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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Back to Branca

One of the better food blogs out there is Chris Lindstrom's Food About Town. In addition to his blog, Chris also writes for City Newspaper, and he has spent some time learning the pizzamaking craft at one of our area's best pizzerias, Fiamma, under the tutelage of owner/pizzaiolo Giuseppe Paciullo.  So the man knows his food, and his pizza. And he's a good writer.
I've met Chris before, and he recently invited me to join him and his wife for dinner at Branca in Bushnells Basin. Branca specializes in Neapolitan style pizza baked in a wood-fired oven.
This was my second visit to Branca.. I reported on my first visit in August of this year. At that time, I thought it was pretty good. I did have some issues with the pizza, particularly concerning the crust, but you can follow the link to read further.
This time around, there were four of us - a coworker of Chris came along - and we decided to share three pizzas. As it turned out, we ended up with four pizzas, due to some confusion over the first pizza we ordered. In short, we got the first one for free, plus the three that we wanted.
I'll start out by saying that they were all pretty good, but in hindsight I wish I had agreed to my companions' suggestion that we order the tartufata pie, which is topped with mushrooms, mozzarella, Pecorino cheese and truffle sauce. (In one form or another, truffles figure very prominently on Branca's menu - I counted seven dishes with truffles.) I nixed that idea partly because I don't like mushrooms, and also because I wanted to try Branca's marinara con acciughe pie, with tomato sauce, anchovies, garlic, oregano, and extra virgin olive oil. At that point we'd already settled on the first two pies, plus I didn't realize that we were going to end up with a fourth pie.
The upshot is, we ended up with four red pies. Despite my general antipathy toward mushrooms, a white pie, even with mushrooms, would've been a welcome alternative. But there are worse things in life than trying four different red pizzas. Next time I'm there, I'll try the tartufata.
OK - on to the pizza. First up was the Margherita. This is what I had on my prior visit.
First impressions: an attractive pizza, with a uniform, well-formed cornicione, a moderate layer of bright red sauce, and a smattering of nicely melted, fresh mozzarella, with a few shreds of wilted basil.
An inspection of the underside showed that the crust wasn't as spottily charred underneath as I would like, especially from a wood-fired oven. There were a few darkened areas, but it was mostly light brown throughout.
And though nicely formed, the cornicione (i.e,, the edge or lip) was not as bubbly as I would've liked. It wasn't unleavened, certainly, but the air holes were uniformly small, and it lacked the textural complexity that adds interest to a crust.
Chris first called attention to this, but I had to agree that the crust seemed a little bland, mostly due to a lack of salt. With some pies, after I've worked my way through the toppings, I enjoy the cornicione at least as much as the rest of the pie. With this pizza, the "bones" were more of an afterthought. Not bad, but on their own, just not that great. If I'd had a sauce of some kind - marinara, blue cheese or hot pepper - I would've been dipping.
Having said all that, the pie tasted good. The sauce had a bright, tomatoey flavor, lightly accented with herbs, the cheese was melted just enough to reach its peak of liquidity without turning it rubbery, and the basil was wilted but not burned.
Next up was the bufala e pachini, with tomato sauce, water buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and basil. If that sounds close to the Margherita, it was. This goes back to the ordering mixup, which resulted in us getting two very similar pies.
And while overall the two pies were much alike, the crust on the bufala pizza, which arrived a few minutes after the first, was a little darker underneath, and a little stiffer along the edge. Perhaps it was baked in a hotter part of the oven, or for a bit longer. It also had a pronounced but not excessive aroma of burnt toast, which I consider a good thing. That aroma adds to the overall mix of flavors and aromas that I love.
As I indicated, the toppings weren't much different from the Margherita. Same sauce, and the cheese wasn't noticeably different either. The cherry tomatoes were nice and sweet, but seemed superfluous on top of the tomato sauce.
Next up was the Rughetta e prosciutto San Daniele, with tomato sauce, prosciutto San Daniele, mozzarella and arugula. I've never been a big fan of pizzas with raw greens on top, because to me, the greens just don't get well integrated into the pizza, but this was an enjoyable pie. The prosciutto was very good, lean but not overly chewy, with a lot of flavor and enough salt to balance out the relatively bland crust. This was more of a knife-and-fork pizza, but if you don't mind that, the arugula added a textural dimension and a subtle but welcome bitterness to the pie. Think of taking a forkful of salad with each bite of pizza.
It was at this point, I think, that we began to realize that the relatively unsalted crust made some sense, or at least that it worked well with some of the pizzas. That was borne out by our final pizza of the night:  the Marinara con acciughe, with tomato sauce, garlic, anchovies, oregano and extra virgin olive oil.
This was my choice, which I wanted to try because of its similarity to the tomato-and-anchovy pies that used to be favored by local Italian immigrants, long ago. I liked it, although by this time I was getting a bit satiated, and a little maxed out on red pizza, particularly since the sauce seemed to be the same on all of these pies.
Even more than with the Rughetta, I appreciated the relative blandness of the crust. The anchovies were quite salty, as anchovies tend to be. So the crust helped offset some of that salinity.
We generally agreed, though, that this pie was flavorful but one-dimensional. The anchovies overwhelmed the other toppings. Our group discussed what could be done to counterbalance the anchovies, and the thoughts ranged from olive oil to a hard, grated cheese like Parmesan or Romano, to hot peppers. I wonder, too, if the anchovies could've been desalinated a bit - supposedly, soaking them in milk helps, although the one time I tried that, it didn't seem to have much effect.
I guess I can't complain, since this pie was what the menu said it was, an anchovy pie. But while I remain intrigued by anchovies as a pizza topping, you'd better like them a lot to order this pizza.
My other observation about this final pie of the evening is that it was unevenly baked.  Blackened and blistered in one area, but quite pale underneath on the opposite side.
So - overall impressions? I like Branca. I plan to go back, and I'd like to try more of their pizza. But on this visit, it was a little inconsistent.
The crust on these pies was, for the most part, pretty good, nicely baked along the perimeter and softer in the middle. But they tended to be unevenly baked, and the dough didn't have quite the flavor or texture to rise above being much more than a base for the toppings. Not bad, just not great.
The toppings were good. I appreciate that Branca sticks to a pretty traditional menu. No Buffalo wing or taco pizzas.
Menu selection is important here, though. I wouldn't spring for the extra three bucks to get the Bufala e pachini pizza over the Margherita. And unless you're a true lover of anchovies, I'd stay away from the Marinara.
In the end, I guess the key question is, do I want to go back? Yes, I do. Branca has several more pizzas that I want to try. Frankly, I'd like to work my way through the whole list.
I've been to Branca twice now, and I liked it both times, although neither time did I think the pizza was among the best I've ever had. So I can confidently recommend it, but I can't rate it among the very best in our area. With a little attention to detail, it can get there. For now, I'd say it's very good, and well worth a visit, but not quite top-notch, so I'll give it a B.

