Sunday, December 21, 2014

One Hundred Pizzas Worth the Calories

It's time again to take stock of every pizza we've tried and can recommend. Here's an unbiased guide to 100 pizzas that justify the calories.
Detroit style at Norma's Pizza, Manheim PA

At the top of this list, you'll find "destination" pizza. These pies are worth not only the calories, but also the extra time and effort to get them. Truly, the Top 65 are destination pies. The others are excellent pizzas, but perhaps you would seek them out only if you are already in the neighborhood.
Oven char at Regina Pizza, Boston MA

Every pizza list has its biases. Some are blatant attempts to be controversial, in order to spark outrage. Others are "click bait" - they exist purely to persuade the reader to click through a slide show in order to maximize ad revenue for the publisher.
Joe and Pat's, Staten Island NY

At Pizza Quixote, there is no hidden motive. I care about good pizza and I hope to share insights on where to find it. This list does display my own pizza preferences - Trenton and New Haven style pies (tomato pie and apizza, respectively) dominate the Top Pies. Even with a list of 100, there is not yet one Chicago deep dish.
Neapolitan pie at Scuola Vecchia, Delray Beach, FL

The geographic concentration is slanted toward my eating opportunities - the east coast. Lots of NY, CT, NJ, PA. However, we also found great pizza in Texas, California, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Louisiana, Tuscany, Massachusetts, Venice, Illinois, and Rome.
Lucca Grill, Bloomington IL

More than any time in decades, there is no excuse to eat crappy chain pizza, or local pie shop stuff made from generic mass-sourced ingredients. Get out and get the good stuff. And leave a comment about any of these 100 spots or the ones I need to add to the list.

Marinara pie at Nomad Roman, Philadelphia

Here is our list; you can find the full review for most of them in the geographical index on the right side of this page.

1) DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies, Robbinsville NJ
2) DiFara Pizza, Brooklyn NY
3) Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, New Haven CT
4) Forno Marco Roscioli, Rome, Italy
5) Tacconelli’s, Philadelphia PA
6) Sally's Apizza, New Haven CT
7) Scuola Vecchia, Delray Beach FL
8) Pizza Brain, Philadelphia PA
9) Papa's Tomato Pies, Robbinsville NJ
10) Gennaro's Tomato Pies, Philadelphia PA
11) La Porta Ristorante, Edgemont, PA
12) Pizzeria Vetri, Philadelphia PA
13) Pizzeria Delfina, San Francisco CA
14) Denino’s, Staten Island NY
15) Joe and Pat's, Staten Island NY
16) Regina Pizza, Boston MA
17) Patsy’s, East Harlem, Manhattan, NY
18) Santarpio’s, Boston MA
19) Lee’s Tavern, Staten Island NY
20) Apizza Scholls, Portland OR
21) Motorino, Manhattan NY
22) Forcella, Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY
23) Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix AZ
24) Grimaldi’s, Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY
25) Totonno's, Coney Island, Brooklyn NY
26) Rubino's Pizza, Columbus OH
27) Vito and Nick's Pizza, Chicago IL
28) 2 Amys, Washington DC
29) La Montecarlo, Rome, Italy
30) Pane Bianco, Phoenix AZ
31) Nomad Roman, Philadelphia PA
32) La Villa, Morrisville PA
33) Zuppardi's Apizza, West Haven CT
34) Nick's New Haven Style Pizzeria, Boca Raton FL
35) Nomad Pizza, Hopewell NJ and Philadelphia PA
36) Modern Apizza, New Haven CT
37) Lombardi's, Manhattan NY
38) Norma's Pizza, Manheim PA
39) Arturo’s, Greenwich Village, NY
40) Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, PA and FL
41) Artichoke Basille’s, Greenwich Village, NY
42) John’s, Greenwich Village, NY
43) Osteria, Philadelphia PA
44) Cambridge 1, Cambridge MA
45) Roberta's, Brooklyn NY
46) Domenica, New Orleans LA
47) Vecchia Pizzeria Napoletana, Phoenixville PA
48) Pieous, Austin TX
49) Lucca Grill, Bloomington IL
50) Zero Otto Nove, Bronx NY
51) Stella, Philadelphia PA
52) Ramagi Brick Oven Pizza, Brooklyn
53) Bufad, Philadelphia
54) Comet Ping Pong, Washington DC
55) Tucci’s Fire N Coal Pizza, Boca Raton, FL
56) New Park Pizza, Queens NY
57) SLiCE, Philadelphia
58) Tosca Café, (Throgs Neck), Bronx NY
59) Sizzle Pie, Portland OR
60) Conte’s, Princeton NJ
61) Spatola's Pizza, Paoli PA
62) Pizzeria Pesto, Philadelphia
63) Zavino, Philadelphia
64) DOCG, Las Vegas NV
65) Tony Baloney's, Hoboken NJ
66) Ricca Pizza, San Gimignano, Tuscany
67) Tommy's Pizza, (Throgs Neck), Bronx NY
68) Russo's Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen, Houston TX
69) Green Parrot, Newtown, Bucks County PA
70) Massimo’s, Hamilton NJ
71) Bar Foscarini, Venice, Italy
72) Wiseguy NY Pizza, Washington DC
73) Barbuzzo, Philadelphia PA
74) Brick Oven Pizza 33, Manhattan NY
75) Rosati's, Bloomington IL
76) Jules Thin Crust, CA and PA
77) Rustica, Philadelphia PA
78) DeLorenzo’s Pizza, Hamilton NJ
79) Franzone's, Bridgeport PA
80) Corropolese Bakery Tomato Pie, Norristown PA
81) Pica's, Upper Darby, PA
82) Napolese, Indianapolis IN
83) Tony Roni's, Willow Grove PA
84) Bertucci’s Jersey City NJ
85) La Sicilia, Belleville, NJ
86) L&B Spumoni Gardens, Brooklyn NY
87) Clank's Bar, Marcus Hook, PA
88) Sauce, Phoenix AZ
89) Pizza by Elizabeth, Greenville, DE
90) Iron Hill Brewery, West Chester PA
91) Grotto Pizza, Dewey Beach, DE
92) The Swiss Hotel, Sonoma CA
93) Magma, Princeton NJ
94) Uncle Oogie’s, Philadelphia
95) Lenny’s, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn NY
96) Stella Rossa, Downingtown PA
97) Monical's Pizza, Bloomington IL
98) Morabito's Tomato Pie (From Costco)
99) Felicia's Pizza Kitchen, Ardmore PA
100) California Pizza Kitchen (national chain)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Pizza Genius: Norma's Pizza, Roots Country Market, Manheim PA

I love Lancaster County, Pa. Home to large settlements of Amish and Mennonite farmers, the beautiful rolling countryside draws tourists from great distances. It's common to see the Amish horse-drawn buggies on the roads there, as well as the school kids on foot or scooters, dressed in black. 
I made this one! Click any pic to enlarge

My home in West Chester PA is close enough for regular visits, and my biggest reason to trek westward on Route 30 is the great quality and variety of produce and other farm products at roadside stands and farm markets.
Roots Country Market

However, I've grown a bit weary of the meat-and-potatoes overload "Amish style" food in the popular tourist restaurants. The approach seems to be "We will serve nothing green, and if it ever was green, we'll cook the green out of it." Lancaster County is not an epicure's destination, and hence truly one of the last places I'd expect to find top shelf pizza.

But for several years, on Facebook pizza groups and and at, I kept seeing pictures and posts from Norma Knepp, described as a "pizza obsessive" who took a keen interest in making pizza and set out to learn all that she could.

I found that she has her own pizza shop, a narrow stand in a huge farm market -- the Roots Country Market in Manheim, which is open only on Tuesdays. When I got the opportunity to have a free Tuesday, visiting Norma's Pizza became a priority.

The Roots Country Market is enormous, at least by "farm market" standards. It is a wonderful throwback kind of place, with long narrow corridors featuring an eclectic mix of vendors. One stall is the vacuum repair guy, the next stall is the coin dealer, then an Amish pastry seller, then a butcher, then the junk store with $3 tools, then the wood carver, then the candy store, and so on. It shares much in common with the long-defunct Pennsauken Mart, and with the Columbus (NJ) Farmers Market, and the Booth's Corner (Boothwyn, PA) Farmer's Market.
The Dough-Li Lama, Norma Knepp

Grand-daughter Drea

I met up with Norma about 11am, just before the lunchtime traffic began to swell.  It was a rainy day and relatively slow, but Norma, with the superb assistance of her granddaughter Drea, was selling pizza (whole and by the slice) as fast as she could make them in her 2-deck gas oven. 

Drea gets special props not only for her pizza skills (which Norma documented on Facebook) but also her smoothly efficient handling of customers while Norma and I chatted about pizza making.
Boardwalk pizza, dressed before baking

Norma is a genuine pizza scientist, and one of her market pals rightly dubbed her the "Dough-Li Lama" for her genius. She has done her homework, studied the experts, and experimented with all the key variables that can make or break a pizza dough: flour type, moisture level, timing of additional ingredients beyond the flour and water, adding malt, rise time, rise temperature. 
A pepperoni boardwalk pie

I learned so much in just a few hours, and I'm hopeful to mimic the wonderful elasticity of her dough the next time I attempt pizza at home.

Norma's mainstay pizza is her thin-crust "Boardwalk Style." The thin and crisp-but-chewy, foldable crust might also be classified as New York style. 

For the first hour or so, I watched Norma make pies. She pats each dough ball with flour, flattens it out with her fingers, then stretches (and sometimes, tosses) the dough into a lovely thin 18" disc.  She applies half the cheese (she experiments, but her base cheese is a white cheddar). Next goes on the sauce (uncooked) in a swirl pattern that mimics Mack's (of the South Jersey shore) and also used at the Grotto pizza chain in Delaware. Finally, the rest of the cheese goes on with any toppings.
Detroit style slices

Norma also makes a Detroit style pizza - something I've never tried.  She uses 9 ounces of dough (different from the dough for her Boardwalk pies; this one has more than 75% hydration) which she presses into a deep rectangular pan.  The cheese goes on, then the sauce in two rows (this smaller pie is cut into just 4 lovely square slices).
Detroit pie, right out of the oven

Because it was lunchtime, I was able to sample slices as pies came out of her oven, fresh and hot.  I waited for a Detroit style slice with pepperoni. Norma uses a spicy pepperoni from Citterio, and it adds a lot of flavor to her pies. A Detroit style pizza is thick and pan baked, but it is not much like Chicago deep dish. It is more akin to a Sicilian-style, but it is improved greatly because the cheese is deliberately spread beyond the borders of the crust, so that each piece gets a crispy edge of wonderfully browned and caramelized cheese.

This was a wonderful slice of pizza, and the only pan-baked rival that comes close is the square pies at Di Fara in Brooklyn.  I'd gladly wait an hour to get a $5 slice at DiFara, but why not spend $2.25 and get a slice with no waiting at Norma's? 
Boardwalk pie with sausage

Soon after, I tried a slice of the Boardwalk pie. You can get a broad hint of how spectacular your slice is going to be when you hear the crust crunching under the big blade as she slices the pie. She makes a huge 18" pie (which doesn't quite fit in a full-size pizza box), and then cuts it into six gigantic slices that sell for $2.00 (plain cheese).  How good can a two-buck slice be?

Perfect hole structure

It can be awesome, indeed. The thin, light, crisp, foldable crust brought to mind the great old school pizza I had at Pizza Brain in Philly, Ramagi in Brooklyn, and Wiseguy NY Pizza in Washington DC. And the hole structure in the cornicione was without peer - this crunchy handle is upper echelon by any measure.

I have the decadent habit of adding salt to pizza, but Norma's home-made sauce (she adds garlic, basil, and oregano) and cheddar cheese made the slice so fully flavored that it needed no extra seasoning. 
My work with the dough

Norma also gave me the chance to make a pie. When I make pizza at home, I struggle to get the dough to be sufficiently elastic for hand-stretching. I usually end up using a rolling pin, which destroys the hole structure.  Here, I felt like a genuine pizzaiolo when working with this pliant dough. I didn't stretch it quite so expertly as Norma; my pie came out a little thicker and not quite the full 18". I followed her sauce and cheese assembly method, put it into the oven, and even turned the pie during its ~6 minute bake.  It must have been a success, because no customer complained about the six slices she sold from that pie.
Norma with the pie I made

Norma also makes a sausage pizza, and she uses fresh Italian sausage that she buys right there in the Roots Country Market. It goes on the pie raw in rough chunks, the way that all the best pie makers do it. I took home a sausage pie for the family and we were unanimous in our love for this pie as we scrambled for the last slices.
Detroit style veggie slices

Great Jersey shore pizza and authentic Detroit style pie at a farm market in Lancaster? I had to experience to believe it. This is not just good pizza - it is wonderful pizza with all these other good aspects: low prices; terrific produce and other great things to buy from other vendors at Roots; Norma's encyclopedic dough knowledge and willingness to share it.
Detroit pies

I had a lot of terrific pizza experiences in 2014, but this one easily tops the list. I can't think of a better way to spend a Tuesday.

Norma's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: Clank's Bar, Marcus Hook, PA

Destination pizza is usually found in one of two different styles of pizzerias. One type is the venerable pizza joint that has been serving the same kind of old-school pizza to generations of patrons. That type of pizzeria often enjoys fame beyond its region, and it includes legendary places like Joe & Pat's in Staten Island,  Santarpio's in Boston, Papa's Tomato Pies near Trenton NJ, Sally's Apizza in New Haven, and Totonno's in Coney Island.
Click on any picture for full-size resolution

The other major category of destination pizzerias includes the new artisanal places that, to the delight of foodies everywhere, are springing up all over America. Many of these are crafting authentic Neapolitan pies in wood-fired domed ovens at 900 degrees; the best of them include Scuola Vecchia in Delray Beach, FL, Forcella in Brooklyn, Zavino in Philadelphia, Pane Bianco in Phoenix, and Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco. Others are making throwback style pies, such as La Villa in Morrisville PA and Gennaro's Tomato Pies and Pizza Brain, both in Philly.

