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Friday, August 29, 2014

Joe's Brooklyn Pizza $30 Giveaway

It's been quite awhile since I ran a giveaway, but thanks to the generosity of the guys at Joe's Brooklyn Pizza, that's now remedied. One week from today, some lucky reader of this blog will win a Joe's gift card worth $30. That'll buy plenty off Joe's menu - say, a 19" large, classic cheese pie with a side of wings, or a 32-slice sheet of thick Sicilian pizza.
And don't ignore Joe's tempting lineup of specialty pies. On my latest visit, I tried one of Joe's latest creations: a white pie with black garlic and fresh figs.
I've seen figs on pizza menus before, and I've even tried them at home, with chopped dried figs, which turned out pretty well.
Now I know that not everybody's a fan of figs. But a lot of people are also only familiar with the dried variety.
Fresh figs are qualitatively different. It's like the difference between a plump, juicy grape and a raisin. You can find them, sometimes, in the produce section of the supermarket. They're expensive (I think I've paid $6 for four of them before), but worth it.
And they worked very well here. The figs were sweet, but not cloyingly so. They both complemented and contrasted with the aromatic and flavorful black garlic, making for a surprisingly good combination. I've said many times that great pizza is all about balance, and this one beautifully straddled the line between sweet and savory.
By the way, I should mention that, whatever you order, if you choose to eat it on the premises, Joe's now offers several beers on tap to enjoy with your meal, including locally brewed Naked Dove, and, of course, several offerings from Brooklyn Brewery. Look for the lineup to change on a regular basis.
Now about that gift card: I'll pick a winner at random in one week, on Friday, September 5, in the early afternoon. To enter, simply leave a comment at the end of this blog post, anytime before noon next Friday. You need not leave your full name here, but you cannot leave a purely anonymous comment. One entry per person, please.
I will announce the winner on this blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter. If you want, you can email me at (or include your email address in your blog comment) and I will notify you directly if you win. Otherwise, it's your responsibility to check and see if you've won.
If you do win, you will need to get me your full name and mailing address, via email. If I don't hear from the winner after several days, I may award the card to another reader.
Finally, if you win, please let the guys at Joe's know, when you use the card, that you won it here. For that matter, anytime you go to a local pizzeria based in part on something you read on this blog, please mention the blog. I'd appreciate it. The more pizzeria owners know that people read this blog, the more apt they'll be to agree to do these giveaways.
OK, now let loose with those comments!

Joe's Brooklyn Pizza, 1100 Jefferson Rd., Henrietta
585-424-JOES (5637)

Mon. & Tue. 11 AM - 9 PM
Wed. - Sat. 11 AM - 10 PM
Sun. noon - 8 PM

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Branca, Bushnells Basin

Branca on Urbanspoon
If nothing else, the current trend of wood-fired pizza is giving local pizza lovers more options to choose from, and it's giving me more and more places to check out; sometimes more than I can keep up with. One such is Branca in Bushnells Basin, which opened this summer in what had been a Great Northern Pizza Kitchen location.
It’s funny how some new places get so much more buzz than others, but I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when on a recent Sunday around 5:30 my wife and I showed up and were told that Branca could “not accommodate walk-ins until 8:30.” Branca was opened by the owners of The Revelry, a Rochester hotspot, and it’s in Bushnells Basin, which I described to my wife as “Pittsford on steroids.” Put those together and you’re talking about a place where you don’t just walk in and expect to get a table right away, even on what’s an off-night for many places. (We left and went to another place not too far away, which I’ll report on soon.)
Several days later, the opportunity again arose for use to go out for dinner, and this time I made a reservation. So with some smugness on my part, we sauntered past the ignorant masses waiting for a table and were quickly ushered to our seats.
We were seated not too far from Branca’s oven. I didn’t take a photo, since you can see several good views of the oven on Branca’s Facebook page. But the fire was blazing, and pizzas were steadily going in and out.
There was no question that I was going to get a pizza; it was only a matter of which one. Aside from the Tartufata (it’s got mushrooms - a no-go, for me), they all sounded good, but I went with my usual Margherita.
Initial impressions:  thick, blistered cornicione, very thin interior, some spotty charring on an otherwise pale underside. The cornicione was chewy, pleasant enough but a bit bland, and I found it a little wide and thick, relative to the overall size of the pizza. I like a good outer crust, but this was a little much for me.
The interior crust was supple, thin, and chewy. I understand that Neapolitan pizza is typically not crisp and crackly, like New York style pizza, but I found this pie just a bit soupy. Branca’s oven runs at about 900 degrees, which can evaporate some of the water in a sauce, but the sauce here was a little more liquid than I would’ve liked. 
But the sauce, which is made from San Marzano tomatoes, was flavorful, and the dollops of fresh mozzarella were nicely melted. I could’ve used a little more basil, but what basil there was had been added at the right time to wilt it and bring out some flavor, without drying it out or browning it.
I should mention that the rest of our meal was very good. I started with a Panzanella Toscana salad, with heirloom tomatoes, bread, cucumber, red onion, and red wine vinaigrette, which made for a nice combination. I think I may have set a personal record for carb consumption, between the pizza, that bread-based salad, and the crusty complimentary bread that we were given for starters. My wife enjoyed her salad with goat cheese, and her vegetarian, farro-based main course proved to be an excellent choice as well.
As long as this is turning into a full-blown review, I’ll say a bit more about the place in general. No complaints about the service; the staff did a good job at keeping up with the crowd, and our server checked in on us from time to time. The feel was upscale casual, but don’t go here for an intimate dinner. Tables are close together, and although my wife and I didn’t find conversation difficult, the noise level was fairly high. Branca claims to evoke the spirit of "Old Hollywood watering holes," but I'm not sure if I even know what that entails, much less whether it's an accurate description.
So is Branca worth the hype? Hard to say, after just one meal, but it’s certainly worth a visit.  I tend to avoid rating pizzas until a place has had some time to sort itself out, so let’s just say that at this point, I’d recommend checking it out, even if I’m not yet putting Branca on my must-do list. Just make a reservation first.

Branca, 683 Pittsford-Victor Rd., Bushnells Basin

Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - midnight
Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.
Sun. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Casa Italiana, Canandaigua

Casa Italiana on Urbanspoon
Pizzawise, few things get me as interested as finding out that there's been a pizzeria around for a long time that I never even knew about.
So I was very pleased to learn recently about Casa Italiana in Canandaigua.
Occasional visitors to Canandaigua could easily be led to think that everything of interest is on Main Street or near the lakeshore. But you'll find some gems on the side streets as well.  And Casa Italiana is one of them.
Casa Italiana comprises two side-by-side places, a deli and a pizzeria. Most of what you'll find on their website relates to the deli. 
Since I didn't have a menu, I just showed up and ordered in person. I had planned to order a pepperoni pie, but upon seeing a Margherita on the chalkboard menu, I impulsively went with that. A classic Margherita is one of my favorite styles of pizza, and though I often go with a simple cheese, or maybe pepperoni pie, a Margherita sounded good.
And it was good, although it had a few, relatively modest shortcomings.
The underside bore some screen marks, which in general raises a red flag with me. In my experience crusts with those telltale cross hatches have often been soft, but this one was not. In fact, it was rather crisp, with surface crackling.
Nonetheless, I would've liked this crust a little darker. Not necessarily charred, but at least a darker shade of brown. As dough darkens, it develops more complex flavors and aromas. Now, I've had pizzas with dark bottoms that tasted and smelled unpleasantly of oil, so darkness does not always equate to good flavor, but this crust wasn't at all oily, so I don't think that would've been an issue here.
The crust was thin, as was the outer edge, or cornicione. The dough didn't seem to have risen much. I like some crackliness, but this was a bit brittle for my taste, and a little more chewiness would've been welcome.
Having said all that, this wasn't a bad crust, overall. A bit too stiff, for me, but it wasn't crumbly, and it was certainly preferable to a soft, greasy crust.
On top, this was an unusual Margherita in that the greens consisted of spinach rather than basil. But stylistic matters aside, it was pretty good. I like spinach (I've come a long way since childhood), and this was tasty indeed. The spinach was wilted but not burnt.
The scattered slices of fresh mozzarella were not silky smooth, but neither were they watery or rubbery. So pretty good, there. The sliced fresh tomatoes weren't especially flavorful (think typical supermarket tomatoes), but the moderate layer of sauce was pleasant, with a straightforward tomatoey flavor. A light smattering of chopped garlic added additional aroma. I'll rarely complain about the addition of garlic.
This is a tough pizza to grade. I liked it, and I'd like to go back, so a C seems a little low to me. But I had some issues with it, and a B seems a tad high. Therefore I'm going to depart from my usual avoidance of pluses and minuses, and give this one a C-plus. And I'm intrigued enough to go back, for a more standard pie.

