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Friday, February 26, 2010

Piatza's, Park Ave.

Pizza Gourmet on Urbanspoon
After I gave a pretty bad (D+) review to the Piatza’s on Crittenden Road, a reader commented that the Park Avenue Piatza’s pizza was quite different from what I’d described. Later, another reader asked if I could check out the Park Ave. location now that it’s moved from the southeast to the northeast corner of Park and Oxford, in the space formerly occupied by KC Tea & Noodle. So I stopped by a while back to get a slice.
And Piatza’s, by the way, is a true slice joint - I’m guessing a lot of their business comes from selling their “14" Mega Slice,” which goes for about $4. So unlike some places where I think you really need to order a whole pie to get a true picture of what their pizza is like, Piatza’s is very much about slices.
My slice (the 14" refers to the length along the side, i.e., the radius of the pie) was thin to medium in thickness, with a dark brown underside. It had been screen baked, was not greasy underneath, and had some exterior crispness, but it was a tad gummy where the sauce met the crust. The dough had visibly risen somewhat, and had a certain bready airiness to it.
The sauce was moderately applied, and had a flavor that struck a balance between tomatoey and herbal. The cheese was also applied moderately, and in good balance with the other components. The cup 'n' char pepperoni was spicy and crisp.
Having worked my way through the full length of the slice, I reached the outer edge, which was formed into a thick lip. It was nicely browned, with a bready flavor and texture, and I found it enjoyable.
All four Piatza’s - Park Ave., Brighton/Henrietta (Crittenden), Fairport and Macedon - share the same menu, with many pizza varieties, as well as wings, burgers and hots, hot and cold subs, pasta, fish fry (every day), and “plates.” The Park Ave. location has some seating.
This slice was better than the one I had at the Crittenden Piatza’s; it was kind of like an improved version of that slice. For a “big slice” place - which often emphasize quantity over quality - it wasn’t bad at all. I’d still rather have the option of a smaller slice for, say, $2.50, but, that aside, it was pretty well balanced, and the flavor was good. Unlike the slice I got at Crittenden, this wasn’t greasy underneath, and the crust wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. That uniform, medium-brown underside usually means a dull sort of flavor, a lack of great character to the crust, and that was true here. But while that may be holding this back from being truly outstanding pizza, it certainly didn’t ruin it, and I’d say that this was just a bit above average, so I’ll give it a B-.
Piatza's, 360 Park Ave., 271-4950
Sun. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Of Pizza and "Puffery"

Have you seen Domino's TV ads trumpeting Papa John's statement in a court case that its claims to having "better ingredients" and "better pizza" are mere "puffery"? According to the ad, "puffery" is a legal term meaning an exaggerated statement of opinion, not fact.
I wondered what this was all about, so out of curiosity, I got a copy of the court decision that the ad is talking about. Having read it, a few things strike me as funny about Domino's ad. The first, of course, is simply the idea of arguing about whether Domino's or Papa John's makes better pizza. To me, that's like arguing about where you'd rather go for a beach getaway in January, Rochester or Buffalo.
But to get back to the court decision - the first thing I noticed is that it was written in 2000, by a federal appeals court in New Orleans. Why is Domino's bringing this up ten years later?
Another curious thing is that Domino's wasn't a party to that lawsuit. It was Pizza Hut that sued Papa John's, alleging that Papa John's claims to "better" ingredients and pizza were false advertising. Domino's is only mentioned once in a footnote, where the court points out that a lot of national pizza chains have made claims to being "better" or the "best" in some way, like Domino's slogan, "Nobody Delivers Better." The court's point, essentially, was that they all do it, and that it's all equally b.s.
Third, what Papa John's actually argued in that case, and what the court held, was that the “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza." slogan was not an "objectifiable statement of fact upon which consumers would be justified in relying," and, therefore, wasn't false advertising. In other words, Papa John's didn't say the slogan was false, only that it's the kind of statement that can't be proven or disproven. So I think Domino's ads are a little misleading by suggesting that Papa John's somehow admitted that its "better" claims were untrue.
Finally, one irony is that Papa John's actually won the lawsuit. The court did rule that when combined with its ad campaigns touting its use of "fresh pack" tomatoes, fresh dough, and filtered water, as opposed to Pizza Hut's use of reconsituted tomato paste, frozen dough, and tap water, Papa John's "better" ads were misleading, because the evidence showed that there was nothing objectifiably "better" about those particular ingredients (interestingly, the court noted that though consumers expressed a preference for fresh dough, in blind taste tests they couldn't distinguish between pizzas made with fresh or frozen dough). But Pizza Hut lost the case anyway, because there was no evidence that consumers' purchasing decisions were actually affected by those ads.
The bottom line is that all these chains' ads, telling you how good their pizza is, are, as the court put it, the kind of boastful, vague statements "upon which no reasonable buyer would be justified in relying." Amen.

