passion of the crust
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Passion of the Crust
January, 2011, Page 118
Photos by David Moore
No matter how you slice it, Phoenicians are picky about their pizzas, but who’s dishing out the Valley’s best pies? We rated eight of the Valley’s hottest pizza joints to find out.
Blame it on Wolfgang Puck. Until the Austrian-born super chef started serving individual-sized, thin-crusted caviar-and-smoked salmon “gourmet” pies at Hollywood’s Spago – well, a pizza was just a pizza.
Like so many iconic foods, the origins of pizza are ancient and quite modest. Flatbread with various toppings has been a Mediterranean-area staple since pre-history. But until a New World fruit called tomatoes made their way to Europe circa 1544, pizza as we know it did not exist.
The Italians immediately took to the juicy, flavorful, South American export and began incorporating them into a wide variety of dishes. Contemporary pizza-mania can be traced to the late 19th century, when Italian Queen Margherita of Savoy took a liking to the plebian street food during a visit to Naples. In her honor, a baker named Raffaelle Esposito created the eponymous pizza Margherita. Made with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, mimicking the colors of the Italian flag, Esposito cooked up what was to become a far-flung phenomenon.
Pizza quickly became the snack of choice all over Italy, with each region developing its own distinctive style. When American servicemen stationed in Italy returned home from WWII, they missed and sought out the savory snack. It was there to find. In the cities where Italian immigrants had settled – New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia – mom ’n’ pop restaurants, delicatessens and grocery stores sold both slices and whole pies. And not surprisingly, depending on what part of Italy the cooks hailed from and customer preferences, pizza makers created their own versions, from thick and bready to the ultra pliable “fold over” pie popular in New York to the cracker-crisp crusts typical of Rome.
Pizza hit the big time in America in the late ’40s and early ’50s with the opening of Pizzeria Uno in Chicago (its deep-dish pie is strictly an American innovation) and Pizza Hut in Wichita, Kansas. While there were still reliable neighborhood pizzerias across the country, mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption dumbed down the product. Cardboard-like frozen pizza became widely available in supermarkets, generations of school kids made do at lunch with sub-par cafeteria pizza, and the ding-dong of pizza deliverymen heralded default dinner on nights when mom was just too tired to cook.
Which brings us back to the irrepressible Mr. Puck. Puck came to Los Angeles to head up the kitchen at the legendary Ma Maison. It didn’t take him long to mesh his classical European cooking techniques with the excellent local product and fetish for the light, bright-tasting food typical of California. But it was the innovative signature pizzas he introduced at Spago in Hollywood in the early ’80s that propelled him (and his pies) to international fame.
The craze for duck sausage and Thai chicken pizza not only spawned a passel of imitators but also helped lend gravitas (and lofty prices) to the venerable Neapolitan snack. Before too long, young chefs across the country were researching authentic dough recipes, debating the ultra-thin crackly crust versus the softer more elastic one, learning to hand-pull fresh mozzarella, comparing different kinds of pizza ovens and producing upscale pies.
While Phoenix has never been considered a hot spot of culinary innovation, we are major contenders in the pizza arena, thanks to Chris Bianco. Since 1994, Bianco has reigned supreme both locally and nationally. From Oprah and Martha Stewart to Gourmet magazine, seemingly everybody has an opinion on his pizza. He even won a James Beard award for Best Chef of the Southwest in 2003. (At the time I was traveling around the country working on Winning Styles Cookbook, which features 21 past Beard winners, who all had their opinions on a “pizza guy” nabbing the prize.) Locally, opinions diverge as well. Many people rave, and others can’t see what all the fuss and long waits are about, particularly now that there are other top-notch pizza purveyors seemingly on every corner.
It seemed like a good time to hunt for the Valley’s perfect pie by conducting a taste test at several different pizza places around the Phoenix-metro area.
In order to level the playing field, I stuck to the classic Margherita. I evaluated the type and flavor of crust; the quality, proportion and assembly of toppings; and the overall effectiveness. Since everyone knows cold pizza is the breakfast of champions, I also saved a slice for morning-after evaluation. Finally, I eschewed (so to speak) adding any condiments such as salt, pepper, grated Parmigiano or red pepper flakes. And since pizza isn’t eaten in a vacuum, ambiance and service were considered as well.
In order to keep careful track, I created a spreadsheet describing the salient characteristics of each one so they could most adequately be compared and evaluated. Photos would help keep the images fresh in my mind. So, off I went with notebook and pen, camera and the company of a few equally pizza-besotted companions to compare and contrast the Margherita experience at eight Valley pizza places known for their high-end artisanal pies.
The Parlor Pizzeria
The Parlor Pizzeria
From the time it opened almost two years ago, The Parlor Pizzeria endeared itself to locals. Owner Aric Mei took the late-’50s mini-landmark Salon de Venus – a low-slung, gray, slump-block modernist structure fronted by a pierced cast concrete wall – gutted it and turned it into a wholly likeable space.
Raised beds of veggies flank the entry, and there’s a pocket patio with a fireplace. Inside it’s spacious and sleek, done in neutral colors with plenty of warm woods (much of the interior is recycled from the former Bahama Breeze across the street). The hip, young crew is relaxed and efficient.
Our pie came out in a timely fashion. Gold and red heirloom tomatoes were draped evenly with ovals of mozzarella, and a generous amount of chopped basil was distributed after the baking process. Most noticeable was that one half of the outer rim was nearly burnt while the other half was an ideal golden brown. There was no noticeable fragrance.
Parlor serves what I call a fork pizza: The bottom crust is so soft and droopy it’s impossible to pick up and eat. Conversely, the rim is thick, bready and substantial. It’s pleasant but rather neutral-tasting. The tomatoes had almost melted into a super-sweet mush that, lacking the seasoning of a conventional tomato sauce, was bland. The white islands of cheese had a slightly granular quality, but we agreed it was overall a good pizza.
I liked it even better cold. The flavors melded beautifully, the basil opened up nicely, and the crust had firmed up and seemed yeastier tasting. I also detected the grassiness of good olive oil, and it left a great flavor – fresh, earthy and satisfying.
: 1916 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602- 248-2480, parlor.us
OVERALL GRADE: B+
Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana
Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana
The newest entry in the local pizza sweepstakes is Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana. Its shtick is making pies that replicate the iconic ones made in Naples. The oven, the methods and some of the ingredients are imported from Italy. The end result usually comes pretty close to the pie of origin.
Even the environs work with the concept. Other than a dramatic wall-sized photomural of a Naples street scene, the tall, narrow space is neutral-toned and stripped down. Through the arched windows, the cobblestones, bricks and foliage of Scottsdale’s Borgata shopping center lend a European air. So does the huge, milling staff that treats customers with a “we’re all family” approach.
The Margherita was plopped down steaming hot. It was flat with virtually no rim (odd, because other pies I’ve had here boasted a distinct lip). Well, not completely flat – a good-sized ball of partially melted mozzarella poked up from the bright orange sauce. There was a glaze of olive oil and a dusting of infinitesimally chopped basil on only one segment of the pie – so little I could not tell if it was put on before or after baking. (Upon request, the server brought more.) Visually, it was not very compelling.
This is another fork pie with an authentically soft crust that some might say is under-baked. It shades into elastic chewiness toward the rim and has a good, bready flavor. Along with the thin but savory sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, fruity olive oil and slightly tangy cheese, it’s a satisfying combination.
By breakfast time, the crust had firmed up and a pleasant note of char was noticeable. I bit into the chunk of rubbery, unmelted cheese and wished for more basil, thinking just a little more craftsmanship on the assembly would have made a whopping difference. It still beat a bowl of cornflakes by a mile.
: 6166 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-998-1366, pomopizzeria.com
OVERALL GRADE: C+
Located in the Hilton Village shopping center and Desert Ridge Marketplace, Humble Pie’s clever name is reflected in the relatively modest sports bar/tavern vibe. We were greeted with, “Have you dined with us before?” There are only two possible responses. “Yes,” which ends the conversation, or “No,” which means the customer will be educated on what the restaurant is all about and how it works. A pizza place only needs to be explained to visitors from other planets. But I digress.
Except for a noticeable asymmetry, the pizza’s rim was rounded and thick on one half of the pie and flat and almost non-existent on the other. Humble’s pizza was pretty with bits of char, bright red sauce, pools of creamy white cheese and a healthy scattering of deep green basil. It also smelled divine – earthy and sweet. Biting in, I detected that the bottom crust was thin and crisp, the tomato sauce thickish and balanced between acidic and sweet. The cheese was mild and melty, and the overall combo of taste and texture was excellent. As we worked around to the side with the flat rim, I noticed a distinctly burnt taste. Turning the pieces over, I discovered large blackened areas. Apparently the crust had not been evenly crafted and/or properly rotated in the oven, leaving one side thinner and, thus, prone to over-baking.
Humble’s pie failed the overnight test. The outer part of the crust turned tough, the sauce tasted of raw tomato paste and the overall flavor flattened out. I had saved two pieces, the second of which went to the birds on my back lawn.
: 6149 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-556-9900; 21050 N. Tatum Blvd., Phoenix, 480-502-2121, humblepieusa.com
OVERALL GRADE: C
A visit to Pizzeria Bianco is almost akin to attending a religious service. There is ritual and a suspension of disbelief, along with a bit of discomfort. Knowing the drill and the long waits (reservations are taken only for parties of six to 10), we arrived about an hour before the 5 p.m. opening, indulged in some drinks at the bar next door and joined the 15 or so congregants waiting on benches outside. Several were snapping pictures of the small, squat brick building tucked into Downtown’s Heritage Square as if it were a shrine.
At 5:07 the shades were lifted and the hostess stepped outside. By then the crowd numbered around 40, and everyone rushed the door. Within minutes we were seated at a tiny table inside the plain little room dominated by a massive oven and a bar tucked into one corner. Unlike church or synagogue or temple, it’s ear-splittingly noisy.
Our server was, not surprisingly, super efficient and served our order promptly. It was very eye-catching, with its vivid sauce and careful distribution of ingredients (each segment had at least a shred of basil leaf). Looking a bit closer I noticed the cheese was pocked with tiny pinholes, not important but interesting as they gave the oil a place to pool rather than permeate the crust.
Except for the center, which was a bit soft, it’s a very thin, crisp crust with a mild, toasty flavor and a light char. The lip was a bit thicker on one side of the pie. The sauce is well balanced and the cheese quite chewy. In total it had a satisfying mouth feel and left a nice taste. My companion and I agreed: If not quite the Holy Grail, it was a good pie.
This was another one I liked even better the next day. The earthiness of the crust (which softened and became more elastic), tang of the sauce and solidity of the cheese started the day out right.
: 623 E. Adams St., Phoenix, 602-258-8300,
OVERALL GRADE: A-
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