuts, parmesan and arugula. One slight oddity is the “Sicilian,” which here doesn’t denote a thick, pan-risen crust, but the toppings, which include meatballs and salami. If you’re on a budget, and don’t mind eating a bit late, Benucci’s offers its pepperoni, sausage, and Margherita pizzas for just $5 at the bar from 8 to 10 Monday through Thursday and 9 to 11 Friday and Saturday.
The rest of the menu is almost exclusively Italian, with pasta and other Italian specialties, and more standard American fare with an Italian twist. (The lunch and dinner menus, which are nearly identical, can be viewed on Benucci’s website.)
This was a good pizza. It was well made, and had good flavor. It was pretty well balanced, although with two cheeses, aromatic garlic, and relatively bland tomatoes, it was more like a white pizza than some other Margheritas I’ve tried. I thought the crust was also very good, if not quite great. Not that I want a burnt crust, but I could’ve used the toastiness that you get with a nicely charred - as opposed to simply browned - crust. And while this dough at least had an interior, its texture was a bit dense for my taste. All in all, though, nice job, and I’ll give it a B.
Benucci’s, 3349 Monroe Ave, 264-1300
Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m. - 10:00 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11:30 a.m. - 11:00 p.m., Sun noon - 9:00 p.m.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Eastside Cafe, Fairport

Eastside Cafe Pizza Pasta More on Urbanspoon
Here’s another one that I just realized I never got around to posting. It dates from last summer, but I’ve no reason to think that anything significant has changed since then at Eastside, so here it is.
Eastside Café is on 31F, across from a VFW post, just east of the village of Fairport. I believe that it was formerly a Mr. Shoes location, but I’m not sure if there remains any connection between it and Mr. Shoes.
I got a cheese slice at lunchtime. This is one of those places where you place your order at the counter and they bring it out to you, so although I asked for it to go, I had a chance to look around a little. There were several tables and a couple of TVs tuned to sports. This is a breakfast/lunch/dinner place, something of a cross between a diner and a pizzeria, and the pleasant aroma of frying sausage was in the air, perhaps left over from the breakfast hours.
When my pizza arrived, it turned out that my slice was in fact two slices. I was glad I hadn’t ordered two, or I’d have ended up with half a pizza, as I did here.
The underside was quite dark brown, but not charred. This was the kind of brown you get when dough cooks in the presence of oil, though it wasn’t particularly greasy. It had been baked on a screen. The crust was medium thick, with a soft texture.
The pizza was heavy on the cheese, with a thick layer of pale melted mozzarella, lightly dusted with dried herbs. It seemed also to have been sprinkled with parmesan (I think), which added some complexity and a bit of tanginess to the flavor.
The sauce was moderately applied and was similar in consistency and flavor to a thick canned spaghetti sauce. I’m not saying it came straight from a can or jar, just that that’s what it reminded me of pretty thick, and had a crackly, fried crunch.
Eastside has a fairly standard lineup of pizza toppings, and nine specialty pizzas, including a potato pie. Eastside’s take on potato pizza is not a traditional Roman pizza di patate, but an Americanized version with Idaho spuds, bacon bits, and cheddar, with sour cream on the side. All their pizzas may be ordered “red” or “white,” with regular or “N.Y. style thin” crust.
Aside from pizza, Eastside serves calzones, wings, and hot and cold “grinders” (a term you don’t see used much around here), which come with such colorful names as the “Big Bad Joan” and the “Scooby Doo.”
As I mentioned, Eastside is open all day, and has a full menu, from breakfast through dinner. The breakfast menu, which is available Friday through Sunday, has all the standards, as well as breakfast pizza (which is definitely not my thing). The rest of the menu includes “Monsta Plates,” salads, wraps, pasta, seafood, chicken and rib dinners, and a few desserts. Eastside delivers, for a charge, as far as Macedon and Walworth.
