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Friday, June 29, 2012

Leonardi's, Buffalo

Leonardi's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon
It's been awhile since I've covered any Buffalo pizzerias, so it's time for another. I try to keep this the Rochester Pizza Blog, but if you live in Rochester, sooner or later you travel to Buffalo, so it's always good to be aware of the pizza options when you go.
Before starting a road trip, I generally check out some places online to investigate. One that caught my eye was Leonardi's, an Amherst joint that consistently gets high reviews - do a Google search for "Leonardi's Buffalo" and you'll see what I'm talking about.
My square-cut pepperoni slice had a slightly oily bottom, with some bubbly spots underneath. The underside was dark brown, and in some areas, nearly blackened, except for those places where it had bubbled. It looked to have been pan-risen and baked, but it wasn't greasy, as some pan-baked pizzas are. It was firm, if not crisp, underneath, with a nice "chew" inside.
One thing I appreciated, by the way, was being asked if I wanted an edge slice or an inner slice. If a place is selling square slices, they should ask. I went for an edge slice so I could see how the outer crust was. I was given a long slice that was about equal to two regular-size square slices.
The slice was topped with a thick, tomatoey sauce marked by some herbal notes, a thick layer of melted, slightly browned mozzarella, and a reasonably generous helping of cup and char pepperoni, which was just blackened to the point of a good crispness along the edges.
Leaving the pizza aside for a moment, I liked it here. Service was friendly and efficient, and it struck me as a good neighborhood pizzeria.
I also came away with the feeling that Leonardi's is probably a rival to Bocce's, which is about a half mile away on Bailey Avenue (and which I've reviewed before). In addition to their physical proximity, the styles of pizza found at Leonardi's and Bocce's seem broadly similar, with some relatively subtle differences (for instance, the sauce here at Leonardi's was, I think, a little less sweet than Bocce's). I'm sure each has its own aficionados, but this led me to wonder if these pizzas represent something of a Buffalo style of pizza. That wouldn't be hard to believe, because regional food styles tend to change more gradually than suddenly as you move from one place to another, and these were similar to, but a bit different from, some pizza that I've had from old-time, traditional Rochester pizzerias. The relatively thick, pan-baked crust, the slightly sweet sauce, the abundant cheese, make for something of a Western New York style of pizza.
As I have done before, I'll omit any kind of a rating here. I'll never do more than scratch the surface of Buffalo pizzerias, so all I intend to do is provide a general description of the occasional Buffalo pizzas that I try.
I will say that this was, on the whole, pretty good pizza. My personal preferences run toward pizza that's baked on the oven deck, for a crisper underside, but I still enjoyed this for its good flavor and well-balanced combination of ingredients. If you find yourself in the area, Leonardi's is worth a stop, for a taste of distinctively Buffalo-style pizza.
Leonardi's, 614 Grover Cleveland Hwy. (near Millersport), Amherst
Sun. 3:00 - 10:00 (11:00 - 10:00 during NFL season), Mon. - Thu. 3:00 - 10:00, Fri. & Sat. 3:00 - 11:00

