Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: Ellio's Frozen Pizza (Pepperoni)

I have logged decades of pizza eating.  In my experience, the odds of getting decent "supermarket" pizza (via kit, refrigerator case, or freezer) has moved in the opposite direction of the odds of getting worthwhile pizza at your local mom-n-pop pizza shop.
A slice of Ellio's

In other words, if you go back to the 1960s and earlier, most pizza shops used home-made dough, house specialty sauce, and maybe even local sausage and other meat toppings.  Any pizza was made by a pizzaiolo who was a genuine craftsman. On the other hand, supermarket pizza was laughably bad. Frozen pizza was in its infancy, and the pizza kits (such as the one from Chef Boy-ar-dee) yielded thin pies of wet white bread, topped with pink ketchup and barely enough cheese to be visible. Truly wretched.

Until the very recent pizza renaissance, with artisanal pizza shops popping up all over, the quality at the typical corner store pizza joint was sliding downhill. Forced to compete on price with the big chains, they began to order bland mass-sourced ingredients from suppliers like Sysco, and the talented pizza chef was supplanted by cheaper and less skilled pie makers. Your local place is chasing Papa John's and Pizza Hut, but the frozen pies are getting better and better.

This gave rise to my DiGiorno test: is your local pizza better than DiGiorno frozen pizza?  Probably not! 

The point of the preceding discussion is to highlight what was a revelation for me in the 1970s: a chance to get tasty pizza, at home. In my world, the very first was Ellio's frozen pizza. The odd rectangle slices, nine to a box.  It was not like having real pizza parlor pie, but it was a remarkably good snack, from my young perspective. I LOVED Ellio's pizza. Like most childhood treats, I outgrew it and stopped eating it.  But on a nostalgic whim, I picked up a box recently to see how it compares to other frozen pies.

Inside the box, there are three long shrink-wrapped rectangles.  I think each one is designed to break apart into three slices, but I could not discern the break points.  I was re-heating some excellent leftover slices of Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza (full review HERE) on a perforated pizza pan, so I just plunked the Ellio's on there too (after 30 seconds defrosting in the microwave).  The slices cooked for 11 minutes at 400 degrees, then I gave them a minute under the broiler to get the top crisp and sizzling. 

What I found was a thin crust (but with decent hole structure) that was crisp and sturdy. It was bland but inoffensive.  The sauce was sweet, in a way that appeals to kids. The cheese was clearly inferior stuff, with little elasticity or flavor.  The pepperoni was surprisingly good, but wafer thin.

Overall, pretty terrible stuff. But - and this is largely dependent on the strength of your childhood memories - terrible in a good and embraceable way. I enjoyed my slice, and I will (slowly) enjoy the rest of the box.  It's not pizza, really, so much as a snack made of pizza-like ingredients.

I often doctor up slices, and I imagine this could be pretty OK with some garlic, onion, sausage, or other stuff added.
Underside of the crust

No one said it better than Adam Kuban who used the phrase "crappy fantastic" in describing his childhood favorite, Totino's Party Pizza:
Frozen Pizza revels in its crappiness. It amps up the flavor with an ingredients list of junk you probably don't want to look too closely at. It's "pizza" in the same way a Big Mac is a "hamburger" or Taco Bell is a "taco." If you suspend your disbelief, I believe you can thoroughly enjoy it for what it is.
Elliio's frozen pizza is awful. And I like it. Awful good!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Building a High Heat Pizza Oven

We have a guest review from a pizza oven expert, Eli at

Unlike the pizza found in many contemporary restaurants, pizza traditionally has been cooked in large solid ovens built of brick and fueled by fire. These ovens are hugely versatile due to the extreme temperatures they can generate, their energy efficiency and ease of use. 
Conventional gas oven at DiFara Pizza in Brooklyn

The high heats of over 370°C (700°F) mean that once the fresh pizza is placed on the brick hearth of the oven, immediately the dough and sauce will begin to bubble and generate flavours unique to this type of cooking. 
High-heat wood-fired Naples-made oven at Vecchia in Phoenixville PA

The pizza will cook in only 90 seconds producing a perfect base and crust which has been cooked uniformly from all sides top and bottom. These types of ovens are coming back into favour as they create great tasting food and are fun to build and use.

A traditional wood fired oven in the ruins of Pompeii.

Building such an oven can be done at home as a DIY job on essentially no budget all the way up in to the thousands. The basics of the oven are a floor where the pizza is placed called the "hearth," a dome over the hearth which captures and radiates the heat, the "vault" which is the open space between the dome and hearth, and the insulation which is placed over the dome to minimise heat loss to the atmosphere.
Cob oven

Generally, temporary ovens built on the cheap are made out of mud and straw called "cob." Cob ovens are quite basic, cheap and easy to make. The oven is built directly on the ground utilising a few bricks, straw or grass, and standard mud found in your back yard. Simply create a flat section of ground and lay some flat bricks to create a hearth where the pizza will sit. 

The best type of bricks are called "fire bricks" which are widely used in industrial kilns or ovens. The bricks have a high alumina content which ensures they work excellently with high heats. Placing the bricks on a level bed of sand makes it easy to create a level hearth. 
Oven made with fire bricks

Once the bricks are laid a mound of wet sand is built up on the hearth in the shape of the inside of the oven or "vault" and then covered in wet sand. Cob balls are made by mixing wet mud and straw, and then moulding them in the palm of your hands. The balls are then used to create the oven dome using the sand mound as a supporting structure.

Brick ovens are similarly built upon a flat hearth of fire bricks; however, this is generally off the floor in a nice kitchen setting. A wet sand mound or a wooden structure is again constructed to shape the vault of the oven where the dome is built on top. For brick ovens the fire bricks are again used to create the dome, entrance and chimney. Although cob may hold high heats if insulated properly, fire bricks will function at much higher temperatures and create outstanding results.

Once the dome is complete the oven whether cob or brick will need to be insulated so as to retain heat for as long as possible. Well constructed ovens with domes of thickness 4” or more and insulation of 4” or more will take 1-2 hours to bring to temperature and then may stay at cooking temperatures for over 12 hours. Insulation for the oven comes in many different forms such as vermiculite mix cement, or insulating fire blankets.

Finally, the oven is clad with either a mud layer or concrete mortar like mix to create a smooth aesthetic outer finish. A fire is built inside and you’re on your way to cooking up your first of many perfect homemade pizzas.

Detailed descriptions, plans, techniques and how to source the required materials can be found here:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: Grotto Pizza, Dewey Beach DE

Grotto Pizza is a regional small chain, with 16 locations in tiny Delaware, 3 in Pennsylvania, and 2 in Maryland. It's pretty much unknown outside the area, but it's the pizza of choice for many residents of the First State.  On a recent visit to lovely Dewey Beach, I had my first chance to try it.
A 12" pie from Grotto

In general, I avoid chain pizza.  Most of it is made with inferior mass-sourced ingredients, both to allow a low price and to appeal to the palates of children and ravenous drunks.  
Click on any pic for full size image

Having said that, some chains execute at a very high level, especially the smaller ones like Bertucci's, Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza, Jules Thin Crust, and Monical's.  Even California Pizza Kitchen is pretty good. Click on any of those for a full review.  

With that in mind, I was open to Grotto pie, given the love it gets from locals.

We didn't try the Gelato

We were on the beach on a beautiful sunny day, and this Grotto location (Route 1 at Read Street) was just a one block walk.  I chose a 12" pie with pepperoni, and to my surprise it took 15 minutes to get it. This tells me that they made the pie fresh when ordered - none of this pre-cooked or pre-assembled slop. I forget the exact price, but it came to over $15 for this small pie; I presume this was "beach pricing."

The strength of this pie was its crust, which was sturdy, with both good crunch and chewiness, and a nice interior hole structure.  All that, despite having been baked on a screen.  The sauce and cheese were suitably bland (but salty), and applied in about an ideal proportion.  The pepperoni was surprisingly spicy.
Damn good crust!

Cooked on a screen, but still well-executed

This pizza passes our "does it beat DiGiorno" pizza test. It's not destination pizza, but it beats 90% of the mom-n-pop stuff, and it is miles ahead of Domino's, Papa John's, and Pizza Hut. 
Pizza at the beach?  No complaints here

The crust gets a 7, the sauce a 6, the cheese and pepperoni 5. Overall, 6.5 pizza. Chain pizza can be just fine, but mostly when it is a regional, smaller one. Still wise to avoid the giant national chains.

Grotto Pizza - Dewey Beach on Urbanspoon