Although this didn’t really fit my profile of great pizza, it wasn’t bad. A lot of its attributes - screen baked, soft crust, heavy cheese - are, for me, strikes against a pizza. But flavor counts too, and this tasted pretty good; the components seemed to work together, and maybe that dusting of herbs and parmesan helped as well. For whatever reason, I found myself liking this one almost in spite of myself, or at least in spite of my usual preferences. I’ll give it a B-.
Eastside Cafe, 303 Macedon Center Road (Rt. 31F), Fairport 223-7463
Breakfast: Fri. 6:30 - 10:30 a.m., Sat. & Sun. 7 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Lunch & dinner: Mon. - Thu. and Sun. 9 a.m. - 9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 9 a.m. - 10 p.m.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Portside Pizza, Fairport

Portside Pizza on Urbanspoon
Portside Pizza opened in 2009 in a former Piatza’s space at Packett’s Landing in Fairport. They offer oversize slices, one of which I tried recently.
As I often do, I got a plain cheese slice, so I wouldn’t be distracted by any other toppings. I did notice, however, that the pepperoni slices had been made with the smaller, cup and char variety of pepperoni.
My slice had a thin crust, with a fairly dense texture. The flavor and texture of the crust were more doughy than bready.
The underside was a uniform light brown, and bore light screen marks. The sauce and cheese were applied right up to the outer edge, which was not especially thick, but was puffy, with some big air holes where the dough had bubbled.
The sauce was very lightly applied, and was hard to detect on my palate. It seemed to get lost somewhere between the crust and the cheese. The cheese, a far more dominant player, was a bit tangy and had been moderately browned.
Portside has a pretty long list of pizza toppings, including four cheeses (feta, Romano, ricotta and blue), and fresh garlic, which is always a plus for me. They also have six specialty pizzas, ranging from the familiar (Buffalo chicken) to the interestingly named Wo-Wo (garlic base with roasted red peppers, red onion, green peppers, artichoke hearts, and Romano cheese). Also worthy of note, Portside offers gluten-free pizza as well.
Aside from pizza, there are the usual wings (six sauces available), hot and cold subs and sandwiches, salads, and appetizers. The “lighter side” of the menu includes soup, fruit salad, yogurt, granola and hummus.
I liked Portside; the service was friendly, the staff is young and enthusiastic, and their heart seems to be in the right place, meaning that I got the sense that they genuinely want their customers to be happy with the food and service. They also seem to be courting a younger clientele, not only with some of the health-conscious menu items, but also with innovations like a “text your order” option. They also have a fairly high internet profile, with a website, active Facebook page, and a separate coupon site.
But on the strength of this one visit, the pizza seemed to me to be a work in progress. It was OK, but I found the crust a little too dense and doughy, and it lacked a bit of balance due to the largely MIA sauce. I also would have liked a slightly crisper, toastier underside. But the flavor wasn’t bad overall, and it didn’t seem to have been carelessly or sloppily made. So while the pizza was pretty average, I’ll give them some points for trying hard, and for still being fairly new at the game, so I’ll give Portside a C+ for now.
Portside Pizza, 110 Packetts Landing, Fairport 425-0522
Tue. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Sun. Noon - 6 p.m.
Pizza Guy note: as of December 2010, Portside Pizza is closed. Fat Jack's Pizza now occupies the space.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Brandani's: yeah, it's that good.

Not a full-blown review here, just a report that a lunchtime visit confirms that I was right in giving Brandani's an "A" back in April.
Brandani's has a pretty wide selection of slices at lunch. From what I could see, the only thing differentiating them is the toppings. In other words, they don't offer thin or thick, Neapolitan or Sicilian, or anything like that. Same crust, different toppings, with prices ranging from $2.50 to $3.50. The slices are cut from roughly rectangular pizzas, so the exact dimensions may vary a little, but they're a pretty good size. My two corner slices measured about a foot along the longest edge. And the crust is on the thick side, so by weight they're probably at least equal to a lot of "mega slices" that you'll find elsewhere.
I got a primavera slice with tomatoes and Romano, and a sausage, peppers and onions slice. Damn, they were good.