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dinner at Proietti's

Proietti's Italian Restaurant and Catering on Urbanspoon
I recently celebrated a birthday (I forget which one), and in advance of that, my wife asked me where I'd like to go for dinner. After some thinking, it hit me - Proietti's in Webster.
I first wrote about Proietti's in December 2009, in a post about Rochester's pizza history. I later did a post about Proietti's pizza in March 2010, after I had stopped in to pick up a pie.
I liked the pie well enough, but I really wanted to go to Proietti's to meet the owner, Whitey Proietti. I first knew about Whitey when he left on comment on my pizza history post, explaining that he and his dad started Proietti's Pizza in 1965 on N. Goodman Street, and that Whitey moved the business to Webster in 1970.
I've also known of Whitey Proietti through his nephew Tony, the proprietor of 2 Ton Tony's in Irondequoit and Spencerport, has told me before that if I want to learn about pizza - either its local roots, the business side, or the technical aspects - then by all means I should talk to his uncle Whitey.
It was sound advice. We had a fine dinner, and a very enjoyable conversation with Whitey.
I'll start with the food. Things began with a complimentary appetizer of zucchini in a marinara sauce, which was very tasty, and from there we moved on to a sampler of homemade gnocchi and ravioli. I had the former with an arrabbiata sauce, which was every bit as spicy as advertised, thanks to the inclusion of red pepper and jalapenos. I love spicy food (I've been known to carry my own hot sauce when dining out), and it was nice to have a genuinely hot-spicy sauce for a change, as so many restaurants in this area fail to deliver on foods that they claim are spicy.
The ravioli were outstanding. The only hard part was deciding which I liked best - I never did succeed on that one. From left to right in the photo, there's a wild mushroom raviolo (not to be pretentious, but I guess that's the correct Italian singular form) with a mushroom-tomato sauce, a butternut squash raviolo with vodka sauce, and a cheese raviolo with marinara sauce. The pasta had a melt-in-your-mouth texture, yet it wasn't mushy or overcooked, and the sauces both complimented the fillings and offered an interesting contrast to each other.
Next up was the pizza. Actually, I had not planned on having pizza that night - I thought it might be nice to take a night off from pizza, and try something different - but Whitey clearly was hoping to get my reaction to one of his pizzas, and when it comes to pizza, my arm is easily twisted.
Since I hadn't been thinking about it ahead of time, I had no particular topping in mind, so I blurted out, "pepperoni" when he asked me what I wanted on my pie. Though that might seem a boring choice, it too turned out to be a good one. For one thing, it was good pepperoni - meaty, a little spicy, and not at all greasy. And it gave Whitey a chance to expound a bit on the subject of pepperoni, as he explained that he uses a high-quality, lean, pork-beef blend that does not exude an oil slick when cooked.
Proietti's pizzas bake in a 550 degree oven - same as you can achieve at home - which is about right for their medium-thick crusts. This pie was well baked, with some light charring underneath (visible in the bottom photo, which I took after I got the leftovers home), and a touch of crispness that yielded to a bready interior. The mozzarella and red sauce balanced out the crust quite nicely, and the cheese was melted just to the point of a pleasing stringiness.
Now make no mistake, I love a good, thin, New York style pizza. And I like a crackly wood-fired pizza with a well-charred edge. But I also have fond memories of the pizzas of my youth, and some of my favorite pizzas around Rochester are its most traditional - medium thick, bready but well balanced pies that bring to mind an Italian grandmother's kitchen. Think of it as comfort-food pizza.
And that's what this was. No crackly-thin "artisanal" crust or exotic toppings here, but rather a satisfying pie, which Whitey assured me (and I don't doubt him a bit) was virtually indistinguishable from what you would've gotten from the original Proietti's back in the late '60s.
And that's typical of a lot of the food at Proietti's. They've found a winning formula, and they've stuck with it.
It's clearly working, as most of the tables were full on this Wednesday night visit.
A lot of those folks are repeat customers. As I was chatting with Whitey, one patron stopped by to see Whitey for a moment before leaving. He was, I learned, an out-of-towner who frequently travels to Rochester on business, and he's become a regular at Proietti's. On one recent visit, this gentleman was sorry to walk in and discover that the restaurant was closed for maintenance on the air conditioning system. Whitey immediately ushered the man to a table and prepared him an impromptu dinner, rather than see him walk out disappointed.
That kind of customer service seems to be a real hallmark of Proietti's, and it's considerably based on Whitey Proietti's firm belief that if you treat people well, then by and large they'll treat you well. As another example of that approach, Proietti's has given away countless free meals (through a direct-mailing campaign) over the years to newcomers to the area, and it's paid off in customer loyalty.
The night I visited, Proietti's chalked up at least two more regular customers - my wife and me. When my in-laws came up for a visit three nights later, we took them to Proietti's for dinner.
Whether you go for the pizza, one of Proietti's many other Italian dishes (my chicken saltimbocca the following Saturday night well justified the menu's claim of flavors that "jump in your mouth"), or one of Proietti's cooking classes, by all means go. And if you see Whitey - as you likely will - and he can spare a few moments - which he probably will - ask him to tell you the story of how he came to own the business. He'll tell it better than I could write it, but it's quite a story, and confirms that this was his calling in life.
Some 40+ years after it started, Proietti's remains a family business, with Whitey's wife, son, and sundry other family members - I couldn't keep track of them all - ably working together to keep things running smoothly, both in the kitchen and in the dining room. The result is a relaxing, welcoming environment, marked by attentive, gracious service and well-prepared, classic Italian-American food.
Like anybody who's lived in Rochester for a while, I've eaten at plenty of Italian restaurants, and I've liked a lot of them, but for its combination of fine food, excellent service and an enjoyable atmosphere, Proietti's has quickly jumped to the top tier. I give it an unqualified A.
Proietti's Italian Restaurant, 980 Ridge Rd. (Webster Plaza), Webster
Sun. 4:00 - 8:00, Tue. - Thu. 4:00 - 9:00, Fri. & Sat. 4:00 - 10:00