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.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Little Italy, Hornell

Another hiking trip, another pizzeria.
Using this book by William Ehling, I went on a hike last weekend near Hornell, mostly along the Finger Lakes Trail. If you're a hiker, and you'd like to find some places around here for day hikes, Bill Ehling (who died earlier this year at age 93) should  be your first go-to guy, and you should pick up his books. I also can't say enough about CNY Hiking and the Finger Lakes Trail Conference.
At any rate, while I was down that way, I stopped by Little Italy in Hornell. I liked the name, the building looked good, and so did the pizza.
Forttunately, the pizza proved to be as good as it looked. I got one cheese and one pepperoni slice. Underneath, there were some faint screen marks - which in my experience too often means a soft, oily crust - but the underside was dry to the touch, with some surface crackling. As you can see in one of the photos, when the cheese slice was folded, it cracked but didn't break.That's what I mean by "crackling."
If I may digress for a moment, let me explain that in general, I like that sort of crackling, but I don't view it as essential. I've tremendously enjoyed Neapolitan-style pizzas that are wet in the middle and need to be eaten with a knife and fork. I generally don't like crusts that are crunchy but soaked through with oil and essentially pan fried.
But I do appreciate a crust that strikes a balance between a chewy interior and a crackly bottom. It's very similar to a good loaf of bread with a crisp crust. A pizza crust needs to be just a little thick to make that work, and this crust did just that.
The crust also had a pleasant, breadlike aroma. Thickness-wise, it was thin to medium, aside from the outer edge, which was thick and chewy.
The slices were topped with a tomatoey sauce, which had a thick consistency, and some subtle herbal notes. The layer of processed mozzarella cheese was thin and pretty uniform, and rather well browned on the cheese slice - a tad too well browned for me. The pepperoni was thin-sliced and OK but not exceptional.
Little Italy offers pizza in five sizes, with 13 toppings to choose from. They also do four specialty pizzas:  white garlic, chicken wing, "meat craze," and veggie.
The menu is available here, so I won't go through it completely, but I'm intrigued by the "pizza crust sandwich," which is described as "An individual dough baked with butter garlic sauce, loaded with chipotle mayonnaise, your choice of steak (with sweet & tangy), chicken (with Little Italy sauce), or cheeseburger with bacon. Topped with lettuce, tomato, and onion." Next time I'm down that way I think I'll check that out.
I liked Little Italy, and I liked their pizza. It strikes me as a fine hometown pizzeria. These slices were very good, if basic pizza, a cut above average, so I'll give them a B.

