Sunday, April 24, 2016

Review: Stella Public House, San Antonio TX

On a prior visit to San Antonio, I was able to visit a branch of the Grimaldi's chain and also Dough Pizzeria Napoletana. Both were very good, but they fell a bit short of destination pizza. This time, I visited Stella Public House, which is within walking distance (under 2 miles) from the tourist end of the River Walk.

Stella is located in the Southtown section, a trendy spot with bars, restaurants, stately old homes, and bikes to rent. It's very much a different world than the north end of the River Walk or the Alamo tourist area. Stella is among the the artisanal restaurants working in the "farm-to-table" mode, opting for local sourcing where possible.

From the website:
Stella’s “farm to pizza” concept is centered on strong partnerships with local growers, ranchers, and purveyors. The star is Texas-sourced wood-fired pizza baked in an Italian Modena oven, using oak and pecan wood. Shared plates, house-made cheeses, and fresh salads are made with locally-sourced ingredients. There are 20 rotating craft beers on tap and an internationally-curated wine list.

I arrived around 11:45am on a Sunday, and the airy open space was about half full. By 12:30, Stella was packed and buzzing loudly. There is a mix of seating options - conventional tables, bar seating, and long common tables. The space seems to be a converted factory or warehouse, and the interior has a pleasant hipster vibe.

The menu includes small plate appetizers, salads, and pizza. I would have liked to sample some of the non-pizza items, but I was dining solo and opted for just one pie. There are several interesting options for these large personal size (14") pizzas, and I chose the Spicy Italian Sausage pie ($15).

As with any pizza worth the calories, the crust is the key element. This one seemed to be a Neapolitan hybrid. It sported the leopard spots and puffy cornicione common to Neapolitan pies, but it was improved by being a bit sturdier and crisper. Unlike some traditional Neapolitans, it didn't have a wet center or soggy spots.

A bit more about that crust - beyond its terrific texture, it had a pronounced flavor of its own, and tasted almost like sourdough. The cornicione was more dense and chewy than most, too. All of these features elevated the crust and the entire pie.

The first flavor I noted in the pie was the sausage. The fennel-packed chunks were large, uneven, and had clearly cooked on and into the pie. Sausage that cooks on the pizza is so much better than the pre-cooked variety. I made a mental note that this sausage had an incredibly good flavor.

There was a generous amount of thinly sliced Calabrian red peppers on this pie. I suspect they may have been pre-cooked a bit; they had the ideal soft texture. They added a kick of heat but not so much as to burn out the other flavors.

The mozzarella appeared conventional, but it had a bolder taste than most and also an ideal stretchiness. Just as importantly, it was applied in proper proportion so that it didn't contribute too much moisture or weight to overwhelm the crust.

The sauce was a deep red, and it was rich and thick. Its flavor stood up to the spicy pepper and savory sausage.  It was a bit salty, which is a good thing to me, because I typically add salt to pizza. This pie needed none because its flavors were in harmony.

In fact, the overall theme here was that it was an optimally balanced pizza. The flavors and textures and proportions were ideal. The elements for this pizza were especially well-mated. So many times, topping combos that sound good don't work out so well. With this essentially perfect pie, any extra topping probably would have reduced its appeal (even as I was tempted by the option to add an egg to it).
Lamb meatballs
I returned for a second visit with colleagues. We ordered lamb meatballs as an appetizer, and they were superb meatballs in an intense red sauce. For pies, we repeated the spicy sausage, and added a "Bee Sting" pie which featured big slices of soppressata, mozzarella and grana padano cheeses, cilantro, serrano chilies, and a drizzle of honey.
The Bee Sting
This white pie had a perfect texture. The crust was crisper than the sausage pie because the toppings contained less moisture. The sweet fresh mozzarella was perfectly complemented by the aged grana padano. Likewise, the honey added a delightful sweet note on top of the salty soppressata and the fiery chilies.
Spicy sausage pie
Both pies were a little too spicy; we ended up removing some of the serranos and some of the Calabrian red peppers from the sausage pie. The red pie was superb, again, but we agreed that that Bee Sting was our favorite.