There is one more much smaller category - the cherished local place, somehow undiscovered by the foodies, flying under the pizza radar. One such place is a neighborhood taproom in tiny (2400 residents) Marcus Hook, PA

Clank's Bar was established by Clank and Bert Mongoia in the 1950's. It has changed hands a few times over the years; Dawn Clymer is the fifth and current owner; at age 12, she began working there by helping to make pizza boxes. Clank's website notes that the pizza recipe hasn't changed since inception. 
View of the bar from dining room


From the exterior, Clank's looks like it was once one of the neighborhood row homes; the entry way even has a storm door. There is a bar in the front (where smoking is permitted!) and a long, narrow dining room in the rear. There is an odd but charmingly camouflaged faux brick on the inside of the front door, and an old shuffle bowling arcade game next to the bar. It was immediately homey and comfortable; an old-fashioned shot-and-beer type of watering hole. My guess is that most of the patrons live close enough to walk there.
Wall lights are fashioned from liquor bottles

Shuffle bowling arcade game by the bar

We arrived before 5pm on a Saturday. A handful of happy regulars populated the bar, and one other dining room table was occupied by a large group enjoying the food and the Army-Navy game on the wall-mounted TV. The tipsy laughter coming from the bar made me wonder what it would be like there as the evening wore on.

The menu featured a lot of typical bar food - appetizers, sandwiches, a few salads. The bottled beer selection is mostly domestics; we had a Blue Moon and a Magic Hat ($4 each).  Clank's highlighted menu items are the pizza, the stromboli, and the fried pepperoni appetizer. On our visit, we tried only the pizza. 
Slate serving slab on each table

Men's room decor

I usually prefer sausage on my pizza, but only when it is genuine Italian sausage, applied uncooked in rough chunks. At Clank's, though, our server told us that the sausage was the crumbled, pre-cooked variety, so we opted for a pepperoni pizza. All the pies are rectangular and cooked in a pan; it has much in common with a Sicilian pie and a Philly-style tomato pie. 
Pica's pizza

Much like the better-known Pica's restaurant (also in Delaware County, PA), this is an "upside down" pizza where the cheese is under the sauce. Even though I like the cheese on top to get some oven browning, I had very much enjoyed the pie at Pica's. Our large pizza here at Clank's was $15.00 ($13.25 plus $1.75 for the pepperoni topping).
Pepperoni pie at Clank's

The pizza was served in its well-aged oven pan; on our table it rested on a thick bed of slate that carried a Clank's logo that oddly resembled the Chicago Bears "C" logo. (The Bears reference was particularly peculiar, in light of the crude but funny Philadelphia Eagles deco in the men's room).

There were twelve slices to this thick-crusted rectangular pie. The sauce was a lovely deep red color and visually striking; a generous cover of thick and lightly charred pepperoni circles adorned each of the slices. The uneven edges around the thick cornicione gave the appearance of a home-made pizza.

This pizza crust was a little thicker than the typical Sicilian style pizza, yet lighter in density. It was not quite as airy as the bakery-style crust of a Philly tomato pie (read about that style HERE). It was, actually, about ideal for a thick crust - nicely oiled and crispy on the bottom and light but not "white bread" through the center. We agreed that the crust would be excellent bread; it had its own distinct flavor and delightful crunch. That sets it apart from the typical Philly tomato pie, where the crust is often insubstantial and bland despite its thickness.
A view of the pizza pan

The rich color of the red sauce promised a full flavor, and then delivered on that promise. I loved the red gravy nature of this sauce, although it was messy to eat because it was generously applied and it did ride on top of the cheese.  The cheese - buried under the sauce - seemed to be conventional mozzarella and it was a useful role player.  The generous cuts of pepperoni added that salty and greasy aspect that I like from cured meats on pizza.
Perfectly crisped underside

This is not - obviously - a high end, gourmet undertaking.  This is a simple square pizza rendered from ordinary ingredients, with a terrific result. It won't make you forget the legendary pies or the artisanal Neapolitans, but it has a place in the hearts and bellies of pizza eaters who want to try and enjoy all varieties. Clank's is a special kind of place that once populated urban corners all over, and which has been vanishing since the advent of cheap and convenient chain pizza. We had great service, even though we were outsiders to this cozy neighborhood venue.

Ratings?  The crust earns a 9, the sauce a 9, the pepperoni 8, and the cheese a 5. Destination pizza? Absolutely. We made the wretched drive on Route 322 (the Conchester Highway, a.k.a. the "Con-gested Highway") to get there and I'm glad we did. If you like Pica's, you should like Clank's. And if you want to know what pizza and beer was like in a blue-collar town in the 50s and 60s, this is about as close as you can get in modern times.

Clank's Bar on Urbanspoon