Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: Mama Cozzi's Take & Bake Thin Crust Pizza (Sausage and Pepperoni)

For decades, pizza lovers have had the quick-fix option of frozen pizza to bake at home. Although the quality of frozen pizza has improved substantially, it still lags well behind the better pies that you can make yourself or buy from a pizzeria.
Mama Cozzi's Thin-crust Sausage and Pepperoni Pizza

One recent "convenience pizza" development is the "take and bake" refrigerated pizza. These began in specialty shops, such as Mom Mom's Take and Bake, in Newtown PA. (Bonus trivia - Mom Mom's was shown in the 2002 film Signs that was shot in Bucks County, PA). At these specialty stores, you could order a customized pie on a par-baked crust, then take it home for the full bake. As I recall, the Spinach Salad pizza at Mom Mom's was especially tasty.

Within the last five years, the refrigerated take and bake pizzas have begun to show up in just about every supermarket. They seem to be priced as loss leaders - big pizzas, loaded with toppings, in the $5 to $8 range. A few years ago, we tried the Artisan Take and Bake pizza from Costco - full review is HERE

Being ALDI fans in general, we also tried the ALDI version, Mama Cozzi's Italian Meat Pizza - full review HERE. It was a thin-crust pie that remained chewy, not crackerlike, after baking. Recently in the local ALDI, I saw a large variety of take and bake pies, but was drawn (again) to the thin-crust one. It seems as if the Italian Meat pizza has been re-badged as a simple Sausage and Pepperoni pizza with a blend of mozzarella and provolone (compared to the "five cheeses" of the Italian Meat pizza).
Right out the freezer, in shrink wrap, before baking

The instructions changed a bit, too, with recommended baking time of 10-16 minutes instead of 10-14. Before baking, I removed all the meat and then distributed it more evenly on the pie, and I cut each large pepperoni slice into two bite-sized pieces. I also added a bit of sweet yellow peppers and purple onion.
Post bake, before slicing

I followed the directions and baked it at 400 degrees. I put it on a low rack, with my Baking Steel on another rack six inches above to better deliver top heat.To reach an ideal state of crispness, I often need to cook frozen or take/bake pizzas longer than indicated by package directions, and then finish them under the broiler to get some top browning. However, I checked this one at 12 minutes and it seemed done underneath and on top.
Sliced and ready to eat

I gave it a traditional cut into 8 triangles for serving. The first thing we noticed was the thin and crackerlike crust. This one was not chewy like the Italian Meat pie; it was crisp (yet dense), crunchy, and it had an excellent flavor. 
Click to enlarge

Every other ingredient was a role player; the sauce and cheese and meats surely contributed to a well-balanced taste and texture, but none stood out as especially good or lacking.

I think the regular price on this 16" pizza is $4.99; I found it on special for $3.49. At either price point, this is a tasty pizza that sits - without shame - about halfway between a good cracker-thin crust Midwest pie like Rubino's (full review HERE) and the cheapest thin cracker frozen from Totino's
A close look at the thin crackerlike crust
Underside of the crust

There is no such thing as a good low-calorie pizza, but this entire pie clocks in at 1900 calories, so if you eat half of it, you're still under 1000 calories. That puts this pie on the low end of the pizza calorie spectrum. Scary, perhaps, but then don't even look at the calories on some of the meat-laden self-rising frozen pies you can get.

This pizza was better than what you get from the large chains, better than most frozen pizza, and even better than most mom-and-pop storefront pizzas. It's not grand or gourmet, but like most things ALDI, it was pretty good and very inexpensive. We'll have it again, no doubt.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Review: DiMeo’s Pizzaiuoli Napulitani, Wilmington DE

Among Philadelphia's growing number of authentic Neapolitan pizza restaurants, Pizzeria DiMeo's enjoys a solid reputation for its Andorra location. Insiders know, also, that the father and son owners (Pino and Antino DiMeo) have opened another Philly-region location in Wayne - Arde Osteria & Pizzeria

This DiMeo team has yet another venue, in nearby Wilmington DE with DiMeo’s Pizzaiuoli Napulitani. Given the great reputation of the Andorra DiMeo's, we headed for this Delaware location after a visit to the nearby Winterthur Museum and Gardens.

