Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review: Collegeville Italian Bakery Pizzeria Napoletana, Collegeville PA

Let's make it official: 2016 is the year when the world (beyond Michigan and pizza insiders) discovers Detroit style pie.  At first glance, a Detroit pie looks like a Sicilian style rectangle pie with its thick crust. The Detroit pie is different, though, in a few key ways.
Collegeville slices. Click any image to enlarge

First, the cheese is applied all the way to the edges and beyond, so that it drips down the sides of the pie and caramelizes along the edge of the specialized metal baking pan. Second, a Detroit pizza typically relies less on mozzarella cheese and more on brick cheese or a mix of brick, cheddar, and/or mozzarella. Finally, the sauce is not cooked on the pizza, but ladled on top in two rows after the pie has baked.
Rigid crust on the Collegeville NY slice

I still haven't been to Detroit for the original at Buddy's Pizza, but I had stellar Detroit style pie during my visits to Norma's Pizza in Manheim, PA. Norma won the 2016 Caputo Cup for her astonishing New York style pizza, but her Detroit pie is just as good. In another spot far-removed from Detroit, Via 313 in Austin TX is serving up Detroit style pizza in addition to very authentic thin bar pies.
Detroit slice at Norma's Pizza in Manheim PA
Detroit pie at Via 313 in Austin TX
Detroit slice at Grande Pizza, Boca Raton FL

Most recently, I traveled to Boca Raton, FL for the very good Detroit pie at Grande Pizza. After lamenting that I couldn't get a Detroit pie near my Pennsylvania home, I was alerted to Collegeville Italian Bakery Pizzeria Napoletana. It's only about 35 minutes from my home, so I made a point to get there on a Saturday afternoon.

In the Philly suburbs (Collegeville, home of Ursinus College, is about 45 minutes from Philly), there is a tradition of bakery-made "tomato pies" which are like a Sicilian pizza without cheese, served at room temperature. I enjoy a Philly tomato pie, but not as much as the folks who grew up eating them. I came to Collegeville Italian Bakery Pizzeria Napoletana fearful of finding a white-bread bakery style tomato pie dressed up and pretending to be a Detroit style pizza.


What I found was that "bakery" is a misnomer. There is seating for over 100 here, and there is an extensive menu featuring freshly baked bread, rolls, cookies in addition to restaurant items like deli salads, wings, soup, burgers, cold and hot sandwiches, and an improbably large variety of pizzas: breakfast pizza, Roman style al taglio pies, NY style, Detroit style, and wood-fired Neapolitan 12" personal pies.
Breakfast pizza. From

Because I had a large crew of five to feed, I ordered two pies - one NY style with pepperoni, and one Detroit style topped with sausage. It's unfortunate that I got both pies for takeout, and it was 20-30 minutes before they came to our kitchen table, lukewarm. Not the best way to assess pizza for a first visit, but (spoiler alert) there will be many more visits.
Detroit pizza

The NY pie is advertised as 16" in diameter, but it looked bigger and filled the takeout box. First inspection revealed some lovely "spicy cup" pepperoni sitting atop a sea of lightly cooked cheese. Most notable was the cornicione, which was thin and dark and a tell-tale sign of an old-school approach.
NY Pizza

The entire crust was thin, crisp, rigid yet flexible in texture. Underneath, it was a uniform golden brown with little spotting. Its flavor matched the promise of its look, too. I imagine all the bread products are good here, and that bodes well for all the sandwiches on the menu.
NY slice

The sauce was lively, but applied sparingly and was almost invisible under the cheese. The cheese was tasty enough - conventional mozzarella - but I'd have enjoyed it more if it has acquired some top browning.
Wood-fired dome oven

The crust seemed perfectly cooked even as the cheese and pepperoni could have used a few minutes under a broiler.  The pepperoni was fabulous - all told, this was an excellent NY style pizza, authentic in every way.
Underside of the NY slice

The Detroit pie was the drawing card, though. This pie had an entirely different look, having been baked in a pan. It did have the crusty cheese on the edges, but it was about the same color as the dough. On other Detroit pies I've had, the caramelized cheese took on a much darker hue.
Detroit slice edges

The crust was thick, as expected. It had a nice airy interior, but it was more dense than the Detroit pie at Norma's, for instance, or its Sicilian cousin at NY Pizza Suprema. It had a lovely golden crunch underneath. And, of course, the cheese-crusted edges were a delight as we scrambled for the premium corner squares.
Light and airy

This pie was exceptionally well balanced, with perfect proportions of cheese and sauce on top. The excellent sauce was riding on top and applied generously. 

The sausage also sat atop the pie, and we were glad about that. Some Detroit pies and Chicago deep-dish pizzas are made with the bad habit of burying the meat under the cheese, which denies the sausage or pepperoni the chance to get browned and crisp.
Underside of a corner slice

All told, this terrific bakery and restaurant in an outer Philly suburb is - much like the highly acclaimed Via 313 in Austin - succeeding at crafting two very different kinds of authentic pizza. It's hard enough to get a decent NY slice; Collegeville Bakery nails it and then cooks up a superb Detroit style pie. Destination pizza.