Roam Cafe, Park Ave.

NOTE: Roam Cafe's ownership changed after this review was written. Pizza remains on the menu, but until I go back I don't know if the pizza has significantly changed from what is described here.
Roam Cafe on Park Avenue, which sells espresso on one side and motor scooters on the other, is not someplace I would’ve thought of for pizza until I saw it mentioned on this forum, where one poster declared that Roam has “the best pizza.” Now people say a lot of things on forums (one person on there wrote that I have "no clue" what I'm talking about, so obviously some of their opinions cannot be trusted), but a check of Roam Café’s Facebook page showed that it does indeed offer a Margherita pizza, along with a “house” pizza and a breakfast pizza.
So I figured, it’s not exactly a pizzeria, but who knows? Maybe Roam is some uber-hip, Euro kind of place turning out authentic artisanal pizzas that are the best thing this side of Naples. It is on Park Avenue, after all. Then again, maybe Roam is just a motor scooter dealer with a microwave. But there was only one way to find out, so off I went.
I probably should’ve asked what a house pizza is, but I love my Margheritas anyway, so that’s what I ordered. It had a crust that was somewhere between thin and medium in thickness, with a non-greasy, mottled underside. Though well browned in spots, the edge in general was pretty pale, but it was crunchy.
There was quite a bit of sauce, which had a thick consistency and a well-cooked flavor. The pizza also had a pronounced flavor of herbs, though I'm not sure how much of that came from the sauce and how much from the dry herbs that had been sprinkled over the pizza's surface.
The cheese - processed mozzarella, I guess - was well browned and congealed. It appeared that the pizza had also received a light dusting of some grated cheese after coming out of the oven, though I couldn't really taste it. There was some chopped onion in there as well, which might have been added to the sauce rather than applied separately.
As I said, Roam Cafe is not a pizzeria, so they don't offer a lot in the way of pizza. It's also not a full-service restaurant, so the menu is fairly short, and most of the items are on the light side - croissants, focaccia, antipasto, and the like. The "Buffalotto," described as "crispy bread filled with black olives, buffalo mozzarella and tomato," sounds interesting. Desserts include gelato and a couple of "bombas," which come in black & white or "exotic" fruit varieties, and of course there's a wide variety of coffee drinks, plus Italian sodas, hot chocolate, teas, beer and wine.
As for this pizza, well, it was OK, but it didn't thrill me. There was nothing particularly Margherita-like about it, for one thing; it seemed like a basic sauce-and-cheese pizza. It was a bit overcooked for my taste, too, the cheese particularly. (I also wonder why, if Roam has buffalo mozzarella - which I take to mean fresh mozzarella made from domestic water buffalo, which has long been produced in Italy - they don't use it on the Margherita.) And though the crust seemed to have risen somewhat, it didn't have great flavor or texture. Quite honestly, it reminded me of one of those frozen pizzas that are supposed to rise when you put them in the oven. Granted, those are among the better frozen pizzas out there, but I expect, or at least hope, for better when I order a pizza from an eating establishment. Bottom line, this was alright, I mean I finished it, but I don't plan to order it again. I'll give it a C-.
Roam Cafe, 260 Park Ave. 360-4165
Sun. - Thu. 9 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 9 a.m. - 11 p.m.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nino's Revisited, part II: Chatting with Giacomo

Yesterday, I reported on the thin crust pizza I got from Nino's last week. I ordered my pie when I arrived at the shop, and as I was was waiting for it to come out of the oven, I had a chance to speak with Nino’s owner.
Before I get into our conversation, let me add one disclaimer. I did the best I could taking notes on the back of a menu as he talked, but quite frankly, nearly forty years after he came here, this gentleman has not lost his Sicilian accent. Add to that my poor handwriting, and I may have gotten a fact or two wrong. If I have, I apologize in advance. But I’m pretty confident that I’ve accurately summarized the gist of what he told me.
Giacomo (I’m not 100% sure I’m spelling that right, but it’s close), arrived in America in 1971, two years before his parents started Nino’s. His father (who's pictured in the photograph just above Giacomo's head in the photo below) had learned a good deal about both baking and business from a stint in a bakery on Clifford Avenue, where he and his brother worked for a time.
And like Giacomo, Giacomo’s father no doubt also picked up a thing or two about baking while growing up in Sicily. Baking bread, in one form or another, was an integral part of family life, and Giacomo recalls his grandmother getting up at 5 a.m. every morning to begin preparing that day’s batch of focaccia dough.
Giacomo took over the pizza business in 1977, and he’s been at it ever since, these days with some help from his son (who made my pizza, by the way). If Giacomo has any regrets about his choice of life’s work, he certainly doesn’t show it. He exudes a passion and love for what he does that’s only matched by the heavenly aromas emanating from the pizza ovens in the back of the shop.
At one point, Giacomo interrupted our conversation to fetch a well-worn Italian cookbook, which had clearly been consulted many times in the nearly 50 years since it was published. (Despite its yellowed and occasionally stained pages, many of which had come unglued from the binding, Giacomo informed me that this was not the original, only a reproduction. I don’t know how old the original must be, but from the looks of this “new” copy, it ought to be in the Vatican library.) He thumbed through it, stopping occasionally to point out passages of particular interest to him, the subject matter of which ran from the basics, like flour and water, to ancient history (apparently Julius Caesar’s wife was no slouch when it came to baking bread).
Like any business, Nino’s has had its ups and downs over the years, but, like a good dough recipe, when you find one that works, you don’t mess with it. Nino’s clearly discovered a winning formula early on, and stuck with it. When I asked Giacomo if he ever thought about expanding, he replied that no, he never had any desire to see Nino’s become another Domino’s, Pizza Hut or Papa John’s; "You want to be one of a kind," he said.
That singleminded devotion to doing something he loves, and doing it extremely well, has gained Nino’s a loyal following. As a result, it’s hardly been necessary for Nino’s to expand into the suburbs, not when customers are willing to drive from all over Monroe County and beyond to come to Nino’s. One particular customer regularly drove 30 or 40 miles, each way, to get her Nino’s fix.
And let’s face it, you can open new pizzerias, give them the same look, outfit them with the exact same ovens, and prescribe the same recipes and procedures, but you can’t easily duplicate the craftsmanship that comes with years of experience.
You also can’t duplicate the personal dedication that’s required to gain that kind of experience and knowledge. Giacomo explained, for instance, how each day’s batch of dough is a little bit different, depending on the temperature, the humidity, and for all I know, the mood that the yeast is in that day. Only by examining and feeling the dough, he said, can you (and by “you” I mean “he”) tell if the dough is “right.” Get a bad batch? Chuck it and start over. “You have to be an artist,” as he put it, and I recalled the stories I’ve read about Michelangelo smashing his own sculptures with a hammer when they turned out not to be up to his standards, and starting over with a new block of marble.
(That also made me feel a whole lot better about the times I’ve felt like tossing out a batch of dough that didn’t come out quite right. My wife - who understandably would prefer herself and our daughter to eat a slightly misshapen pizza for dinner at 6 or 7 p.m than a perfect one at midnight - usually talks me out of it. But now I can take comfort in the thought that I’m simply a misunderstood artist.)
No, I don’t think you’ll ever see a string of “Nino’s Famous Pizza” places dotted around the landscape like so many uniform slices of pepperoni. This is a one-and-only kind of place, which is as it should be with pizza. “It has to be in your blood,” Giacomo told me, and there’s no medical procedure yet known that can transfuse that kind of commitment and know-how to umpteen fresh hirees overnight. “It” is certainly in Giacomo’s blood, and if you want proof, head over to Nino’s sometime and see for yourself.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Nino's Revisited: thin crust