Casa Italiana, 40 Parrish St., Canandaigua
Pizzeria: 585-396-3670
Deli/store: 585-396-0411

Pizzeria hours: Wed. & Thu. 11-7, Fri. & Sat. 11-9, Sun. 12-7

Deli hours: Mon.-Fri. 8-7, Sat. 8-6, Sun. 8-4

Friday, August 15, 2014

Woodbelly Pizza, Vermont

OK, this will be my last pizza review from my June vacation in Vermont. But I couldn't not report on Woodbelly Pizza.
Woodbelly is a mobile operation, and does a lot of catering. But they have a regular gig at the Stowe Farmer's Market on Sundays, which is where I ran across them the day after we arrived.
Fresh pies were coming out of the oven every few minutes, and I got a cheese slice.
The crust was thin, but not paper thin, and crisp, but not brittle. Underneath, it was dotted with charred spots, and it had a pleasantly toasty flavor and aroma. As you can see in the photo, the slice also passed the "fold test," meaning that I was able to fold it, and hold it by the edge, without the tip flopping down.
On top, the tomato sauce had a natural sweetness; not sugary sweet, but sweet from the tomatoes themselves. I would've preferred a little more cheese, but the crust was so good that it was no big deal. In any event, I preferred this to a slice laden with a thick blanket of melted cheese.
The slice was lightly sprinkled with shreds of basil, which added some subtle aroma and flavor.
As you might expect from a wood-fired pizza operation at a farmers market in Vermont, Woodbelly uses a lot of organic and local ingredients. Their dough is made from freshly milled organic wheat, which they get from Elmore Mountain Bread in Elmore, Vermont. The sauce is made from organic Muir Glen tomatoes.
Surprisingly, and I think partly due to supply issues, the cheeses on my slice included Sorrento shredded mozzarella and Parmesan from Buffalo(!) and Cabot cheddar. But they also make use of local goat cheese, cheddar curd, imported Italian Parmesan, as well as organic veggies and organic beef sausage.
Woodbelly's oven typically runs at about 900 degrees. Pizzas generally start on a metal screen before they are transferred to the hearth. Dave, the pizzaiolo, tells me that he would prefer to "cruise at 775-850 and go straight onto the hearth," but that's simply not practicable with the volume of pizza that he's usually cooking.
Well, if Woodbelly's pizza can get better, I'd love to try it. Because my slice was pretty damn good. I've said before that a wood-fired oven is no guarantee of good pizza. It's a tool, and like any tool, the user has to know how to use it, to achieve optimum results. Woodbelly is there.

Woodbelly Pizza

Capitol City Farmer's Market
Saturdays in Montpelier
9 AM til 1 PM May - October

Stowe Artisan Market
Sundays on the Mountain Rd
10 AM til 3 PM mid-May - October

phone: (802) 552 3476
snail mail: 34 Langone Rd, Cabot, VT 05647

Friday, August 8, 2014

Vermont Vacation, Part II: Piecasso, Stowe, VT

When I ran across this article in the August 2014 edition of PMQ Pizza Magazine, it gave me the impetus to finish this post on Piecasso, where I had dinner with my family on our June vacation to Stowe, Vermont.
Granted, this is going pretty far afield for a Rochester-based pizza blog, but this is also a blog about my pizza experiences, and this was a good one.
Stowe is a ski town, but it's also a year-round tourist town. So there weren't many, if any, inexpensive places to eat nearby. We stayed at a condo with a kitchen, and some nights we cooked our own dinner. Plus we had an abundance of fresh bread thanks to my baking class at King Arthur.
But our first night in town, we had dinner at Piecasso. I had been interested in going to a wood-fired pizzeria, Pie in the Sky, but I discovered that it has gone out of business, and the storefront was vacant. So that left Piecasso as the only game in town, pizzawise.
During my weeklong stay in Vermont, I saw a lot of ads for wood-fired pizzerias. Piecasso is not one of them, but it does bill itself as offering traditional, hand-tossed, New York style pizza, as well as the fact that Travel & Leisure magazine named it one of the top pizzerias in the country.
Piecasso is a full-service restaurant serving sandwiches and pasta, but pizza is its mainstay, and it offers a broad array of pizza choices.
Patrons can get pizza by the slice, or custom design a full pie, choosing from among three crusts (white, wheat and gluten-free), four sauces, and more toppings than I care to count. And unsurprisingly, if you've spent much time in Vermont, they trumpet their use of local ingredients. 
We shared a "Tree Hugger," which seems to be something of Piecasso's signature pie, topped with fresh spinach and basil, tomatoes, fresh garlic, red onions, and mozzarella.
Piecasso has the look and feel of a chain casual restaurant, which raised my suspicions about its pizza, but those suspicions were soon dispelled. This was very good pizza.
The crust was thin, not papery thin, but thick enough to have some interior chewiness. The underside was nicely browned, if not quite charred, but it was crisp and not oily.
While I love a good cheese pie, and the occasional meat lovers' pizza, sometimes a well-made veggie pie is exactly what I want.
And this was a well-made veggie pie. The spinach and basil were wilted enough to mellow them out and yield maximum flavor, and you'll never get a complaint from me about fresh garlic. A very tasty combination, and well done.
Piecasso offers quite a few other specialty pies, including eight meat-based pies. I wouldn't mind working my way through the list.
But alas, I didn't have the time. If my travels take me back that way, I'll more than likely stop again, and I recommend you do the same if you're ever in the area.

