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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Gate House, Rochester

Gate House Cafe on Urbanspoon
The Gate House is in Village Gate on Goodman Street in Rochester. It's in the space formerly occupied by Salena's, which has moved to a different location in Village Gate. The Gate House is a full-service restaurant that, according to its website, prides itself on fresh ingredients. Much of its menu is taken up by its burgers and its pizzas. Here's what they say about their pizzas:
"[O]ur pizza dough and sauce [are] made daily. We pay homage to traditional Neopolitan pizza making techniques by using Tipo OO Italian flour, tomatoes from the San Marzano Valley, fresh mozzarella and a wood burning pizza oven."
I tried their "Strong Margherita" (most of their entrees are named after local landmarks or celebrities, usually with no apparent rhyme or reason, although I guess margherita, which was named for Queen Margherita in the 19th century, kind of fits with Margaret Woodbury Strong), which the menu describes as topped with "tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmigiano, olive oil and basil."
Upon arrival at the table, it looked pretty good - very thin crust, bright red tomato sauce, nicely melted cheese, a few "islands" of fresh mozzarella, and wilted shreds of basil. The edge, though, was just a bit browned, without the telltale blackened spots you might expect from a high-temp, wood-fired oven. The underside was a surprise, too, with some dark brown spots here and there, but mostly a uniform, pale hue.
The slices were very easy to fold, and biting into them, I found that they had no crispness at all, again a surprise, since pizzas cooked in a woodburning oven are often so crisp they're almost crackerlike. These were quite chewy, and not at all bready; although the edges seemed to have some small air holes, I really wasn't sure that any yeast had been used in the dough, which didn't seem to have risen at all.
The dough also seemed to have a fair amount of shortening in it. It wasn't really flaky, but it had a slightly greasy feel that seemed to come from the dough itself rather than from the surface on which it had been cooked. And despite the charred spots, it didn't seem to have been cooked all that much. It reminded me, a little, of one of those flatbreads you can get at Indian restaurants that has been cooked in a tandoor oven, only this was not cooked to quite the same degree of doneness.
The toppings were good, with a thick tomato sauce that seemed to have bits of garlic in it, a nice contrast between the two cheeses, and a subtle basil flavor. But it was hard for me to get past the crust. It was such an attractive pizza I almost hate to say it but the best short description I can give would be slightly undercooked (for a pizza) pastry dough.
I might go back to The Gate House sometime, but only to try their burgers and fries, both of which looked pretty good. As for the pizza, well, I've never been to Naples (the one in Italy I mean, not the one with the Grape Festival), but it was not what I think of as Neapolitan pizza. I won't presume to offer advice, but I wonder if their oven is not as hot as it could be. I'm sure the pizza at The Gate House has its fans, but for me, it rates only a C.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Rookies Express, Monroe Ave.

Rookies Express Pizza & Pasta has been open for a few months now on Monroe Ave., in a former location of Mark’s Pizzeria, which moved up the street a little. They are open all day, past bar closing time on weekends. Besides regular and “gourmet" pizzas, they offer baked chicken wings, pasta and subs.
I had a “Hugia Slice” with pepperoni, the name of which is derived from a local auto dealership ad. The huge/mega/jumbo slice thing seems to be hitting Rochester lately. It may be an overgeneralization, but I would say that when you see a place advertising how enormous their slices are, that’s not a good thing if you’re looking for really good pizza. Same as when a restaurant makes a big deal about how generous their portions are: it’s putting quantity over quality.
My “Hugia Slice” did nothing to dispel that view. It was big, for sure, but, almost strange. The crust was very doughy, with a soft, spongy texture and yeasty flavor that reminded me a little of the crepe-like injera bread they serve at Abyssinia, the Ethiopian restaurant on University Ave. The underside was pale and soft too, but the edge was slightly burnt and crunchy, with an oily flavor and mouthfeel.
There was not much sauce on the crust, but above that was a medium-thick layer of cheese, with flecks of brown, cooked spots. The cheese adhered to the slice when I bit into it, although it pulled away in a single mass quite easily when I tugged on it with my fingers. The pepperoni was of the “cup and char” variety, with a nice crunch to it.
The counter service (there is virtually no seating) was friendly and polite, but despite that I have no plans to go back. Rookies’ menu says that they have three dough styles to choose from if you order a full pie - “original pan, thin, or crispy” - and I assume that I got the “original pan” version - but nothing about it made me want to check out the other two. My take on Rookies is that, like a lot of the big-slice places, it caters, or appeals, primarily to the bar crowd looking for a cheap way to fill their guts and soak up beer. This would certainly do the trick, but I’m afraid that’s about all. I give it a D.
Pizza Guy Note:  Rookies Express has closed.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bay Goodman Pizza, Rochester

Years ago, Bay Goodman Pizza, at the corner of Bay and Goodman Streets, would certainly have been on anybody's short list of classic Rochester pizzerias. It combined a bar with a pizzeria, which turned out medium-thick pizzas with a thick, stringy layer of cheese, and it had been around for a long time. It may not have been the greatest pizza ever, but it was one of the definitive Rochester pizzerias.
At some point both the bar and the pizzeria closed, as the surrounding neighborhood went downhill, and the bar itself became a trouble spot. In name at least, though, Bay Goodman Pizza has reemerged as "The Original Bay Goodman Famous New York Style Pizza," incongruously located near the corner of North Winton and Blossom Rd. on the city's eastern edge. As before, it adjoins a bar, Mickey Flynn's.
I stopped by recently for a lunchtime slice. Would the pizza be the same as I remembered?
The choices were plain cheese or pepperoni. I chose the latter.
The slice, which seemed pretty fresh out of the oven and had not been reheated, was covered with a generous helping of "cup & char" pepperoni slices, which were nicely crunchy along the edges.
Beneath that was a fairly thick layer of congealed cheese, more chewy than stringy, which adhered fairly well to the underlying crust, from which it was separated by a thin layer of sauce.
I would characterize the crust as medium thick. Perhaps a bit on the thin side of medium, by Rochester standards, but hardly what I would call New York-style thin. Maybe at one time this is what people around here thought of as NY-style pizza, but not today.
It was, I have to say, a bit on the greasy side as well. Some of that was undoubtedly from the pepperoni, but the healthy dose of cheese certainly had something to do with it too. Still, it wasn't so greasy or crunchy as to have obviously cooked in its own grease, and the crust, though lacking the exterior crispness of a good NY-style pizza, nevertheless retained a noticeable interior breadiness reminiscent of Italian bread. It also had a subtle but pleasant herbal flavor, and was flecked with what I'm guessing was oregano. The crackled underside bore a thin coating of flour and several large grease spots.
So was it as good as I remembered? I'm not sure. At first I didn't think so, but upon reflection, it was close enough to the original that it left me wondering if I'm simply remembering the old Bay Goodman through nostalgically tinted glasses.
Bay Goodman would not be among my choices for a regular pizza stop. It's thicker and greasier than I like, and a bit too heavy-handed on the cheese for my taste. Given the medium-thick, chewy crust and the substantial amount of cheese, it also would have benefited from a bit more sauce, of a heartier consistency, to balance out the other components.
I will say, though, that Bay Goodman is well positioned next to a bar, as I could see a bready, greasy slice or two hitting the spot at the end of the night, or as a sponge to slow down the effects of your drinks.
Speaking of the bar, I should mention that there is no seating in the pizzeria, and the bar doesn't open until sometime in the afternoon, so lunchtime orders are strictly to go. I didn't see any indication that they deliver, but I didn't ask. Various subs, sides and wings are available as well.
The bottom line? The "new" Bay Goodman is still turning out some pretty decent pizza, in a style that, at one time at least, typified pizza in these parts: medium crust, plenty of cheese, nice and bready. But things have changed over the years, rendering its sign a little inaccurate, in more ways than one. Perhaps it should now read, "The Original Bay Goodman Blossom Winton Famous (Rochester) New York Style Pizza." It gets a C+ from me.
NOTE: since this was posted, Bay Goodman has moved a few blocks north, to the corner of Winton and Browncroft. There is a second location on Titus Ave. in Irondequoit.

Chain reaction

In thinking about which pizzerias I should cover in this blog, the question occurred to me what to do about chain pizzerias. Should I review them or not?
The short answer I've come up with is this. National chains I won't report on at all. If you've had a Papa-Domino-Hut pizza anywhere, you know what it's like already. I can assure you it's the same here as anywhere else. If you haven't tried it by now, then you're probably not interested anyway. For that matter, if you're reading this blog you're probably not interested in what their pizza is like.
For local and regional chains, though, I will try to get to one (preferably the original, if it's still around) location of each. Now I know that some local chains have more locations in the Rochester area than do their national competitors (the Rochester White Pages list 10 Domino's and 17 Salvatore's, for example), but if a reader has just moved to this area, or is planning to visit or relocate here, I figure it may be helpful to provide some info on the local chains.
Also, if I were to leave out the local chains, the question would then arise, what about a pizzeria with only two locations? Is that a "chain"? Most people would probably say no. So what would be the magic number at which a pizzeria becomes a chain? Any number I could pick would ultimately be arbitrary.
At the same time, it would be pointless to visit, say, every single Mark's Pizzeria around here. Presumably they're all pretty much alike, or at least they should be. Hence my solution: one location per local pizzeria. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tony D's, Corn Hill, Rochester

Tony D's on Urbanspoon
Although there are by now several places around Rochester making pizza in wood-fired ovens, Tony D's in Corn Hill Landing is the first and so far only local pizza restaurant with a coal-fired oven. Why is that a big deal? Well, some of the most renowned pizzas in NYC and elsewhere have been made in coal ovens, which burn at very high temperatures, generally without producing as much smoke as wood.
A quick aside: in Naples, considered the birthplace of modern pizza, wood was the traditional fuel; coal was used in the old days by Italian immigrants in New York because it was readily available. As with many pizza-related topics, there's a whole debate about what's better, coal or wood, and natural gas has its adherents too, but that's beyond the scope of this review. Just take it from me: a pizzeria with a coal-fired oven in Rochester is a big deal to pizza aficionados.
Tony D's is a full-service restaurant, with table service as well as a counter in front of the open kitchen, where you can sit and see your pizza, or other food order, being prepared. In the corner of the back wall is the cobblestone-faced oven, with a stack of wooden pizza peels standing nearby. I should've turned the flash off on my camera because the flash tends to drown out the orange glow of the coals, which is much more visible than the picture would indicate. The aroma from the fire is noticeable but not strong, and not really smoky, since coal burns pretty cleanly.
(The D&C, incidentally, describes the oven at Tony D's as "gas assisted," which I assume means that it uses a combination of gas and coal, but unless you're a real purist, it's a legitimate coal-fired oven, and is clearly hotter than the average pizza oven.)
I ordered a margherita, which was razor thin except for the puffy edges. It was charred and blistered underneath and along the edge, to the point of being burnt in spots, but thanks to the heat of the oven it retained some bready chewiness and the pieces were foldable, meaning that they hadn't dried out to the point of becoming crackly. Clearly, though, this is pizza that needs to be watched and tended to carefully in the oven; a minute or two one way or the other, or a failure to rotate the pizza when needed for even cooking, can make all the difference.
I had read that at one point Tony D's had turned down the heat in the ovens because patrons were complaining that their pizza was "burnt," but that they had since gone back to the high temps. I'm glad they did. What would be the point of a coal-fired oven if you're not going to crank up the heat? The menu, by the way, warns that Tony D's pizzas are "well done" - you want golden-brown pizza, there are plenty of other places you can go to.
The sauce was applied thinly - heavy toppings won' t do on thin pizza - and had a nice, sharp tomatoey flavor. The sauce was topped with a thin layer of shredded cheese, browned on top, and applied sparsely enough to allow pockets of sauce and the occasional tomato chunk to poke through. In the center of each of the four slices was a creamy, melted island of fresh mozzarella, and scattered throughout were wilted shreds of fresh basil. (It struck me while eating that one benefit of folding a thin slice is that it squeezes the toppings together, so that you still get a healthy dose of toppings with each bite.)
The overall impression was of a mix of diverse flavors rather than a homogeneous blend. With each bite, the crust, tomatoes, cheeses and basil each came through individually, unlike your basic corner pizza joint slice, in which the flavors tend to meld together.
As I've said before, that very corner-pizza-joint style is, to me, the ideal pizza, so it wouldn't be fair to measure Tony D's against that standard. The basic approach here is different, whether you want to call it high-end, artisanal, rustic, authentic, etc. Simply approaching it on its own terms, I thought it was quite good, with a range of contrasting, yet complementary flavors and textures that made it easy to finish off my 9" pie. I'll give it an A-.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

All Star Pizza, Penfield

All Star Pizza on Urbanspoon
All Star Pizza, on Penfield Road across from Panorama Plaza, claims to "Specialize in New York Style Thin Crust Pizza," so this was high on my list of places to check out. The result was, well, pretty good, though I'm not sure it would make a City native feel as if he'd been transported back to the Big Apple.
I should note, first of all, that All Star does not just make thin crust. The flyer advertises a "Crust-O-Meter" with three options: "NY Style Thin," "Traditional Regular," and "Double Thick." Of course a lot of places will make the crust thicker or thinner on request, but since the flyer describes this as "New!" I'm guessing that thin crust was originally All Star's default or "regular" pizza, and that at some point they decided to explicitly offer three choices, though the emphasis remains on the thin version.
Anyway, I went with the thin crust, since that's my favorite and All Star's specialty. It certainly met the thinness criterion, not a bad looking pie. Checking the underside revealed that it had been baked on a screen (you can tell by the cross-hatching). I guess the theory behind a screen is that the the holes in the screen allow the bottom of the dough to cook by convection and radiant heat rather than by conduction as when the pizza lies directly on the oven floor. In theory that should result in a crisper crust, but it didn't here. Now I should point out that this pizza sat in the box in my car for a good 20-30 minutes before I opened the box, so maybe that had something to do with it, but the crust was not that crisp, and the slices were on the floppy side (ideally you should be able to fold a NY-style slice and have the pointy end stick out straight, without flopping down).

For all that floppiness, oddly, one slice cracked right down the middle when I folded it, but the rest passed the foldability test.
As might be expected, there was also no charring, which is not a huge deal to me, but the ideal NY-style pizza should have some char spots. The edge of the crust was on the crunchy side, in a way that a crust will get when it's got some grease on it or in it. In other words, a fried rather than baked kind of crunch. As you can see, the box also soaked up a fair amount of grease, which may be a good or bad sign depending on how you feel about grease. Frankly I think a little grease (I guess "oil" sounds better) isn't a bad thing, as fat helps convey flavor to your taste buds.
The toppings were pretty standard, with a moderate amount of sauce, and a fairly thick layer of mozzarella cheese that had a tendency to slide off the crust when you removed a slice from the pie or took a bite, unless you were careful to cut or bite cleanly through it. Maybe the fat in the cheese melted and created a barrier between the dough and the cheese, preventing the cheese from adhering to the crust.
I ordered this one half cheese, half pepperoni, although as the photo indicates, what I got was more like 2/3 cheese, 1/3 pepperoni. There's the usual list of available toppings, and some specialty pizzas, including chicken wing, "lasagna pizza," and Philly steak. They also do subs, wings (which are pretty decent), calzones, salads, and various fried sides. Takeout and delivery only. Ask about specials when you order; if I had, I could've saved myself a few bucks.
It may sound as if I really didn't like this pizza, but that's not the case. I enjoyed it. Most of what I said about it was intended only to describe it, not to criticize it. It had a good flavor and was thin enough that I could, and did, eat several slices without getting too full. It's just not, in my opinion, particularly close to what you would typically get at a pizza slice joint in NYC; I'd call it more of an interpretation than an exemplar of NY-style pizza. But measured on its own terms, it was enjoyable enough. I'll give it a B-.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pizzeria Americana (Greece)

Pizzeria Americana has two locations, one on Long Pond Road in Greece, near the Lake Ontario Parkway, and another on Monroe Ave. in Brighton. The Greece location is officially "Kip's Pizzeria Americana" and the Brighton one is "Pizzeria Americana Ohana." ("Ohana" means "family" in Hawaiian, but I have no idea if there is actually a Hawaiian connection there.) But I digress. Today's pizza comes from the Greece location, which shares Carriage Stop Plaza with a convenience store and a couple of bars. It's pretty much a takeout and delivery place only.
P.A.'s Yellow Pages ad proclaims "Stone Hearth Baked Pizza" and "Over a Million Possibilities!"
As to the former, I do think the use of a stone hearth makes a noticeable difference compared to some pizzerias that use an oven with a metal floor. Stone, like brick, tends to draw away moisture from the dough, and there's no need to oil it. The result is a firm crust that's not soggy, with a slightly charred, non-greasy underside.
The crust at P.A. is about a half inch thick, I guess about average for the Rochester area. Although I'm more of a thin-crust guy, I've found that if a place doesn't typically make thin crust or NY-style pizza, don't ask them to make it thin. If medium is what they typically do, then it's probably what they do best. This crust had a pleasant bready flavor, with a nicely chewy interior.
I'm not sure about the "million possibilities" claim, but they do offer quite a few toppings (I went with fresh basil), including "cup and char" pepperoni (the fat little pepperoni slices that form a "cup" when baked), prosciutto, spinach, artichoke hearts, pine nuts, roasted garlic and clams, to name a few. They also do a number of "gourmet pizzas," such as a grilled-steak pizza, seafood alfredo (doesn't sound good to me, but that's just me) and a "garbage pie" that's basically a garbage plate on a pizza (minus the baked beans, thankfully). I doubt I'll be trying that one anytime soon, but it might be a "bucket list" kind of thing.
The sauce was, well, sauce, and the cheese was applied fairly liberally but was not gloppy, and was pleasingly browned in spots.
Pizzas here come in small (10") and medium (14") pies, and half and full sheets. I've never been a fan of sheet pizza, so if I had a lot of mouths to feed, I'd go with two or more pies rather than a sheet. With the medium-thick crust it is pretty filling stuff though.
The menu also includes a number of appetizers, subs, salads (does anybody actually order salad from a pizza place?) and wings. The wings were OK, but their version of Buffalo sauce was kind of odd - dark, tangy and vinegary. Not bad, necessarily, but not what I would call a Buffalo wing either.
Given my preference for NY-style pizza, Pizzeria Americana would probably be more of an occasional than a regular choice for me, but for a medium-crust pie, I thought it was actually quite good, with a distinctive taste that rates it a cut above the average for the Rochester area. I'll give it a B+.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Pizza Stop, Rochester

Pizza Stop on Urbanspoon
The closest thing I've found around Rochester to NY-style pizza is that served up by the Pizza Stop on State St. downtown. It's in an unassuming storefront location that looks as if it could be on any busy street in the Big Apple, and the pizza lives up to that appearance. The crust is thin and foldable, with a good bready flavor. Look at the underside and you'll also see a little charring from the hot, hot ovens - a rarity in this area except for restaurants with wood-fired ovens (which tend to disappoint me, but that's a post for another day). When you stop in for a slice or to pick up your pie (they don't deliver), you'll notice that the ovens are wrapped in heat-reflective insulation to keep the indoor temperature bearable. I don't know if that's because the ovens are unusually hot to begin with, but I'm guessing that the insulation also makes the temperature inside the oven even higher. In any event, the result is a nicely charred pie, which is not the same as burnt. Most pizza places around here keep their oven temps too low to get that effect; their pizzas come out brown on the bottom; if they leave them in longer, the pizzas simply get burnt, with the flavor and texture of burnt toast. A charred pizza has a crust that is pleasantly crisp on the outside but still bready and chewy on the interior. In NYC, it's commonplace, but as I said, in this area it's sadly all too rare.
Anyway, back to the Pizza Stop. The crust is the star, as it should be, but the sauce and cheese are worthy supporting players. Neither is overdone here, and they're uniformly distributed across the surface (I am not among those pizza aficionados who think that the cheese should be applied here and there, with pockets of sauce poking through - I want cheese in every bite).
The Pizza Stop does serve square slices of thick-crust, "Sicilian" pizza as well, but I don't think I've ever tried it; I figure every bite of it would be one less bite I could take of their thin-crust pizza, and I can't bring myself to do that.
As I said, Pizza Stop doesn't deliver, and it is only open on weekdays till 5:30 (7:30 on Fridays). At lunchtime it's not unusual to see a line out the door. There is some indoor seating. They don't do wings or subs. I think there is some sort of pasta and maybe one or two other things on the menu but I can't say I've ever seen anybody eating anything here but pizza, which is entirely understandable. If you love NY-style pizza, you owe it to yourself to get to the Pizza Stop. I give it a solid "A".
Pizza Stop, 123 State St. 546-7252
Mon. - Thu. 10:30 - 7:00, Fri. 10:30 - 9:00. Closed weekends.
[Pizza Guy's note: go here to read my interview with Pizza Stop owner Jim Staffieri, and here to read my review of their Sicilian and stuffed pizzas.]