Tavern 19. The site has housed many restaurants over the years, but Tavern 19 houses a wood-fired oven, and specializes in pizza.
Wood-fired pizza has become almost commonplace around Rochester in the past few years, but I was intrigued by the story on their website, which details the owners' love affair with pizza. The story dates back to their college days in New York City, up to their opening of Tavern 19, which features a state-of-the-art, revolving-deck wood-fired oven that reaches temperatures up to 900 degrees.
So to celebrate my wife's birthday, she and I had dinner at Tavern 19 on a recent Saturday night. My wife wasn't in the mood for pizza (what?!), so she got a pasta dish, while I ordered an "All Seasons" pizza, topped with plum-tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, Seville olives, and prosciutto di Parma. I asked them to skip the portabella mushrooms called for on the menu, as mushrooms are one of my few no-gos, foodwise.
My pie came out with a nicely done crust: a little blistering along the edge, and an underside that was brown, with a bit of char-spotting. It was crisp on the outside, but not crackly, and the slices were pliable, with a light dusting of what I think was semolina on the bottom. The edge was puffy, and the center was well balanced between outer crispness and interior chewiness.
The crust was a little more brown than I would've expected from a 900-degree oven. I'm used to seeing pizzas from high-temperature, wood-fired ovens with a bottom that's more pale overall, but with a good deal of black "leopard spotting." This crust had some char spots, but was more evenly done. Perhaps that had something to do with the revolving deck, which may result in a more gradual cooking process. But I had no complaints, as the crust had a good texture and an aroma of freshly baked bread, with some toasty accents.
My choice of the All Seasons pizza proved to be a wise one. The toppings complemented each other well, the sauce had a rich tomatoey flavor, and the cheese was melted but not overdone or rubbery.
I mentioned Tavern 19's background story above, and it's laid out in full on their website, but in short, Craig and co-owner John went to school in NYC, where they fell in love with NY pizza. They attended a master class administered by Goodfella's, which has won numerous awards over the years for their wood-fired pizza. Craig and John came back to this area and found a suitable spot to pursue their pizza dream in Hamlin, in a great old building on Route 19, a/k/a Lake Road.
As I mentioned, they installed a revolving-deck oven, unique to this area. The deck is mostly useful when they're baking several pies at once. Instead of having to move pies (or other wood-fired dishes) from one spot to another, the pizzaiolo simply has to rotate them as they pass by the open flame. But that doesn't take the artistry out of the equation; the pizzaiolo still needs to pay constant attention to the pizzas, especially given the high temperature of the oven.
Tavern 19 has an extensive pizza menu, but they do a lot more than just pizza. My wife enjoyed her penne pasta with basil pesto, which was a special that night, and I'd like to go back and either try a different pizza (probably the pizza alla vodka, which they seem especially proud of) or a non-pizza dish altogether. You can see the full menu here. Several selections look tempting to me, including the clam soup, steak au poivre, and the burgers; after pizza, burgers are pretty high on my list of favorite foods. I do think, though, that I'd not order the three-pound "killer burger," though you may want to take the challenge; if you finish it singlehandedly, it's on the house.
At this point, it's an open question where wood-fired pizza is going, locally. Is it a trend that's going to overexpand, and burn itself out? Or are we going to see wood-fired pizza become commonplace and scattered around the landscape, even in small towns?
I don't know the answer, but I suspect that at some point, just advertising "wood fired" isn't going to be enough to sustain a restaurant. In the end, it's the product that matters. Turning out a good pizza, wood-fired or otherwise, requires time and commitment, and the owners of Tavern 19 have put in both. It shows in the pizza. I live quite some distance from Hamlin, but I'd drive here again, for the pizza, so it gets an A from me.
Tavern 19, 1549 Lake Road, Hamlin
Mon. - Sat. 4 p.m. - 2 a.m., Sun. noon. - 2 a..m. (the closing time may be bar hours, not food hours - call ahead if you need to know for sure).