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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.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Pizza Stop: Spinach - Artichoke Slice

Just a quick post on a new (to me, at least) variety I tried the other day at The Pizza Stop. Pictured here is a slice (cut in two, for sharing with my lunch companion) of what is listed on The Pizza Stop's menu as their "spinach, artichoke hearts, & Ricotta" pizza.
I say it's "listed" that way because in fact there's more going on here than just those three toppings. Besides torn spinach leaves, marinated artichoke hearts (no hard, unchewable leaves), and several dollops of Ricotta, this slice was also topped with shredded Asiago cheese, a bit of chopped garlic, and cracked black pepper.
For me, white pizza's always been an occasional thing. Nothing against it, particularly, I just really love the flavor that tomatoes bring to a pizza, and that way that it complements the crust and cheese.
But this was good. I found the toppings well chosen, and thought they worked very well together, giving this pizza a complexity that made this more than just a pizza minus the red sauce.
One of my other complaints with some white pizzas is that I sometimes find them too heavy on the cheese, as if the pizzeria's trying to compensate for the lack of sauce by piling on the cheese. Not so here. The relatively light-textured Ricotta, and the restrained yet distinctive tanginess of the Asiago gave this pizza good cheese flavor and mouthfeel without that heavy, sinking feeling in the pit of one's stomach afterwards.
And of course I need hardly mention at this point The Pizza Stop's signature crust underlying it all, with its near-perfect balance between crisp and chewy. It's another "A" for this downtown institution.
The Pizza Stop, 123 State Street, Rochester 14614 Tel. 546-7252 Hours: Mon. - Thu. 10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m., Fri. 10:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. Closed weekends.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lovin' Cup, Park Point at RIT

Park Point, the retail / residential development that opened a few years ago at RIT, has several dining choices available, including a full-fledged pizzeria, Paradiso.
But Paradiso is not the only place at Park Point where it's possible for a person to purchase pizza (how's that for alliteration?). Pizza's also on the menu at Lovin' Cup, a restaurant / bar / coffeehouse that features several personal-size pies on its menu. I had lunch there recently.
Though I really dislike cutesey names for dishes, I sucked it up and ordered a "Stroll Around the Moon," which is a Margherita in everything but name.
Before I get to the pizza, I must digress for a moment to say that I've no idea where they came up with the name for this pizza. A lot of menu items at Lovin' Cup - which itself is named after a Rolling Stones song - are taken from popular music, like the "Blue Suede Shoes" pizza and the "White Rabbit" burger (which is not made with rabbit meat, by the way). But googling "Stroll Around the Moon" did not turn up any songs of that name; the closest I got was "Circling Around the Moon" by John Mellencamp, "Walking on the Moon" by the Police, and several variations of  "Ring (or Rings) Around the Moon," by a number of artists.
At any rate, my pizza (which I will henceforth refer to as a Margherita) had a thin-to-medium thick crust, which was a little charred here and there underneath. It was very firm, and quite crunchy along the edge.
This is strictly my subjective impression, but to me there was something about this crust that seemed pre-made. Probably it was that firmness - the slices weren't really supple at all, and though they were a little chewy on the inside, they lacked the fresh-bread aroma and texture that marks what I consider a great pizza crust.
The crust seemed to have been given a light coating of olive oil, atop of which lay finely diced tomatoes, thinly shredded basil, and a layer of melted mozzarella. The menu describes the cheese on this pie as fresh mozzarella - the only pizza here given that "fresh" designation - and it was good cheese, with a smooth, creamy texture, but it was not the bright white fresh mozzarella that's typically applied in sliced rounds. It was beautifully melted but was gooier and spread more uniformly across the pizza than the fresh mozzarella I'm used to seeing. Maybe I just need to learn more about the different kinds of mozzarella.
Overall, this pizza was pretty flavorful, with a certain tanginess and a prominent flavor of basil. I frankly wasn't thrilled with the crust, but my impression was that the pizzas here are more about the toppings than the crust.
Lovin' Cup is a good-sized place, with a large dining area and a full bar, which features a well-chosen, oft-changing selection of microbrews. The rest of the food menu runs toward soups, salads, and hot and cold sandwiches, and there's a wide variety of coffee drinks available. I liked the place; the pizza, well, it had its ups (good cheese, good flavor, albeit a bit heavy on the basil) and downs (stiff, lifeless crust), which kind of cancel each other out, so I'll give it a right-down-the-middle C.
Lovin' Cup Bistro & Brews, 300 Park Point Dr. Suite 101 (at RIT).
Tel.: 292-9940
Hours:  Mon. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Tue. & Wed. 11 a.m. - midnight, Thu. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 2 a.m., Sun. noon - 10 p.m.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Winner of a Large Cimino's Pizza Is ...

Katie!
Katie, if you haven't done so already, please email me your mailing address at rochesternypizzaguy@gmail.com and I will send you the certificate. You will receive one large pizza from Cimino's menu (I'm not sure if that includes specialty pizzas - better ask before you order).
Congratulations and thanks for participating. And my thanks again to Cimino's for donating this certificate!

Pontillo's, Spencerport: Buffalo Chicken Pizza

Since this is the last day for readers to win a free pizza from Cimino's in Spencerport, I figured it's a good day for a Spencerport review.  And this continues my occasional exploration of local Buffalo chicken pizza, which has lain dormant for a while now.
I picked up a slice of Buffalo chicken pizza from the Spencerport Pontilllo's a while back. Pontillo's slices aren't massive, but they're pretty big, with about a 10" radius, so one slice and a drink can make for a decent lunch.
The crust was thin to medium, and the underside a golden brown. The latter was a change from most Pontillo's slices that I've tried, which have tended to be well charred underneath, with a toasty flavor. Maybe this was baked in a pan rather than on the oven deck, or maybe it's got something to do with this being a Buffalo chicken pizza, which can be rather oily. But whatever the reason, the bottom here was slightly oily, with some shallow bubbly craters. It had some crispness, though, and wasn't soft or spongy. The edge also displayed a certain breadiness that I enjoyed. It would've been interesting to get a plain cheese slice to compare the crusts and see if this crust was typical of the Spencerport location, or was more particular to the Buffalo chicken pizza.
The toppings were pretty spicy-hot, as Buffalo chicken pizza goes. Chunks of spicy breaded chicken lay atop a thin layer of browned mozzarella. There also seemed to be a thin coating of orange, oily or buttery hot sauce between the crust and the cheese, unless that just had exuded from the chicken and cheese. But there was no tomato sauce, and the heat on this pizza clearly came from more than just the chicken. The other noticeable flavor was salt. This wasn't too salty for me (then again I like salty food), but it was definitely salty. Blue cheese, however, was absent.
Like most Pontillo's, the Spencerport location had a pretty good selection of slices available. There were a few tables available, but I think most of the business is takeout and delivery.
It's in a pretty competitive area, pizzawise, with Cam's and Leccese's nearby, and Cimino's just up the road. Pontillo's is also not particularly prominent, visually, with just a narrow storefront in a small plaza, wedged between a dry cleaner and a family restaurant. But it's been there for some years now, so it must have a loyal following.
Again, no rating on this one. Buffalo chicken pizza varies so widely from one place to the next that it's difficult to draw comparisons, and any attempt to grade it would depend to a great extent on one's personal preferences in terms of sauce, blue cheese, and so on. In other words, I haven't found any ideal against which to measure this style. And frankly, this will never be one of my favorite styles of pizza, so I'm not sure that I could ever be objective enough to give any Buffalo chicken pizza a useful rating. But it's a popular style around here, so I would like to let readers know how it's prepared at different pizzerias in the Rochester area. What I will say is that Spencerport residents are fortunate to have several good pizzerias to pick from, including Pontillo's.
Pontillo's, 500 S. Union St. (Rt. 259) near Rt. 31 intersection.
Phone:  352-8111
Hours:  Sun. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - midnight

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Just Pizza, Buffalo: Buffalo Chicken slice

As part of my occasional forays into Buffalo-area pizzerias, here's a look at Just Pizza, a small chain with about a dozen locations mostly around Buffalo, but with one in Florida (for the snowbirds, I guess).
Just Pizza boasts "Over 75 Varieties" on its menu, which sounds good, but ... ever go to a Chinese restaurant and see 300 dishes on the menu and think, "They can't possibly do all of those well?" Maybe pizza's that way too. I got a Buffalo chicken slice, thinking, well, if there's anywhere to get a good Buffalo chicken pizza, Buffalo should be it, right?
Well, perhaps. But this one didn't thrill me.
The slice was thin, and rather oily. It had a fried-dough texture and aroma, and I'm not talking about the deep-fried dough they sell at carnivals. This was more like a pancake that had been cooked on a griddle with too much melted shortening on it. As you can see in the bottom photo, the crust didn't hold together well, and despite being fairly soft, it broke when I folded it, suggesting that the gluten wasn't well developed, or perhaps again the oil had something to do with it.
Sauce is a key component with Buffalo chicken pizza. There are three basic categories:  tomato sauce, hot sauce, and blue cheese sauce, or some combination of those. I haven't settled on a preference, so it's interesting for me to try different approaches. This sauce was was topped with a blue cheese sauce, blended, I think, with a bit of mozzarella. The cheese was well browned.
Somewhere in there was some heat. I didn't see any hot sauce, but I could taste it. Small bits of chicken were interspersed across the surface of the slice, so maybe the chicken had been tossed with some hot sauce. Or perhaps there was a thin, but not particularly visible, layer of hot sauce under the cheese. But the heat/chicken/blue cheese balance was pretty good.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but to me, good pizza starts with the crust. I'd rather have a good crust with skimpy or not-so-good toppings than a poor crust with tasty toppings. Sadly, this fell into the latter category. The overall flavor wasn't bad, if you like blue cheese, which I do. I might've preferred thicker chunks of chicken, but that's just a quibble and that's just me.
But this just wasn't a good crust. And I don't think that's just a matter of personal preference. I can't imagine anybody taking a bite of this and saying, wow, not that's a good crust!
Then again, I can't imagine anybody actually liking raw oysters, and yet I know some people do. Or maybe some people just don't pay much attention to the crust, as long as the toppings are good. I don't know. But as American Idol judge Randy Jackson has so eloquently, and so often, stated, this just wasn't good for me.
I am not rating Buffalo establishments, since I know I will never come close to covering the Buffalo pizza scene. But this was somewhere below average.
Just Pizza, 2350 Delaware Ave., Buffalo
Sun. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.
871-5700

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dom's Revisited (Twice)

Last February, I did a post about Dom's, which had just opened at the site of the former Paradiso Pizza on Lyell Avenue. The slices I got then were OK, but because Dom's had only been open a short time, I thought it would be unfair to give them a letter grade, so I just did a report and left it at that.
A few weeks ago, I returned to see how things had progressed since then.
Or not.
At my 12:15 lunchtime stop, the staff of two seemed harried and overworked, though the place wasn't crowded; there was only one other customer in the place, who was waiting to pick up a pie. Maybe some phone orders had come in.
After standing at the counter for a couple of minutes, I was asked for my order. Only two cheese slices were available, and they didn't look particularly appetizing, but there I was, so I ordered one slice.
My slice was popped back into the oven, where it stayed for several minutes. Fortunately I like my pizza on the toasty side, because it emerged rather well-done. The crust was very thin, with a crackly bottom and a rather brittle texture. The edge was considerably thicker than the rest of the slice, and wide - a good third of the slice had no sauce or cheese on it at all.
Thick, wide edge with no sauce or cheese
The dough was actually pretty good, with good flavor and some breadiness on the inside. It gave a hint of the potential that was present here. The sauce and cheese were unremarkable, but at least okay where they were present. The sauce was thick (not surprising, since a lot of the water had probably evaporated), with a slightly sweet, herb-tinged flavor.
thick tomato sauce with slight sweetness and herbs. The cheese was all right but a little overly browned.
I was prepared to do a review based on that visit, but I had the feeling that I may have just caught them at a bad time, so I decided to go back a couple of weeks later.
Again, there was not a wide selection, just cheese or pepperoni, but they looked a lot better, so I ordered two this time.
And they were better. They were thin again, but with a narrower edge and a broader covering of sauce and cheese.The bottom was dark brown and toasty, with a bit of surface crackling, but not burned or dried out. Again, the edge had a noticeable breadiness, and this time the slices were pliable enough to be folded.
These slices were a little light on the sauce, though that helped the mozzarella - which was just a bit browned this time - adhere better to the crust. The pizza was a little oily on top, from the cheese, I suppose, but not on the underside. I wouldn't quite call these New York style slices, but they weren't far off.
A mixed bag here, then. The slice I had on the first of these two visits, I'd give maybe a C-minus, though that may be a bit generous, for an essentially good crust, even if the execution left something to be desired. Second time around, a B sounds about right.
But consistency is a criterion in itself. And though two visits is a pretty small sample size, based on these visits (and my first visit back in February), consistency seems to be an issue here. I'm hoping that my most recent visit is the most indicative of what you can expect from Dom's, and I'll be back to investigate further, but for now I'm going to peg the pizza here at a C.
Dom's Pizzeria, 1074 Lyell Ave., Rochester 14606
Hours:  Sun. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Phone:  647-6777