Collegeville Italian Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: Grande Pizza Co., Boca Raton FL

What is Detroit style pizza? It's a rectangular pie, baked in a pan, with a thick but usually airy crust. It has a lot in common with a Sicilian style pizza and the Old Forge pies in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Click on any image for full size resolution

Detroit pizza has two features that really set it apart, however. First, the cheese is deliberately spread all the way to the edges, so that it seeps down on the side of the crust for a dark caramelized edge. Second, the red sauce is often ladled on top after the pie has baked.
Oozing cheese at Grande Pizza Co

Here at Pizza Quixote, we've never been to the legendary Buddy's in Detroit, where the style was invented. But we've had spectacular Detroit style pie from:

  • Norma's Pizza in Manheim PA (Norma recently won the Caputo Cup for best NY style pizza, too)
  • Via 313 in Austin TX (where you can also get authentic thin-crust bar pie)
  • Binge House Pizza in Downingtown PA (a hybrid of Detroit and Old Forge styles)

Detroit pie at Via 313

All of those pies are spectacular, so we were keen to try the Detroit style pizza at Grande Pizza Co in Boca Raton once we learned it was a menu option. Grande has four South Florida locations.

In Boca, Grande looks like just another unremarkable pizza joint in a strip mall. When you enter the modern space, there is a long counter that seems tailored for take-out orders, then a pretty large dining area that is anchored by a U-shaped bar. Certainly a bit more upscale than the typical mom and pop pizza shop.

The menu looked pretty much like the standard "something for everybody" list of subs, gyros, wings, other fried stuff, and pizzas. In fact, the Detroit pie is buried under the "New York Style" pizza options. 
The bar at Grande Pizza Co in Boca

If you check their online menu, there is no mention of Detroit style; instead, a "crusty cheese" pie is listed. Bottom line - you're not getting the Detroit pizza unless you go there seeking it out; we did.
Brilliant caramelized edge

We began with a house salad, which offered the standard ingredients but was crisp and fresh, and decorated with some nice spicy pepperoncini.

Our group (3 people) chose pepperoni as a topping for our $15 Detroit pie. Our pizza arrived cut into eight generous rectangular slices; four of those were corners with caramelized cheese on two edges.

At Via 313, my only disappointment was that the pepperoni was buried under the cheese, following the Detroit tradition. Here, happily, the pepperoni rode on top. The large rounds were generously applied, but they were thin slices of standard grade stuff. They enhanced the pie, but only by a little.
A premium corner slice

Most Americans love an over-cheesed pie, and this one was loaded. It was premium grade Grande mozzarella (no relation), and it was applied in a thick layer that oozed off the edges of every slice. This made for mandatory knife and fork eating.

I'm not certain if the sauce was applied post-bake or not, but it did ride atop the cheese. The sauce had a nice smooth texture and an excellent, slightly sweet flavor. We all agreed that we'd like more of this sauce and less of the cheese.
Beautifully golden brown underneath

The crust was superb. It was a little thinner than a Sicilian pie, mostly light and airy in its interior, and it sported a perfect crunchy brown bottom without being excessively oily. It seemed a bit compressed under the weight of all that cheese, but somehow this pie was exceptionally well balanced in its textures.

Each bite delivered a nice mix of crunch and chew from that fine crust, and a classic salty pizza flavor from the Grande cheese and that red sauce. Despite the flaws of too much cheese and too little sauce and standard grade pepperoni, this was a delicious and delightful pizza.

Our party of three adults shared the large salad and then polished off this pizza with little difficulty; we left feeling satiated but not stuffed. I think that is a reflection on the airiness of the crust.
The brilliant hybrid pie at Binge House

Our service was polite and efficient; I'd love to go back at dinner time and enjoy this pizza with a glass of red wine. I think that if the pizzaiolo held back on the cheese and doubled the red sauce, this pie would be as good as the legendary square slices at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn.

It's not quite at the magical level of Norma's, Binge House, or Via 313, but it's excellent pizza. South Florida can boast of a lot of fine pizza joints. Grande Pizza Co joins Scuola Vecchia, Jerk Oceano, Tucci's, Nick's New Haven, and Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza as yet one more destination pie in the region.

Grande Pizza Co. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, January 22, 2016

Review: Jerk Oceano (Pizzeria Oceano), Lantana FL

Until July of 2015, the best pizzeria you never heard of was operating from a beach-style shack in overlooked Lantana, Florida. There in the shadow of glitzy neighbor towns like Palm Beach and Delray Beach, Dak Kerprich was churning out thin crust pies from a wood-fired oven to in-the-know locals. 
"The Basic" at Oceano. Click any image to enlarge

After flying under the radar for six years operating as Pizzeria Oceano, Dak changed his restaurant to a Caribbean-theme with an emphasis on fresh seafood, and re-dubbed it Jerk Oceano. The pizzas moved to a new pie take-out spot, Swell Pizza in nearby Delray. (Swell is no longer open, as of January 2016).
Broccoli leaves and kielbasa as toppings

Before and after the change, Oceano is a quirky spot with no phone, no reservations, no sign or any external indication of its identity, and only a few hours advance notice of the day's menu on their website at
No external signs to identify Oceano

Even though the emphasis has changed, pizza still makes an appearance on the menu some nights (at least since Swell closed). We hit the jackpot on a Thursday, and arrived ahead of the 6pm opening time (on weekends, patrons can wait an hour or more for one of the dozen or so tables). 
The small interior and Dak in the kitchen; wood stove in rear

It was a pleasant winter night in South Florida, well-suited to al fresco dining (very limited indoor seating, which seems to go to the regulars). The indoor and restroom have some fun and funky decor.
Menu options on the day of our visit

For our party of three, we choose both pizzas from the menu, a roasted fennel and cornbread appetizer, and an apple-arugula salad. There is also a short but very well-assembled beer and wine list. We chose the $38 Hendry Ranch Zinfandel, which was superb. Notably, the wine mark-up was much less than in most restaurants. 
Cornbread and roasted fennel, with olives and tomatillo

The cornbread dish came first. Its modest size made for three small servings to share, but it was a delightful mix of textures and flavors, all finished in that wood-fired brick oven. I've never been able to coax flavors out of tomatillos like the ones in this dish. A perfect start.

The kitchen kept up the high standards with our apple-arugula salad. The orange mint leaves dominated a little too much, but the dish was still eagerly consumed.
The basic Basic

Even though we had ordered the night's "Basic" pizza that was to include shallots, broccoli leaves, olives, and datil chili oil, Dak's brother Jay explained that first-time visitors get the very basic Basic, which is made with organic California tomato sauce and house-made mozzarella.

The pie was about 16" in diameter, and was cut into six generous slices. It was topped with several large fresh basil leaves, applied post bake. The crust was very thin, crisp, and nearly rigid enough to support the toppings when held in one hand.
Thin, crisp, leopard spotted

Spoiler alert: everything about this pizza - and this entire meal, start to finish - was first rate. But let's focus on the pizza crust, the key element to any pizza. This one is easy to describe but hard to categorize.
Close up of the crumb

In one sense, it was a little bit like a Neapolitan in its flavor, but it was not puffy or thick anywhere. It shared a little in common with a bar pie, but it was lighter and airy. It also reminded me of the minimalist crust at Philly's legendary Tacconelli's.

Like all the best crusts, it had a great flavor all on its own. Dak uses organic domestic wheat, and the dough ferments for 48 hours. Despite its very thin composition, it was ideally balanced to the piquant sauce and modest amounts of cheese. Together with the fresh basil and some olive oil as finishing touches, this was an ideal pie. We devoured it rapidly.
Pizza with broccoli leaves and kielbasa

The second pie came as described on the menu. No red sauce, a bit more cheese, lots of broccoli leaves, and diced kielbasa. It sported the same magnificent crust, and the ingredients again were perfectly balanced. 

I don't typically enjoy broccoli or any wet and heavy vegetables on a pizza, because they disrupt the balance without adding helpful flavors. However, we all relished this creative use of broccoli leaves, which were the right texture and flavor. 
Fairly rigid support for such a thin and airy crust

This is second time I've had kielbasa on a pizza, and it's a winner. Because smoked kielbasa is such a powerful flavor, the smaller diced bits were a better choice than larger or thick slices of meat.
That's Jay, in the baseball cap

Overall, we had a slight preference for the Basic pizza, due to the delicious red sauce. But these were both wonderful pies that left us wondering, can Jerk Oceano challenge Scuola Vecchia as the best pizza in South Florida?
Weirdly funky bathroom decor

We concluded our meal with the chocolate cake, garnished with toasted pine nuts. It was the perfect finish, and its lightness and moderated sweetness maintained the high level that began with our first appetizer. It's very rare that a kitchen executes at such a high level for all courses of a meal. Easily one of the best meals I've had anywhere, any time.
Pizza Geeks at work

Dak's brother Jay is the frontman who seats the customers and takes orders. He explained to us how almost all the dishes are prepared in the brick wood oven, and he encouraged us to come back on a night when the menu includes fresh seafood. "If we cook it that night, it was caught the same morning."
Nearby on the waterfront, a Pelican wishes for pizza

I know this - if I was a local, I'd back back on a frequent basis. I'd gladly endure the quirks of seating, menu, and phoneless approach in order to enjoy the impeccable fare. I'd even eat there on nights with no pizza.

Pizzeria Oceano Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato