Friday, February 18, 2011
Amico Pizza: "The #1"
There are certain pizzerias I find myself going back to, partly because I like their pizza, and partly because there are particular items on their menus that I want to try. One of those is Amico on East Ridge Road.
I've tried Amico's regular pizza, and their white pizza, but their "#1" caught my eye - it's described on the menu as "[a]n Amico tradition since the beginning. Our homemade sauce covered with fresh ground Pecorino-Romano."
Now a pizza with nothing but red sauce and Romano cheese might not sound that interesting, but it is to me. I've come to think that in the early days of Rochester pizza, before the chains moved in and before pizza became homogenized into the standard American pizza of today, pizza, where it could be found, tended to be a very simple affair, with little more than, well, the aforementioned red sauce and Romano cheese. The more bland, but better-melting mozzarella seems to have come along later.
I've tried some other examples of this older style, such as Gallo's "Old World" pizza, Guida's "sauce pie," and Giuseppe's "Old Timer," which, with the addition of anchovies and cherry peppers is a little more complicated, but which is still based on the same foundation of red sauce and Romano. Despite their simplicity, these pizzas may be a little more challenging to the modern American palate, primarily because of the heavy dose of Romano, which nowadays is more often used as a sprinkled-on condiment - an afterthought, even - than a prominent, integral component.
Amico will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year, putting it in the senior class of Rochester pizzerias, and no survey of this local style would be complete without a visit to Amico. So, when I picked up a medium #1 pie from Amico last week, I was eager to try their version of this old-school pizza.
The first thing that struck me about this pizza was its mouthwatering aroma in my car. The steam emanating from the pizza box carried with it the scent of freshly baked dough, tomato sauce and Romano cheese, making it difficult not to pull over and devour a slice or two before I got it home.
I was able to maintain my willpower, though, and waited until I got indoors before opening the box. I was a little surprised, though not disappointed, to see that the crust was considerably thinner than the pizzas I've gotten from Amico in the past. Amico's menu notes that you can get thick or thin crust on request, and while I didn't specify any particular thickness for this one, I think this would have to be considered a thin crust. I'm not sure if that's standard for the #1, but it might be. With such simple toppings, a thick crust might tend to overwhelm the sauce and cheese. This crust was thin enough to allow the full flavor and texture of the toppings to come through.
Similarly, the underside on this one wasn't as dark as on the pizzas I've gotten from Amico before. Now that could just be a random thing, or it might be by design too. Again, the Romano doesn't melt the way that mozzarella does, and this cheese was already turning a little brown in the center of the pie. Much longer in the oven and the cheese could easily have gotten overdone.
The thin crust still had the breadiness I've come to associate with Amico's pizza, but it was easily foldable. A napkin or two was called for here, as the sauce tended to ooze out the back end as I worked my way through each slice.
A little sloppiness was a small price to pay, though, for the flavor of this pizza. How good can a pizza be with nothing but sauce and Romano cheese? Very good, indeed. The thin but bready crust made a fine base for the contrasting yet complementary flavors of the sauce and cheese.
That cheese was laid on in some abundance, so much so that you might think its sharp flavor would simply be overpowering, but it wasn't. The comparatively sweet, vibrant flavor of the tomato sauce acted as a counterweight to the lactic tang of the cheese, and the time that the pie spent in the oven may also have taken a bit of the edge off the Romano as well. I didn't notice much herb flavor, but it was hardly needed here.
What was also striking about this pizza was its texture, particularly that of the cheese. While it was missing the chewy-gooey stringiness of processed mozzarella that most of us have come to expect, the Romano had something of its own to offer. Baking atop the sauce, the cheese here had developed a crumbly, almost cakelike texture that gave it an unusual but very interesting mouthfeel.
Having tried several of these "old timer" style pizzas now, I've formed some opinions about them. On the one hand, I can see why today's style of American pizza eventually supplanted these. In this land of supersized meals, it's not surprising that people came to prefer pizzas covered with thick blankets of mozzarella, loaded with toppings. And I have to admit that there's a certain richness that you get with melted mozzarella that you can't get from a grating cheese like Romano.
But I can also see why people fell in love with pizza in the first place, back when pies like this were closer to the norm. I'm guessing that even this style of pizza is more Italian-American that native Italian, yet it clearly owes a good deal to the pizzas of the Old World, which I think tend to be far simpler, more subtle affairs than their bold, brash American cousins.
And what a pizza like this shows is that simple doesn't have to mean boring, bland or insipid. For all its seeming austerity, this pizza had abundant flavor, and a beautiful harmonic balance of bright sauce, tangy cheese and bready crust.
This pizza may not be for everybody, and even for me, it probably wouldn't be an everyday kind of thing. As much as I enjoyed and appreciated it, my tastes in pizza were shaped by the dominant pizza culture of late-20th-century America, where processed mozzarella is king. But this is definitely a pizza I would go back to now and then.
If your idea of a good pizza is one piled high with pepperoni, sausage, and extra cheese, this may not be to your liking, frankly. On the other hand, if you enjoy diving into a plate of pasta drenched in tomato sauce, with a healthy dose of Parmesan or Romano on top, this one's for you. Me, I'm giving it an A-.
Amico Pizza, 859 E.Ridge Rd. 544-8380
Sun. 1 p.m. - 9 p.m., Tue. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 am - 11:30 p.m.