No, this post isn't about the worst pizza in Rochester. It's about WorstPizza, in Rochester. Let me explain.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting, and sharing some pizza with, the creator and publisher of WorstPizza.com, a very fine pizza blog out of South Florida that, despite the name, covers the full range of pizza, from worst to best. "Lapp" (his nom de blog) was in town for a conference, in anticipation of which he got in touch with me to see if I'd like to show him around some local pizza places. Well, twist my arm, why doncha?
When I travel outside the Rochester area, I'm always on the lookout for pizza places to check out, but I rarely blog about them, for a number of reasons. In that respect, Lapp takes a much more catholic approach, documenting and reporting on pizza wherever he travels. So for him this would be a "working" occasion.
Though he'd spent some time checking out my blog, Lapp didn't ask to visit any place in particular, but deferred to my judgment and familiarity with the Rochester pizza scene. This was a weighty responsibility, since we only had one night and one lunchtime the following day. Rochester may be a relatively small city, but it's impossible to do justice to our pizza culture in such a short time. The few hours that Lapp and I would spend together would form a lasting impression on him about the state of pizza in Rochester. I won't bore you with the details of how, with some input from Lapp, I settled on these places, but we ended up visiting Joe's Brooklyn Pizza, Tony D's, and The Pizza Stop.
To see what Lapp thought of his pizza at each of those establishments, I refer you to his website (if the reviews aren't up yet, keep checking back. He's generally got a pretty quick turnaround time). Some of my selections were things that I'd had before, like Joe's tomato pie and Pizza Stop's meatball parm pizza, but I did try a couple of new things as well. I've already posted about one of them, The Pizza Stop's spinach-artichoke pizza, and I'll be posting about the other, a tomato pie from Tony D's, soon.
As we worked our way through our respective pizzas, I came to realize a few things about Lapp, and about myself as well. First, he's something of a pizza purist. For him, it's pretty much crust, sauce, cheese, and little else. I like a good cheese slice as much as the next guy, and it's certainly the single best benchmark by which to gauge a pizzeria, but with a few exceptions (primarily mushrooms and eggplant) I'll happily eat pizza with a wide range of toppings, in any number of combinations.
Not so Lapp. One of my primary reasons for taking him to Joe's was that I thought that Joe's Sicilian grandma's pizza would come reasonably close to Lapp's favorite style, "upside down Sicilian," which essentially is simply Sicilian pizza with the sauce on top of the cheese instead of the other way around, but that idea fell through when Lapp found out that the toppings on the grandma's included shallots, a strict no-no for Lapp. While some might find his approach overly rigid or restrictive, I can respect that kind of pizza purity. This is a man who knows what he wants in pizza.
I also began to see that our divergent attitudes toward pizza toppings had a parallel in our pizza criticism. It quickly became apparent to me that Lapp has very exacting standards for his pizza; he's a much tougher critic than I am. Not that he didn't have anything good to say about his pizzas, but after listening to his critiques I began to feel like the Larry King of pizza reviewers.
Am I too easy on local pizzerias?, I wondered. Too generous with my letter grades? If this were college, would I be known as the professor who teaches the "gut" courses?
After thinking it over, several things come to mind. First, all criticism is subjective, especially with something like food, which literally is a matter of taste. I'm sure if Lapp and I shared 100 different pizzas, there would be some that he'd like more than I would. In fact I think I saw a hint of evidence of that concerning one of the places we visited.
Second, Lapp comes at pizza from a different background. He grew up downstate, where excellent pizza is practically a birthright, and world-class pizza isn't hard to find. And he informs me that South Florida is home to many terrific pizzerias as well, thanks in part to all the New York transplants down there. No knock on Western New York, where I was born and raised, but I think that the sum of my pizza experiences has probably led to my personal pizza bar being set a little lower than Lapp's.
When I mentioned that last point to Lapp, he responded that top-notch pizza should not be limited to one geographic area, and that there's no reason that pizza in Rochester should be held to a lower standard than pizza in New York City or anywhere else. True enough, I suppose, but I still maintain that one's background and experiences are bound to shape your tastes and standards in ways that you may not totally be aware of or able to control.
And, quite frankly, while rating pizza is anything but an exact science, I do grade, in part, on a curve, as my grade definitions make clear. An "A," for example, means "great," but it also means "one of the best this area has to offer." An "A" pizzeria here, then, might be a "B" or even lower if it were in New York City or some other pizza mecca.
Finally, there's the matter of personality. On his blog, Lapp also goes by a second pseudonym, "Pizza Expert." Now I do think that Lapp's tongue may have been more than a little in his cheek when he conferred that title on himself; ask him what makes him an expert on pizza, and Lapp will tell you, with a wry grin, that it's because he has a pizza blog and you don't. But as we were eating, it became evident that he tended to zero in on details concerning the crust, cheese and sauce that never would have occurred to me. The "Pizza Expert" moniker may be a little facetious, but I think there's some earnestness behind it too, in the sense that Lapp - who does in fact know a lot about pizza - subjects his pizzas to meticulous scrutiny.
Me, on the other hand, I've said all along that I'm just a guy who loves pizza, eats a lot of it, from a lot of different places, and writes about it. I've learned some stuff along the way, but I've never claimed to be an expert, and I still find it surprising, if not a little ludicrous, to think that this blog may make me appear to be such. So I probably do come at this more as a pizza lover than a pizza critic, to be a little generous with my grades, and to be a little more likely than some to forgive (or not even notice) a few shortcomings in the pizzas I consume.
I suppose, though, that there's as much room for diversity in pizza criticism as in pizza itself. That's especially true in the blogosphere, in which each blog is inevitably a reflection of its creator's personality. What's important, I think, is to set some standards for yourself and to try to adhere to them; to maintain a certain level of consistency in your reviews and integrity in what you write; and to speak with your own voice. I've tried to do that here, if not always as well as I'd like, but I'll keep on trying.
That would be a good place to end this post, but I do want to add one postscript. As I said, by visiting three pizzerias, we could barely scratch the surface of Rochester pizza. And while readers of this blog know how highly I think of both Joe's and The Pizza Stop, it was with some hesitation that I included them both on our mini-tour, since their pizzas are not only very similar to each other, but they also have more in common with New York City pizza than with any style indigenous to Rochester. (For that matter, Tony D's thin-crusted, coal-fired pizza also bears little resemblance to the bready, chewy pies found at more traditional, old-school Rochester pizzerias.)
But various factors, including simple time constraints and physical location, led us to visit those places, and while I consider all three of them to be among Rochester's top tier of pizzerias, there are a number of other establishments that are equally deserving of inclusion on any short list of Rochester's best. I regret that Lapp wasn't able to check out some of those as well before he returned to Florida.
I don't know if there will be a "next time" for Lapp, who had the misfortune to visit Rochester during a particularly dreary stretch of gray, cold, damp and drizzly weather. But you never know. So if you're reading this, Lapp, I want you to know that if you do find yourself back in these parts someday (preferably in summer, which I guarantee you'll find preferable to South Florida's), look me up. We've got more pizzerias to hit.