Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review: Nomad Roman, Philadelphia

Two years ago, I attended the South Philly Pizza Olympics. A fun bargain event (but seriously over-crowded). Most pizzamakers had boxes of their pies brought it - and of course the quality suffered. Pizza quickly got to room temperature, and it steamed itself soft inside the delivery boxes. You can see my Full Recap Here
Roman pizza at Nomad Roman, Philadelphia. Click any pic to enlarge!

The easy winner was Nomad Pizza, because they were churning out fresh and wonderful Neapolitan pies from the wood-fired oven in their 1949 REO Speedwagon. 
At the 2012 South Philly Pizza Olympics

 Nomad had, at that time, three "locations" including Philly, Hopewell NJ, and that mobile truck. Not long ago (October 2013), another Philly location made its debut at 1305 Locust Street - Nomad Roman
Inside Nomad Roman (from

All the other Nomad locations make Neapolitan pie - the city's best, according to Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan. Neapolitan is that smallish, puffy, charred and chewy style of pizza that is typically cooked in under two minutes at temps from 800 to 1000 degrees. Purists (not me) will insist on San Marzano tomatoes and Bufala mozzarella.

Italy's most famous city, Rome, does not enjoy the same pizza reputation as its southern neighbor, Naples.  But there are at least two distinct styles of Roman pizza. 
Pizza al taglio, et al, in Rome

One is pizza al taglio (pizza by the cut) which is sold as slices.  Typically baked as a large rectangle, the slices are squarish, with a medium thickness to the crust. It may sometimes look like a Sicilian pizza, but it's not thick and doughy. Pizza al taglio was spectacular at Forno Marco Roscioli in Rome (full review HERE).
Pizza al taglio at Jules Thin Crust

The Philly region is fortunate to have a few sources for al talgio pie - the funky stuff from local mini-chain Jules Thin Crust (reviewed HERE), the imaginative slices at Bufad in Philly's hipster frontier (reviewed HERE), and the magnificent $6 slice at Pizzeria Vetri (reviewed HERE).
Pizza al taglio at Bufad in Philly
Pizza al taglio at Pizzeria Vetri

The other style of Roman pizza is a round pie with an exceptionally thin crust. The crust is just as thin but not as crisp or crackerlike as a classic American bar pie (as found at Lee's Tavern in Staten Island) or a midwestern party-cut pie (like Rubino's in Columbus OH). The crust on a round Roman pizza is more akin to a very thin Neapolitan - and that is the pie being made at Nomad Roman.
Midwestern pie with "party cut" at Rubino's

In Rome, this round pie was a revelation. It was only 13 or 14 inches across, and sold unsliced. I ordered the simple Marinara pie there at Montecarlo (reviewed HERE), which was assembled with just crust, sauce, and some garlic. Simple, brilliant, elegant, delicious. But so much more a snack than a meal.
Roman pizza at Montecarlo, in Rome

I haven't had a pie like that until Nomad Roman. I prefer to eat a pizza at the source, because most pies suffer from travel. But circumstances dictated take-out, so I called ahead and ordered one $11 Marinara pie (to compare to my experience in Rome) and one $16 "Spicy Soppressata" pie with fresh mozzarella, soppressata, parmesan, honey, and red pepper flakes.  

On this Thursday summer night around 8:30, the tables were about half full. Importantly, the staffer who took my call was alert, polite, and made sure that the kitchen staff did not slice the pies, per my request. The interior was cozy and inviting - I know I will be back to experience the pie in-house.

I didn't have opportunity to taste the pies that night, so they spent an evening in the refrigerator. The next evening, I reheated them on my gas grill, which was pretty easy because they were not yet sliced. Because the pies were so thin, each was ready in about 3-4 minutes, and they returned to crispness without drying out.
Marinara pie from Nomad Roman

Both 13" pies were spectacular to look at - pizza suitable for framing. The Marinara pie was remarkably similar to the one I had in Rome; clearly the chefs at Nomad understand the round Roman pie. The crust was one of the thinnest I've ever had, yet it held up well under the toppings. It was pale in its base, with leopard char spots like a Neapolitan, but without the puffy handles.
Spicy Soppressata pie

Every element of each pie had its own distinct flavor - crust, cheese, soppressata, Italian tomatoes, even the red pepper flakes - and they also worked in perfect harmony. The texture was likewise al dente - a little crisp, a little soft, but never soggy.

I cut both pies into six slices and then ate two slices of each pie, but I could have easily eaten both entire pies. By my estimate, each whole pizza had fewer calories than one slice of conventional pizza. This is indeed pizza as a snack, or as an appetizer. Other than the basic ingredients of crust, tomato, and cheese, this pie has little in common with the cheesy/greasy belly-filler role of most American pizza.
Wafer-thin crust

Conclusions? Wonderful stuff in every way. I found nothing to criticize and plenty to love. Great ingredients, wonderful concept, artfully fulfilled. Destination pizza, worth the trip - there should be a long line out the door for this authentic rendition of Roman pizza.

Nomad Roman on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: Vecchia Pizzeria Napoletana, Phoenixville PA

Authentic Neapolitan pizza remains a hot trend, and a very welcome one. The quaint hamlet of Phoenixville, PA is home to about 14,000 people, 28 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where the Schuylkill River meets the French Creek. And this lucky burb has one very authentic Neapolitan pizza slinger of its own.
Margherita con soppressata at Vecchia

Vecchia opened here in 2012, and quickly garnered acclaim from Craig LaBan, who favored the Regina Margherita pie:"Savor the roasty chew of the crust, the creamy cheese and bright fresh sauce in one bite." Vecchia has been on my short list since then, and I finally made the 30 minute trip there for lunch on a Tuesday.
Oven and interior at Vecchia

The menu is pointedly brief. No Buffalo chicken pizza here - just a short list of Neapolitans that includes a white pie, a Marinara (crust and San Marzano tomatoes), a Margherita (adds mozzarella), and the Regina Margherita (uses fresh Bufala Mozzarella). There is also a short list of toppings. Each pie is personal sized, but generously so.  I ate about two thirds of my pie for lunch.
Regina Margherita

Margherita with soppressata

On our visit, shortly after the noon opening, the small place began to fill but there was only one staffer (father of owner Frank Nattle) who tried to keep pace until his pizzaiolo nephew arrived. I love Bufala Mozzarella, but not on my pizza. For my taste, it is too wet and insufficiently salty for pizza. I understand that the soupy center it produces is known and expected on authentic Neapolitans, but I prefer a pie with more salt and with a consistently crisp or chewy texture.

Hence, I ordered the regular Margherita, topped with soppressata. Kevin joined me for lunch and he chose the Regina pie with no extra toppings. The pies cook rapidly in the 1000 degree oven, and they came out quickly. Somehow Vecchia was out of Diet Coke, but unsweetened bottled iced tea was a decent substitute.
Underside of a slice

Like the very best Neapolitan pies, mine was almost perfectly balanced. There was no wet center, the crust was light and puffy, yet with enough chew and substance to hold the toppings well enough that no knife and fork were needed. The crust had a fine flavor all its own, and the lovely browned and blistered cheese added more - but the tomatoes were the standout flavor. Deep orange in color, bright, fresh, tangy, and in harmony with the pie. The soppressata was applied in thin slices, but each imparted a near-explosion of flavor that made each bite rewarding.

Fuel source

Dough ready for pie making

I had a taste of the Regina pie - and it was very good. But it was wet in the center, and the flavors much more subtle than on my pie. I'd love to try the white pie and especially the Marinara, given how good the tomatoes are. Next time!

The ambiance was pleasant, but not very different than any other mom and pop pizza shop beyond the massive dome oven. The pizzaiolo spoke to us at length about the oven, its construction, and let us watch a pizza bake in 60-90 seconds.

A second location is about to open in Wayne, PA, on Philly's Main Line. Wayne is rapidly becoming the New Haven of Pennsylvania, with more great pizza-per-capita than any other city. Jules Thin Crust (reviewed HERE), Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza (reviewed HERE), Arde Osteria & Pizzeria (coming soon). While the Chester county seat of West Chester still waits for its first worthy pizzeria, Wayne will have four.

We spoke to the senior Mr. Nattle about the name "Vecchia," which means "old" and he noted that this pizzeria honors the old traditions of pie making.  My top American Neapolitan remains the pies from Scuola Vecchia ("old school") in Delray Beach, Florida (reviewed HERE), but this Phoenixville pie can stand with the best in the region, such as Stella and Zavino (reviewed HERE) in Philadelphia. It's clearly superior (and more authentic) to the good pie at Stella Rossa in Downingtown (reviewed HERE).

Any complaints about Vecchia?  Only one - it is too far from my West Chester home!  

Vecchia Pizza Napoletano on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: ALDI Specially Selected Pizza Kit

Given my satisfaction with other refrigerated or frozen pizza offerings at ALDI (such as Mama Cozzi's, reviewed HERE), I was intrigued when I saw a weekly special for a $3.79 "Specially Selected" Pizza Kit in the refrigerated section. The kit is a long narrow box, which contains only a small jar of "sweetly spiced sauce" and a small rectangle of pizza dough, rolled up with parchment paper. 

Following the package directions, I pre-heated the oven to 425 and assembled the pie. I added some grated Gouda cheese and slices of ALDI "Country Style Chicken Breakfast Sausage."

I was tempted to bake it directly on my Pizza Grate (full story here on that cooking surface) but instead laid the parchment on the grate. I was also tempted to cook it at a higher temp, but I kept it at 425.
Just dough and sauce in the box

Before baking

The directions called for 15-20 minutes, but the pie looked pale so I left it in for 25 minutes. Even after that, it was not crisp or rigid as I removed the pie; instead the crust was limp.
Out of the oven

I cut it into 8 square slices. The thin crust was sturdy enough to eat it without knife and fork. This pizza (product of Austria!) was tasty enough, but no better than an average frozen pizza. Its soft crust and sweet sauce will probably appeal to children. The Gouda and sausage were nice enhancements, but did not lift the pie above average.
Pale underside of a slice

The crust could be better if I cooked it right on the Pizza Grate or my Baking Steel at 550 degrees, but that sweet sauce is a limiter. The crust - thin, limp, pale when prepared as directed - gets a 3.  The sauce gets a 5. The parchment paper is a nice touch. This is a decent buy at its sub-$4 price, but unless you are feeding kids, why bother?