Friday, June 22, 2012

Daryl's, Perry

Daryl's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Every small town should have at least one pizzeria, and Perry, which is just west of Letchworth State Park, has Daryl's, on Rt. 39, a/k/a Main St. I stopped in on a recent drive south.
This slice, which I got in mid afternoon, was pretty fresh, from the looks of it. It was medium thick, with an underside that was not particularly dark but which was reasonably crisp. There was a light dusting of corn meal adhering to the crust. (I should mention that I declined to get it rewarmed, which would have made the crust a little darker and probably crisper too.)
What was most interesting to me about this slice was the pebbly surface of the bottom of the crust. It's somewhat exaggerated in the bottom photo, because of the angle of the sunlight, but it'll give you an idea of what I'm talking about. It's much less visible in the middle picture, which is probably more accurate colorwise. I do the best I can with my camera, but sometimes it's tough to get a perfectly accurate photo.
The standard, wide and thin slices of pepperoni were OK, a little oily and more chewy than crisp. Aside from a light sprinkling of grated cheese on top,the moderate layer of cheese seemed to be all mozzarella, and it had a subtle but pleasing tanginess. The sauce was added in good proportion to the crust, and had a middle-of-the-road flavor and medium-thick consistency. A few flecks of dried herbs were visible, but this was not an assertively flavored sauce.
Daryl's offers 13- and 16-inch pies, as well as pan pizzas in a range of sizes. They have 16 toppings and five specialty pizzas. Other menu items include wings (Buffalo, breaded or boneless), subs, burgers, sandwiches, wraps, tacos, salads, fried chicken and seafood dinners, and sides. Wednesday is pasta day, with spaghetti, baked ziti, and ravioli available, and on Tuesdays you can get a large pizza for the regular price of a small pizza (about a $3 savings).
Not only should every small town have at least one pizzeria, it should have a good pizzeria. This was just a single slice, but based on this brief stop, I'd say Daryl's fulfills that role for Perry. This was good, and I'll give it a B.
Daryl's Pizzeria, 163 S. Main St., Perry, NY 14530
Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Lunch delivery Mon. - Fri. 11 a.m. - 1 p.m., delivery every day after 4 p.m.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book Review: Irreistible Ice Pops

One of the unexpected - and few - perks of writing this blog is that I occasionally get offered a food-related book to review. If they sound like something I or my readers might be interested in, I accept.
The latest is Irresistible Ice Pops by Sunil Vijayakar.
With temperatures in the 90s this week, who wouldn't go for a frozen treat? But with a little effort, you can go well beyond the sugar-water pops sold at convenience stores everywhere, and make your own more creative, tastier, and varied pops of your own, in your home freezer.

This 80-page volume contains, by my count, 29 ice pop recipes, from simple fruit-based pops lto more exotic fare such as lime and chile sorbet, and cappuccino pops, to apple martini, pina colada, and other "adult" pops. Each recipe is accompanied by a full-page, full-color photo. A brief but thorough introduction provides tips on ingredients, equipment, and techniques, and there's a full index.
Given its focus, this may not be a must-have for every home kitchen bookshelf, but it's a modestly priced, fun book to thumb through, and a useful compendium of recipes for pops that will add some zing to your next cookout, or just a welcome addition to your freezer for the coming sultry days of summer.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Checker Flag: The Tiebreaker

The first time I got a slice at Checker Flag on Dewey Ave., I didn't like it at all, and gave it a D-minus. The second time around, I found it much better, and bumped it all the way up to a B-minus.
So at some point, there had to be a tiebreaker visit, which I made the other day. As before, I got a $1 cheese slice.
I'm primarily concerned with quality, not price, but a buck a slice is a great deal, provided that the slice is reasonably good.
And this was. Reasonably good, that is. It was very thin,with a good deal of corn meal underneath. The bottom was dry and somewhat crisp. It was not charred, but did have a scattered pattern of dark brown spots. The texture was a little chewy.
The slice had decent flavor, with a slightly sweet sauce and some dried herbs noticeable on the palate.
The cheese on this slice was a little skimpy, but there was enough for me, especially since the crust was pretty thin. I would've preferred a bit more, but whattaya want for a dollar?
At its outer edge, the slice was formed into a fairly wide but relatively thin cornicione. It was reasonably pleasant, with some crispness, though not outstandingly bready or toasty.
One thing I was a little puzzled about here was a sign posted on the wall to the effect that if you, i.e., the customer, didn't like it here or didn't like their prices, you should go down the street (presumably meaning to some other establishment). I don't know what that was all about. Maybe they've had issues with some of the customers. Again, I don't know.
I also noticed that a medium pizza here is $5. That's a good price, but I was wondering if it actually works out to be a better deal than getting five slices. I'd have to know the dimensions of the medium and large pies to figure that one out.
So, what's my current verdict on Checker Flag? Well, this isn't bad, by any means. It's not really great, either, judged strictly on its own merits.
Now if  you figure the price into the equation, I would have to say this is, for the money, one of the best slice deals in town. As I said at the beginning, a cheap slice is no bargain if it doesn't taste good. But this was reasonably good, and for the price, it's a real bargain.
In the end, though, I have to rate this based on how inherently good or bad the pizza itself was. And all in all, I'd say this was, well, OK pizza. It wasn't as good, or as bad, as the slices I'd gotten here in the past, and in that sense I think it probably is a pretty fair representative sample of Checker Flag's pizza. So it scores a C from me.
Checker Flag Pizza, 1481 Dewey Ave., Rochester 14615