The modern storefront, on busy Market Street, led us into a long and narrow space, with the kitchen and pizza counter separating a small front dining area from a larger seating space in the rear. I had anticipated a more cozy or rustic space, but this looked like only a mildly upscale version of the typical strip mall pizza joint. Another surprising aspect - for a pizzeria calling itself Neapolitan - is that pizza is sold by the slice. The pies on display looked little different than those of the typical suburban slice shop.

I took some encouragement from the menu, where the pizzas are divided into "Le Pizze Napoletane" and "Le Pizze Americane." Perhaps, I thought, the counter stuff is just a compromise for patrons interested in a cheap and fast slice, and the "real" Neapolitan stuff can be made to order from the menu?

The Neapolitan pie menu offered some intriguing options. We choose a full-size pie and we were able to do half-and-half of two different offerings. We chose the Napoletana (san marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, prosciutto di parma, arugula, shaved parmigiano reggiano) and the Fica (fig spread, mozzarella di bufala, prosciutto di parma, arugula, truffle oil).

Although I usually disdain the greasy garlic knots offered at strip mall slice joints, the small "Rotolini" swirls at the counter here looked especially appealing, and they were offered as pepperoni rolls or broccoli rolls. We ordered a mix of those for an appetizer, and they were superb. 

Rotolini close-up
They seemed to made from pizza dough, rolled with cheese and pepperoni or broccoli, and baked to a brilliant golden brown with crisply charred bottoms. Served with a nice cup of marinara sauce for dipping, each bite offered an external crunch with an inner tender dough bite with the added flavors of cheese, pepperoni, or broccoli. These were terrific, but we managed to stop after sharing three of them.

Our pizza arrived soon after. Despite the significant differences of the two halves of our pie - tomatoes and shaved parm on one half versus fig spread and truffle oil on the other half - the shared toppings of arugula and prosciutto made it tough to visually distinguish the two sides of the pie. 

This pizza, although beautiful to the eye, was clearly not a Neapolitan pie. Its size alone - somewhere in the 16" - 18" diameter range - disqualified it. The overall shape of the crust was more akin to that of a New York style pizza, with a thin crust and a thicker cornicione, but not the fat puffy handle of a Neapolitan pie. However, although the crust was sturdy enough to support the toppings, it was a bit softer and more pliant than other top-end thin crust pies. In look and in texture, it was mostly a New York style pizza.

I began with a slice of the Fica. Unlike the bold flavor combinations I've had elsewhere with similar toppings (such as the fig jam, onion, and Gorgonzola pizza at Jules Thin Crust), the fig spread here served to provide a hint of sweetness that played very well with the savory prosciutto. I loved this slice, but I confess that I ate it so fast that I did not notice if the truffle oil was a distinct factor. The prosciutto was wonderfully flavored, but it was cut a little too thickly and applied in large slices. For toppings that you cannot bite through, I prefer them to be cut into smaller, bite-size portions - but this is a minor quibble.

On a related note, I love arugula and the flavor that this spicy green lends to pizza, but it usually floats on top (and falls off inelegantly) while eating. I'd improve that here (and everywhere that arugula is offered as a topping) by chopping it a bit and adding some oil to help it adhere to the pizza. Again, a minor quibble.

I enjoyed the Fica, but the Napoletana side was even better. The piquancy of the San Marzano tomatoes and the shaved parmigiana gave this slice a rich depth of flavor. Still, for both sides of this pizza, the crust was the most interesting element. It can best be described as a hybrid. My sense is that it is crafted much as a Neapolitan dough would be, but something changes when it is made into a full "American" sized pizza. It had all the flavor of a Neapolitan crust, but none of the puffiness, little of the softness, and none of the typical leopard-spot char. But it had a bit of crispness, a lot of pliancy, and it served perfectly as a base for the high-end toppings.

