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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

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