Nino's Pizza on Urbanspoon
A while back, I did a post on Nino’s Pizzeria and Focacceria on Culver Road, which has been turning out artisanal pizza since long before anybody had ever heard of such a thing. I enjoyed my thick crust, Sicilian-style pizza, but after a reader recommended Nino’s thin crust pizza, and seeing all the choices on their menu, I decided I had to go back for more.
This time I ordered a thin pie, with split toppings. Half was a "regular" pepperoni pie, and on the other half I ordered "gourmet" sauce, Locatelli cheese, fresh sliced garlic, and Nino's homemade Italian sausage.
This was thin indeed; I could almost see through the crust in some spots. The crust was crunchy, and chewy, with a very crunchy edge, but neither greasy nor dried out. I noticed that the interior of the crust had a bit of color to it - it wasn't bright white, like some pizzas that seem to be made with bleached white flour. To call it brown would be overstating it, but there was a slight tint that may have suggested a slow-rising dough (a long rise will result in more of the starches in the dough being converted to sugar, which caramelizes in the oven). Whatever the source of that color, the crust had a good flavor.
I ordered the pepperoni half mostly to please my six-year-old daughter's palate, but one advantage of splitting the toppings that way was that it allowed a side-by-side comparison. The pepperoni side was fine, straightforward, and except for the thinness, pretty much in line with what I'd had last time.
The "gourmet" half was terrific, though. I'm not sure what goes into the gourmet sauce, but it was very flavorful, with abundant tomatoey, not sugary, sweetness. The Locatelli cheese (which is applied last, over the other toppings) also added a further dimension of flavor beyond straight mozzarella, with a sharp yet not overpowering taste.
Another thumbs-up for the garlic and sausage. Both had a mild, almost sweet flavor that was noticeable but not dominant.
This was, in fact, a very well balanced, what I would call integrated, pizza. No one component stood head and shoulders above the rest, but all blended beautifully together into a unitary whole.
One thing I also liked about this thin crust pizza is that, although I love thin, New York style pizza, this wasn't that; wasn't even an attempt at New York style pizza. This was Nino's pizza. And whatever style you want to call it, it was very, very good. I'm giving it an A.
On my next visit to Nino's - and there will be a next visit - I plan to try the focaccia. Focaccia's not something I ever got into much - it just never really showed up on my gustatory radar screen - but on this last visit, I had a chance to chat a bit with the owner, and when I asked him to name his favorite item on the menu, he unhesitatingly replied that it's the focaccia. So that's coming. In the meantime, I'll be posting a recap of our conversation tomorrow.
Nino’s Pizzeria and Focacceria, 1330 Culver Rd. 482-2264
Sun. - Thu. 4 p.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 4 p.m. - midnight

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Jozeppi's, Fairport

Thanks to an email from a reader, I recently became aware of the opening of a new pizzeria in Fairport named Jozeppi’s. Sometimes I like to wait a while before checking out a new place, but something about this sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a shot.
Turns out that Jozeppi’s, which opened on February 2, is something of a reincarnation of another pizzeria in the same location named Clemente’s, which in its day was well known to the locals. Jozeppi’s is owned and operated by the son of the one-time owner of Clemente’s, and he’s carried forward some traditions from his father’s shop, including the “tunnel sandwich.” I’d never heard of this, but it involves hollowing out a loaf of fresh homemade bread and stuffing it with either meatballs, sausage, beef or chicken cheese steak, or some combination thereof.
That sounds worth trying sometime, but I was there for the pizza. This was a lunchtime visit, so I just got a couple of slices. They were screen baked, with a thin to medium crust that measured about a half inch thick near the edge, a little thinner near the tip. The underside was a fairly uniform medium brown, and was dry to the touch. It had some crispness, but was also foldable.
I found the pizza a bit saucier than most, but still pretty well balanced. The sauce had a slightly sweet, tomatoey flavor, with some herbal notes as well. The moderately applied cheese was a bit browned. The flavor and texture of the sauce and cheese blended well with that of the crust, which had some breadiness, as evidenced by the clearly visible air holes where I’d taken a bite. The edge was also nice and crisp, with a certain bready chewiness.
Jozeppi’s has a pretty standard lineup of pizza toppings, and four specialty pizzas: Buffalo chicken, Hawaiian, meatlovers, and veggie. They also do wings and fried sides, salads, a few cold subs, calzones, lasagna, and a Friday fish fry. Oh, and don’t forget that tunnel sandwich.
At this point, they don’t offer delivery, but that should be forthcoming. Until then, it’s either pickup or dine in, in Jozeppi’s modest seating area.
I was pleasantly surprised by this pizza. Not that I expected it to be bad, it just wasn’t all that impressive visually, but it turned out to be better than it looked. I never had a pizza from Clemente’s, but if this is anything like Clemente’s was, I can see why it would have a following. I expect to stop back some evening in a few weeks or so to pick up a full pie, though I might ask if they can not use a screen on mine. Until then, I’d say Jozeppi’s is off to a good start, and I’m giving it a solid B.
Jozeppi’s Pizzeria, 84 High St., Fairport 377-8400
Mon. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. - 8 p.m.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pontillos, Chili Ave.

Pontillo's Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon
My post the other day about the death of local pizza pioneer Anthony Pontillo prompted a comment from a reader that Pontillo’s pizza varies widely from one location to another. That’s not the first time, or even the second time, I’ve seen people say that. So although it’s never been my intention to review multiple locations of a single chain, when I happened to find myself driving by the Pontillo’s on Chili Avenue, I decided to make an exception.
My $2.50 bought me a slice that was big, but not monstrous in size. It had a dry underside with a mottled, charred appearance. The thin to medium crust was somewhat crisp, but easily foldable.
Taking a bite, the first thing I noticed, even before my teeth sank into it, was a pleasing, toasty aroma from the crust. The good news continued upon taking a bite, as I found that the crust had a bready quality and a chewy texture. The relatively thick edge was particularly crunchy and bready.
The crust and other components were well balanced and blended well. The sauce was applied in enough quantity to be a noticeable presence, but not so much as to make for sloppy eating or to squirt out the sides when I bit into the pizza. There was a moderate amount of cheese, which at least initially was pretty stringy, as this pizza had apparently just come out of the oven when I got my slice.
The pepperoni was laid on fairly generously. It contributed a spicy/salty overlay to the background sweetness of the sauce and the underlying toastiness of the crust.
This Pontillo’s didn’t have any menus handy on my visit, and neither does their website, though I imagine it’s not too much different from the other Pontillo’s. Lunchtime slices were limited to plain cheese or pepperoni, and there were a couple of sandwich specials on the board when I stopped in. The atmosphere is pretty much that of a fast-food joint, but there are plenty of tables and chairs available if you want to dine in.
All in all, I was pretty impressed with this pizza, not that I walked in with any great expectations. The crust was good, the components complemented each other well, and the overall flavor was quite agreeable. So while that doesn’t necessarily mean much in terms of the other Pontillo’s locations, I’m giving this one a B+.
Pontillo’s, 3137 Chili Ave. 889-2120

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Martusciello's, Lyell Ave.

Martusciello Bakery on Urbanspoon
I’ve written before about how, as much as I love their bread, I’ve been disappointed by the pizza that I’ve gotten from some of the local Italian bakeries. So it was with somewhat lowered expectations that I went to Martusciello’s on Lyell Avenue recently to try one of their pizzas.
Martusciello’s does make pizza to order, but if you go at lunchtime, you’ll find an array of roughly foot-wide pizzas to choose from in a display case, ready to go. Feeling like a kid in a candy store with only a dollar bill in his pocket, I had a tough time settling on one. I was offered help by the employees a couple of times before I finally waved them off and told them that I’d need a few minutes.
Eventually, I settled on a pie with fresh tomatoes, onions, romano cheese, and garlic. When I got it out of the to-go box, I found that the crust was a bit undercooked for my taste, and that some of the water from the tomatoes seemed to have seeped into the dough and turned it a bit gummy. Five minutes in a 350º toaster oven helped considerably in crisping the bottom, though the interior of the crust remained a little doughy.
While I’m on that subject, I noticed when looking over the various pizzas on display that some were considerably more well done than others. One pie, for example, which was topped with just tomato sauce and Romano cheese, had a crust that was blackened along the edge. So that may be something you want to look for in making a decision.
The toppings on my pizza were quite tasty, though fresh tomatoes may not have been the best choice in February. They had a sharp, acidic bite and lacked the natural sweetness of a good, ripe tomato in summertime.
Still, the toppings as a whole blended well, and left a pleasant, lingering aftertaste. In season or not, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with tomatoes, onions, garlic and Romano. The pizza was also dusted with dried herbs, though I didn’t pick up much of an herbal flavor.
Some welcome breadiness came through in the edge of the pizza, bringing to mind Martusciello’s excellent Italian loaves. This had the same basic flavor and interior texture, but wasn’t quite as crusty as their bread (which you can get “hard” or “soft” - I always ask for hard). I wondered if perhaps it had been given a light brushing with olive oil, which will soften the crust in the oven.
Martusciello’s more than exceeded my expectations, and went a long way toward mitigating my skepticism about getting pizza from an Italian bakery. My pizza wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly enjoyable enough to make me want to go back and try another from Martusciello’s wide selection. Next time, though, I’d pay more attention to the doneness of the crust, and I’d also get one with less “wet” toppings, to reduce the likelihood of the dough being gummy. A white pizza, perhaps.
Better yet, I think I’ll just order a pizza to go. Until I picked up a menu on this visit, I hadn’t been aware that Martusciello’s bakes pizzas to order, but they do. Pizzas can be ordered in medium, half sheet, and full sheet sizes, up to one hour before closing time. They also do calzones, subs, and sides - who knew Martusciello’s makes wings? And if you want dessert, you won’t find many other pizzerias offering freshly baked eclairs, baklava, napoleons, and sfogiatelle (I had to google that last one - they’re filled pastries - yum).
If I were rating just the pizza that I had, I’d probably give it a C+. The flavor was good, but the tomatoes weren’t so great, and the crust had issues, as I’ve described. But I can’t forget that mouth-watering display case. I could virtually taste some of those pizzas with my eyes. Just for sheer visual appeal, they deserve an A. So I’m going to split the difference and give Martusciello’s a B for now, subject to adjustment after my next visit.
Martusciello’s Bakery, 2280 Lyell Ave., 247-0510
Mon. - Fri. 7:30 a.m. - 7:00 p.m., Sat. 7:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., Sun. 7:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.

Pontillo's founder dies at age 87

Just noticed the obituary that ran the other day for Anthony Pontillo, one of the founders of the Pontillo's chain. The story contains a few tidbits about the history of the business.
Mr. Pontillo was certainly a pizza pioneer in this area. He and his brothers opened the first Pontillo's, in Batavia, in 1947 and their first Rochester location in 1952. So next time you're enjoying a pizza, Pontillo's or otherwise, hoist a slice in his memory.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hamlin Pizza Shack

Hamlin Pizza Shack on Urbanspoon
It's taken me a while, but I finally made it out to the Hamlin Pizza Shack recently. Part of the reason it took me so long is that I had thought that the HPS was simply another location of the Pizza Shack on West Ridge Road (it isn't), and because even though it's not really that far away, Hamlin seems like a long way off. Maybe it's the fact that it's not that close to any major expressway, I don't know.
At any rate, I did finally get out there on a recent Friday evening and picked up a large pizza.
The place was quite busy when I got there. There's a pickup/ordering counter near the door, and a dining room off to the left. Several individuals and groups were either waiting to pick up or order, with more in the dining area. I had the impression that this is a popular choice for Friday night dinner in Hamlin.
My pizza (which was cut into squares) was quite thin, though the edge was formed into a thick lip. The underside was lightly browned and firm, with some crispness out toward the edge.
The pizza was pretty heavy on the cheese, which seemed to be all mozzarella. It formed a thick, unbroken layer that was melted just barely to the point of browning.
The sauce stayed much more in the background. It was moderately applied and had a mild flavor.
Getting back to that crust, it was, as I said, firm underneath, but the top layer - the interface, if you will, between the crust and the sauce - was a bit gummy. I don't know if that happened during the 20-minute car ride home or if it came out of (or went into) the oven that way, but it seemed that some liquid from the sauce had seeped into the crust, giving it that wet-dough, gummy texture on top.
The lip of the crust didn't suffer from that problem, and though it was quite thick, it was rather airy inside. It made for some nice dipping into the blue cheese and extra hot sauce that I'd gotten with my wings.
The HPS offers four specialty pizzas and 19 pizza toppings. I got a vegetarian half (onions and sweet peppers) and a meatball half, thinking that the latter would please my 6-year-old daughter, who inhaled three slices of the Pizza Stop's meatball parm pizza. She didn't care for these meatballs, however, though she didn't really articulate a reason, so take that for what it's worth.
The rest of the menu is pretty extensive. There are wings, of course; mine were fairly meaty and crisp, and the Buffalo sauce had good flavor, with what appeared to be a high melted-butter content. Other menu items include calzones, finger foods, hot and cold subs, wraps and sandwiches, pasta, ribs, "plates," and a Friday fish fry. There's also a kids' menu.
This pizza wasn't bad. It had something of a split personality, with that thin crust and thick edge, and to me it seemed a little out of balance what with all that cheese on such a thin crust. Then there was that slight gumminess, although again that might've been at least partly due to the pizza sitting in the box for 20 or 25 minutes. The overall flavor was good though, the bottom of the crust was firm if not really crisp, it wasn't greasy, and it was generally well made. I'll give it a B-.
Hamlin Pizza Shack, 1721 Lake Rd. 964-7170
Sun. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - midnight

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Big Deal Pizzeria owner found dead


Yesterday I saw a news story about a man being found dead at Big Deal Pizzeria on Monroe Avenue. Last night it was reported that the body was that of Big Deal's owner, Kevin Wratni. Police are calling the death "suspicious."

I can't say that I knew Kevin, but I did meet him on one occasion, and he seemed like a genuinely nice guy who really cared about his business, his pizza, and his customers. Whatever caused his death, it came far too early. If any of his friends or loved ones should ever happen to read this, let me offer my condolences.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Jitters, Southtown Plaza

Jitters Café started out as a coffeehouse on Buffalo Road in North Chili. There are now two additional locations, one on Elmgrove Road and one in Southtown Plaza in Henrietta. All three Jitters serve food, but only the Southtown location serves pizza.
Entering Jitters, you'll find tables on the left, and a counter on the right, running nearly the length of the front room. There's a separate room with a bar in back.
There are several specialty pizzas on display, as well as giant 30" cheese and pepperoni pies. Once you place your order, you can pick it up at a window at the far end.
I got a cheese slice and a pepperoni slice, both "regular" size. They had a medium thick, screen baked crust that was a little sooty and a little greasy, leaving a thin film of oil on my fingertips. They also had a strong aroma of cooking oil. There was a huge, blisterlike bubble along the edge of the cheese slice.
The mildly flavored sauce was lightly applied. The cheese was well browned on both slices. The (quite) generously applied pepperoni was nice and crisp along the edges.
Jitters offers 19 pizza toppings and 27 specialty pizzas, some of which are fairly exotic. You can peruse them on my Facebook page. They also serve oven roasted chicken wings, a wide variety of hot and cold sandwiches, wraps, quesadillas, salads, and sides, plus breakfast, including breakfast pizza. There are several types of baked goods and desserts available and a small kids menu as well. Bottled beer is available in the main room up front, and the bar area in back serves draft beer (at very reasonable prices) and wine. There's a pool table in back too.
And of course, there's coffee, in pretty much any form or permutation you would like, plus chai, milkshakes, smoothies, frappes, and Italian sodas. About the only drink you won't find here is hard liquor.
It's a nice setup and all, but I was not too fond of this pizza. The crust had some breadiness, but I just couldn't get over that oily odor. On top of that, the cheese was a bit overbrowned, and the sauce added little. The right components were there, but the execution seemed lacking, and the overall flavor just didn't make for great pizza. I wonder if Jitters at Southtown isn't trying to be to many things to too many people. I'll give their pizza a C-.
Jitters, 3333 W. Henrietta Rd. (Southtown Plaza) 427-7070
Mon. - Thu. 8 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 8 a.m. - midnight, Sun. 10 a.m. - 10 p.m.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pizza menus now available!

Well, two of them, for now. In response to a request I've added a photo album to my Facebook page where I'll be putting menus from pizzerias that don't have websites. It'll take me a while to get them all up so if there's a place I've reviewed that you're particularly interested in, let me know and I'll add it sooner rather than later.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Papa Van's, North Goodman St.

Papa Van's Eatery on Urbanspoon
Pizza Guy Note, Sept. 2012: I believe that Papa Van's is now closed. At least it looked closed last time I drove by.
Papa Van's is at the northwest corner of North Goodman and Clifford in Rochester. It seems to be a successor of sorts to Al’s Green Pizzeria, which was formerly open at the southeast corner of the same intersection. I don’t know if there’s any actual connection between the two, but when I went to Al’s Green a few months ago, the sign on the door said that it was reopening at the opposite corner. I’ve also never understood the exact connection between Al’s Green Pizzeria and Al’s Green Tavern next door, which has to qualify as one of Rochester’s most authentic dive bars.
Before I get to the pizza, one observation: there’s another place serving pizza, Chicken Mom’s (f/k/a Chicken Tom’s) right across Clifford Ave. So you’ve got Papa and Mom competing with each other at that intersection. Well, I thought it was amusing, anyway. (The lady at Chicken Mom’s - Chicken Mom herself, perhaps? - was just beginning to stretch out the pizza dough at the time of my visit, so that will be a review for another day.)
Papa Van's describes itself as a “South Philly Market Place.” I’m not sure what that means exactly, but they do have pizza, which is what I was interested in. The layout is kind of strange, with an entrance on Goodman and another on Clifford. The pizza counter is separated from the rest of the store, and is accessible only through the Goodman St. entrance.
I got myself a cheese slice, which was cut from a pie that had just come out of the oven. It was screen baked - *sigh* - but otherwise not a bad looking slice, with a thin to medium crust and a brown, dry underside. It was not especially crisp, but neither was it soft; “firm” might be the best way to describe it.
The crust showed some evidence of having risen, and had a decent texture, but the flavor was somewhere between doughy and bready.
The sauce and cheese were both applied in good balance with the crust, if a bit sloppily, reaching nearly to the outer edge at one end of the slice but over two inches away at the other. The sauce had an herbal flavor, and the slightly browned cheese appeared to be straight mozzarella, although my tastebuds also seemed to pick up some other flavor that I was unable to identify.
Papa Van's pizza menu is fairly standard, with about 20 available toppings and no specialty pizzas other than white pizza. They also do "foot long stromboli," calzones, wings, burgers, hot and cold subs, and of course, Philly Cheese Steaks, described as "9th Street Style" (which presumably would mean something to somebody from Philadelphia). They also offer fried chicken and seafood platters, pulled pork, ribs, several beef dishes from meatloaf to N.Y. strip steak, oxtails, "disaster dishes" (i.e. garbage plates), and pasta. Sides include candied yams, collard greens, and mac 'n' cheese. There are also several dessert options including cobblers, cakes, and sweet potato pie. Soft drinks only.
I don't know about the rest of the food - I'm always wary of a place that tries to do too many things - but although this wasn't world class pizza, it honestly wasn't bad, especially at just a buck-fifty a slice. The crust could've been a little crisper, but it was reasonably well balanced, and the flavor was OK overall, so I'll give it a slightly above average B-.
Papa Van's South Philly Market Place, 1175 N. Goodman St. 288-1850, 288-2240
Sun. - Thu. 10 a.m. - midnight, Fri. & Sat. 10 a.m. - 2 a.m.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Pizza Stop Meatball Parmesan Pizza

When I asked Jim Staffieri, proprietor of the Pizza Stop downtown, which of his own pizzas was his favorite, the one that he mentioned was his meatball parmesan pizza. I'd never tried it, as that's not the kind of pizza I would generally order - I tend to be more of a minimalist when it comes to pizza - but I figured if he liked it, I'd better give it a shot.
What with checking out other pizzerias, it's taken me a while, but I finally got around to it, and recently picked up a large meatball parm pie from the Pizza Stop. After trying it, it's easy to see how this could make anybody's short list of favorites.
It starts with the same crust as Pizza Stop's other New York style pies: thin, crisp but chewy, and just a bit charred without being burnt.
From there, though, things are a bit different: the meatballs are put on first, then the cheese, with the sauce coming last. And rather than a solid layer of sauce covering the entire surface, the sauce here is applied in a spiral pattern, which to those of us old enough to remember, might bring to mind those little "HypnoDisks" that used to be advertised (right next to the X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys) in the back pages of comic books.
I'm not sure if the HypnoDisks worked, but this pizza did have some hypnotic powers of its own. I suspect, though, that this had less to do with the visual effect of the spiraling sauce and cheese than with the aroma of fresh garlic, which always casts a spell on me.
Or maybe it was the flavors, and the way that they all came together. First, there's the cheese, which, despite the pizza's name, does not include Parmesan. Instead, Staffieri uses a blend of mozzarella and Romano, for more flavor than would be imparted from Parmesan (I guess "meatball Rome" just wouldn't have the same ring as "meatball parm").
Next, add the sauce. The spiraling looks nice, but it also helps keep the sauce in balance with the other components. There may be a practical reason for the spiral application - once the cheese is on the pizza, it would be hard to spread sauce over it uniformly, the way you would over a bare pizza, without messing up the cheese - but regardless of the reason, the spiraling ensures some sauce in each bite without drenching the pizza.
And then there are the meatballs. These were broken up into small chunks, which were evenly distributed over the pizza. They were moist without being greasy, and had a slightly spicy, peppery flavor.
An unseen but noticeable presence was the extra virgin olive oil, which is swirled over the entire pizza after the other toppings are applied, just before baking, with a little extra along the rim of the crust. The oil softens the crust just a tad, and also helps transmit the flavor of the other ingredients to the tastebuds.
Perhaps it's the oil, but what I really liked about this pizza was the way that the disparate flavors came together - the sauce, cheese, garlic, meatballs, and of course the crust. Some pizzerias - particularly the big chains - seem to stress quantity: how many toppings, or how much of each topping, they give you. Often, I think, that's intended as a way of distracting you from just how lacking in flavor and texture the crust is.
A good New York style crust, on the other hand, doesn't need to hide under an overabundance of toppings, and this one didn't. The various flavors here complemented, rather than competed with, each other and the crust.
A reader recently pointed me to a column from last summer by Frank Bruni of the New York Times. In it, Bruni observed that "great pizza and great pasta are kinfolk. What’s a margherita, after all, but a canvas for tomato, cheese and herb with less slickness, more crunch and more portability than noodles? Many of the flavors are the same." Pizza Stop's meatball parm pizza did indeed remind me of a pasta dish, but not one doused with sauce, meatballs and cheese. There was an overall unity, balance and harmony here that made this one terrific pizza, and a good choice for family dinner.
Speaking of which - my six-year-old daughter, who herself balances out my pretentious pizza pontificitations with a simple "yummy or yucky" approach, absolutely loved this pizza. I've never seen her scarf down as much pizza as she did on this one. Add in my wife's concurrence, and this one gets a triple "A."

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