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Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Make the Bread, Buy the Butter

There are plenty of reasons why a person might choose to prepare or grow food at home rather than buy it at a store or restaurant:  to save money; because homemade or homegrown tastes better, or is better for you, or is better for the environment; or because you simply enjoy it. I, for one, regularly bake my own bread, mostly because I like doing it, but also because it tastes great, if you'll pardon my saying so.
But there are things that I'd rather buy than make myself. Some are obvious. I like a good hamburger or steak now and then, but I'm not about to raise and slaughter my own cattle.
Others are less so. After trying and failing several times to make perfect french fries at home, I've decided to leave that to the experts at Mickey D's and elsewhere. I'm sure there are reasons why that's a bad idea, but the bottom line is, theirs taste better, and it's a pain in the butt to make them at home.
Now comes a book that breaks it all down for you. At least that's the premise of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, by Jennifer Reese. According to the book-jacket blurb, after losing her job, Reese "began a series of kitchen-related experiments, taking into account the competing demands of everyday contemporary American family life," seeking to answer such questions as "When is homemade better? Cheaper? Are backyard eggs a more ethical choice than store-bought? Will grinding and stuffing your own sausage ruin your week? Is it possible to make an edible maraschino cherry?"
This makes for interesting reading, although it will be a rare reader who agrees with all of Reese's suggestions. I take issue with two of her verdicts, on pizza and baguettes. She recommends making the former, and buying the latter. I've nothing against making pizza at home - I do it myself, with some regularity - but there are times when you want to pick up a pizza, for the sake of convenience or variety. I mean, I think I make some pretty good pizza, but sometimes I want pizza from a particular pizzeria, that I just can't duplicate at home.
As for baguettes, I don't find them much trouble at all. Sure, I'm always tweaking my recipes and methods, in an endless quest for la baguette parfaite, but there's really not all that much work involved in producing excellent loaves at home. I'm not sure why Reese's attempts have met with such disappointing results, but that points up one of the flaws in this book. Reese tends to extrapolate too much from her own personal experiences. Regarding baguettes, for instance, she confesses that "after years of experimenting," she has come to the conclusion that she is not a "serious bread hobbyist." But I'm equally convinced, from my own experience, that you needn't be a "serious" baker to make terrific bread - in fact, in some ways I find baguettes easier than sandwich loaves, which Reese recommends making, not buying.
Likewise, Reese relates a horror story of her failed attempt to raise egg-laying ducks, but half way through, she admits to having figured out that she and her family are simply not "duck people." We have ducks at my house, and though my wife and daughter are their primary caretakers, I pitch in, and I think they would agree with me that the ducks really aren't much trouble. Of course they're not for everybody, but if you've done your homework, then once you're set up, you shouldn't have nearly as difficult a time of it as Reese apparently did.
Having said all that, there's still a lot to recommend about this book. Reese breaks down the relative costs and hassle of homemade vs. store-bought, and though I haven't done my own calculations, her numbers mostly sound about right.
The best part of the book, for me, was the recipes. At least for those items that she does recommend making at home, Reese provides simple how-tos that walk you through the process. Now it's easy enough to find recipes for just about anything today, but until I'd leafed through this book, I'd never seriously considered making my own caramel corn or Worcestershire sauce, much less the Korean condiment kimchi. But after reading Reese's recipes, they do sound easy enough, and as I write this I'm in the middle of making homemade mustard from Reese's recipe.
I only wish that Reese had included similar recipes for the items she doesn't recommend making yourself, just so I could judge for myself whether it might be worth trying. What she typically does instead is again to relate her own ill-fated attempts to make a dish, and based on that, to advise against trying it yourself. (She does give recipes for a few things, like onion rings and bacon, about which she doesn't take a hard, make-it-or-buy-it position, leaving it up to you to decide.)
On the plus side, I should add that I have made some things in here, like hot sauce and barbecue sauce, and I completely agree with Reese that they're easy and cheap to make at home, with results that are at least as good as anything you'll buy at a supermarket.
So while I don't agree with all of Reese's verdicts, I still enjoyed, and do enjoy, thumbing through this book. It's more valuable for what she does recommend preparing at home than for what she doesn't, but it's generally a fun read. Even when I find myself disagreeing with Reese, she's at least gotten me thinking, which in itself is one mark of a good book, particularly when the subject is one about which people are as opinionated and passionate as they are about food.
Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch -- Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods. Jennifer Reese (author). 304 pages. Free Press (Oct. 18, 2011).