Mon. - Thu. 11:30 - 9:00, Fri. noon - 10:00, Sat. 1:00 - 10:00, Sun. 1:00 - 9:00
Menu can be viewed here

Friday, June 15, 2012

2 Ton Tony's Spencerport (CLOSED)

2 Ton Tony's Pizza Spencerport on Urbanspoon
NOTE: this establishment is now closed (the original in Irondequoit remains very much open).
I mentioned the other day on my Facebook page that I had stopped by 2 Ton Tony's new place in Spencerport. It's in the former location of Lecesse's, which made pretty good pizza, but which went out of business within the past year.
I got one of the "2 Ton" slices, a bargain at just $3 for a slice (cut in two, down the middle) that I'd say represented about one eighth of a 26-inch pie.
The underside bore some screen marks, which I'm generally not thrilled to see, but the flaw that I often find with screen-baked pizzas - a soft crust - wasn't present here. This thin to medium-thick crust was well charred, but not burnt, with some crackling on the surface of the underside. It showed that good, crisp pizza can be achieved even with a screen.
Part of that may be due to the ovens here. Tony has made a lot of changes to the interior of the place, giving it a cleaner, brighter look than before, but the ovens are the same Bakers Pride y600 units that were there earlier. These are not necessarily better, but they are different, from the Blodgett 1048 ovens at 2TT's Irondequoit shop. Tony described the Spencerport ovens as very efficient, and they result in a pizza with a crisp underside, without overcooking the toppings. The cup 'n' char pepperoni was nicely done, with crisp edges and small pools of grease in each one, which is as they should be. (If you don't care for the grease, it's easier to mop it up from the cup 'n' char pepperoni than to have it spread all over the surface of the pizza, as it tends to do with "regular," thin-sliced pepperoni.)
While this oversized slice groaned under the weight of the toppings, it was not a case study in excess, and was surprisingly well balanced. I'm not talking about it's center of gravity, but to the proportion among the components. The toppings were generous but not overdone, and the crust, sauce, cheese and pepperoni were all in equilibrium. The sauce had a slow-cooked tomato flavor, with a hint of "Italian" herbs, and the mozzarella was nicely melted, with just the faintest touch of browning. The thin cornicione was nice and crunchy.
Tony told me that the response from the local community has been very good so far. I know that any new establishment can expect a relative boom early on, due to the novelty and curiosity factors, but I think 2 Ton Tony's will continue to do well here. They've got plenty of nearby competition, including Cam's and Pontillo's, but then again 2 Ton Tony's has already proven itself in the pizza hotspot in the vicinity of Hudson and Titus Avenues in Irondequoit.
In addition to its wide variety of pizzas, 2 Ton Tony's offers hot subs (no cold subs), wings, salads, and various sides. Then there's what is perhaps the most daunting gastronomic feat in Rochester, the 2 Ton Challenge, which dares two people to eat 10 pounds of pizza in under 45 minutes. If you succeed, you and your teammate will each get your picture on the wall, and receive a t-shirt and a certificate good for a free large pizza. That's one gauntlet I will not be picking up, though you have my admiration, or at least astonishment, if you meet the challenge.
I have long liked 2 Ton Tony's pizza, which fits well within the "Rochester style" genre, which to me means with a little more of everything, compared to a classic thin-crust pie, but well balanced at the same time. This slice met that standard, with some extra crispness underneath, and toppings that hit the mark too - crisp-edged pepperoni, good-quality, nicely melted mozzarella, and enough sauce to add flavor and moisture. While this 2-Ton slice was a virtual meal in itself, I'm looking forward to going back for a full pie. But on the strength of this visit, I'm giving it an A rating.
2 Ton Tony's, 42 Nichols St., Spencerport, 349-2222
Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Sun. noon - 9 p.m.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

College Town Pizza, Ithaca

On my Memorial Day visit to Ithaca - the same one on which I stopped with my family at The Connection, I also grabbed a slice from nearby College Town Pizza.
This is a smallish pizza shop located near the Cornell campus, although a sign in the window indicated that they're soon moving (I didn't have a pen handy so I forget where they're headed, but I don't think it was far away).
The good news was that they had a vast array of slices to choose from. That was also the bad news, though, because most of them appeared to have been sitting there for quite some time on this holiday mid-afternoon.
I wanted a plain cheese slice, in part so I could compare it to the slice I got at The Connection.
The sole available cheese slice, however, was the last slice of the pie whence it came, and didn't look too fresh. And often the last slice is the smallest, since many servers serve up the biggest slices first.
I think I might've been given a break on the price, as I saw the guy whom I took to be the proprietor say something to the cashier/server, and when I asked her what I owed, she replied, "Uh, just a dollar." Maybe I'm misinterpreting it, and I can't be sure, as I didn't see any prices listed anywhere (the only thing I saw written on the walls was graffiti, which is apparently permitted, if not encouraged here), but it just seemed as if I got a price break because this wasn't a prime slice.
Whatever. It was cheap, that's all I know.
The slice was reheated prior to being served to me, and the result - initially, at least - was a pleasant surprise. The thin crust was nicely charred, and quite crisp.
Too crisp, as it turned out. The slice broke in half, sideways, when I started to bit the tip, and the entire crust and the slice as a whole were very dry. I don't know if much of the water from the sauce had evaporated by the time I got it, or if there just wasn't much sauce on the pie to begin with, but this was a very dry slice of pizza. I suspect that evaporation played a role, as a fresh crust, even without sauce, ought to have a certain amount of moisture on the inside. This one didn't.
That said, it tasted OK. Due in part to the paucity of sauce, it was cheese-dominated, and the cheese was acceptable, basic mozzarella. I also noticed a definite presence of oregano.
College Town does have an impressive array of specialty pizzas available, from a minimalist marinara pizza with nothing but sauce and basil to a carnivore's dream, a meat lover's pizza laden with sausage, pepperoni, ground beef, steak, meatballs and bacon. They also offer wings, subs, pasta, wraps, Italian entrees, and sides.
I wasn't crazy about this slice, frankly, but I could tell that the pizza itself had the potential for greatness. I'm really just guessing when I say I think it had been sitting out for too long, but if that is what was going on here, then a fresh slice might've vaulted this pizza into the top tier. Based on what I had, though, the best I can give it is a C. That doesn't mean I didn't like it, only that it was, all things considered, good enough, but no better than good enough.
College Town Pizzeria, 401 College Ave., Ithaca
(607) 272-7500
Thu. - Sat: 11 a.m. - 4 a.m., Sun. - Wed. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.
(Delivery until 30 minutes before closing time)

This Summer, Grill with Graffigna

Last February, I did a post about Graffigna, an Argentinian winery that turns out some very enjoyable, reasonably priced wines. Graffigna recently sent me a recipe for a pork sausage using their Malbec wine, that sounds like a natural as a pizza topping. So I pass it along to my readers.

Graffigna, Argentina’s pioneering winery, tasked Sara Bigelow of the Brooklyn-based Meat Hook butcher shop with creating a recipe that captures the casual dining resurgence by elevating the everyday sausage to something extraordinary in both flavor and ingredients. With such quality meat, Bigelow ensures this meal needs only a refined red wine, such as the Graffigna Centenario Malbec 2010. The meat's unctuous qualities are balanced by well-rounded tannins, and hints of pepper mirror those found in the sausage. 
The Meat Hook's Malbec and Rosemary Sausage
Serves 8
2 1/2 lbs Fatty Pork
20 grams Kosher Salt
3 grams Cayenne
5 grams Paprika
3 grams Ground Black Pepper
2 grams White Sugar
8 grams Garlic
5 grams Minced Rosemary
2 ounces Graffigna Centenario Malbec 2010
Grind the pork and garlic together. Add salt, and mix well by hand. Add the rest of your spices, and continue mixing by hand for two minutes. Add red wine and continue mixing until liquid is fully incorporated. Once the sausage has begun to bind to itself, form a small patty with your hand. Turn your hand upside down, and if the sausage does not stick, continue to mix. Once the sausage will stick to your hand, form into patties or stuff into natural hog casing. The Meat Hook recommends 4- to 5-inch links, or small pinwheels. Grill and enjoy with a glass of Graffigna Centenario Malbec 2010.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Guida's, Elmgrove Rd. Buffalo Chicken Pizza