Primarily because of the crust. I've said it before, I'll say it again - the key to great pizza is the crust. Anybody can put the same toppings on a pizza, but the crust is a pizzeria's signature, and Brandani's is terrific. Crisp, toasty underside, chewy, bready interior, this is what a crust should be. In the past, when I've given unfavorable reviews, some people have told me, "Well, you just don't like thick crusts." Wrong. This is kind of thick, but I loved it, including the outer lip, which is very thick.
Oh yeah, the toppings were good, too. I will say that with a thicker crust like this, you're probably better off going with some relatively hearty, flavorful toppings. Along those lines, I'd give a narrow edge here to the sausage, peppers, and onions, but they were both good, and well balanced with each other, the crust, and the sauce, which was noticeable but remained in a supporting role here.
Well, that's it. If you haven't tried Brandani's yet, get your butt down there. Whether you get a full pizza or just a slice or two, you can't go wrong.
Brandani's Pizza, 2595 W. Henrietta Rd. 272-718o
Mon. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Sun. 12 noon - 7 p.m.

Giuseppe's

Giuseppe's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon
Giuseppe’s is an Italian restaurant/ bakery/ pizzeria in Gates. Though you might not guess it from its location in a relatively modern shopping plaza, it’s got a pedigree going back over 80 years.
When I was doing some research into Rochester’s pizza history, I noticed the claim, “est. 1927” on Giuseppe’s website. I got in touch with the current owner, Joe Chinappi, who informed me that his grandfather, Joseph (Giuseppe) Petrillo began the restaurant, which was originally located on State Street in Rochester.
Eventually the family relocated the restaurant to a spot on Lyell Road. At some point, Chinappi’s parents sold that property to a developer to make room for a drugstore. He then took over the business and moved it across the street to a shopping plaza near the intersection of Rt. 31 and Howard Rd.
And there Giuseppe’s remains, now into its fourth generation of family-run operation, with the owner’s two sons and heirs apparent handling much of the baking and cooking. I’m still not sure exactly where Giuseppe’s fits into the whole oldest-pizzeria discussion, but it’s clearly among the senior class of Rochester pizza places.
Getting back to that shopping plaza: now I’ve never owned a business of any kind, but I must say that Giuseppe’s current location doesn’t strike me as an obvious place to put a restaurant. It’s far removed from the street, and is tucked way back in a far corner of the plaza. But they seem to be doing fine, which should tell you something about the food. Here’s one of my rules of thumb when it comes to restaurants: busy restaurant, out-of-the-way location = good food. (The inverse - good location, bad food - is less universally, but all too often, true. I’ve had some pretty mediocre meals in restaurants that are clearly getting by on the strength of their convenient or scenic location.)
And the food here is good. I’ve yet to dine at Giuseppe’s - an omission I mean to correct - but I was familiar with it from having stopped there on occasion for a loaf of their Italian bread, which I consider some of the best in the area. You can get it hard or soft, but go with the hard. It’s got a wonderfully firm, dark, crisp exterior and a moist, chewy, airy interior.
I recently picked up a medium pepperoni pizza from Giuseppe’s. One of the first things I noticed about it was that it was asymmetrically sliced. That probably wasn’t intentional, but I actually kind of like it that way, since it gives you a choice of larger and smaller pieces, as suits your appetite.
It had a thin-to-medium thick crust, with an underside that was fairly dry, but with a faint hint of oil, neither particularly crisp nor especially soft. The edge was thin and crisp.
This was pretty cheesy pizza, with a thick layer of nicely melted mozzarella. Beneath that lay a coating of very tomatoey sauce, the flavor of which was complemented by the distinctive tang of romano cheese. The pie was generously topped with thin, crisp slices of pepperoni. I’m not sure if it was the pepperoni or the sauce, or both, but overall the pizza also had a somewhat salty flavor.
Giuseppe’s pizza menu offers 15 toppings to pick from, white pizza, and five specialty pizzas, including a clam pizza. They also do mini pizzas, wings and hot and cold subs.
If you’re going to Giuseppe’s, you’ll find the takeout counter just inside the front door. There you’ll also see their assortment of breads, cookies, and canollis.
The dining room is on the left, separated from the takeout counter by a set of French doors. The restaurant serves a full menu of Italian dishes (many of which are also available for takeout), steaks, chicken, soups and salads. Several fish entrees are offered on Fridays, while Monday through Thursday you can take advantage of a lunchtime pizza buffet. Beer and wine are available.
I’m not sure at what point in its long history Giuseppe’s started offering pizza, but this struck me as, indeed, old-fashioned pizza, and I mean that in the best way. Uncomplicated, straightforward, and full flavored, the way I imagine it was decades ago. For my taste, the crust could’ve been a little more crisp underneath, but this crust certainly wasn’t bad, and it made a good base for the generous, yet well balanced toppings, and on the whole I enjoyed this pizza. I’ll give it a B+.
Giuseppe’s, 40 Spencerport Rd. (Rt. 31) 426-3397
Takeout hours: Mon. - Thu. 9 a.m. - 9 p.m., Fri. &. Sat. 9 a.m. - 10 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Dine-in hours: Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Pizza Guy note:  for a review of Giuseppe's clam pizza, go here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Poll results

So according to my first-ever poll, reheating pizza in the oven wins out by a narrow margin over cold pizza, 22-17. A handful of people nuke their pizza (3) and a couple reheat it in a pan on the stove.
For what it's worth, my thoughts on the subject -
Cold: can't beat it for ease, simplicity and quickness. And generally it is pretty good, but some pizzas are better cold than others. If the pizza has a lot of cheese, sometimes it congeals into a solid, unappetizing mass when it gets cold.
Reheated in oven: not bad, but it takes a while and is not exactly energy efficient. Problem is, the best results would require the greatest energy usage. Ideally, you'd heat a pizza stone in your oven at 550 for at least 45 minutes, then throw the leftover pizza onto the stone for a couple of minutes. That's essentially what slice joints do when they rewarm a slice for you, and the result can actually be better (because it's crisper on the bottom) than when the pizza first came out of the oven.
But that's a long time and a lot of energy for a slice or two of pizza. So most of us just put the pizza in as the oven is preheating to 350, or stick it in a toaster oven. It comes out OK, but never anywhere near as good as when it was freshly baked.
Reheated in microwave: OK, I've done this (mostly when preparing lunch for my 6-year-old), but all in all, I'd prefer mine cold. Obvious advantage here is that it's the fastest way to reheat the pizza. But I'm big on texture, and it tends to make the crust soggy. My daughter has never complained, though.
Reheated on stovetop: I came up with this idea on my own, but I've seen it suggested elsewhere. It gives you a nice crisp underside, and it's fairly quick. (Just make sure you use a nonstick pan.) The one flaw is that it's not too good for rewarming the toppings, though that can be helped by putting a lid on the pan. Or try a combination of microwaving the pizza just long enough to remelt the cheese, with the stovetop method, to crisp up the bottom.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Napa, Fairport

Napa Wood FIred Pizza on Urbanspoon
Napa is a restaurant featuring wood-fired pizza (actually I suppose it’s the oven that’s wood-fired, not the pizza, but you get the idea). It’s near the corner of Rt. 31, a/k/a Pittsford-Palmyra Road, and Rt. 250 (Moseley Road) in Fairport, about two miles south of the village center.
For a time, Napa had a second location in Victor, but that’s now Lucca, which I reviewed recently. Since there is, or was, some connection between them, I thought it would be interesting to compare the two.
As I did at Lucca, I ordered a Margherita pizza from Napa. Lucca’s comes with fresh garlic - though it wasn’t particularly noticeable - but Napa’s menu made no mention of garlic on the margherita, so I requested it.
As expected, the crust on my pizza was very thin. It had a well-charred underside, with a dry, crackly texture. In fact, for my taste, this crust was too thin and crackly. It seemed to be all dry, crunchy exterior and no bready, chewy interior.