Is this destination pizza? Absolutely. It was a delightful reward for the 30 minute walk from the tourist center of San Antonio. It's the best pie I've had here and it would contend with the best in any city.

Stella Public House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Review: Berkeley Pizza, San Diego CA

San Diego is a great town in a lot of ways, starting with its beaches and the best weather in America. The city's historic Gaslamp District is an attractive area for tourists and conventioneers at the nearby civic center, and it's home to a wide variety of restaurants.
Spinach and mushroom slices
While 5th and 6th Avenues are cluttered with the bland national chains (Dick's Last Resort, Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks, Old Spaghetti Factory), the area gets much more interesting when you venture a little bit west (mini-Chinatown) or east (East Village). As far as I can tell, San Diego has little deep pizza history, but there are some notable adaptations of pizza styles from other places.

We experienced New Haven style apizza in the East Village at BASIC urban kitchen + bar, and it was as good or better than the original versions in Connecticut. Walking from the excellent boutique lodging at Hotel Z on 6th Avenue, we stumbled on Berkeley Pizza on Island Avenue. 

With its retro-hippie sign and reference to Berkeley California, I anticipated a place for vegan and gluten free pies, or quinoa pizza topped with free-range acai berries and amaranth sprouts. That impression was completely inaccurate. Instead, Berkeley offers Chicago-style deep dish pizza and a nice selection of craft beers.

Unlike most deep-dish places, Berkeley sells pizza by the slice. I had about a half dozen choices, and I opted for a slice of their signature pie with spinach and mushrooms ($4.25), and a sausage slice ($3.75). Full pies take one hour, but it's only five minutes to reheat a slice.
Sausage slice
There is a small and homey dining space with perhaps 10 tables and windows open to the street in this relatively quiet Gaslamp location. I was served one fairly large sausage slice, and two smaller slices of the spinach/mushroom pie - perhaps I got two for the price of one because they were from a smaller pie?
Underside of the crust
Like most deep dish pies, the sauce is the outstanding ingredient. This pie sported full-flavored tangy and chunky crushed tomatoes, deftly seasoned. There was perhaps a quarter inch thick sea of sauce that covered everything except the high and rigid cornicione, and a generous dusting of Parmesan on top.

While the overall depth of the pie was substantial due to the distinctly raised cornicione and the amount of sauce and cheese, the bottom crust itself was only medium thickness. It was crisp on bottom, a little buttery, and a little flaky. Not an amazing crust, but a sturdy and tasty vehicle for the ingredients pooled within.

On the signature slice, there was good mushroom flavor that was distinctive even buried under the sea of red sauce and molten cheese. The spinach, on the other hand, was more visual than taste-able. Like most deep-dish pies, there was a LOT of cheese, probably a bit too much. 

The mild mozzarella never gets any oven browning, and thus it is denied a chance to shine. Still, the excellent sauce, the flavorful mushrooms, and the nicely executed crust combined to provide a highly satisfying experience.

The sausage slice repeated the nice crust, lava flow of cheese, and excellent chunky red sauce. The sausage was present in generous quantity and it lent a good salty and meaty flavor. Two excellent slices, and the sauce was the star in both.

After resisting deep-dish pie for a long time, last year I had an amazing one just south of Chicago at Louisa's. This pie won't make me forget that superb benchmark, but it was expertly rendered and comes with the nice bonus that you can buy it by the slice.

Thumbs up to Berkeley Pizza. I really had no idea that my visit to San Diego would turn up some solid examples of New Haven apizza and Chicago style deep dish.