This pizza is tough to categorize, but more than any other style, it seems to be New York pizza and a very good rendition. It does seem to be altered to serve to customers who are not ready to take the leap from a slice joint to authentic Neapolitan pizza. We had terrific service, there is wine and beer on the menu, and street parking was not too difficult. Clearly not Neapolitan pizza, but excellent pie nonetheless. 

We had a few slices leftover, and I reheated them a few nights later. I ate another slice of the Fica pie, and it was wonderful. The re-heat is not always a fair test of how good the pizza was coming out of the oven, but here the flavors (and texture) were still in A+ mode. This pizza looks conventional, but it's great stuff.

DiMeo's Pizzaiuoli Napulitani on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 26, 2014

The 14 Breakout Pizzas of 2014

The best annual recap of pizza comes from Adam Kuban, with "8 Pizzas That Haunt My Dreams." Adam is in fact living the dream, having made the transition from pizza writer to pizza maker with his popup pizza in Brooklyn. His tradition inspired my own annual list, based on the discoveries documented here at Pizza Quixote

Three and a half years into compiling a pizza blog, and there are no signs that I'm running out of new places worth trying. Some are the venerable places with well-deserved legendary reputations, and others are new places that have sprung up during the ongoing pizza renaissance. Amazingly, I had to omit some pretty good pies to get this list down to just fourteen.
At Napolese, Indianapolis, IN

Honorable mentions go to Napolese in Indianapolis IN, Grotto Pizza in Dewey Beach, DE, and Tony Boloney's in Hoboken, NJ. Click on any of them to see a full review.

Here they are - the Breakout Pizzas discovered in 2014. Go get some! Click on any pizzeria name to get the full review and pictures. These are not the best pies ever, but they are the unforgettable pizzas of 2014. All fourteen of these are included in our list of 100 Pizzas Worth the Calories

14) Clank's Bar, Marcus Hook PA.  Clank's was on my radar for a long time. There is always something special about a neighborhood taproom that is turning out a great pizza. The very best of that breed is Lee's Tavern in Staten Island and their brilliant bar pies; at Clank's, it's a thick pan pizza with a dense sauce and the cheese underneath.
Pan pizza at Clank's Bar

13) Rosati's Authentic Chicago Style Pizza, Bloomington IL. This local chain makes both a deep-dish and a thin-crust party-cut pie, which I sampled and enjoyed. If you are on the east or left coast, you may not know the wafer thin pizzas of the Midwest, cut into bite-size squares, but they have earned a spot on the list of great pies.
A party-cut slice at Rosati's

12) Barbuzzo, Philadelphia PA. Have you ever seen two wonderful pizza joints that are adjacent to one another? Probably not even in Naples! But Philadelphia has just that on 13th Street, where Barbuzzo turns out some lovely Neapolitan pies right next to Zavino. Both are small but lively spaces with a bit of sidewalk space for al fresco dining.
Neapolitan pizza at Barbuzzo

11) Vecchia Pizzeria Napoletana, Phoenixville PA. Vecchia is another of the growing number of authentic Neapolitan pizzas being made in the US. They imported the materials and the oven maker for their dome oven that cooks pies in 2 minutes at 900 degrees. This tiny borough is fortunate to be home to Neapolitan pie every bit as good as places in Philly and Brooklyn.
Margherita con soppressata at Vecchia

10) Pica's, Upper Darby PA. Pica's is legendary in this Philly suburb, and it got a big boost when Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey shared some Pica's pizza on Fallon's TV show. Like Clank's Bar, Pica's makes a pan pizza that is "upside down" with the cheese under the sauce. It's kind of a Philly thing and it's a cousin to a Philly tomato pie, with that thick and airy bakery style crust. Very old school, very red gravy, the kind of place that never changes.
Pan pizza at Pica's

9) Bufad, Philadelphia PA. Philly's gentrifying Loft District is home to Bufad, which offers Neapolitan pies and square al taglio cuts. It's a cozy space with great service. Roman-style pizza is still largely undiscovered in America, but Bufad is helping to change that.
Al taglio at Bufad

8) Regina Pizza, Boston MA. We paid $30 to park and then stood in line for an hour on a cold October night to get a pizza at the original location of this legendary Boston local pizza chain -- and it was worth it. This pie goes shoulder to shoulder with the old time classics such as John's in Manhattan, Totonno's in Coney Island, and Frank Pepe's in New Haven. Major props for keeping the quality so high while churning out so many pies for locals, college kids, and tourists.
Lined up for Regina Pizza in Boston

7) Joe & Pat's, Staten Island NY. Across the nation, pizza lovers are mostly aware of the great pies in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but Staten Island can be overlooked. However, with Lee's Tavern, Denino's, and Joe & Pat's, Staten Island is home to world-class old-school pies. You don't have to stand in a line to get this pie - but it's good enough to warrant that kind of demand.
Underside of a slice at Joe & Pat's

6) Nomad Roman, Philadelphia PA. Philly has truly become a pizza destination town. Legendary Tacconelli's, upstart Pizza Brain, Trenton-style tomato pies at Gennaro's, Bufad, and plenty more. Nomad is already established in Philly with its funky pizza wagon, and two fixed locations making state of the art Neapolitans. At this newest location, the pie is a thin crust Roman style. Not Roman al taglio like Bufad, but a round pie that took me back to Le Montecarlo in Rome. This pie is so light and thin and yet substantial in flavor.
Roman pizza at Nomad

5) Lucca Grill, Bloomington IL. Bloomington is a lovely town that is home to State Farm and Illinois State University. Because it is more than two hours from any major airport, it has a low profile. But the locals and visitors are glad it has some stellar versions of the thin-crust party-cut Midwestern style pizza that you can get at more famous places like Vito & Nick's in Chicago. A delightful venue with great pizza and great service.
Top and bottom of party-cut slices at Lucca Grill

4) Lombardi's, Manhattan NY. The place where pizza began in America, according to many accounts. Like Regina in Boston, Lombardi's is a major tourist attraction and they are cranking out LOTS of pizza. We went on a lovely warm August Saturday at lunch time, and our pie was rock solid. Even though the oven-charred crust had some droop, this pie was exceptionally well-balanced. Is it Pizza Mecca? Not quite, but serious pizza eaters need to visit at least once.
A slice at Lombardi's

3) Pizzeria Vetri, Philadelphia PA. Yet another destination pizza in Philly. We tried the superb Neapolitan pie, which is pretty much the same as the pizza at Marc Vetri's upscale Osteria venue. But I nearly fell off my chair swooning over the al taglio cut with soppressata. This expensive slice was art-gallery beautiful to see and even better to eat. Walking distance from the new home of the Barnes Museum? Bonus!
Al taglio at Vetri, pretty enough for framing

2) Norma's Pizza, Manheim PA. Lancaster County is home to the big-portion meat-and-potatoes Amish style dining; hence it was an unlikely spot for destination pizza. You can get it only on Tuesdays (when the Roots Country Market is open), but Norma Knepp is crafting some brilliant Detroit-style and "Boardwalk style" pizzas there in her tiny shop. She's been dubbed the "Dough-Li Lama" and she's a genuine pizza scientist. Easily my favorite pizza experience of 2014. Get some yourself!
Boardwalk pizza at Norma's

1) Scuola Vecchia, Delray Beach FL. My personal pizza bias is toward the thin and rigid crust styles of old-school pizzas of New York, New Haven, and Trenton. While most of the new pie makers in the current Pizza Renaissance are crafting authentic Neapolitans, none of them had been able to challenge for the top spot. However, Scuola Vecchia (Italian for "old school") has changed all that. Their Neapolitans are state of the art. 
Salsiccia pie at Scuola Vecchia

My two dining companions both felt "best pizza of my life." I'm not ready to bump DeLorenzo's or Pepe's or DiFara, but this pie is a game-changer. The Neapolitans at Scuola Vecchia are ideal in texture and moisture (a frequent point of failure for Neapolitan pies), and topped with wonderful fresh tomatoes, cheese, and savory cured meats. We were in heaven eating this pie in a crowded and noisy shop on a trendy street of this popular beach town. Scuola Vecchia is our top breakout pizza of 2014.
Interior at Scuola Vecchia