Friday, October 14, 2011

More Free Pizza, this Time from Cimino's

Didn't win a free pizza last time? Don't sweat it, you've got another chance right now. I have a certificate for a free large pizza from Cimino's in Spencerport to give away to one lucky reader.
I've done one post on Cimino's, right after they opened, and gave them a B for their Rochester style pizza. Now a "B" is a perfectly good grade, but I should add that I think I literally went there on their opening day, when they were slammed. I've been back since, more than once, and I can honestly say that I would put my latest pies in the A-/B+ range. I would've done a full-blown review of my most recent Cimino's pizza, but I thought, mistakenly, that I had done a more recent followup, so I didn't take notes or pictures from which to put together a review. I'll have to correct that in the future.
At any rate, it's good stuff, and a large pie will be going to one reader. And if you're not a West Sider, don't fret - Spencerport is about 12 miles, and 15 minutes, from downtown Rochester.
To enter, we'll do the same as before - leave a comment here, telling us what kind of pizza you'd like off Cimino's menu, or just why you'd love to get a free Cimino's pie. I'll be picking a winner, using random.org, next Friday.
And remember - if your comment is selected as the winner, I need to be able to identify and contact you, so either shoot me an email or include some identifying information with your comment. If it's an anonymous comment and I have no contact information for you, the prize will go to someone else. Leave as many comments as you like, but multiple comments will not increase your chances of winning.

And the Winner Is ...

Harvey! (pause for applause)
Harvey wins a free large pizza, courtesy of Brandani's pizza. Sounds like he will be going with the Buffalo chicken pizza, but the prize includes unlimited toppings, so Harvey, maybe this is the time to try something different. That's up to you.
I have your email address and will be in touch with you in the next 24 hours about collecting your prize. Congratulations!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book Review: 300 Best Rice Cooker Recipes

I'd venture to say that of all the staples in your kitchen, rice is both one of the easiest to cook and one of the easiest to screw up. What could be simpler than putting rice and water in a pot, bringing it to a boil, and letting it simmer till the water is absorbed?
Yet there are many potential pitfalls along the way - adding too much or too little water, stirring too much or too little, or at the wrong time, setting the heat too high or too low, and cooking the rice too long or not long enough. Different types of rice - short, medium and long grain, brown rice, wild rice - can require different treatment, and be more or less suitable for different uses. What if you want to add a liquid ingredient like tomato sauce? How does that affect the amount of water you need? One or two mistakes and you can end up with a pot full of mush, or burned rice stuck to the bottom, or a messy stovetop from a boilover ... you get the idea.
One solution that's worked for me is cooking rice in the oven. This has some drawbacks, though. For one thing, rice is often served as a side dish, and you may want to use your oven for the main course. Even if you don't, using a full size oven to cook a pot of rice doesn't seem terribly energy efficient.
Enter the rice cooker. This handy appliance takes the guesswork out of cooking rice, and can produce remarkably consistent results. Yet do you want to shell out anywhere from $25 to over $100, and take up valuable kitchen counter space, with what Alton Brown would call a "unitasker"? And how do you know what kind to buy?
A newly published book, 300 Best Rice Cooker Recipes, can help. Despite the title, this is more than just a recipe collection. Author Katie Chin provides a practical, thorough, and informative guide to using your rice cooker, and in doing so she demonstrates that these devices are far more versatile than the name implies.
Chin, who's described somewhat vaguely on the back cover as a "private chef, food consultant and spokesperson, television personality and cookbook author," starts off with an introductory chapter that covers the various types of rice cookers, features to look for, and advice on selecting the one that's best for you. She then discusses the many types of rice (including such exotic varieties as Bhutanese red rice and "forbidden black rice"), other grains such as millet, quinoa, buckwheat and barley, and legumes like black-eyed peas, lentils, and various beans. General cooking guidelines are provided for each, showing the recommended ratio of rice or grains to water, and the optimal cooking time.
The remainder of the book is devoted to the recipes, which are arranged thematically, with chapters on breakfast, soups, main dishes, sushi and even desserts, most of which are grain-based puddings. A separate chapter delves into "steam cuisine," and explains how to use your rice cooker as a steamer for preparing entrees like steamed fish, veggies, custards and more.
Cooking tips accompany each recipe, and occasional side boxes provide helpful information about some of the ingredients called for in the recipes, from the commonplace (shallots, for example) to the hard-to-find (such as sambal oelek, an Asian chili sauce). Two sections of full-page color photos show what many of the dishes should look like, though somehow I doubt that my versions would come out quite so picturesque.
In short, there's a lot packed into this book. But the question remains, is it worth buying any cookbook these days, when it's so easy to find recipes for free on the internet? The answer to that, I guess, depends on your cooking habits and preferences, and on the cookbook itself. 
If you don't like rice, or if you don't own a rice cooker and are certain you never will, then obviously isn't for you (of course if that were you, you probably wouldn't have read this far). And if you are less interested in recipes than in captivating writing, ditto. This is a manual, not a literary work.
But if you own a rice cooker and would like to get more use out of it, 300 Best is well worth picking up. You'll learn more about your appliance, about rice and other grains, and about many ways to use your rice cooker that almost certainly never occurred to you before.
And if you've never bought a rice cooker because you saw it as a one-dimensional device that was good for only one thing - cooking a pot of rice - this book will dispel that idea in a hurry. You might want to make some room on your bookshelf for this volume, and some room on your kitchen counter for a new rice cooker. 300 Best Rice Cooker Recipes, by Katie Chin. 400 pages. Publisher: Robert Rose (July 28, 2011)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tuscan Wood Fired Pizza


This past weekend, I stopped at the Garden Factory in Gates, where every weekend in October they're doing a "Fall Family Fun" event, with rides and activities for the kiddies and other attractions. The main draw for me was the presence of Tuscan Wood Fired Pizza, a local entrepreneur who appears at various events around the area with his truck trailer that contains a working wood-fired pizza oven.
The owner (who goes by the name "Tony Tomato" - he's the guy wearing the pizza-shaped chef's hat) does this primarily to advertise his business installing wood-fired ovens for both private individuals and restaurants. I doubt that he makes much profit just from selling the pizza, when you consider the expense involved in trucking this thing around, getting it fired up,  and so on.
But even if you're not in the market for a $2500 wood-fired oven on your patio, the TWFP trailer is worth checking out for the pizza. It's pretty good stuff.
Several menu items were available, but all I was interested in was the pizza. From the choices of cheese, pepperoni, and pesto, I went with pepperoni. All were the same size, about the circumference of a standard paper plate, as you can see in the photo.
My pie had a thin crust, nicely charred along the edges. The well floured bottom was not charred, and the slices were quite pliable, suggesting that perhaps the floor of the oven was not tremendously hot. Tony rotated the pie several times to get the edge charred, thanks to the radiant heat of the fire, and the air inside the oven was clearly hot enough to melt, and slightly brown, the cheese in only about three minutes (that would be convective heat, I think), but the conductive heat of the floor or deck of the oven, while high enough to bake the crust, wasn't so high as to char it or turn it super crisp. Perhaps the raw flour on the underside of the pie also acted as a heat barrier too.
That's not a criticism, just a description. I like my crusts crisp, but from some things that I've read, pizza in Naples - which is as authentic as it gets - is quite pliable and is typically eaten with a knife and fork. (And some of that has to do with the type of flour that's used as well, I think - some flours will brown and char more easily than others.) So whether a pliable or very firm crust is "better" comes down largely to a matter of personal preference.
My pie was topped with a moderate layer of herb-tinged tomato sauce, and a nicely melted top layer of creamy mozzarella. The components were well balanced, and this was an easy pie to consume.
Tony uses gas to get his oven started, then from there keeps it going with hardwoods like applewood. He told me that his laser thermometer measured the oven temperature at around 900 degrees, though I'm not sure what part of the oven that's measuring.
I'd love one of these ovens in my back yard, but I don't see that happening anytime soon. Until that changes, I'll be happy with my home oven, and with visits to local pizzerias, including Tony Tomato's mobile operation. This was good enough to rate a B+ from me.
Tuscan Wood Fired Pizza Catering, Webster, NY 545-6305
Email: tony@tuscanwoodfiredpizzacatering.com
Check his Facebook page for upcoming public events.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Free Pizza from Brandani's!

It's time for another pizza giveaway, and it's a good one - Brandani's, one of my favorite local pizzerias, has graciously agreed to give one lucky reader of this blog a free large pizza, with unlimited toppings. As readers of this blog will know, I've given Brandani's an "A" rating, for its great crust and wide selection of flavorful pizzas, so it'll be hard not to award this to myself, but I promise to be fair.
To enter, all you have to do is visit Brandani's menu page, then leave a comment after this blog post, telling us your favorite Brandani's slice or Specialty Pizza, or just stating why you'd love to win a free Brandani's pizza. The winner will be selected next Friday, October 14, and will be chosen at random using random.org. You may leave as many comments as you like, but multiple comments will not increase your chances of winning.
If you win, I will need your name and mailing address. You can email it to me ahead of time, at rochesternypizzaguy@gmail.com, or include it in your comment, or you can wait until the contest ends and the winner is announced. Be aware, though, that if I do not have your address in advance, and you are the winner, I will give you 48 hours to get it to me. If I don't receive it by then, I'll select a different winner.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Nino's Focaccia Pizza

Nino's Pizza on Urbanspoon
I've written a couple of posts about Nino's on Culver Road, with posts about its thick crust, Sicilian-style pizza and the thin crust "Napolitan" pie. But in my conversation with Nino's owner in February 2010, he told me that his personal favorite is the focaccia pizza.
Well, I really enjoyed the other pizzas from Nino's, but you mean to tell me that I hadn't even had the best one?
It took a while, but not long ago I did finally pick up a large focaccia pie. For this one, I decided to leave the toppings entirely to Giacomo - whatever he thought best.
As I was waiting for my pizza, Giacomo - who loves to talk about pizza as much as I love learning about it - explained to me to his focaccia pizza is closely related to another dish, sfingione (which I've also seen spelled "sfincione"). Like a lot of these things, it's hard to pin down a precise definition of sfingione, perhaps partly because the term might mean different things to different people and in different places, even within Sicily, though you can read a general description of this style of bread here and here. Probably because that name is so unfamiliar to most Americans, though, Nino's sticks with the more accessible "focaccia" and "pizza."
Now, when I think of focaccia, I generally picture a rectangular, dimpled bread, with very sparse toppings - maybe just olive oil and rosemary, possibly with a light sprinkling of sharp grated cheese. This wasn't that. My pie came topped with mozzarella and Locatelli cheeses, sausage, portabello mushrooms, roasted red peppers, garlic and onion.
The mushrooms scared me a little bit, as I'm not a big fan of 'shrooms, but one bite allayed my fears. There was a lot going on here, but somehow those toppings all blended together in a veritable symphony of flavor. Pardon my hyperbole, but it's an apt metaphor. My palate could distinguish the various flavors and textures of the individual components, yet they also formed a cohesive whole, the same way that your ears can pick up the sound of particular instruments in an orchestra, yet the overall effect is of hearing one seamless piece of music.
It's not often that I start describing a pizza by talking about the toppings, but that's more a reflection of how good this tasted than of any deficiency in the crust. It was rather thick, with a pan-baked bottom, firm and crisp along the edge, but bready and chewy inside.
One thing that confused me was how this differed from the Sicilian pizza. In fact, it seemed pretty similar. I figured I must be missing something.
So I spoke again to Giacomo and found out that Nino's focaccia and Sicilian pizzas are in fact one and the same thing. Same dough, same process.
But one of the things I love about talking to Giacomo is the way that his love for his craft comes through. Rather than just a simple answer to my question, I got a ten-minute discourse on the etymology of the word "focaccia," the subtleties of working with dough, and the importance of using fresh, local ingredients whenever possible.
As to the focaccia/Sicilian pizza thing, the gist of what I got was that the distinction is more cultural and colloquial than anything else. In Sicily, focaccia is a bread that's often baked at home - the word is derived from the Italian word for fire, "fuoco," since focaccia was traditionally baked in a fireplace or hearth. Pizza tends to be more of a commercial product and is typically more amply topped, with tomatoes, cheese, and more.
That distinction is explained somewhat on Nino's website, which describes focaccia as a thick-crusted, "flat hearth-stone-baked Italian bread [that] can be topped with herbs and other toppings" such as olive oil, rosemary, sage, and coarse salt. It may, though, be "topped with onion, cheese and meat, or flavored with a number of vegetables."
Regarding Sicilian pizza, Nino's has this to say:  "Thick and crispy crust on the outside, yet soft right under the sauce. Keeping with the tradition of Sicily, our sauce is sweeter than the usual variety. Made with a thick crust characterized by a rectangular shape and topped with tomato sauce, cheese and optional toppings. Thick crusted slices are cut square, with dough that is over an inch thick. Marinara sauce - Sicilian sauce is a bit sweeter than those found in other types. The body is pureed, which is typical for this style."
So going by those definitions, I guess what I got here would fall more into the focaccia category, given the absence of tomatoes, or who knows, maybe it was really sfingione, but in the end these distinctions are mostly semantic. And my taste buds aren't interested in semantics. Whatever you call it, this was very, very good stuff. (By the way - though Nino's menu lists both focaccia and Sicilian, the prices are the same for each, so no need to worry that you're going to pay more if you order one or the other.)
Nino's isn't the easiest place for me to get a pizza. It doesn't open till 4 p.m., and they don't sell slices, which pretty much limits me to bringing a pie home for dinner, but due to our respective locations it's a long drive for me and it's a challenge to get the pizza home before it cools, even with my pizza bag. But the pizza is good, it's distinctive, and I don't think I've met a pizzeria owner more dedicated to his art than Giacomo. So you can believe me when I say that I'll be back, and I already know what I want. For that, you'll have to wait and see. Until then, Nino's once again merits an A rating from me.
Nino's Pizzeria and Focacceria, 1330 Culver Rd. 14609
Phone:  482-2264
Hours: Sun. 4 - 10 p.m., Mon. - Sat. 4 p.m. - 11 p.m.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Best of Rochester Final Ballot Is Now Up!

City Newspaper now has the final ballot for its Best of Rochester 2012 survey both online and in the paper copies. It only takes a minute or two to vote and you could even win a prize!
Of particular interest to me, and I hope you, are questions #6 (Best Pizza Slice), #7 (Best Specialty Pizza), and #62 (Best Local Blog). Whatever the outcome, and whatever your vote, thank you for voting!

Uncle Eddie's, Dewey Ave.

A new pizzeria, by the name of Uncle Eddie's (not to be confused with Cousin Eddie) opened recently on Dewey Avenue in Greece. I stopped by a couple of weeks ago for a slice.
My pepperoni slice had a thin to medium crust, with a dry, non-greasy bottom that was more firm than crisp. The underside displayed some crackling, and was singed, but not quite charred in a few spots. The edge was rather puffy, but bready and somewhat crisp.
(I should mention that the server informed me that due to an error, their slices at that time were smaller than usual - ordinarily they serve "giant" slices. So he gave me a break on the price, and my slice and can of pop came to just $3.)
The melted cheese, which was applied in good proportion to the crust, had a bit of tang to it, so I'm not sure if it was all mozzarella or perhaps a blend, but it was pretty good. A light dusting of grated cheese, probably Romano, also added a little flavor.
Sauce often goes almost unnoticed on a lot of pizza, but it's one of the most variable and distinctive components. Uncle Eddie's sauce was characterized by a subtle aroma of herbs and a faint background spiciness on the palate.
Uncle Eddie's offers some 17 pizza toppings (including salami - I've used that at home and I think it's quite good on pizza) and three specialty pizzas (Buffalo, veggie, and "supreme," with an assortment of toppings). They also do calzones, wings, hot and cold subs, and fried sides. It's pretty much a delivery and takeout place.
With Uncle Eddie's opening, the corner of Dewey and Latta has become a mini hotspot for pizza; Paulie's (which I haven't been to in way too long) and Petrella's are both close by. But based on this one visit, I think Uncle Eddie's should do fine. Personally, I'd have liked just a bit more crispness in the crust, but that's just me. On the whole, this was a tasty, well balanced slice of pizza. Nice job. I'll give it a B.
Uncle Eddie's Pizzeria, 4402 Dewey Ave., 14616
Phone: 865-5222
Hours:  Mon. - Wed. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Thu. - Sat. 11 a.m. - midnight, Sun. noon - 9 p.m.

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