One of the better food blogs out there is Chris Lindstrom's Food About Town. In addition to his blog, Chris also writes for City Newspaper, and he has spent some time learning the pizzamaking craft at one of our area's best pizzerias, Fiamma, under the tutelage of owner/pizzaiolo Giuseppe Paciullo. So the man knows his food, and his pizza. And he's a good writer.
I've met Chris before, and he recently invited me to join him and his wife for dinner at Branca in Bushnells Basin. Branca specializes in Neapolitan style pizza baked in a wood-fired oven.
This was my second visit to Branca.. I reported on my first visit in August of this year. At that time, I thought it was pretty good. I did have some issues with the pizza, particularly concerning the crust, but you can follow the link to read further.
This time around, there were four of us - a coworker of Chris came along - and we decided to share three pizzas. As it turned out, we ended up with four pizzas, due to some confusion over the first pizza we ordered. In short, we got the first one for free, plus the three that we wanted.
I'll start out by saying that they were all pretty good, but in hindsight I wish I had agreed to my companions' suggestion that we order the tartufata pie, which is topped with mushrooms, mozzarella, Pecorino cheese and truffle sauce. (In one form or another, truffles figure very prominently on Branca's menu - I counted seven dishes with truffles.) I nixed that idea partly because I don't like mushrooms, and also because I wanted to try Branca's marinara con acciughe pie, with tomato sauce, anchovies, garlic, oregano, and extra virgin olive oil. At that point we'd already settled on the first two pies, plus I didn't realize that we were going to end up with a fourth pie.
The upshot is, we ended up with four red pies. Despite my general antipathy toward mushrooms, a white pie, even with mushrooms, would've been a welcome alternative. But there are worse things in life than trying four different red pizzas. Next time I'm there, I'll try the tartufata.
OK - on to the pizza. First up was the Margherita. This is what I had on my prior visit.
First impressions: an attractive pizza, with a uniform, well-formed cornicione, a moderate layer of bright red sauce, and a smattering of nicely melted, fresh mozzarella, with a few shreds of wilted basil.
An inspection of the underside showed that the crust wasn't as spottily charred underneath as I would like, especially from a wood-fired oven. There were a few darkened areas, but it was mostly light brown throughout.
And though nicely formed, the cornicione (i.e,, the edge or lip) was not as bubbly as I would've liked. It wasn't unleavened, certainly, but the air holes were uniformly small, and it lacked the textural complexity that adds interest to a crust.
Chris first called attention to this, but I had to agree that the crust seemed a little bland, mostly due to a lack of salt. With some pies, after I've worked my way through the toppings, I enjoy the cornicione at least as much as the rest of the pie. With this pizza, the "bones" were more of an afterthought. Not bad, but on their own, just not that great. If I'd had a sauce of some kind - marinara, blue cheese or hot pepper - I would've been dipping.
Having said all that, the pie tasted good. The sauce had a bright, tomatoey flavor, lightly accented with herbs, the cheese was melted just enough to reach its peak of liquidity without turning it rubbery, and the basil was wilted but not burned.
Next up was the bufala e pachini, with tomato sauce, water buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and basil. If that sounds close to the Margherita, it was. This goes back to the ordering mixup, which resulted in us getting two very similar pies.
And while overall the two pies were much alike, the crust on the bufala pizza, which arrived a few minutes after the first, was a little darker underneath, and a little stiffer along the edge. Perhaps it was baked in a hotter part of the oven, or for a bit longer. It also had a pronounced but not excessive aroma of burnt toast, which I consider a good thing. That aroma adds to the overall mix of flavors and aromas that I love.
As I indicated, the toppings weren't much different from the Margherita. Same sauce, and the cheese wasn't noticeably different either. The cherry tomatoes were nice and sweet, but seemed superfluous on top of the tomato sauce.
Next up was the Rughetta e prosciutto San Daniele, with tomato sauce, prosciutto San Daniele, mozzarella and arugula. I've never been a big fan of pizzas with raw greens on top, because to me, the greens just don't get well integrated into the pizza, but this was an enjoyable pie. The prosciutto was very good, lean but not overly chewy, with a lot of flavor and enough salt to balance out the relatively bland crust. This was more of a knife-and-fork pizza, but if you don't mind that, the arugula added a textural dimension and a subtle but welcome bitterness to the pie. Think of taking a forkful of salad with each bite of pizza.
It was at this point, I think, that we began to realize that the relatively unsalted crust made some sense, or at least that it worked well with some of the pizzas. That was borne out by our final pizza of the night: the Marinara con acciughe, with tomato sauce, garlic, anchovies, oregano and extra virgin olive oil.
This was my choice, which I wanted to try because of its similarity to the tomato-and-anchovy pies that used to be favored by local Italian immigrants, long ago. I liked it, although by this time I was getting a bit satiated, and a little maxed out on red pizza, particularly since the sauce seemed to be the same on all of these pies.
Even more than with the Rughetta, I appreciated the relative blandness of the crust. The anchovies were quite salty, as anchovies tend to be. So the crust helped offset some of that salinity.
We generally agreed, though, that this pie was flavorful but one-dimensional. The anchovies overwhelmed the other toppings. Our group discussed what could be done to counterbalance the anchovies, and the thoughts ranged from olive oil to a hard, grated cheese like Parmesan or Romano, to hot peppers. I wonder, too, if the anchovies could've been desalinated a bit - supposedly, soaking them in milk helps, although the one time I tried that, it didn't seem to have much effect.
I guess I can't complain, since this pie was what the menu said it was, an anchovy pie. But while I remain intrigued by anchovies as a pizza topping, you'd better like them a lot to order this pizza.
My other observation about this final pie of the evening is that it was unevenly baked. Blackened and blistered in one area, but quite pale underneath on the opposite side.
So - overall impressions? I like Branca. I plan to go back, and I'd like to try more of their pizza. But on this visit, it was a little inconsistent.
The crust on these pies was, for the most part, pretty good, nicely baked along the perimeter and softer in the middle. But they tended to be unevenly baked, and the dough didn't have quite the flavor or texture to rise above being much more than a base for the toppings. Not bad, just not great.
The toppings were good. I appreciate that Branca sticks to a pretty traditional menu. No Buffalo wing or taco pizzas.
Menu selection is important here, though. I wouldn't spring for the extra three bucks to get the Bufala e pachini pizza over the Margherita. And unless you're a true lover of anchovies, I'd stay away from the Marinara.
In the end, I guess the key question is, do I want to go back? Yes, I do. Branca has several more pizzas that I want to try. Frankly, I'd like to work my way through the whole list.
I've been to Branca twice now, and I liked it both times, although neither time did I think the pizza was among the best I've ever had. So I can confidently recommend it, but I can't rate it among the very best in our area. With a little attention to detail, it can get there. For now, I'd say it's very good, and well worth a visit, but not quite top-notch, so I'll give it a B.
Branca, 683 Pittsford-Victor Rd., Bushnells Basin
Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - midnight
Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.
Sun. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.