Little Italy Pizzeria, 7498 Seneca Rd., Hornell
Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Country Kitchen & Pizzeria, Perry

I've done several posts now on pizza in Perry, NY, which for its size has a surprising number of places to choose from.
On a recent drive down that way, I stopped for lunch with my wife and daughter at Country Kitchen & Pizzeria.
A "Country Kitchen" sounds like exactly the kind of place you'd find on Main Street in a place like Perry, and I mean that in a good way. I love a good small-town restaurant. But "Country Kitchen & Pizzeria"? I was intrigued. Not necessarily hopeful, but intrigued. At the very least, I knew I had to try the pizza.
So we stopped for lunch. I ordered a slice of pizza and five wings. And all in all it was, well, OK.
The wings were pretty good, a little on the small side, but crisp and nicely coated with hot sauce.
The pizza slice was not quite as enjoyable, but it was acceptable. It was thick and somewhat chewy - not dense, but dotted with myriad small air holes, with a medium-soft texture.
The underside was pancake-like, with some oil-induced browning and a few bubbly spots. The edge was thick and chewy, brown on top and pale underneath.
The sauce was a bit dry, and the cheese, which had migrated toward the center of the pie, was chewy.
I would stop at CK&P again, but not for the pizza. My wife and daughter were happy with their food, and the service was good. It seemed to be a gathering place for locals, and I enjoyed my visit.
But the pizza was below par, in my opinion. It was reminiscent of convenience store pizza. I'm going to decline to give it a searchable label, because I don't want readers to jump to the conclusion that I didn't like this place overall. But I can't recommend the pizza.

Country Kitchen & Pizzeria, 34 S. Main St., Perry, NY
585 - 237 - 5640

6 a.m. - 8 p.m. daily

Monday, September 8, 2014

Eddie O'Brien's, Farmington

The wood-fired pizza trend continues. From my perspective, it’s been hit and miss - I've had some world-class wood-fired pizza, and some clunkers - but if nothing else, it's given me a steady stream of new places to try.
One of which is Eddie O’Brien’s in Farmington, near the racetrack/casino. This is the third Eddie O'Brien'’s location - the others are in Canandaigua and Geneva - but the only one that offers pizza. My wife and I stopped here recently for dinner.
My first instinct was to go for the Margherita, but I ended up ordering “The Bronx,” partly because its NY Yankees connotations caught my eye, but also because it just plain sounded good.
And it proved to be a good choice. Topped with sausage, pepperoni, red onions, roasted garlic, San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh basil and mozzarella, it was a very tasty pizza.
The crust was thin, with a crisp, blistered edge that was blackened in spots, and dusted with powdery Parmesan cheese, which frankly didn't do much for me. The interior was chewy and pleasantly breadlike, but a bit unevenly done. Some parts of the underside were well blackened and others were relatively pale, as you can see in the photos. The pie was also a tad floury underneath.
But it was certainly a flavorful pizza. The toppings were about as heavy as this thin crust could withstand, but it wasn't overloaded. There was also enough meat to satisfy the carnivore in me, but not so much as to overwhelm the other toppings. The tomato sauce was rich and slightly sweet, there was plenty of aromatic roasted garlic (can you ever have too much roasted garlic?), and an even distribution of shredded basil. The mozzarella cheese was well melted and smooth. I could easily have finished the whole thing in one sitting, but I exercised enough self-restraint to take some of it home for the next day. (It did not survive the next day.)
In addition to The Bronx and Margherita pizzas, Eddie O'Brien's offers a veggie pizza with a basil pesto base, a "Bostonian" (which I took to be a "Bronx" alternative, much to my displeasure) topped with prosciutto, sherry mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, tomato sauce and mozzarella, and a BBQ chicken pizza. If you prefer to design your own pie, they also have a lineup of 20 toppings to choose from. 
If pizza's not your thing, well, what's wrong with you? But if so, Eddie's also has a full menu of burgers, chicken, pasta and more.
The physical setting was comfortable, although the place has a somewhat chain-like feel. The latter is to be expected, I guess, given its location and newness. The ceiling is high, and a partition separates the dining and bar areas. The interior is done in dark wood, but the room was well lit at dinnertime thanks to the large plate glass windows. Sports fans will appreciate the numerous televisions (our booth had its own B&W TV, although I couldn't change the channel directly), but the place wasn't overly sports-crazy, at least on this NFL preseason Sunday.
Before leaving, I spoke briefly with the pizzaiolo, who told me that they use a mix of hardwoods for their wall-mounted oven. They can crank it up to 900 degrees, but it's typically maintained at a temp well below that.
I liked this pizza, and I liked Eddie O'Brien's. The pizza wasn't flawless. It was a little unevenly done, a little floury underneath, and I would've liked it a bit more crisp. But it had its virtues. The crust had good bread flavor, and the pizza was tasty.
This is a pretty new operation, so I'm declining to give it a grade at this point. I found a lot here to like, and I want to go back. For now, I'd say it's worth a stop, for pizza or otherwise. And I'm intrigued see how the pizza evolves. 

Eddie O'Brien's
5975 Route 96, Farmington NY 14425

Serving Food:
Weeknights until 11:00 pm & Weekends until 12:00 am

Bar Hours:
All week until 1 am
Saturday until 2 am

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Winner Is ...

singletrackmind, who left a comment on August 29, 2014 at 4:09 PM, has won the $30 gift card to Joe's Brooklyn Pizza. singletrackmind, please email me at with your name and address and I will get the card in the mail to you.

Thanks to all for participating, and thanks to Joe's Brooklyn Pizza for this generous donation. Keep following the blog for future giveaways and remember when you order or pick up pizza to let them know you read about them here.