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Friday, October 28, 2011

WorstPizza in Rochester, and Some Musings on Pizza Criticism

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.

12 comments:

  1. since food is such a subjective thing to talk about i think only requirements for a food critic/blogger should be a) express their personal preferences/biases openly and b) write descriptively about the food. everyone will have their own standards of quality and the only way to convey them to your readers is to write about them to the best of your ability. (personally i am against the idea of letter grades or rating scales entirely. i dont begrudge anyone who uses them, but without context they really tell the reader nothing.)

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  2. Pizza Guy, In a word, yes, you are too generous with your pizza grades and I concur, the Larry King of pizza reviewers is an appropriate description of your review style.
    BTW, a letter grade of A and what the definition of ‘Great’ represents are Universes apart.
    Jerry Rice was a truly ‘Great’ wide receiver. Terrell Owens at the top of his game was without question a 1st rate…perennial A list wide receiver. Owens, when eligible will almost certainly be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and yet I suspect you will struggle to find to many people who will mention Terrell Owens in the same breadth as Jerry Rice.

    The only real handicap in your reviews compared to “Lapp” is in your narrow confinement to Greater Rochester and its surrounding areas. Bottom line, his reference ‘points’ in regards to pizza are more diverse having experienced a wider range of various pizza ‘styles’ and ‘regions’.

    Additionally, the most effective way to compare one pizza to another (regardless of style or region) is with bare, basic, brutal simplicity. The absolute, most important differential when measuring one pizza to another is the quality the of bake, the ‘sauce’ and the ‘dough’. That’s it.

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  3. Thanks for your comments. "Anonymous" and I have been over some of this ground before (I recognize his distinctive ... writing 'style'), and I think we'll have to agree to disagree about some things. But I do appreciate the input.
    As far as the ratings go, if I had it to do over again, I'm not sure I would use any ratings. They can be more trouble than they're worth. But having done it this long, I guess I'll keep on doing it.
    And one of the nice things about writing a blog is that you get to set your own parameters. So with all due respect to Anonymous, for purposes of this blog, an "A" means whatever I say it means. The definitions are explained in the sidebar. Those who think that a particular grade is off the mark are, of course, free to leave a comment explaining their point of view.

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  4. I was beyond happy to have the opportunity to meet up and eat with you! Hope you will come down to Florida!

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  5. With all due respect to Pizza Guy, for purposes of this blog, an "A" means an "A' and "GREAT' means "GREAT" and more often than not, one thing has nothing to do with the other. Then again, someone once said, "The most effective way to predict the future, is by creating it". Well done, scholar!

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  6. According to OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY:http://www.osu.edu/

    http://artandtech.osu.edu/550/amy/lettergrades.html

    WHAT DO LETTER GRADES MEAN?

    A represents outstanding distinction and excellence. 90-100%
    - These are not impossible to achieve but are rare and difficult to come by.

    B signifies levels of solid accomplishment and goodness. 80- 89%
    - Good is more common than excellent but more rare than average. While there is merit to hard work and long hours, it does not always guarantee success. Goodness refers to the combined results not just the effort.

    C signifies "average- simple, common, adequate but ordinary 70-79%
    - Average is not usually an appealing rank to artists who strive for extraordinary and unique. C is however a very respectable point. Recognize what more is needed; plan to move ahead, improve and grow.

    D represents results less than standard and/or mediocre- just passable 60-69%
    - Perhaps priorities about school or life have not been established. Recognize however, that a D can also mean that you truly do not understand what is expected. You should make an office appointment to discuss how you might take action on your future and upcoming assignment problems.

    E is a clear failure. < 59%
    -It represents lack of effort/interest. It is a cause for deep concern.

    ____________________________________________________________________

    Numerical, Letter and Grade Point Systems

    93 -100 A (4.0)
    90 - 92 A- (3.7)
    87 - 89 B+ (3.3)
    83 - 86 B (3.0)
    80 - 82 B- (2.7)
    77 - 79 C+ (2.3)
    73 - 76 C (2.0)
    70 - 72 C- (1.7)
    67 - 69 D+ (1.3)
    63 - 66 D (1.0)
    60 - 62 D- (0.7)
    59 and below E (0.0)
    ________________________________________________________________

    Pizza Guy, nowhere is the term 'GREAT' used to represent the letter grade of "A".

    Then again, what does OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY know?!

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  7. University of Rochester

    http://www.rochester.edu/college/ccas/AdviserHandbook/GradingSystem.html

    A. Grades awarded by faculty only:

    A: Excellent
    A-
    B+
    B
    B-
    C+
    C: Minimum satifactory grade for undergraduates
    C-
    D+: (Not used by Engineering faculty)
    D
    D-: Minimum passing grade (not used by Engineering faculty)
    E: Failure
    I: Incomplete
    P/F: Pass/Fail used in certain courses and in some internships for credit where this mandatory grading system has been approved and grading publicized.
    _______________________________________________

    Pizza Guy, nowhere is the term 'GREAT' used to represent the letter grade of "A".

    Then again, what does University of Rochester know?!

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  8. Pizza Guy, keep using the term “GREAT” to represent the letter grade “A”. It reinforces your status as a serious pizza blogger.

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  9. Pizza Guy, if I am asked to grade your Rochester NY Pizza Blog. I would be brutally honest and say it’s not “GREAT’. I would award your Rochester NY Pizza Blog the letter grade of “A” because your pizza blog is “EXCELLENT”.

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  10. I just wanted to chime in and say that I really enjoy reading your blog, simply because it's well written, interesting, and gives me an idea of what the local pizzerias have to offer. Don't change a thing- you do a great job of giving YOUR OPINION. If others have an opinion on how a pizza blog should be, they should start their own blog.
    -Jen (someone who doesn't like NY style pizza so much, but still loves your blog!)

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  11. Some folks are just a little to anal-retentive... I think you do a fantastic job, and put in an honest, straightforward effort to inform us of everything pizza in the ROC. I'd rate it an 'A!' You are the Jerry Rice of food blogs in our fair Smugtown. I guess that's both 'great' and 'excellent!'

    Tomato Pie Guy

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  12. Geez, I wasn't fishing for compliments, but I'll take them. Thank you.

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