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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Veneto Revisited, Plus a Conversation with a Fellow Food Blogger

Veneto Woodfired Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Chris Lindstrom, the author of Food About Town. It's a terrific new blog covering the Rochester area food scene.
I've seen food blogs come and go, but I think this one is going to stick around for a while. Chris is passionate about food, and about food writing.
And about pizza, in particular. In fact, he's been apprenticing at Fiamma, an outstanding pizzeria on Rochester's west side that I've posted about before.
Chris and I met at Veneto, an East Avenue wood-fired pizzeria that I hadn't reviewed since 2009. We had a very pleasant conversation that touched upon food, food blogging, pizza, and other topics, including his passion for curling. I've never participated, but I've long had a soft spot in my heart for curling, dating back to my childhood when we picked up CHCH-TV out of Hamilton, Ontario, and I used to watch curling on days when I'd stay home from school, either actually or faking sick.
Let me start with the pizza. We shared two pies, a Margherita and a Rustica.
I was surprised that the Margherita had no basil. On checking the menu, I see that it is described as a pie with "pomodoro sauce topped with mozzarella cheese." No mention of basil. So I can't complain about false advertising or anything of that sort. Still, there are certain terms, and "Margherita" is one of them, that suggest a certain type of pizza, and this is the first time I've had a so-called Margherita that didn't include basil.
Having said that, I obviously should've checked my own prior review of Veneto, where I noted that I had to specifically ask for basil. So I'll take the blame for that.
OK, so let's forget about the name, and focus on the pizza. Was it good?
Yes, ... and no. The crust was disappointingly bland and boring. The underside was rather pale; even along the edge (which is often blackened with wood-fired pizza) the crust was not all that well cooked. It wasn't undercooked, in the sense of being gummy, like raw dough, but it wasn't as well baked as it could've and should've been. And I did get a hint of raw flour, perhaps from the dusting of flour that the underside picked up from the pizza peel.
The crust also hadn't risen much, and was lacking in both the big air holes that make for a good, chewy crust, and the flavor that develops during a long, cool rise. The Rustica's crust was a little more well done, but not much better.
As for the toppings, the Margherita was all right, as far as it went, but it was basically just a tomato sauce and cheese pizza. When I order a Margherita, I'm hoping for fresh mozzarella, and crushed tomatoes or a very simple sauce. This was just an ordinary sauce, with a "cooked" flavor, and ordinary processed mozzarella cheese. It was OK, but call it what it is - cheese pizza - not a Margherita.
The Rustica is described as topped with "pomodoro sauce topped with Italian sausage, green peppers, caramelized onions and mozzarella cheese." Which it was, and it wasn't bad. Often, with wood-fired pizza, I want my toppings on the minimal side, so as not to overwhelm the typically thin crust. But this crust wasn't so good to begin with, so I welcomed the flavorful toppings.
More broadly, these pizzas pointed up a problem that I often have with wood-fired pizza. By going to the trouble of using a wood-fired oven, a pizzeria should produce something that's qualitatively different from "regular" pizza. Not necessarily better, but different, and, it should go without saying, good. If you're using a wood-fired oven, in other words, you should learn how to maximize its potential to turn out some truly great pizza.
But too many places get by on that phrase alone:  "wood-fired pizza." As if that makes the pizza inherently better.
Not so. I have never baked a pizza in a wood-fired oven (although I have baked a pizza in a superheated charcoal grill, on a pizza stone, at temperatures in excess of 800 degrees, so I have some idea of the process, minus the flames), but I've had enough wood-fired pizza to know that these ovens can, in the right hands, produce some fantastic pizza. But if not properly utilized, they can also turn out a very mediocre product, no better and sometimes worse that what you would get from a conventional gas or electric oven. In short, wood-fired heat is no guarantee of good pizza.
As demonstrated here. These weren't bad, but they were certainly disappointing. The thin crust was underdeveloped, bland, pale and lifeless. Good enough to eat, but they fell far short of what I think were my legitimate expectations.
Now that I've vented about the pizza, let me return to my dinner with Chris. Thanks in part to one of my posts about Fiamma, he has become a regular over there, and has been doing what amounts to an apprenticeship, where he handles some prep work and learns various aspects of the pizzamaking process. If I could squeeze a few more hours out of my days, I'd love to try it myself. Until then, I'll have to be satisfied with following his blog, and I invite you to do the same. If nothing else, he's inspired me to try to keep my own blog interesting, and to that end I have some interviews lined up that I think my readers will find interesting.
Chris and I shared some thoughts about food, blogging, and pizza. And we agreed on a number of things. We are both, I think, passionate about our topics of interest. For me, it's pizza; for Chris, it's food in general. There's no other way to do a blog like this and keep it going, and I've found that successful blogging is as much about perseverance as anything else.
Second, we are attracted to those who are also passionate about those subjects. So our favorite chefs, restaurateurs, and pizzaioli tend to be very dedicated to their craft. They're the kind of people whose eyes light up when you ask them about their trade, and who enjoy talking about it at length, at least if you're not interrupting them in the middle of their lunchtime crush.
Chris and I also agreed that to produce a top-notch pizza, one needs high-quality ingredients, dedication, and good technique, which mostly comes with practice. But there's no reason that any of those are outside of the average person's reach. No, your home oven may never approximate a wood-fired oven, but that doesn't mean that you can't use it to turn out excellent pizza. The hard part, for a home baker, is doing it often or regularly enough to hone one's skills. But for a professional pizza maker, there's no excuse for bad - or even mediocre - pizza.
And this was, I'm afraid, mediocre pizza. Maybe I walked in holding Veneto to a higher standard than I should've, but again, if you're putting yourself out there as a wood-fired pizzeria, I think you're creating certain expectations. Those expectations were not met here, as far as I'm concerned, particularly in light of my prior visit, when my pizza had a crust that was nicely charred and crackly, and good enough to rate an A-minus.
Which brings us to the grade for this one. As on some other recent occasions, I find myself having to resort to pluses and minuses, although I prefer to avoid those. A "D" means no better than "edible." These were better than that, certainly. But I can't say that they were as good as average, ordinary, "C" pizza, either. They were less than they should've been, and in my opinion not as good as typical Rochester pizza. I think I can most accurately peg these at a C-minus.
Veneto, 318 East Ave., Rochester
(585) 454-5444
Mon. 5 - 9 pm, Tue. - Thu. 11:30 am - 2:30 pm, 5 - 10 pm, Fri. 11:30 am - 2:30 pm, 5 - 11 pm, Sat. 5 - 11 pm, Sun. 4:30 - 9 pm

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Victor Village Inn

Victor Village Inn on Urbanspoon
One of the labels I've created for this blog (on the left sidebar) is "bar." I figured people might like to know which pizzerias also have bars, and which bars also serve pizza.
Aside from that, in some parts of the country, "bar pizza" is a distinct variety of pizza, usually very thin, maybe oily, and probably crunchy. Kind of a bar snack while you're drinking.
Around here, the bars and bar/restaurants where they make pizza from scratch generally don't share a common style. Acme (which I need to get back to sometime) serves more or less New York style pizza, Canandaigua's Green Front does a pizza that's thin and supple, and of course there are all the wood-fired pizzerias, many of which have bars as well.
But a lot of bars in this area that serve pizza don't make it from scratch, at least not the dough. They tend to use premade crusts, to which they simply add toppings and bake.
Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, or that such pizza can't be good. I think the best pizzas nearly always start with fresh dough, but I've had some pretty decent pizza made with preformed crusts or pizza "shells." For that matter, I've had some pretty bad pizza that was baked with house-made, fresh dough. So the type of dough or crust - fresh, frozen or otherwise - is a factor, but only one factor, in the end result.
To get back to the subject of bar pizza, to the extent that there is such a style in the Rochester area, I'd have to say that it is characterized by those premade crusts. They tend to produce a pizza that's uniform in thickness, maybe a little crunchy, and sometimes oily underneath, depending on how it was baked.
A good example of this style, in more ways than one, can be found at the Village Inn in Victor. What I mean by that is that the VVI's pizza is typical of local bar pizza, and qualitatively, it is in fact pretty good.
I recently stopped in to pick up a small pepperoni pie. The crust was thin, crunchy, and rather dry. I don't know for a fact that it was premade, in other words not freshly made on the premises, but it seemed that way. There was a little oil underneath, but I think some of that had seeped down from the toppings.
Speaking of which, the sauce was quite generously applied, which was fortunate, as it added some much-needed moisture to balance out the dry crust. And I liked the sauce - it had a straightforward tomato flavor, and a medium consistency. Very basic, but flavorful.
The mozzarella was still hot when I first examined it, and was rather gloppy, though it did firm up a little as the pie cooled. It was nicely melted and just slightly browned. It was a little bland, but was certainly preferable to the cheap stuff that some places use, that turns to oil-coated, dried-out plastic in the oven.
The pepperoni was pretty good too. It was thin, slightly greasy, nicely crisped, and evenly distributed.
The Victor Village Inn offers a basic bar menu of pizza, wings, and burgers, and fried fish. Pizzas come in three sizes, with nine available toppings. Pizza is generally not available until around 6:00.
This pie was a little sloppy to eat, what with all the sauce and the melted cheese. And while the crust wasn't the greatest, it wasn't bad, and its shortcomings were to some extent compensated for by the toppings. All in all, this was a decent bar pie.
I don't think I can quite give this a B--I wouldn't go out of my way to get this--but a C seems a little low. So while I've been trying to stay away from pluses and minuses, I'm making an exception here and giving the Victor Village Inn's pizza a solid C+, for this pretty good bar pie
Victor Village Inn, 34 E. Main St., Victor

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sultan Lebanese Cuisine & Bakery

The other day, I posted about the University of Rochester's Pizza Pi, which I didn't care much for, giving my cheese slice a D.
But U of R students who love pizza need not fear, because there are better alternatives near campus. A short distance away (an easy bike ride, or a long walk) you've got Cam's, Mr. Shoes, and Pontillo's. And on the other side of the river, don't neglect Menezes, a long-established pizzeria that delivers to the U of R.
But besides those pizza places, the Mt. Hope neighborhood has a lot of food options, sparked in part by the ongoing College Town project. One new entrant (which is not directly related to the new College Town construction but is along the Mt. Hope corridor) is Sultan, a Lebanese restaurant in Mt. Hope Plaza.
And though Sultan doesn't offer pizza, exactly, it does serve the pizza-like manakeesh, which is described on the menu as a "flat bread dough, topped with thyme, cheese, or ground meat." Sultan's manakeesh comes in six varieties, and with a couple of friends, I tried two of them recently.
My lahmajin manakeesh was topped with ground beef, onion, tomato, and "sumac spice." The beef predominated, and was generously applied. The onion and tomato were much less noticeable, but if you're looking for a beef topping, you can hardly complain that there was too much beef. The beef was clearly seasoned with some spice mixture, that sort of Middle Eastern spice that's not particularly hot, but very savory, with perhaps some cloves or allspice and other aromatic spices. The flatbread itself was crisp but chewy, and charred in spots underneath.
My companion's egg and sausage manakeesh was noticeably spicier, with a bit of peppery kick, probably from the sausage. Like my lahmajin, this manakeesh was meat-heavy, with crumbled sausage atop a bed of eggs and cheese. It was very tasty, but we both agreed that it was rather dry. It would have benefited greatly from a sauce of some kind, even if just a dipping sauce on the side. I made do with a bottle of hot sauce, which served well enough.
Sultan's other manakeeshes (if that's the correct plural form) are a za'atar with little more than spices and olive oil, a cheese manakeesh, a vegetarian with sweet peppers, onion, tomato and spices (that was my next choice) and a spinach manakeesh. They also offer shawarma, kabab and falafel pita wraps, and some appetizers, including hummus and tabouli. Oddly, french fries come as an ingredient in the chicken shawarma, but cannot be ordered a la carte. On my visit, they were also testing out some stuffed grape leaves, which I hope get added to the menu soon, as a I tried one and found it very good.
When I'm in the mood for pizza, I don't necessarily want flatbread pizza, and Sultan doesn't claim that this is pizza. But it's a close cousin, and it is good. And this is a restaurant I plan to go back to, both for the manakeesh and some of the other dishes. I'm not going to assign this a grade, because it's not really pizza in the conventional sense, but based on this visit I'd say that Sultan is a welcome addition to the Mt. Hope/University of Rochester neighborhood.
Sultan Lebanese Cuisine & Bakery, 1659 Mt. Hope Ave. (Mt. Hope Plaza)
Hours not available, but open for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pizza Pi, University of Rochester

As college students return to school, I figured it would be a good time to review some of the options on and near the local campuses. I've covered most if not all of the RIT places before - check the RIT label on the left sidebar - so this week I'm covering two options for students at the University of Rochester.
We'll start at ground zero, in other words, right on campus. Pizza Pi is one option at The Commons, which is essentially a food court and your most likely option if you just want a quick lunch or bite to eat between classes.
I think colleges have been making an effort in recent years to improve their food offerings - if you (or your parents) are forking over $20 to $40,000 a year or more, it seems like the least they can do - so I was cautiously optimistic about Pizza Pi.
Alas, it was unfounded optimism. I arrived around noon, so I figured there'd be heavy turnover and fresh slices. And I guess my slice was pretty fresh. It just wasn't very good.
There were a few pies to choose from, cheese, pepperoni, I think a veggie pie and some specialty pie, but I went with a basic cheese slice.
The crust was thin, though not ultra thin. Its pale bottom was dotted with dark brown spots, obviously from the pan in which it had baked. I surmise that where there were holes in the pan, the dough was touching the oven deck, resulting in the heavy browning. Regardless, there was quite a contrast between those browned spots and the rest of the crust.
On the plus side, the crust wasn't oily, and it was actually a little crackled underneath, so it did have a bit of surface crispness. But that couldn't make up for the uninteresting crust, which, though not gummy, smacked of undercooked dough.
Up top, the cheese, like the underside, was dotted with brown spots. Unless you like your pizza well done, it was overcooked. When I bit into the slice, the cheese peeled off easily, like a thin layer of melted and cooled plastic.
The sauce was rather dried out, which made it difficult to properly evaluate its flavor, and there were a few granules of sprinkled cheese on top of everything. The slice was rounded out by a thin lip that was crunchy but uninteresting, with what I can best describe as a flat flavor.
Well. What can I say? The U of R is a fine school, its students pay pretty hefty tuition, and from what I've read, they've invested in some very good pizza ovens. And this is the best they can do?
Well, no, it's not. They can and should do better. It can't be that difficult. I think they owe their students better than this.
Before I finish, let me add that the server was very courteous and friendly. I wish every pizzeria server was that nice. So I had no problem with the staff.
But the pizza rates a D.
Pizza Pi, The Commons, University of Rochester
The Commons dining area is open 8:30 a.m. - midnight Mon. - Fri., and 11 a.m. - midnight on weekends. I'm not sure if Pizza Pi is open throughout those hours.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Six50 Revisited

Six50 on Urbanspoon
Last December, I posted a review of Six50 Black Oven Cooking, a wood-fired pizzeria, bar and restaurant in Chili. Because it had just opened, I didn't give Six50 a grade, but I did note that the crust was "remarkably pale underneath," "heavily floured, and firm but not really crisp," and that the "edge displayed a little charring, but was hard and chewy." So there were some issues.
I recently went back for lunch with a friend, and am happy to report that things have improved.
Before I get to that, though - in my prior post, I confessed to being mystified by both the terms "Six50" and "black oven cooking." I've since been informed that "Six50" refers to the temperature inside their ovens. "Black oven" means that the pizza is cooked in the same chamber as the burning wood, as opposed to a "white oven," which uses indirect heat, typically with the wood burning in a separate chamber. "Black," I guess, refers to the presence of ash in the oven chamber.
OK. Back to the pizza.
I ordered a diavolo, which is topped with tomato sauce, sopressata, roasted red peppers, red pepper flakes, and mozzarella. My companion got a salsiccia, with garlic oil, sweet Italian sausage, banana peppers and Parmesan cheese.
Upon the arrival of my diavolo pie, first thing I did was check the underside. It was considerably darker than last time, with an inner circle of char spots and more charring along the edge.
That was encouraging, but this pie also had too much flour on the bottom. I know flour can help keep an unbaked crust from sticking to the pizza peel, but too much is too much. When you're biting into a pizza, you don't want the sensation of taking in raw, or burnt, flour. And I did get some of that here.
Despite the charring, the crust was still fairly soft. Even the edge was pretty soft. There just wasn't much bite to it.
Now this gets into matters of style and personal taste. I like a balance of crisp and chewy. But I also make allowances for different styles of pizza, and I know that some people may want more crunch, while others like a soft crust, or don't even focus much on the crust.
What makes a crust crunchy, crisp, chewy, spongy, etc., also involves a lot of factors. The type of flour used. The oven temperature. Oil in the dough or on the cooking surface. Whether the dough contains sugar, milk, or other ingredients. And the cooking method - oven deck, screen, pan, and so on. These characteristics can also differ based upon the style of pizza -- Neapolitan, Sicilian, New York, Chicago thin crust, etc.
So I don't want to overly penalize this one for its soft crust, but personally, I would've liked a little more crispness. And Six50's menu does state that its "pizzas are cooked in our black ovens, which gives them a crispier, darker crust." If that's what they were shooting for, this fell a little short.
OK. I probably said more about the crust than I needed to. But it's easier to write about flaws, or at least things you don't like, than about virtues. So I don't want to suggest that the crust was terrible. It just had some issues.
I did like the flavor of this pie. It wasn't terribly spicy, but then again I'm a pepperhead, and my palate is a bit jaded where hot food is concerned. It had a nice balance of sauce, cheese and other toppings, which added some interest without overwhelming the pie. The sopressata slices gave the pizza some meatiness to go along with the nicely melted cheese, and was complemented by the roasted red peppers, which I always like - in fact I consider them an underrated ingredient that I'd like to use, and eat more often.
My companion's salsiccia didn't have my diavolo's flour issues, but it wasn't quite as charred and was equally soft. But again, the flavor was good. It was topped with big chunks of salty sausage, and the banana peppers gave it a vinegary tang that I liked, though keep in mind that I've been known to eat banana peppers straight out the jar, by the forkful. The cheese on both pies was smooth, nicely melted and a good base for the rest of the toppings.
All in all, these were both generally good pies, with just a few relatively minor shortcomings. Certainly an improvement over my first visit, good enough to recommend, and and good enough to rate a solid B.
Six50 Black Oven Cooking, 3765 Chili Avenue
Mon. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m. - 9 p.m.