The pizza was topped with a thick, sweet, herbal sauce. That’s a bit unusual, I think, for a Margherita, which in my experience is more typically made with fresh tomatoes, or perhaps crushed, uncooked canned plum tomatoes. As I’ve mentioned before, I find it preferable to use a cooked sauce rather than flavorless, out-of-season fresh tomatoes, but this full-flavored sauce was a bit overwhelming for the thin crust on this pizza. In that respect, this pizza was similar to the one I had at Lucca, although Napa’s sauce seemed to me to be a bit sweeter and more flavored with herbs.
Unlike Lucca’s Margherita, which used whole basil leaves, Napa’s was generously sprinkled with shredded basil. I like fresh basil, but in some spots it was so heavily applied here as to give the pizza a pesto-like flavor.
The sauce was dotted with a dozen or so islets of fresh mozzarella. It was nicely melted, but its mild flavor tended to get swallowed up in that of the sauce and the basil. Nor was the fresh garlic - which is ordinarily pretty hard to miss - particularly noticeable, again a trait shared with the pizza I got from Lucca. The pizza in general left an aftertaste of that herbal sauce and the fresh basil.
The outer edge of the crust was formed into a medium-size lip. It had a toasty flavor and, like the rest of the crust, was very crunchy. In several spots it contained large air pockets, making it literally all exterior and no interior.
Napa offers an impressive fifty pizzas, which are divided on the menu into “Neapolitan” and “Gourmet” categories (though the line between those two seems a bit fuzzy - I’m not sure I’d agree that the “Maui,” with ham, pineapple, banana peppers and pineapple bbq sauce, belongs under the Neapolitan heading). They run the gamut from simple and understated, like the cheeseless marinara with shaved garlic, fresh basil and oregano, to the innovative, like the Thai chicken curry pizza, to the over-the-top, like the Superdome, with shrimp, onions, banana peppers, hot chicken sausage, Buffalo sauce and red sauce. One oddity I noticed is that the quattro formaggi (four cheese) pizza lists only three cheeses: fresh mozzarella, parmesan and gorgonzola. Maybe it’s implied that those are in addition to the processed mozzarella that’s standard on most American pizza.
Napa does more than just pizza. The rest of the menu includes salads, “wrapini,” which are described as sandwiches made using a grilled pizza crust and finished off in the oven, and various small plates (crab cakes, Tuscan bean stew, and sesame-crusted Ahi tuna, to name a few). There’s a good-sized bar along one side, serving wine and beer, and ample booth seating on the other, in an atmosphere that straddles the line between casual and formal.
This is one of those reviews where I look back at what I’ve written and think, gee, this sounds way more negative and critical than I meant it to be. This wasn’t bad pizza, by any means, and I appreciate the fact that Napa hasn’t dumbed down their pizzas. What I mean is, some places make a big deal about using a wood-fired oven, but then they turn out pizza with a soft, pale crust that’s not as crisp as what I can get using my home oven. Napa hasn't done that, and for that, I give them credit.
But to me, it’s possible to go too far in the other direction, too. Some wood-fired pizzerias, Napa included, seem to strive for ultra-thin, cracker-like crusts. That’s just not my preference. I like at least some interior breadiness - or “crumb,” in breadspeak - and that was missing here.
My other complaint is that this pizza seemed a bit out of balance. Part of that stems from the thinness and crackly texture of the crust, which was easily overpowered by the sauce and basil. I think I might better have enjoyed this pizza with a more delicately flavored and lightly applied sauce, and a bit lighter hand with the basil as well.
Admittedly, though, some of that is just a matter of personal preference. If I thought that Napa had simply screwed this one up, I’d give them a poor grade, but my impression is that this is exactly the pizza they set out to make. I’m not going to fault them much simply because it may not have been the pizza that I would’ve preferred, but it still seemed a bit out of balance to me. So trying to give some weight to both those competing considerations, I’ll peg this one at a B-.
Napa Wood Fired Pizzeria, 687 Moseley Rd. (Perinton Hills Plaza), Fairport 223-5250
Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.

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