Piecasso Pizzeria & Lounge, 1899 Mountain Rd., Stowe, VT

Sun. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Bar hours: 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Gigi's Italian Kitchen

I think it's safe to say at this point that wood-fired pizza is no longer a novelty. We haven't quite reached the point of a wood-fired place in every neighborhood, but we're not far off.
One of the latest is Gigi's Italian Kitchen in Irondequoit. This joins an already-busy scene near Hudson and Titus, which includes 2 Ton Tony's, Mark's, Bay Goodman, Cam's, and Little Caesar's, all within a few blocks of each other.
Gigi's is not perhaps a direct competitor of those, since it's a bar and restaurant rather than a straight pizzeria, but it still adds to a crowded pizza field in that neck of the woods.
Gigi's menu offers six specialty pizzas, and a substantial list of make-your-own options, with five sauces, fourteen veggies, and seven meat toppings, plus a fresh-mozzarella option.
As usual, I went with the Margherita (Gigi's gets a point for spelling it correctly). It's described as topped with "simple" red tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and basil, with is pretty much the description of a classic Margherita.
First impression? Nice-looking pizza, not too blackened along the edge (I've seen too many wood-fired places that think that blackening the edge is what it's all about), melted but not browned fresh mozzarella, and wilted leaves of basil. And the sauce wasn't totally evaporated, which was another plus.
Next, I checked the underside. It was well blackened, and firm but not quite crackly. I picked up a pleasant aroma of toasted bread.
Tbe toppings were very good. I intend to follow this up with a talk with Gigi's pizzaiolo, but as I write this, it's Friday at lunchtime, so it's probably not the best time to try that. But I'd like to know what the difference is between Gigi's "NY Style Red Sauce" and their "simple" red sauce. I'm guessing the former has some spices added, but it's not obvious from the menu. I'll try to speak to him or her later, but I want to get this post up today.
I liked the basil. I love basil, and to me, the best way to add it to a pizza, aside from including it in a sauce, is to add leaves just before or after the pizza comes out of the oven. These were perfectly done, wilted enough to adhere to the pie but not dried out.
The cheese was good as well, even if it didn't quite knock my socks off. It was nicely baked, softened but not browned, but not quite as semi-liquid and creamy as the best that I've had. But it was good.
When wood-fired pizza became the Next Big Thing, a lot of places seemed to think that wood-fired pizza guaranteed success. But I have to think that the market is getting close to the saturation point, and I'm sure that the initial and ongoing investments are pretty steep. So you'd better know what you're doing if you're doing wood-fired pizza.
And based on this one-time visit, I'd say that Gigi's knows what they're doing. This was well-made pizza. It was somewhat unusual, in that many wood-fired pizzas I've had are blackened around the edge and pale underneath. This was nicely browned along the edge, and very dark underneath.
Ideally, I'd like it a little more balanced than that, but this clearly came from a good, hot oven, and the blackening wasn't severe enough to amount to a burnt crust. I certainly preferred this to a pale crust that's been given the quick, last-minute blackening treatment.
You can see more of Gigi's menu on their Facebook page, but on a revisit, I think I would try the pizza again. I can't say it was perfect. It was almost too blackened underneath, and the crust wasn't quite crisp and it wasn't quite supple. But overall I liked it. I'll give this pizza a B, and I'll make a mental note to go back before too long. Definitely worth checking out.

Gigi's Italian Kitchen & Catering
2256 Hudson Ave (near Titus Ave)
Rochester, NY 14617

Tues thru Sat: 11AM - 2AM
Sun:11AM - 10PM
Mon: Closed except for private parties