Mario's

Mario's Italian Steakhouse on Urbanspoon
Rochester has an embarrassment of riches where Italian restaurants are concerned, with everything from old school, "red sauce" places to higher-end establishments that aim to take Italian food to the level of high art.
Mario's on Monroe Avenue falls somewhere in the middle, with items ranging from spaghetti and meatballs to pricier fare like osso bucco and cioppino, with a touch of steakhouse on the menu as well.
And pizza, which is what drew me here on a recent weeknight for dinner. Although it's listed under antipasti on the menu, I made an entree out of Mario's Margherita pizza, which is described as a "crispy thin crust stone oven style, [with] fresh tomatoes [and] fresh buffalo mozzarella."
The thin-to-medium crust was pale on the bottom, with some faint markings that could've been from a grill or other cooking surface. The edge was dry and crunchy, but the rest of the crust was lifeless, with little evidence of yeast activity, and a doughy flavor. I wondered if Mario's uses frozen crusts.
The slices of fresh mozzarella were evenly distributed, spoke-fashion, around the pizza, and were nicely melted, with a smooth, creamy texture. Although not mentioned on the menu, there was also a layer of what appeared to be low-moisture, processed mozzarella underneath. It was rather dry and didn't add a whole lot of flavor or texture.
Between the two layers of cheese were some thick slices of fresh tomato. Unfortunately these were quite bland, contributing little other than color. Some shredded basil, which appeared to have been added after the pizza came out of the often, added some complexity to the overall flavor profile, though most of it had been piled onto one side of the pie.
Overall, this pizza tasted all right, though it was a bit on the bland side. I was glad that I accepted my server's offer of some grated Parmesan.
But the biggest problem was the crust. It just had nothing going for it, in terms of flavor, texture or otherwise. That was disappointing, given the menu's reference to the crust being "stone oven style" (I'm not sure what stone oven "style" means, but it sounded promising.)
It was doubly disappointing because Mario's other food seemed pretty good. I only had a salad, in addition to my pizza, but I couldn't help stealing a few glances at my neighbors' plates, which looked quite appetizing, and for much of my meal I was treated to a wonderful aroma that I'm guessing came from Mario's grilled steaks (I meant to ask my server if she could identify it for me, but I forgot).
So while I would put Mario's on my mental list of places to revisit, I can't recommend it for the pizza alone. If they are using frozen crusts, well, not much you can do to improve those. But if they are using fresh dough, it seems to me it needs to rise a little longer, and be baked at higher temperatures, because this wasn't that great. I'll give it a C-minus.
Mario's Italian Steakhouse and Catering, 2740 Monroe Ave.
Tel.: 271-1111
Winter hours (Nov. 1 - April 30): Mon. - Thu. 5 p.m. - 9:30 p.m., Fri. 5 p.m. - 10:30 p.m., Sat. 4 p.m. - 10:30 p.m., Sun. brunch 10 a.m. - 3 p.m., dinner 4:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Summer hours (May 1 - Oct. 31): Mon. - Thu. 5 p.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. 5 p.m. - 11 p.m., Sat. 4 p.m. - 11 p.m., Sun. brunch 10 a.m. - 3 p.m., dinner 4:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Head to Head in Dansville: Tony's vs. Leaning Tower

I was recently driving through Dansville, and the sight of two pizzerias just a few doors from each other was more than I could resist.
The first one to catch my eye, and the first one I stopped at, was Tony's Pizzeria.
When I arrived, I saw a large pie behind the counter, half cheese, half pepperoni, cut into slices. When I asked for a cheese slice, the person behind the counter lifted one of them up to show me that it was enormous - about a quarter of a large pie - and asked if I wanted one of those, or a regular slice.
I still intended to check out Tony's competitor down the street, so I asked for a regular slice.
That oversized slice was quite thin, and I think that the employee did mention that it was Tony's "huge thin slice," but I was more focused on the surface area, so I was surprised to find that my regular slice was not only smaller, but much thicker.
But more about that slice in a moment. After getting my slice to go, I walked down the block to my second stop, The Leaning Tower. This slice took a little longer to come up, but I was not surprised, as a sign above the counter warned that they do not serve fast food - everything is made to order - although they do their best to serve your food fast. Fair enough.
This slice was quite thick as well. It was also a little bit bigger than the slice I got at Tony's (although in terms of surface area it still would've been dwarfed by Tony's "huge thin slice." (In the top photo, the LT slice is on the left, Tony's on the right.)
Although the Tony's and Leaning Tower slices were both about the same thickness, that's where the similarities ended. The Tony's slice was quite pale underneath, with just a little light browning. It was on the soft side, with a light, airy texture. In contrast, the Leaning Tower slice had a very dark brown underside, and was crunchy, though not oily, with a more substantial feel to it. The exterior was so crunchy, in fact, that the slice cracked and nearly broke in two when I bent it a little (don't even think about folding these - they're too thick for that).
The differences extended to the sauce and cheese. The LT slice was topped with considerably more sauce, which had a thicker consistency as well. It also seemed to have a more assertive, herbal flavor than Tony's sauce, but it's hard to tell if the flavor was really that much different, or if I simply noticed it more because there was more of it.
If you like smooth, creamy-textured cheese on your pizza, then the edge on that score goes to Tony's. Its cheese was nicely melted, if a little bland. The cheese on the LT slice was not so well melted, although it did have a bit of a tang, flavorwise.
Both Tony's and Leaning Tower have similar setups and menus, with counter service, some seating, and a more or less standard lineup of food offerings, including subs, wings, and sides. As for the pizza, well, I would like to go back to Tony's sometime and try a "Huge Thin Slice," but putting these two slices up against each other, I'd give the edge to Leaning Tower. Although the crust was a tad brittle, it was crisper, and had a little more flavor underneath. It also seemed better balanced, with a thick layer of sauce to match the thickness of the crust. Tony's cheese was more pleasingly melted, nice and smooth, but lacked flavor. Leaning Tower's cheese didn't have a great texture, but it did have more flavor, as did the sauce. In general the Leaning Tower slice was more flavorful overall, and more distinctive too. I'm scoring this one B-minus for Leaning Tower, C for Tony's.

Tony's Pizzeria, 140 Main St., Dansville
Tel.: (585) 335-8984, 335-5035
Hours: Mon., Wed., & Thu. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Tue., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Sun. noon - 9 p.m.

The Leaning Tower, 124 Main St., Dansville
Tel.: (585) 335-2740
Hours: Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m. - midnight, Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sun. noon - 10 p.m.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Ken's Pizza Corner, Brighton

Just a quick review of the second location of Ken's Pizza Corner, a Henrietta establishment that opened a new shop in Brighton earlier this year, on the former site of Pizziera Americana Ohana.
I reviewed Ken's original location last February, giving it a B-minus for pizza that was enjoyable overall, if a bit soft-crusted and a little light on the sauce.
On a recent stop at Ken's Brighton location, I picked up one cheese and one pepperoni slice. Both were reasonably fresh. They'd cooled by the time I took these photos, which is why the cheese may appear a little dried out, but I'll try to take that into consideration in reviewing them.
The screen-baked, medium-thick crust on these was not all that crisp, though it had some breadiness. (I did inspect them right after I got them so I don't think that the delay in photographing and actually eating them was a factor as far as the lack of crispness in the crust is concerned.) The relative softness of the crust has been fairly typical of the screen-baked pizza I've tried, though at least these weren't oily underneath, like some screen-baked pizza.
The sauce was slightly sweet, and seemed to be a little more noticeable this time than on the pie I had in February. The components were pretty well balanced. The cheese was unremarkable, a basic layer of melted, low-moisture mozzarella, but well melted.
Sometimes when a pizzeria has more than one location, the pizza can vary widely from one place to another. This was very similar to the pie I got at the Henrietta location (although I'm still not sure what was up with the slices I got there back in July 2009).
All in all, a well balanced, pretty good, typical Rochester slice. Since I gave Ken's a B-minus last time, and this was very similar, I'll stick with that.
Ken's Pizza Corner, 1860 Monroe Ave.
Tel.: 271-5860
Hours:  Sun. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - midnight



Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When and Why Did Pizza Take Off in the U.S.?

I did a post the other day about Veltre's, a defunct bakery that sold bread and pizza from the 1930s up to about 2000. That got me thinking about the conventional wisdom holding that pizza took off in this country in the late 1940s, as soldiers returning from Italy wanted the "pizza pies" they'd developed a taste for overseas. Typical is the statement I found on this website that "The post-WWII years exposed millions of American GI's to pizza in Italy."
Now beyond the fact that it doesn't make any sense to say that the post-WWII years exposed American soldiers to pizza in Italy, I have some doubts about that, for a few reasons, but first let me mention two things that came out in my conversations with the Veltres.
Angelo stated that pizza sales began increasing in the early 1940s. Now we're talking about things that happened, gradually, some 70 years ago, so his memory might be off by a few years, but I think in the case of Veltre's, he's probably about right. Veltre's was selling "tomato pies" in the 1930s, and they began to catch on in a relatively short time, thanks to walk-in traffic from customers coming to buy bread, and from sales to the patrons of nearby bars on Lyell Avenue.
There's also evidence, corroborated by Dave Veltre, that pizza in general changed later than the 1940s, and - not coincidentally - that those changes were accompanied by a more dramatic increase in pizza sales. The 1950s and '60s were when "modern" American pizza evolved and became standardized. Part of that was due to marketers spreading the word among pizzeria and bakery owners that if they wanted to keep up with the times, they had to switch to low-moisture, processed mozzarella, and offer various toppings, especially sliced pepperoni. The 1960s also saw the birth of national pizza chains like Pizza Hut and Domino's, although it would take some years for them to achieve national prominence.
There's also this article from the Wall Street Journal showing that pizzerias were barely a blip on the radar screen in our nation's pizza capital as late as 1958, and that the real quantum leap came over the next two decades.
None of this supports the theory that WWII vets were what drove the growth of pizza sales, either in Rochester or in the U.S. generally. First, if Angelo Veltre is correct that sales were increasing in the early 1940s, that wasn't from returning soldiers. We invaded Sicily and mainland Italy in June and September 1943, respectively. Not many soldiers would've been returning from Italy before 1944, with most returning beginning in mid-1945, after the war was over. The total number of troops sent to Italy, though large, was still relatively low as a percentage of all U.S. military deployments, and certainly not in the millions. And even among soldiers who were sent to Italy (who probably got far more meals out of a can, or in a mess tent, than in a ristorante), many, maybe most, would not have run across pizza, which was still very much a purely regional dish in Italy at that time. The WSJ article quotes one NYC pizzeria owner as stating that during his great-grandmother’s day, “in certain regions of Italy they didn’t know what pizza was.” And I recall a WWII vet who served in Italy telling me that he never ran across pizza during his time there, and that he never heard of pizza until years later, in this country. So if pizza sales were increasing in the 1940s, it was probably more from word of mouth among customers of Italian-American bakeries.
The explosion of pizza sales later, in the 1950s and '60s, is probably attributable to several factors. Again, the Journal article notes that it was in the late 1950s that affordable gas pizza ovens became widely available, obviating the need for wood- or coal-fired ovens, and making it a lot easier to bake pizza on a commercial scale.
Beyond that, the '50s and '60s witnessed a broader transformation of American eating habits, particularly the birth of fast food, fueled by the rise of mass media and advertising, a consumerist culture that emphasized convenience, and an emerging new youth culture. It's no accident that burger chains started growing at around that same time.
So - did veterans returning from Italy give rise to pizza's popularity in the U.S.? I doubt it. Some G.I.s no doubt developed a taste for Italian food, but that would hardly explain pizza's phenomenal rise in popularity from the late 1950s on. No, I think pizza took off because it got easier to make, and because Americans realized that it's just flat-out good.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Crispy Green Freeze-Dried Fruits

I was recently sent a sample of Crispy Green 100% freeze-dried fruits, which are available in several varieties, including banana, pineapple, Fuji apple, mango, cantaloupe, and Asian pear.
What are they like? Well, as a kid, I would've called these "astronaut food." They taste exactly like the fruits they're made from. In one sense, it's a concentrated flavor, as the water is entirely gone, but the flavor takes a few seconds to come through, as you chew them and they moisten in your mouth. The texture is lighter and airier than typical dried fruit, but not unpleasant (and I say that as a "texture person" where food's concerned).
With fresh fruit so readily available in the supermarket year round, why buy these? They'd be good for hikers, or for inclusion in an emergency food supply, and they'd make an easy, nutritious addition to a brown-bag lunch.
Currently these aren't available in the Rochester area (Green Hills Farms in Syracuse is the nearest retail outlet at the moment), but you can order them online on Crispy Green's website. They run about a dollar per 0.36 ounce bag.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Rochester's Pizza History, Continued: Veltre Bakery

In 2009, I did a post on Rochester's pizza history, discussing several of the old timers among Rochester-area pizzerias. But there's anothe place that's intrigued me for a while, even though - or because - it's no longer around.
If you happen to drive down Lyell Avenue in the city, you may have noticed the sign on the side of the building that houses Roncone's restaurant, advertising the Veltre Bakery, just around the corner at 26 Parkway St..
If you've ever followed that arrow, then you've discovered that alas, Veltre Bakery is no more. Only the sign remains. But it's long piqued my curiosity, especially after I found this discussion of Veltre's history (on the linked page, scroll down to the bottom).
It took some digging, but I finally tracked down the last owner of the bakery, Dave Veltre, who's now a Monroe County Sheriff's Deputy. I spent some time chatting with him on the phone, as well as with his father, Angelo "Sonny" Veltre, who ran the bakery before Dave. They filled me in on some of the history of the Veltre Bakery.
Angelo's father, John Veltre, an Italian immigrant who learned his trade at the long-gone Bond Bakery on North Street, bought, and renamed, the Zazzara's bakery - which was then located on Lyell Avenue, at the opposite corner of Roncone's today - in 1932. Apparently Bond (which was part of the General Baking Company) was something of a breeding ground for Rochester bakers, as another Bond employee went on to found Petrillo's Bakery, which is still going strong after 90-plus years.
What was very interesting to me was that Veltre's used a massive coal fired oven, which was capable of turning out bread loaves by the hundreds. Today, the handful of pizzerias in New York City that still use coal fired ovens are looked upon with reverence by pizza aficionados. Due mostly to modern air pollution regulations (most pizzerias with existing coal ovens were grandfathered), new coal fired ovens are a rarity these days, although some high-tech, often coal-gas hybrids can be found, as at Tony D's in Corn Hill.
Zazzara's was already making pizzas when John Veltre bought the bakery, although at that time they were still something of a novelty item. Angelo, who started helping out when he was a young boy, shortly after his father bought the business, recalled that many evenings he'd be given the job of taking "tomato pies," as they were then called, around to nearby bars and saloons, where they'd be sold to hungry patrons for five cents apiece.
Veltre's main product, of course, was bread, and customers coming in to buy loaves would also notice, and ask about, these curious tomato pies. Gradually, pizza started to catch on, with sales steadily increasing through the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
But as pizza gained in popularity, eventually becoming a staple of the American diet, it also changed. Early on, Veltre's tomato pies had been small - maybe 8 inches in diameter - and topped with nothing but tomato sauce, grated cheese, and oregano, though some customers would ask for anchovies too. But at some point beginning roughly around the early '50s, pizza began to evolve into the product we're all familiar with today, big, cheese-laden pies loaded with toppings. .
Veltre's changed with the times, too - up to a point. To meet customer demand, their pizza became more mainstream - processed mozzarella and pepperoni mostly supplanted grated Romano and anchovies - but the dough recipe (the same dough was used for the bread and the pizza) remained the same, and Veltre's continued to use fresh ingredients whenever possible, right down to the home-grown herbs.
Veltre's enjoyed some success, though, so much so that they opened several satellite locations around the Rochester area, including Henrietta, Churchville and Greece. For different reasons, all were eventually sold, and it was back to the one bakery on Parkway Street.
But other forces were at work too, that in the end spelled the end of Veltre's. Neighborhood crime was on the rise, for one thing. Changes in the business climate also led Veltre's to return to its roots, in a sense, focusing more on bread than pizza.
There was also a generational shift going on within the Veltre family. The bakery had always been very much a family affair. Dave's grandmother continued to watch over the baking into her nineties, and Angelo, like his father, devoted several decades of his life to the business.
But as Angelo reached his mid sixties, the reins passed increasingly to Dave, who was being tugged in another direction. He was interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement, and when in 1999 Dave was accepted into the Monroe County Deputy Sheriff Academy, it was time to make a choice. As Dave wrote in 2000, "the lure of a secure job, benefits, and more time with [his] family outweighed the challenges of running the bakery," and so the bakery was closed and put up for sale.
Alas, while the building was eventually sold, the business was not. Some of the original fixtures, including the oven, remain there to this day, but for what I imagine to be a combination of reasons, no buyer ever came along to revive the bakery.
Which would be a sad ending, but life goes on. It's gone on for Dave, who remains with the Sheriff's Office, and it's gone on for Angelo, who at age 84 still reports for work daily at a local YMCA, where he serves as a lifeguard. And that's no mere honorary position - Angelo once saved a swimmer's life at the Y, although he's quick to add that he was "only" 78 years old at the time.
My own regret in all this is that I never tried Veltre's pizza while it was still around. I asked Dave if there's any local pizza that comes close to what Veltre's used to make, but he couldn't come up with any. Matter-of-factly, but with a touch of understandable familial pride, he summed up his memories of Veltre's pizza by saying, "It was a work of art."
I don't think he was being boastful, or even merely nostalgic, by saying that. I think what he meant was that each Veltre's pizza was a unique product, made by individuals, in a particular setting, based on a craft that had been handed down within his family over several generations. It can no more be re-created today, by someone else, than could a lost 17th-century painting, or a legendary ancient sculpture.
So here's to lost works of art, culinary and otherwise. We may not be able to bring them back, but we can be glad they existed, and that they gave joy while they were here. Meanwhile, we can try to better appreciate the art that remains, and that's still being created today, whether in a painter's studio or in a local pizzeria. Something to think about next time you see that slightly faded sign at the corner of Lyell and Parkway.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Chester Cab, Thin Cracker Crust

Chester Cab Pizza on Urbanspoon
If I were to give out awards to pizzerias for having the greatest variety of styles to choose from, Chester Cab on Park Avenue would certainly be on the list. They're known for their Chicago-style stuffed pizza, but they also offer "regular" pizza, "crispy New York style" slices, "thick Sicilian style," and "thin cracker crust," as well as low-fat pizza, and calzones. Oh, and the "Poor Man's Pizza," which is a regular pie topped with sauce, Parmesan, and herbs.
That wide variety has led me to make several visits to Chester Cab, and so far I've reported on one of their slices and on their stuffed pizza. On my most recent visit I gave the thin cracker crust a try.
I ordered my pizza - plain cheese - in person, and I was a bit dismayed when I heard they had to "go get one" of the crusts. The obvious implication was that the crusts were premade, and sitting in a storeroom, refrigerator, or freezer.
But - keep an open mind. The end result is what matters, and I'm not prepared to say that a premade crust can't be good.
The pizza that I got was, well, accurately described. The crust was thin, dry, and, indeed, crackerlike. It was crunchy, and a bit flaky, with a very thin, slightly charred edge.
The pie was more saucy than cheesy, which was probably a good thing. The sauce helped add some moisture to the dry crust, whereas a lot of cheese would've just made the whole thing chewier. The sauce had a straightforward, canned-tomato flavor (with sauce, by the way, canned tomatoes are often better than fresh, so no problem there). The cheese was a little sparse but well melted.
I ended up eating some of this sandwich style, with two slices put together, crust side out. That was actually pretty good.
This reminded me of what is sometimes called "bar pizza," meaning very thin pizza that you get in a bar, either off the bar menu or for free at happy hour. The idea is that it's so thin that it will make you more thirsty than full. But bar pizza is typically greasy and this wasn't (which would probably make it even less filling).I'm not going to rate this pizza, because it was exactly what the menu said it was, and I really can't compare it to anything else around here. You either like it this way or you don't. So even if I didn't like it, I couldn't complain, since I knew what I was ordering all along.
I thought it was OK, though I don't think it's something I'd be apt to order again. I like a more pliable crust with more of an interior. But no real complaints, and it's an interesting alternative to most other pizzas you'll find in our area.
Chester Cab Pizza, 707 Park Ave., Rochester 14607
Tel.: 244-8211
Hours: Mon. - Tue. 11 a.m. - 9:30 p.m., Wed. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11:30 p.m., Sun. noon - 9 p.m.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New restaurant website: Smorgie.com

This sponsorship is brought to you by Smorgie.com who we have partnered with for this promotion.

Smorgie.comThere's a new website you may want to check out, Smorgie.com. It allows you both to search for local restaurants and to create your own lists of go-to places in your home town or places you've traveled. I've played around with it a bit and it's pretty easy to use. A search for local pizza or Italian places yielded a pretty solid list of establishments, any of which I could add to my own personal list with a mouse click. And it was easy to add places myself, which other users can read about and add to their own personal lists. You can also easily share your lists with friends through facebook, twitter, email, or on smorgie itself.
There are all sorts of ways to research restaurants in various cities, and they can be hit or miss in terms of their reliability. Some sites seem mostly like a magnet for people who have had bad experiences, while others are full of suspiciously rave reviews ("A+++! The best!"). So the more research tools, the better - you'll get to know which are trustworthy or not.
The ability to create personalized lists helps differentiate Smorgie's from other sites. One of Smorgie's best features is that it allows you to put your entries into whatever categories you choose, like "pizza," "lunch places," "bars," "romantic restaurants," "places to check out" - it's up to you.
You can also search by category, although it may take a while for Smorgie, which is still in its beta stage, to refine that aspect. A search for "sports bar" in Rochester did yield some relevant results like The Distillery and Matthew's, but also Dog Town, which is a hot-dog place (perhaps there was some confusion with the Dog House bar on West Ridge?). But I think that as more user input comes in, that will work itself out.
For Rochester-area pizza, of course, there's no better resource than where you are right now , but I rely on as many search tools as I can find in trying to hunt down local pizzerias, as well as on those occasions when I want a break from pizza. I'll be checking out Smorgie for both.

Sonny's Deli Revisited

I sometimes get requests, or recommendations, to go back to a place after I've given it a less than stellar review, and Sonny's Deli is one of those places.
The last time I went there, I was less than impressed with my one cheese slice, which I found overcooked and dried out.
But some readers insisted that Sonny's made good pizza, so I figured maybe I just hit them on a bad day. I also decided that next time I'd order a pie, since part of the problem with my prior slice seemed to be that it simply sat in the warmer for too long. So on a recent visit, I ordered a 14-inch (medium) cheese pizza.
As before, the underside showed screen marks. No surprise there, and although I'm generally not a fan of pizza screens, no big deal. It was rather pale, though, especially compared to the very dark brown of the slice I got last time. I did show up about five minutes before they told me it would be ready, so maybe they took it out of the oven a bit sooner than they otherwise would have.
The slices were fairly soft and foldable, although the edge was crisp. They were not greasy, but there was just a bit of oven soot underneath. The crust was thin, also as before.
The pie had plenty of sauce, which had a cooked-tomato flavor, with some herbs as well. The sauce was not noticeably salty or sweet.  
The cheese was not particularly smooth, and the shreds had not melted together completely. It may just be that there wasn't enough of it to really blanket the pizza (which is fine with me - I don't mind some areas of sauce poking through), or maybe another minute or two in the oven would've helped it melt more, or maybe it was the cheese itself, as some cheeses do melt better than others. I wondered if this was part-skim mozzarella, which due to the lower fat content will not melt as well as the whole-milk variety.
The entire pie was lightly dusted with dried herbs. The thin lip along the edge was crisp and relatively dark, with some nice toastiness. The dough itself had a reasonably good texture and flavor.
This was not bad pizza, and in some ways it was better than my previous slice, but it had a few flaws. It was a decent thin crust pie, not exactly New York style, but kind of a thin-crust version of traditional "Rochester style" pizza. While the slice I had before was overdone and dry, this seemed a bit underdone, and the crust was too soft for my taste. The cheese also left a bit to be desired. So for somewhat different reasons, I'd say it was about the same as before, a bit below average for around here, and I'll again give it a C-minus.
Sonny's Deli, 494 N. Landing Rd.
Tel.: 288-7820
Mon. - Thu. 9 a.m. - 8 p.m., Fri. 9 a.m. - 9 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. - 9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Towpath Cafe, Fairport

Towpath Cafe on Urbanspoon
While pizzerias are easy enough to find, there's plenty of pizza out there at local restaurants, where you wouldn't necessarily expect to find it. One such place is Towpath Cafe in Fairport.
This location was formerly Fairport Village Coffee, and like that establishment, Towpath Cafe features coffee, wine, and live music. But it's added pizza to its menu, which I don't think was offered in its previous incarnation.
The pizza, which is described as "fire grilled," comes in five varieties, which I'll let you read on the Cafe's menu. As I often do, I went with the "Margarita," which is topped with "garlic & oil, tomatoes bruschetta, mozzarella and fresh basil."'
My pizza had a very crisp crust that was on the thin side of medium. The outer edge was crunchy and a bit oily on the surface, with some interior chewiness. The underside bore prominent grill marks.
The menu's use of the term "tomatoes bruschetta" is a fairly apt description. This reminded me of bruschetta, the name of which comes from the Italian "bruscare," which means "to roast over coals," a reference to the bread, which is typically drizzled with olive oil and grilled, and topped with tomatoes, garlic, basil or other toppings. This was topped with finely diced tomato, bits of chopped garlic, and flakes of basil, on a bed of stringy, chewy cheese. I found the overall flavor quite good, with some herbs in the background. The tomatoes weren't fantastic, but they did have some tomatoey sweetness, which puts them ahead of a lot of fresh tomatoes around here at this time of year.
Besides pizza, Towpath Cafe offers burgers, paninis, wraps, and salads. The atmosphere is laid back and casual, kind of a cross between a coffee house and a restaurant, with outdoor seating overlooking the canal in the warm months.
This was decent pizza. It had a pretty good overall flavor, and the crust wasn't bad, with a bit of external crunch and some grilled toastiness. And importantly, it was distinctive. I'll give it a B-minus.
Towpath Cafe, 6 N. Main St., Fairport, 14580
Tel. 377-0410
Mon. - Thu. 8 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 8 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Product Review - The Olive Tap

I was recently sent two sample-size "review" bottles, of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, from The Olive Tap, an Illinois company that specializes in high-end oils and vinegars from around the world.
The bottles were about the size of one of those little liquor bottles that they sell in liquor stores, so I wasn't about to just toss it into a salad dressing or use these in a dish where they'd get drowned by other flavors. Instead, I made a crusty, homemade "rustic" style bread, the better to taste both.
I got these for free - I want to make that clear - but they may have been the best olive oil and balsamic vinegar I've ever tasted. Not that I'm a connoisseur of either, but I use and consume them on a fairly regular basis. These were head and shoulders above the stuff I've been using till now.
The oil was The Olive Tap's Tuscan Herb Olive Oil, which is flavored with a proprietary blend of several herbs including oregano, basil, garlic, and rosemary The flavors of the herbs complemented the rich flavor of the oil, without overwhelming it, and the underlying, almost sweet flavor of the oil shone through, making this a great oil for dipping. I've also used it on homemade pizza, with excellent results - it's especially good on white pizza, the better to allow its rich and subtle flavors to come through.
The vinegar was also a revelation. I always have balsamic vinegar on hand, and I thought I'd been buying pretty decent stuff, but this one, from Modena, Italy, had a richness of flavor that I'd never experienced before. Sweet but not cloying, it too was great soaked into bread, along with the oil, and terrific on a simple salad.
I wish I could say that these products are available around Rochester, but the nearest Olive Tap store or satellite location is in Medina, Ohio. Their products are available for purchase online, though. It's not cheap (a 375 ml bottle of the Tuscan Herb olive oil - about 35 servings' worth - goes for about $16), but, well, this isn't cheaply made, and the prices are pretty reasonable considering the quality of the product. And again, this isn't necessarily stuff you'll be using for ordinary cooking, where the flavors are apt to get drowned - you can use the basic brand for that, and save this for dishes where you and your guests will be better able to appreciate it.
The downside of this is that I'll never be quite as happy again with "ordinary" olive oils or vinegars. But if it's not too late, Santa, I'll gladly take a bottle or two of these in my stocking this year.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hugo's Italian Bistro

I'd driven by Hugo's Italian Bistro in Henrietta once or twice, but only recently did I learn that they were serving pizza. That's probably because until this past October it was known as Hugo's Market Cafe, which, I think, didn't serve pizza.
So the other day I made it there with some friends, one of whom got a pizza, so I was able to sample hers as well as mine.
I was torn between the Margherita ("homemade pizza sauce topped with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and oregano") for $8.59, and the Traditional ("fresh made red pizza sauce with mozzarella, oregano, basil and pecorino Romano and the choice of one topping") for $7.59.  I ended up going with the latter, with the addition of roasted garlic and green olives. One of my friends also got a Greca pizza, topped with "a blend of pesto and red sauce, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, fresh roasted garlic, kalamata olives, oregano and basil topped with feta cheese."
Each of our pizzas was about the size of a dinner plate. The crust was on the thin side, golden brown underneath, and medium firm on the surface. The slices were quite pliable and easily foldable.
Both pizzas tasted good, although I have to give the edge to my friend's Greca for overall flavor. I didn't pick up a whole lot of flavor from the sauce on my pie, and the mozzarella cheese dominated. The cheese lent the pizza a bit of tanginess, and the salty olives and the garlic were welcome additions to what otherwise would have been a lackluster pizza, due to the relatively soft crust.
The Greca had the same crust, but more flavor. I'm always wary of feta cheese on pizza, because it can so easily dominate a pie, but this was well balanced, with the slightly sweet peppers, savory olives, herbs and garlic acting as a counterweight to the sharp, salty feta. I actually liked it better than mine, which seemed a bit boring by comparison.
Hugo's other pizza offerings include a bianca, with olive oil, roasted garlic, oregano, basil, Romano and a topping of your choice, and a verde, with pesto sauce, roasted garlic, mozzarella, baby spinach, Ricotta, basil, oregano, Romano, and Gorgonzola. But it's far from just a pizza place, with a wide variety of Italian dishes on the menu (unfortunately I don't have their full menu handy and it looks as if their website isn't entirely up and running just now, so I can't go into detail about the menu). There's also a full bar on one side of the dining room.
I really liked the flavor of these pizzas. And although some of the pizzas on the menu sound rather "busy," with lots of toppings, Hugo's seems to know how to use combinations that work well, and to use enough restraint that the pie doesn't get overwhelmed with the toppings.
I was less impressed with the crust. It wasn't bad, but it was only what I'd call serviceable. It got the job done, to act as a base for the toppings, but it wasn't very crisp or bready, and lacked the subtle complexities of flavor, aroma and texture that make for a great pizza crust. That's often the case with restaurant pizza - I suspect the ovens have a lot to do with it - and it was the case here. So all in all, good, and good enough to order again, but not quite great. I'll give these a B-minus.
Hugo's Italian Bistro, 3259 S. Winton Rd.
Tel.: 427-0540
Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Book Review: 300 Best Potato Recipes

I love potatoes. For some time, I've been intrigued by potato pizza, a style that (or so I've read) is prevalent around Rome. After pizza, my second favorite food would have to be french fries. And on vacation, I've been known to make side trips to tour the local chip factory.
So I eagerly accepted a review copy of 300 Best Potato Recipes:  A Complete Cook's Guide by Kathleen Sloan-McIntosh. And yes, there was a recipe for a potato pizza, although not what I had expected, and for fries, and I tried them both.
Why an entire cookbook devoted to one ingredient? Well, in the case of potatoes, why not? They're remarkably versatile, they lend themselves to cooking in any number of ways, and they can be enjoyed on their own or in a supporting role.
The book starts off with a useful introduction that covers a bit of history, an overview of cooking methods, and the wide variety of potatoes that are available today, most of which I'd frankly never heard of before. From there, it moves on to some recipes for classic standbys like mashed potatoes and English "chips," before going on to soups, salads, sides, "mains" (Sloan-McIntosh is Canadian, so her writing tends to use Britishisms), breads, and desserts. If there's a dish using potatoes, chances are it, or something close to it, is in here.
The first thing I did on receiving the book, of course, was to look up "pizza," which led me to the recipe for "Potato-Crusted Margherita Pizza." Sloan-McIntosh states that this is "a traditional recipe style from Apulia, in southern Italy," and that she's enjoyed it at a sidewalk bakery/cafe in the city of Lecce.
Unlike Roman-style potato pizza, which is a pan-baked pizza topped with thinly sliced potatoes, this recipe uses cooked potatoes in the crust. I know from bread baking that potatoes will tend to soften the crust, and that's what happened here. The pizza did have a soft crust, and yet I can't say that I didn't enjoy it. Imagine a regular pizza crust infused with mashed potatoes and you'll get an idea of what it was like. Not something I'd want every time, but not bad, and rather unique.
The fries - hmm. It took me a little while to find the recipe I was looking for. The entry for "French fries" read "See fries and frites." Under "fries and frites (chips)," I found subheadings for "deep-fried," "fat for," "oven-fried," and "shallow-fried." I figured "deep-fried" was what I was looking for, but there were eight separate entries under that subheading, which were listed only according to page numbers, so I had to go through them one by one to find what I wanted - "Frites a la Kingsmill," named for a friend of the author.
While my fries did come out caramel colored, as described in the book, I wasn't thrilled with them. My ideal french fry is more golden than brown, with a delicate exterior crispness enveloping a fluffy, potatoey interior. These were darker and oilier than I wanted. There are other recipes in the book that I have yet to try, but the use of the term "frites" in this one led me to expect something closer to classic French fries, more golden than amber. Perhaps the recipe for English chips will come closer to my ideal, as it recommends the use of a "floury" potato, whereas the "frites" recipe called for Yukon Golds. My research indicates that floury potatoes, like russets, are best for french fries.
But the temperature recommendations may play a role too. Like a lot of frites recipes, this called for two fryings - for reasons that are debatable - but this recipe calls for an initial frying at 375 degrees, followed by a second frying at 400. Most other sources I've consulted recommend much lower temperatures for the first fry. I'm no food scientist so I have no idea what effect that had, but it must have some effect on the finished product.
Despite my less than perfect fries, I found a lot to like in this book. It's good for flipping through to look for ideas, especially after you just bought that 50 pound bag of potatoes at the Public Market. And there's a lot more here than just simple spud recipes. How does a dinner of smoked haddock with Yukon Golds in mustard beurre blanc sound, topped off with sweet potato cheesecake with pecan praline crust and caramel cream? Even if you're not that ambitious, if you like potatoes as much as I do, this is a worthwhile addition to your kitchen bookshelf, especially if you'd like to move on past the usual fried-baked-or-mashed variety.
300 Best Potato Recipes by Kathleen Sloan-McIntosh. 448 pages. Pub. by Robert Rose 2011.

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