Now and then I like to try, and report on, Buffalo chicken pizza. It's not necessarily one of my favorite styles, but it's clearly popular around here, and it does come in an interesting range of interpretations from one pizzeria to another.
I recently picked up a Buffalo chicken slice from Guida's on Elmgrove Road in Gates. Interestingly, this was a little different from the Buffalo chicken pie that I got some time ago from Guida's in Honeoye Falls. That one was topped with breaded chicken, and a heavy layer of mozzarella and blue cheese sauce, with a thin layer of hot sauce underneath. This slice was topped only with chicken, mozzarella and hot sauce, and the blue cheese sauce came on the side.
Although I liked the Honeoye Falls version, that's probably a good idea. With chicken wings, after all, the blue cheese is for dipping, and while I like blue cheese with my Buffalo chicken - whether wings or pizza - I'd rather control the amount that I use. I wonder, though, whether this difference between this slice and the Honeoye Falls pizza reflects a difference between the two locations, or a Guida's-wide change in how they make their Buffalo chicken pizza.
Anyway, this came on the usual good Guida's crust, which was crisp, chewy and charred, and I think a bit darker underneath than a typical Guida's slice, with a faint whiff of cooking oil, probably from the chicken. The crust was thin to medium thick, and bready, with a fairly thin, medium wide cornicione that was just slightly oily to the touch.
The cheese seemed to be straight mozzarella, and was applied moderately. Flavorwise, it took a back seat to the chicken and the hot sauce. The latter had a buttery quality and medium heat, like medium-hot Buffalo wings. The chunks of breaded chicken were rather salty and left a peppery aftertaste.
I haven't been rating Buffalo chicken pizza, and I won't start now. It's a style that has no clear parameters, and it would be difficult to rate a Buffalo chicken pizza without passing judgment on the pizzeria's take on the style. I will say that this pizza had a very good crust, as I have come to expect from Guida's, and pretty good flavor.
What I'd really like to see is pizzerias offering the option of getting your Buffalo chicken pizza hot, medium, or mild, or different sauces, like Cajun or garlic parmesan. None of those could ever supplant my preference for basic tomato sauce and cheese pizza, but they'd be fun to try. Until then, if you are a fan of Buffalo chicken pizza, Guida's on Elmgrove is worth a stop.
Guida's, 736 Elmgrove Rd., 14606
Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sun. noon - 10 p.m.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Book Review: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Smoking Foods

If you're reading this blog, chances are you're into food, generally - both the cooking and the eating of it. And "foodies" (a term I try to avoid, but sometimes it works) tend to be drawn to certain foods - the foods that inspire passionate opinions. Pizza is one, obviously, but there are many others, like gumbo, chili, and barbeque.
And I love all of those too. I do barbeque on occasion, on a barrel-style grill with a side firebox smoker.

But I don't do it too often. Sure, I grill throughout the warm months (I'm not a year-round griller, like some), but true barbequeing - cooking meat slowly with indirect heat, which may or may not include much smoke - takes a serious time commitment, and between life's other tasks and my first love for baking, I might barbeque once every month or two.
The upshot is, I don't do it often enough to have gotten a tremendous amount of experience, and so I look to others more expert in the field for advice. So I was glad to receive recently a review copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Smoking Foods, by Ted Reader.
I've mentioned before that I was put off by the notion of buying a guide for "idiots," and though I've gotten over that, after going through this book, I do think that title doesn't do it justice. The "Idiot's Guide" moniker has always suggested to me that this is a book that simply covers the basics, and that's it a bit of a cookie-cutter book, that's marked more for its adherence to the Idiot's Guide format than for genuine, original authorship.
Not so here. As an occasional home barbequer, I am glad to add this volume to my kitchen bookshelf.
I've got some barbeque books at home already, and I like them, but many are long on recipes and short on technique. Maybe that's where the "Idiot" part comes in here. The first third of this roughly 300-page book is devoted to the basics, including choosing a smoker, heat sources (propane, charcoal, wood), and basic principles of smoking, such as avoiding the temptation to keep peeking at the meat, how to keep the temperature steady, and food safety.
(I should mention, by the way, that while there is arguably a difference between smoking and barbequeing, this book despite the title, is not just about smoking, in the sense of "curing" foods as a method of preservation, but about barbequeing as well.)
Reader - who's got some serious credentials as a barbeque chef - also does a nice job of taking the fear out of smoking and barbequeing. I especially appreciated his advice to think of each time you fire up your smoker as a practice session. I've had to learn that with bread and pizza making too - it may not come out perfectly, but each time I do it - particularly if something doesn't go quite right, or even if it's an utter disaster - I learn something new.
That's why this isn't just a book for beginners. Barbequeing is an art form, and as with any art form, you could spend a lifetime working at it and never get it down pat. That's part of the reason that barbeque inspires such debate among aficionados. So it's always worthwhile to get the perspectives of somebody else who's a master of the craft, and Reader delivers a lot of solid information and opinions in this book.
That includes the recipes. The roughly 200 pages of recipes cover brines, marinades, dry rubs, pastes, and liquid injections, before moving on to all the major barbeque meats - beef, pork, lamb and game, poultry, and fish. There's also a short section on side dishes and that Reader calls the "weird and wonderful," like plank-smoked Camembert cheese, smoked foie gras, smoked ice cream, and even a smoked martini. The recipe chapters also include basic information covering different cuts of meat, and the best techniques for different meats, adding even more to the technical- and advice-heavy nature of this book.
Though not lacking in recipes, then, this is not primarily a recipe collection. But frankly, barbeque is more about technique than about recipes. You learn how to do brisket, and from there on it's just a matter of tinkering, trying different rubs, types of wood, adjusting the temperature, and so on.
You won't find a lot of photos here. This is not a coffee-table book with glorious, mouth-watering photos of succulent pork shoulders, or racks of ribs artfully arranged next to a mound of coleslaw and cold fruity drinks. There are a few black and white photos, but this is a text-heavy book, which simply means that it packs a lot of informational punch into its 300 pages.
There are countless books out there about barbequeing, and I've only seen a tiny fraction of them, so I won't even attempt to tell you which is the best one, or which are essential for any serious home barbequer. But I can tell you that this is one good book, and that you could do a lot worse than to choose this as your go-to book on the subject. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Connection, Ithaca

I was back in Ithaca on Memorial Day, not for a hike this time but for a family outing. We were disappointed to learn that there was no swimming, or even wading, allowed in any of the many nearby state parks until mid-June (the effect of state budget cutbacks?), but in spite of that we had a good time. The Ithaca Sciencenter was a big hit with my daughter, and more than made up for the lack of aquatic activity.
For my part, I got to check out a couple of new-to-me pizza places. First up was The Connection, which is just across the street from the Chapter House, of which I have fond memories from visits to Ithaca of years ago. (Apparently The Connection is also related to Loco Margarita, a relatively new Mexican restaurant/bar next door.)
I got a single cheese slice, though I was sorely tempted by the "Popeye" pizza, a white pizza topped with spinach and feta. But a basic cheese slice is the benchmark for me, and I wanted to save room in my stomach for at least one more slice from another pizzeria (and for a cone from Purity Ice Cream, a local institution), so I just stuck with the one cheese slice.
As seems to be true of a lot of Ithaca pizza, this was thin, and more or less New York style pizza. Although it wasn't an especially large slice, particularly compared to the giant slices that have become more and more common these days, it was more than reasonably priced, at just a dollar. Pepperoni slices at The Connection were also a buck each, and "gourmet" slices, including the Popeye, were a still inexpensive $1.69.
My slice looked to have been screen baked, with a uniformly brown underside. It was more crisp than I would have expected from its appearance, thanks in part, I'm sure, to the reheating it got before it was served to me.
For a plain cheese slice, it was a little oily. I let some of the oil drip off the tip, and mopped up a bit more with my napkin. The cheese was a bit browned and was passable.
This slice was rather light on the sauce. I don't necessarily like a lot of sauce on my pizza, but here there was just a very thin layer between the crust and the cheese. For my taste, this could've used a little more, to give the slice more flavor and moisture and to balance out the other two components.
The Connection has an extensive menu, with six specialty pizzas, including a Margherita and a roasted chicken vodka pizza, a wide array of toppings, calzones, wings, pasta, subs, salads, and burritos, among other choices. There's very little seating, though we were able to eat on the premises on a relatively quiet holiday afternoon. As befits a pizzeria catering to college students, they're open late, till 2 a.m., every night.
This was decent pizza. I enjoyed it well enough. At the same time, it was nothing special. On the plus side, the crust was reasonably crisp, and the overall flavor was pretty good. On the down side, the crust wasn't great, either. It was also surprisingly oily for a cheese slice, and as I mentioned, a little light in the sauce department.
So on balance, I'm giving this a C. I know some people think that's a bad grade, but all it means is that this was pretty average pizza. Not bad, particularly, but nothing I'd go out of my way for. I would like to sample some of The Connection's gourmet offerings sometime, but this basic cheese slice was simply adequate.
The Connection, 310 Stewart Ave., Ithaca
Mon. - Thu. 4 p.m. - 2 a.m., Fri. - Sun. 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Book Review: Complete Idiot's Guide to Sausage Making

I don't consider myself a chef, nor am I a "homesteader" type who wants to grow and make all his own foods. But I do like to cook and I do like to take on a food challenge now and then, including making at home some of the foods we take for granted that we can buy at the supermarket. I regularly bake my own bread and pizza, and I've tried my hand at homemade pasta, mustard, pickles, and hot sauce, among others.
Up till recently, I hadn't tried making sausage, but it's something I've wanted to do for a long time. For one thing, I just plain like it. It's a culturally ubiquitous food, with countless varieties around the globe, so there's a lot of room for experimentation. And it makes for a terrific pizza topping, whether you're talking pepperoni, fresh Italian sausage, salami, chorizo, or some other form.
But it does seem a little intimidating. The equipment, the preparation, and the whole process seem foreign to most Americans, even those of us who like to cook. My Polish-born grandmother, and occasionally my mother, used to make kielbasa from time to time, but I guess I should've paid better attention, because I don't remember that much about the method.
Where sausage is concerned, then, I guess I can call myself an idiot, and so I was glad to receive a review copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Sausage Making. This 240-page book provides a useful guide for getting started, and takes the fear out of what turns out to be a reasonably simple process.
The book is divided into four main parts:  Getting Started, a roughly 50-page run-through of the ABCs of sausage making; Traditional Sausage Recipes, which includes recipes for all the basics, from bratwurst to British-style "bangers"; Exotic Sausage Recipes, which takes you into low-fat, vegetarian, and game-meat sausages; and Cooking with Sausage, which includes recipes for jambalaya, cassoulet, and paella, as well as cooking tips.
I've had the opportunity to check out several "Idiot's Guides" now, and while I've generally been impressed by their consistent quality, this is one of the best yet. We've made some rabbit sausage (sorry, bunny lovers) with excellent results, and I'm excited to try more of the recipes in this book.
Somebody once said (Otto von Bismarck is often miscredited with the statement), "No one should see how laws or sausages are made." And it is a bit of a messy business. It's not for everybody. And although one can make vegetarian sausages, I don't think many vegetarians will want to go to the trouble or expense.
But if you like sausage in any form, and you have some time, and the right equipment - a meat grinder, in particular, although a good mixer with a grinder attachment will work fine - then it's well worth the time and effort. You'll save some money, and you'll be able to create a wide variety of sausages, more than you'll ever find at the best gourmet food store, with the satisfaction you derive from producing really good food at home. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Sausage Making is an excellent place to start.

Piatza's, Crittenden Rd.

Over three years ago (have I really been doing this that long?) I did a post on Piatza's Pizza on Crittenden Road. I didn't care for it - in fact I compared the crust to "damp cardboard" - and gave it a D+.
But I heard that it's under new ownership, and it was overdue for a return visit anyway, so I went back recently.
I got a single cheese slice, which, as before, and as is typical of Piatza's, was thin but large. If nothing else, Piatza's serves up big slices.
The edge of this slice was quite nice - bready, toasty, and crackly. The underside was not as good. It was very floury, and the slice was pretty floppy. I know that the bigger the slice, the more likely it is that it will be floppy, but even so, this slice just didn't have much backbone - the exterior of the crust lacked the firmness necessary to keep it from flopping when folded and held up along the edge.
Part of the reason for that is that the crust had some oil soaked into it. For a plain cheese slice, there was a fair amount of oil, both on top and underneath, especially toward the tip. I assume that oil that had exuded from the cheese pooled toward the center of the pie while it was baking, and then then seeped underneath after it was sliced. A substantial amount of oil had also soaked into the box.
The pie from which this slice was cut had obviously been in a perforated pan, evidenced by the concentric rows of dimples underneath. That's not necessarily bad, but I think I should note it, for what it's worth. In my experience, pizzas from a pan are not as crisp as those baked on the oven deck. But if you're making supersized pies, there may be no other way to go, as most pizza peels are not wide enough to accommodate a huge pizza.
The cheese on this one was rather interesting. The slice was covered with a thin layer of low-moisture mozzarella, which was browned, and again more oily toward the tip, i.e., the part from the center of the pie. But there were also a few small pools of white, melted cheese closer to the outer edge. I'm not sure what was going on there. No complaints, it was just a little unusual.
Overall, the slice tasted pretty good. There wasn't a lot of sauce, but there was enough to add some liquid and flavor, and to balance out the crust and cheese. The sauce was mildly flavored, with a hint of dried herbs.
This was certainly an improvement over the slice I got back in 2009. 
It wasn't a great slice, but it was serviceable - call it average, for around here. Good enough, just not something I would go out of my way for.
But sometimes good enough is, well, good enough. I didn't mind polishing this off - I just think it could've been better, with a few relatively minor changes. I'll give it a C.
Piatza's,1703 Crittenden Rd.  14623
Menu available here