Berkeley Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: Basic Pizza (Basic Urban Kitchen) - San Diego CA

A few years back, I was stunned to discover a terrific New Haven style "apizza" in Portland, Oregon at Apizza Scholls. Trying to hunt down the best pizza in San Diego, I once again stumbled onto a New Haven style pie.
The "Mashed"
BASIC urban kitchen + bar in the East Village is situated in a converted warehouse built in 1912. The original brick walls are still intact, as well as the loading dock garage doors and a huge 16 foot-span ceiling fan.

We arrived for dinner around 6pm on a balmy night, and the garage doors were raised so that the dining space was open to the street. We were seated quickly and had attentive service from the staff.

The one-page menu is focused on the pizza, classic mixed drinks (I had a dirty martini with bleu cheese stuffed olives), and a short but well-considered choice of beers and wine.
Sausage pie
The "classic" pies on the menu seemed a bit overloaded with toppings, but we were intrigued by the white pie with mashed potato and bacon. The only successful potato-topped pie I've ever had was at Sally's in New Haven, so this was a worthy gamble.

To sample a more traditional pizza, we opted for a "base pie" with red sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan, and sausage topping. Although they typically used pre-cooked sausage, the pizzaiolo agreed to prepare ours the correct way, applying raw sausage to cook on the pie.

Each pie come in a "small" oval or a large one. In fact, the choices are "large" and "immense" - much like the oval pies at Sally's in New Haven. Our red pie was $14, the white pie $14.50. Far too much pizza for two people, but we took on the challenge.
Mashed potato pie at Basic in San Diego

The potato pizza at Sally's in New Haven, for comparison

The white pie arrived first. If there is such a thing as pizza love at-first-sight, this was it. A big oval with a puffy, uneven, deeply browned cornicione that framed a white sea of mashed potatoes and cheese on which little bacon boards seemed to float.
Crystal's first day on the job, with Breanna
The crust lived up to its visual promise. Although a little soft at the outer edge of each big slice, it was thin and crispy on the bottom with an ideal chewiness. Like all the best pies, it got better in texture the closer each bite brings you to that gorgeous cornicione.
Magnificent crumb in the cornicione
The cloud-like puffiness there combined with its superb flavor for a near-perfect bread experience. Oh, there was stuff on top, too!

The potatoes were mashed to a perfectly crumbly texture, and applied in proper modest proportion. I think I detected some garlic flavor in there, too. The bacon, crisp and chewy, added an ideal final burst of flavor. 

The cheese was a nice role player. I might have added a saltier aged cheese into the mix, but that's an insignificant quibble. If I had a leftover slice, I'd heat it up with a fried egg for breakfast. Wonderful stuff.
Our red pie was generously dotted with lumps of fresh Italian sausage. The crust was identical to the mashed potato pie - a bit soft in the center due to the volume of sauce and cheese, and ideally crisp and chewy everywhere else. There is a base pie on the menu that leaves out the mozzarella - I'd love to try that so that the crust can shine even more.

The sauce on the red pie was a role player, as was the mozzarella and Parmesan combo. They added the right balance of textures and flavors, but the crust was clearly the star. Even as a bit of a red pie purist, I had a slight preference for the white pie while my dining buddy Jeff leaned toward the traditional red pie.

The million dollar question - how did these California/New Haven pizzas compare to the originals in Connecticut? Well, the crust is about as good as any crust, anywhere. Better than Sally's, on which this pie appears to be modeled. Better than Portland's Apizza Scholls. Not sure it tops Frank Pepe's, but this is first rank pie. I suspect it has earned a place in my Top Ten.
Banh mi from The Food Shop
I can't resist mentioning that this area is also home to the best banh mi (Viet hoagie) that I've ever eaten. For about $6, "The Food Shop" at 465 5th Ave offers a delicious sandwich that combines a toasted French roll with savory Viet cold cuts and a mix of crisp vegetables. Unforgettable.

San Diego has turned out to be a terrific culinary destination. If you're in the East Village or neighboring Gaslamp section, Basic Pizza and The Food Shop should be numbers one and two on your list. 

Basic Urban Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Food Shop Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato