Sunday, September 13, 2015

In the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility

Pizza Studio
3201 St. Paul Street
Charles Village

Pizza Studio's product is definitely pizza because Pizza Club “immediately recognized it" as such. We accept the evidence of our senses. But what subliminal machinations underpin this moment of recognition?  Even taste, smell, and cheese are constituted by a field of structural forces. The present is opaque to itself – “each 'now' is the now of a particular recognizability.” The people of Baltimore recently entered the now of infinitely-customizable premium-quality pizza served in under two minutes.

What's more, this pizza asserts its status as a work of art created by you, the consumer. Where the gates of Dante's Hell bear the inscription, “Abandon All Hope,” the gates of fast-casual dining entreat you to “Create Your Masterpiece."

Pizza Studio is a franchise “fast-casual” restaurant from California recently slotted in to the gleaming brick-and-glass arcades of the 3200 block of St. Paul, a block notable for looking and feeling nothing like Baltimore. Undergraduates can be observed through the plate-glass windows of Chipotle, Cold Stone Creamery, and Starbucks, enjoying the remarkable continuity of consumer experience made possible by the extensive geographical coverage of these brands. By substituting “a plurality of copies” for the unique existence of a particular place, they constitute a distributed zone of the familiar that empowers college students, families, tourists, etc. to move uninhibited through an 'urban' environment that would otherwise offer them few recognizable enjoyments.

There are already two pizza places in the Hopkins zone that should meet the needs of undergraduates, but they definitely haven't captured the current market. They don't belong to the particular recognizability of the now: freshness, 'local'-ness, hip design and branding, and the embrace of myriad dietary restrictions. They lack a story, ethos, values, or globally-oriented social commitments. Pizza Studio won't compete with any of the neighborhood pizza places – it's in the ring with Chipotle in a battle for which eight-dollar lunch-food spectacle can assuage the creeping bad consciousness of late capitalism.

Pizza Studio frees you from all limits and constraints as you queue up to order your custom pie. If you find yourself experiencing limitations, it's due to your own weak imagination and ultimately, your failure as an artist -- in which case you can select a pre-fab “Masterpiece” from a menu.

The fresh, all-natural components of a Pizza Studio pie flow rapidly through different stages of matter. As in the studio of a highly-successful contemporary artist, the transformation of raw material into art is carried out by assistants whose labor is not “creative,” and thus, effectively invisible. Since you, the consumer, are also the artist, you pay for the cost of materials, facilities, and cheery technicians to realize your vision under your supervisory gaze.

Also like a highly-successful contemporary artist, you the patron of Pizza Studio are plugging in to the front end of a cultural production apparatus with its back end in military R&D, management psychology, despoliation of the earth, and an endless chain of exploitative labor practices. Delicious all-natural ingredients and seamless customer service did not invent themselves. The employee motto of Pizza Studio is “SNAP” – “Sense of urgency, No excuses, Attention to detail, Pride of ownership.” This motto is inscribed in the frantic, slightly-unhinged slicing pattern of a Pizza Studio pie.

Samit Varma, one of the founders of Pizza Studio, spent eight years as a Navy officer on nuclear submarines before he got his MBA. His partner is a career corporate ladder-climber of successful food franchises like TGI Friday's. The duo billed themselves as “former Baltimore residents” for the opening of the Charles Village Pizza Studio, which means that one grew up in Rockville and the other lived in Owings Mills. Behold the mercenary reproducibility of the 'local' – witness the militarization of the artisanal – in a weapons-grade toaster oven that blasts your personal-sized pizza with 50-mph gusts of scorching wind generated by the beating of Satan's wings in the innermost circle of Hell.

 All of this is yours for seven dollars and change – another attraction in the college market which prizes the illusion of quantity. The actual quantity of food material on your pizza will not increase appreciably even if you select every topping. Pizza Studio is not stupid – economies of scale and scientific optimization underpin each casually-strewn handful of nitrate-free pepperoni. Consumer psychology revolves around a primal delusion of rational decision-making, the appearance of “deals” that give maximum value for money. Whenever you experience this instinct, rest assured, someone with a six-figure salary is laughing and snorting coke off a Pizza Studio to-go box emblazoned with the catchphrase “Your Hot Masterpiece”. 

 Since it is an important function of capitalism to deny us knowledge of our time and place – to produce a fully-realized phantasmagoria that masks the obvious material conditions of life – the presence of Pizza Studio on a Johns-Hopkins-owned block of Charles Village, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A. explains itself. “It's gonna suck when this creative artist space gets driven out by gentrification and Hopkins development,” one Pizza Club member observed.

Pizza Club quickly located the “Starving Artists' Wall,” really half a wall, in the back corner of Pizza Studio. The concept is to have local artists – presumed to be starving because we all know the difference between creativity-branded commodity capitalism and creativity the disease that makes you actually go to art school – hang their work in the restaurant and sell it to customers. This is great synergy because the theme of Pizza Studio is the mind-warping lie of the creative economy. Dwarfing the local art are numerous restaurant industry stock photo canvas prints with pictures of weathered, brown-skinned hands holding vegetables.

I ordered the requisite plain cheese pizza. I felt like a failure because I hadn't expressed myself using the infinity of options available to define my unique pizza identity. However, when the Pizza Club Power Lunch Team took a synchronized bite of our cheese slices, we all experienced the mysterious confluence of sensory cues telling us that this was, indeed, Pizza – a good-tasting cheesy bread object fresh out of a heating device. “I thought the crust was gonna be bullshit,” said one PC'er, “but it's not terrible crust.” We ate a wide variety of pies from the menu and from our own rich imaginations, all of which tasted like pretty good food.

The Pizza Studio banks on a psychic economy of additive flavor, where “flavor” feeds back into the creative expressiveness and perceived value of their product – what we might call a flavor-creativity-value complex. The crust has “no particular flavor” or texture. The unlimited toppings, which Pizza Studio fully expects you to pile on, are the building-blocks of flavor-creativity-value. Then there are “glazes,” bottles of liquid salt and sugar that you spray on top of the pizza to further boost flavor-creativity-value. We hardly noticed the difference in pies with gluten-free crust and vegan cheese because these elements – normally the foundation of a pizza – are purely structural, like the tortilla in a Chipotle burrito.

 All of this is a long-winded recapitulation of Pizza Studio's mission statement. They're going to be the Chipotle of pizza, which for some reason no one thought of being until now. If you like Chipotle, and you like pizza, you'll want to add this to your lunch routine. Like Pizza Club, you might ask, “do I have to acknowledge my guilt for enjoying a corporate franchised business?” To which we say, “Be who you are.” We had an excellent time at Pizza Studio eating fun, creative personal pan pizzas. We sated our appetites and returned to the office to make shadow puppets on the back wall of a dimly-lit cubicle until 5pm, when we went home to watch TV. One can only hope to move through today's phanstasmic creative economy like a Pizza Studio pie through its turbo-charged toaster oven, and emerge out the other side a certified Masterpiece.

5.5/8 slices

Credits: Scott (pizza photos), Graham (photos & research), and Kate (photos)

Monday, August 10, 2015

The life and teachings of Serpico reconstructed by critical historical methods

Serpico Pizza and Pasta
10 Fila Way
Sparks, MD

Serpico has been called "the best cheese pizza north of Shawan Rd." Consider that if you keep going north, you get to York, Pennsylvania and thereafter to New York, where they have much better pizza than will ever be available in the vicinity of Shawan Rd. Is Serpico the "closest thing to an authentic New York-style slice" available in Maryland? Well I ate a slice of pizza with spaghetti on it and then more crust on top of the spaghetti. Do they have that in New York? Probably somewhere, yes, they probably do, because they have everything in New York, including better pizza than suburban Maryland.

Serpico is located next to a "Saddlery," where I think they make saddles for horses. We are in the rolling countryside particular to Maryland, a completely domesticated but unfussy pastoral. It's casual, just like Serpico's Italian dining. The people there were very nice and helped us choose an appropriate array of pizza slices. They sell by-the-slice, which is how they got me to try a "spaghetti pizza" -- it was the only thing fresh out of the oven when we walked in on a Sunday afternoon. The slices are very large in surface area; a modest but not indecent amount of grease pools in the depressions.

You'll want to stop here on your way back from swimming, tubing, or boating on the Gunpowder River and points north, because you'll be hungry but not ready to trade in the grid-less rambles of the afternoon for the strip malls of Hunt Valley. Take in the innocent dusk of Sparks, Maryland while it lasts. Across Fila Way from the plaza housing Serpico, a row of vinyl-sided, as-yet-unoccupied new homes stands on a ridge named "Fox Terrace" or "Fox View" or something with foxes. Pizza Club predicts that the children raised in these homes will often walk to Serpico and gaze upon its mural of the Cinque Terre, and think about going to Italy some day maybe for a school choir competition.

The crust was pretty good, crispy and thin but well-structured. The sauce was rounded and unobtrusive. There was cheese on it also. There is no New York slice to save us now. The historical "New York slice" never existed, it didn't die for us, it just never existed. It's a convenient lie told by generations of suburban pizza parlor proprietors to win the allegiance of the damned. In a countryside so abundant and gentle as Maryland's, one can happily believe that the world was created for us and types of pizza were ordained by a loving God. One can ascribe direction and agency to history. But our world is an accident and history is a tool of the powerful -- I suspect that people from New Jersey know it better than all the rest of us and they just aren't telling. Instead, they're driving up and down this blessed nation with their smartphones, producing a Yelp apocrypha of the one true pizza of which Serpico's is a fragmentary gospel.

4/8 slices

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pizza Club in Exile: Landscapes of Denial and Pizza in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia

Mario's Pizza
322 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA

The suburbs of northern Virginia exude a particular terror: clean and new, built for people who don't want to live in a place previously inhabited by other people. The immense condominium complexes that stretch for block upon block in centers of “urban village” development around Alexandria, Arlington, and Tysons Corner turn their glass faces to the highway proclaiming transparency – walls of windows, the light of truth, a world without history, and a "Corner Bakery Cafe" on the ground floor. 

Crystal City skyline. By Kevin Bowman
Do they qualify as “edge cities”? They balance on the knife blade separating the visible universe from a dark covert universe of lies. When confronted with this phalanx of architectural obliteration one feels the dropping-away of solid earth. No less than the man-made islands of Abu Dhabi, this built environment is pure liquidity temporarily stored in concrete and steel. Listen closely and you can hear the flow of capital cascading into a bottomless void that opens up underneath the Pentagon City Metro station. These sites are worse than haunted. With signals scrambled and the map wiped clean, the dead have nowhere to rest; they and their secrets are caught in that planner's darling, the traffic-calming urban roundabout.
The whispers and spectral visions that visit me in the suburbs of northern Virginia are not, however, incompatible with eating pizza. Pizza is a cornerstone of Cold War American empire and as such belongs in NoVA as much as transplanted Iranian real estate moguls and Salvadorian refugee day-laborers. There's a pizza place called Shakey's that people who grew up around here remember fondly, but it's gone now, but at least they can remember something. Other pizza joints in this mold live on. They are frozen in a moment of 1960s suburban exuberance about pizza: we take bread, add a mealy tomato broth spiked with oregano, and overlay a slab of mozzarella white, flat, and thick as the grave markers at the nearby National Cemetery. 

Today's pizza palace of yesterday is Mario's in Arlington. Mario's is located on Wilson Boulevard – Wilson Boulevard, for our 28th president, a man who believed that foreign policy must spread democracy using a variety of means. On the other side of Wilson Boulevard is a thicket of condos. A Pizza Club observer describes “[an] unsuspenseful Rear Window… revealing frat boys playing beer pong and large flat screen TVs illuminating darkened rooms.” Transparency is meaningless, under the surface there's just beer pong in a condo lounge on a Saturday night. 
Mario's models the mid-century roadside dairy shack vernacular, low-slung building, towering swoopy light-box signage. Carvel ice cream novelties come from a front window, pizza comes from a counter inside where different people will talk to you and shout your order at each other until someone makes you a pizza. Pies emerge onto outdoor picnic tables over which darkened human forms hover. In the Arlington twilight, mozzarella catches the neon glow.

The pizza is a rectangle, rolled out with a rolling pin. Many compared it to “French bread” pizza products found in the frozen food aisle. Locals explained to us that Mario's pre-bakes, tops, and then bakes again for speedy order fulfillment. The crust is thick, bready, and chewy; it begins to dry out after the ten-minute mark. There's not much sauce to help you deal with this, only cheese, so much cheese. And toppings if you get them. They're under the cheese. It's not fake, it's just the inoffensive American idea of mozzarella still often spotted in elementary school lunches. The term “cheeze-lastic” was proposed as a descriptor. It recreates the flavor landscape of its time -- a flat line rather than peaks and valleys. Cookbooks were casserole-based, acceptable spices were salt, pepper, and oregano.
Mario's has been in this place for fifty years circa 2007 when they put up a sign to that effect. Why in the throes of a deep and abiding unease did we gravitate towards its lights? Among the history-swallowing anti-monuments of NoVA Mario's stands as a witness to precisely those decades when America's relationship with the past imploded in a mushroom cloud of denial, anger, and ignorance both willful and imposed. How fucked up was it? The quaint hamlet of Arlington was home to an “American Nazi Party" which picketed the local pizza parlor for serving African Americans and Jews; the year was 1961. Mario's, along with the rest of the town, reckoned with these bizarre hate-mongers in their midst until the 1980s. You can still eat essentially the same pizza that sort of stood up for Civil Rights because the pizza survived while the hate group bit the dust. 

Further reminisces confirm the Mario's pie as a historic survival. “This is old-school pizza you're not old enough to have a memory of,” a Pizza Club gen-Xer admonished the scribe. “It feels like I'm on a beach vacation when I was ten years old,” another remarked. “I grew up on this stuff,” our local informant added, instructing us in the proper microwave revival technique. You might be tempted to reheat this pizza in a toaster oven, but only microwave radiation should be used for period accuracy. 
Mario's rescued Pizza Club from a serious paranoia trip. We want to touch the good and evil of the past, we want to feel something (cheese) in the pit of our stomachs. By all means build the progressive dense “urban suburb” of the future and build it here where it can help the maximum number of people commute to work in defense contracting. But know that the sleek visibility is false and the transparency is an illusion – you'll only glimpse the truth in the distorted gleam off an expanse of Mario's mozzarella. 

5/8 slices
Pizza photo credits: Katy  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

All Pies Go to Heaven

Angelo's "Pie In the Sky"
3838 Roland Ave.
Top of the Retirement Tower

At the end of a long, industrious life as Baltimore's largest slice of pizza with huge biceps, Angelo's was sacrificed in an ancient solstice ritual and reincarnated at the top of the retirement tower on Roland Ave. It's the best view in all of Baltimore. You can gaze down upon the graveyard to the north where rites of spring proceed apace with ribbons and flower garlands to win the blessings of the dead. Far to the south, the harbor god slumbers below a scrum of garbage-fed algae.

"Spring Break Walrus"

This space has seen the cyclical life and death of various culinary endeavors over the years. A cadre of dusty ghosts lurk in the rafters sipping burnt coffee; they cast an enchanted circle where pilgrims from the world below take refuge in the peaceful vale of senior citizenship.

Old age is humanity's most important accomplishment and thus many rituals have evolved to honor elders while also politely removing their autonomy. Modern rituals revolve around prolonging life at any cost. Maybe you can't raise money for mortal illnesses because your humanistic training taught you that the corporate charity-biomedicine-industrial complex is morally bankrupt and exploitative. But you can drape a flower garland over an elderly person. A great place to meet them is in the retirement tower elevator on your way to get pizza at the new Angelo's.

Cheese Pizza

The question here is, "does this pizza differ at all from the old Angelo's?" No. It's still really cheap and pretty mediocre, but now it comes with the sort of view that most of us will never have from the executive office that our slapdash career paths will never furnish us with. It's also BYOB so REMEMBER TO BRING BEER.

We ordered three pies. There was nothing particular about them. "I've always thought that Angelo's was adequate pizza," said Mike. Mark agreed, "It doesn't exceed or disappoint expectations." Adding toppings will help validate the time and effort that goes into chewing and swallowing this pizza. The best idea was selecting garlic as a topping -- this added the element of flavor that was absent from the sauce, a "really huge improvement." The crust is slightly sweet and achieves middle-of-the-road chewiness and crispness.

Peppers and Mushrooms

Some people think that Angelo's is like New York pizza. I can't support that position. It's clearly Baltimore pizza, that is, it was reverse engineered from a picture of New York pizza on a takeout menu smuggled across the Mason-Dixon line. The faded image was soaked in olive oil, left overnight in the woods during a full moon, and braided into the hair of a virgin. To this day, when wolves howl across the Jones Falls at the flickering lights of Angelo's Pie In the Sky, diners recall the sacrifice of our ancient ancestor, symbolically renewed each season with the daubing of tomato sauce on a pizza stone which is then hurled at a scapegoat selected by the CityPaper Best of Baltimore reader's poll.

Garlic and Pepperoni
There are a lot of confusing things about the myth of Angelo's that require greater philological explication. The schism, as I understand it, was the result of a Freudian intergenerational conflict within the Pizza family. Angelo's old space at 36th and Keswick became "36th Ave. Pizza," with predictable disastrous results.

Be warned foolhardy moonlighters, the "Big Slice" that is the signature of Angelo's is not available after 5pm. Do I need to impart the hackneyed Baltimore wisdom pertaining to the Big Slice? Okay: the Big Slice is a gimmick. If you want pizza, get a regular pie, unless you're drunk, which is hard for most working people to achieve before 5pm.


As usual, Pizza Club was both divided in its opinions and completely unanimous. Behold:
Tiffany: "I wouldn't come back here for the pizzas."
Mike: "I'll come back here all the time."
Tiffany: "There are other things I'll come back here for, just not the pizza."
Mike: "Maybe we're the bozos."

Quantitative findings:
Cheese pie -- 4/8
Pepper and mushroom pie -- 4.5/8
Garlic and pepperoni pie -- 6/8
Overall experience weighted for the "view factor" -- 6/8

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Emergency Weather Emergency

You might have noticed a weather emergency going on in Baltimore all the time since as long ago as anyone can remember. Weather emergencies and pizza are a volatile mix. The fear and agitation that snow inspires means that you may not be able to get pizza delivered to your house, or return to your house ever again. Ultimately there will be no houses left -- just gushing broken water mains and gas flowing from pipes sticking up out of the blasted earth.

The authorities will tell you to stay off the roads during emergency weather conditions. I don't know whether this is right or wrong. Pizza Club spent about an hour inching down 83 in the snow, but then we couldn't scale the off-ramp to 28th Street, so we glided slowly down to the end of 83, and thence down to Patterson Park, where we took shelter in the home of Eliza, a gracious Friend of Pizza Club. On the Baltimore winter driving meter this experience registered as 'harrowing'.

Secure in our weather-resistant shelter the group became hungry and didn't know what to do. This would have continued until we died if Eliza had not mixed up a batch of pizza dough. As the dough rose so too did our hope of survival. Here you can see an industrious stovetop where we caramelized onions and stirred sauces.

Two pizzas were produced: an olive, artichoke heart, and caramelized onion pie, and a Swiss chard and mushroom pie. A block of feta cheese was the only cheese on hand. Putting feta cheese directly on tomato sauce is a great idea. You don't really need mozzarella. You don't need anything besides a ruthless survival instinct and a bottle opener, but actually it's not that hard to open bottles with a spoon.

These were the most exquisite pizzas the Pizza Club has enjoyed in some time, even if we hallucinated them. Here's a recipe that Eliza endorses from America's Test Kitchen. Use a food processor to mix your dough, says the Test Kitchen.

When the authorities tell you to stay off the road for your own safety, that's when you call up your friend with an SUV who seems pretty rugged because he went to college in Maine. Are you going to obey the authorities, or insist on following through with your Saturday night plans -- in this case, drinking tea and reading Ed Dorn -- at any cost? In other words, are you an American?

We gave this pizza 7/8 slices, one point off because we were pretty drunk. It's all gone though and these circumstances can never be recreated. Matt, whose SUV conquered the icy incline of Charles Street, is the only other living person who tried it. He said it was good.

Photo credits: Ada. Thanks to Eliza for courageously navigating down I-83 and letting us make a mess in her kitchen.

Friday, January 30, 2015

From Pizzahaus to Our House

 “Our House” Pizza
1121 Hull St., Locust Point

I've been driving my car a lot because the month of January doesn't count. It gets wiped from the record, in case you weren't aware. I drive to work, I drive to the gym, sometimes I just drive around the block to make sure everything's cool on the other side of the block. From January 1-31, I don't give a shit – it's not that I do what I want, rather, I do what I fear I secretly want, which is to completely acquiesce to late capitalism and drown the constant enervating chatter of my conscience in $2-per-gallon gasoline and light it on fire. Does pizza matter? This is the true test. Can pizza summon me from the depths of seasonal nihilism? The answer is yes; this is still nominally a pizza blog, but you should be reading Yelp reviews if you want useful information.

Locust Point in times past (Maryland Historical Society)

“Our House” Pizza in Locust Point is really out there in Locust Point. “Your average drunken wanderer from Federal Hill would not make it this far,” Scott observed, “and if they did they'd be scared.” Perhaps they'd be scared by the enormous hulking mothership of Under Armour Inc., located mere yards from Our House's front door. Perhaps they'd be scared if they wandered into the nearby rail switchyard at night and got hit by a train. Life is brimming over with horror, the unknown, and what's worse, humanity's dim awareness of our own abiding futility. That said, I heard this pizza was really good. Since, as I mentioned, I'm driving my car indiscriminately this month to hasten the demise of this doomed pitiful planet, I figured Pizza Club should go to Locust Point.

Our House was warm and welcoming on a sleet-filled night, with friendly ambiance and cozy d├ęcor, like mismatched chairs and cute napkin holders. Pizza Club enjoyed the space immensely and on atmosphere alone we recommend going here if you need a spot to hang out. It was so nice there that we had trouble disaggregating our enjoyment of the establishment's physical properties from our ratings of its pizza, on which more later.

Pizza Pretzel

They have a multi-menu system kind of like a sushi place. A descriptive menu describes the food items, and then a paper slip lets you check off the items you intend to order. The menu offers vegetarian and meat options, a crab pizza, and a whole page of breakfast which includes breakfast pizzas. We obtained a “pretzel pizza” and a “pretzel dog” as appetizers. Described as a “Bavarian style” pretzel, these were good and malty, with a lot of sweetness in the pretzel. However, when cutting a pretzel in half and covering it with cheese and sauce, one encounters the “pizza bagel trap” wherein the guts of the bread product, unprotected by a crusty surface, get soggy. We recommend, if you're curious, that you request a plain pretzel with mustard. The mustard is very spicy, as mustard should be.

Pizza Dog w/ mustard

Let's break for an allegory. Two dogs are on a see-saw; unbeknownst to them, this see-saw is in fact resting on one end of another, larger see-saw. As the two dogs see-saw back and forth, having a grand old time, the larger see-saw is slowly oscillating up and down, causing subtle modulations in the temperature, pressure, and gravitational field around the frolicking dogs. As long as the dogs don't realize this everything is splendid and they are able to enjoy their experience of see-sawing. One day, however, Dog A realizes that there is a pattern to these subtle changes in their surroundings. He thinks, "What if we are in fact resting on the end of another, larger see-saw?" Immediately followed by the question: "What is on the opposite end of that larger see-saw?" This allegory explains the feeling of dread that I now associate with pizza. Out there beyond the limits of our sight is something murky and immense.

Guess I didn't bother to rotate this one
The pizzas at Our House bear a striking resemblance in many ways to the item known as the Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza, which many will recall from the 1990s. A house is a more sophisticated version of a hut, and so it goes with pizzas from these respective dwelling structures. Thick and buttery, light and airy inside and crispy outside, the Our House version is available in 7” and 10” sizes. It appears to contain cornmeal, which gives the crust an additional satisfying crunchy grit. One of these pizzas will serve 1 or 2 people. They cost about $8 for a small and $10-12 for a large. You could get much cheaper pizza somewhere else, but for the gourmet-pizza market this is pretty standard, plus you get more crust out of this bargain than with the Neapolitan style.

Not Super Popular
We ordered the “BOTH” Cheese pizza as a baseline. It's a mozzarella pizza with parmesan. “It has both cheeses but it tastes like neither,” said Scott. Others concurred that it was plain, not in the sense of having no toppings, but in the sense of lacking the deep satisfaction of a particular cheese experience. Perhaps it also needed more sauce to balance the thick crust, an issue common to all their pies. In the end half of the BOTH pie remained untouched.

That's an Attractive Pizza

The “Pepadew and Goat Cheese” pie was a favorite. It combined sweet carmelized onion and pepadew, which is a kind of pepper, and tangy goat cheese. The substantial but plain nature of the thick crust compliments intense flavor combinations like this one. 

Very Popular
The meat pies, an “Antipasti” (parmesan, prosciutto, pepperoni, roasted red peppers, provolone, and artichoke) and a “Hot & Spicy” (pepperoni, onions, hot peppers, and peperoncini) were intriguing to some and disappointing to others. The Antipasti was “like someone opened the deli drawer and dumped it on a pizza,” but the variety and abundance of toppings was also welcomed in relation to the bulky crust. The problem was perhaps that they didn't integrate well with the pie, perhaps due to insufficient sauce.

Hot & Spicy

The Hot & Spicy was not very spicy, but people liked it because the peppers added good acidity and the onions were enjoyed by all. In both pies, meat was not found in abundance. The meat toppings appeared as pleasant surprises, but were “not predictable,” and absent from some slices entirely. Off in the indeterminate distance, a giant pepperoni sausage rises and falls, levering all of our fates along with it.


General remarks: many felt that the cheese had “no flavor," although some pies had a lot of it, it just kind of sat there and was heavy. The sauce “is pretty tangy,” said Scott. “It tastes clean.” He later clarified this assessment: “the sauce is weak. It's too light, too clean, too crisp. It doesn't give you that lingering sauce sensation.” Pizza is a food that should haunt you in smell and pungent breath after its earthly form vanishes. It should hover in the air guiding you past the veil of sensation to an awareness of the unknowable. It needs more sauce.

Hilary was concerned that “the crust reveals an underlying misunderstanding.” There was much perplexity. At what point do we call a thing pizza? “It's kind of not a pizza, it's bread,” Scott suggested. Dave took a definitional view: “it's a pizza, it's got sauce, it's got cheese, it's got crust." The individual pan form is preferred in certain regions of the United States. "I'm okay with this crust,” he decided, “but maybe it's because I grew up with Pizza Hut.” Many agreed that a palimpsest of past experiences, varying from one individual to the next, will influence your fondness for this pizza.

On a holistic level, however, we were all well satisfied and none the worse for having fallen into a deep pit of ontological confusion. No one around us seemed disturbed in this way, so I conclude that we entered the establishment with problems entirely our own that we then projected onto the pizza. “This place is really nice, and run so well, and everyone is friendly, and they serve pizza,” Hilary mused, “but it's not exactly pizza.”

If you live nearby you should hang out here all the time because they have a wall of self-serve beer cases featuring all your favorite beers, and on Sundays there is brunch with bottomless mimosas. If you worry about the slippage of categories and the instability of concepts, this pizza place may upset you. But if you're also hungry, they'll sell you something that's pretty good and tastes like a better version of the Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza of your youth.

Stock photo of Pizza Hut Pan Pizza for comparison
A note: some will say that the pizza here is a lot like the pizza at Barfly, a pub located a few blocks away on Fort Avenue, and reviewed previously on this blog. They would be correct. There is a story about the relation between these establishments (and Matthew's) that's not worth the time it would take to explain. It's the same crust with different toppings. We like the ambiance at Our House better, but Barfly is a great movie starring Mickey Rourke, and their pizza might taste a tiny bit better if memory serves.

5.5/8 slices

Photo Credits: thanks Scott for taking all the pizza pics.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Make a Pizza Deal

Pizza Deal
519 E 25th St.

The injunction to make a “pizza deal” might sound like crass consumerism. The image is of two businessmen clasping hands after reaching an “understanding” in a smoke-filled backroom – indeed, the clasped hands rise above the facade of Pizza Deal like a new, hard-bargaining sun. But this is a deal that benefits all of us, unlike any other deal going down in the halls of power. The deal is between molten cheese and oregano. The deal is between tangy sauce and spongy crust. Ultimately, the deal is an experience generated within your own brain, where neurons make deals with each other, convincing you that there is a unified external reality in which the taste of pizza anchors you to agreed-upon forms of collective human existence.

Successful deal-makers

The establishment known as “Pizza Deal” on 25th and Greenmount is the best pizza that we've found in the Greenmount/Barclay/Harwood/Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello area. If you live nearby, this might be the pie that you should consult whenever you need a true and honest pizza.

We know this because Pizza Deal is endorsed by a true and honest man, our friend Scott, who's been making Pizza Deals for years now and reaps the dividends of these deals every day, in the form of robust health, good fortune, and upstanding citizenship. Scott feels that Pizza Deal is “expertly consistent,” delivering a satisfying pie that shows mastery of the basic components of pizza.

Pizza Deals are made in a one-room building which, on an early-July evening when we visited, was very hot. There's no seating, just the kitchen and a plexiglas booth where you stand to place your order, and a slot where money enters and pizza comes out. The woman who took our order seemed very happy to see us and not at all ruffled by the extreme temperature. “These people don't cry about the heat,” Scott explained of Pizza Dealers.
Must make pizza deal

We obtained an extra large pizza with mushrooms and olives for $13. This is a substantial pizza. Its base is a thick, chewy, sightly dense crust that still has the right amount of fluff and softness. Scott suggested that the pie is “underdone just the right amount.” Atop that is a generous amount of sauce that carries a hint of sweetness. The cheese is springy and supple – Pizza Club believes that real mozzarella is in use at this establishment. We were very pleased with the crust-sauce-cheese ratio. “I always feel like there's not enough sauce,” Katy explained, but Pizza Deal does not skimp. 

The toppings were standard for fast-food pizza. “The mushrooms are often more fresh than other shops,” Scott explained. “I bet they take them right out of the can, instead of letting them sit in a tub all day.” The only thing that kept this pie from reaching the ideal of takeout pizza is that it was a bit too salty.
Reach for the ideal -- the pizza-deal

The fact that Pizza Deal makes such solid crust is especially intriguing because, like most fast-food pizza joints, they get their dough from an outside supplier. We guessed that they might use Nino's, which is located nearby down Loch Raven. Although many pizza places in the city use this dough, they still produce different crusts. How is this? Scott proposed a metaphor: “Duron gives all the painters paint, but all the paintings don't look the same.” Indeed!

“I was skeptical,” Alishea said, “but Pizza Deal hits the spot.” This is a solid basic pizza, suitable for everyday consumption and affordable to boot.

6.5/8 slices

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The long-awaited Trinacria pizza: all in the toppings?

Trinacria Cafe
111 W. Centre St.

I wanted a lot of things from the new Trinacria cafe that just opened on Centre Street in Mt. Vernon. (This location, unfortunately, is cursed. It destroyed a 5 Guys Burger franchise, which is the most indestructible entity in America today). 

Regular Trinacria, on Paca St., has all the delicious things like cheese and pasta and cannolli and really cheap wine. They have all the exotic things in cans from Italy, and olives, and pickled things, and those green leaf-shaped cookie sandwiches with a layer of chocolate stuff. Regular Trinacria is a wonderful place and you should go there right now and order a muffaletto sandwich. The symbol of Trinacria is a Medusa head with three disembodied legs spiraling around it – this could be you right now, except instead of disembodied legs you would be surrounded by sandwiches and six-dollar bottles of wine, and you wouldn't have snakes for hair unless that's your preference.
Regular Trinacria

The idea of New Trinacria is to have trained professionals assemble the raw materials available at Regular Trinacria into food that you can eat right there on the premises, and is warm, unlike the Regular Trinacria sandwiches which are generally served cold and eaten on the curb, a park bench, or in one's office cubicle. Although New Trinacria also offers the classic sandwiches in case you hate change.

Since this is Pizza Club, we didn't try most of the things on the New Trinacria menu, which include salads, Hot Subs, Authentic Hot Italian Paninis, and Pastas. These items, prepared from the most choice of the Trinacria specialty Italian ingredients selection, are probably very good. Pizza Club convened an emergency meeting this February because New Trinacria is officially making pizza, and given the establishment's status as the reigning superior source of Italian things (at this point “Little Italy” is maintained entirely as a decoy to keep dumb people away from Trinacria), we urgently had to try their pizza.
photographic evidence from this meeting was lost

The family that runs Trinacria is of Sicilian origin, but I'm not sure how relevant this is to their version of pizza. Pizza in the United States is a confused creature of “Italian-American” cuisine. Pizza became a free-floating signifier that could latch onto different food-substances and insert itself into varied discourses: strange men named John claiming to be your “Papa,” crime-fighting mutant sewer-turtles, harried mothers placating their whiny post-piano-practice offspring.

Following the recent recovery of gourmet pizza by people who loved the fast-food pizza of their childhoods but now shop at Whole Foods, all bets are off as to what qualities “Italian,” “Neapolitan,” “Sicilian,” etc. actually indicate. At the New Trinacria, they seem to be going for a version of standard American gourmet pizza; unfortunately, it doesn't rival the pies that places like Iggies and Zella's have been making in these times of escalating pizza connoisseurship/fetishism.

They've always sold pizza dough at Regular Trinacria, and let's be honest, it's not the best. It's pretty much bread dough that you stretch out to pizza shape. When you put it in the oven at home, with delicious Trinacria cheese on top, it turns into cheesy bread. It's ok though, because you made it at home, you can feel good about not eating shit fast food, and there's probably enough fresh mozzarella left for tomorrow's sandwiches.

However, putting pizza on the menu at New Trinacria raises the stakes. At that point, they take on accountability for the preparation and final outcome of the pie. It must exceed that which we could accomplish at home by buying ingredients from their store. Or, it must be cheap enough to reflect that no value has been added aside from the convenience of not having to assemble and cook it. The pies range in price from $9 to $11 for a personal-sized pizza (about 8-10 inches across) so you must reflect upon your own depth of pocketbook vs. desire for instant gratification.

New Trinacria's pizza definitely didn't pass the “you could make it at home” test. For the moment, they're cooking it in a regular convection oven, which means that the crust tastes exactly like the crust you would have made in your own kitchen. Pizza Club agreed that, given the crust situation, this “pizza” is really more like a flatbread. There were multiple comparisons to frozen, microwaved, or cafeteria pizza crust.

We ordered every pizza on the menu because we were so excited about the cornucopia of Trinacria plenty before us. There are lots of good vegetarian options, though of course Trinacria's deli meats and sausage are top-notch, and the meat-eaters said that the Guido pie (sausage, pepperoni, and salami) was their favorite. The proprietors promised us that a mushroom pie will soon be added to their offerings.

Of the non-meat pies, people liked the Sweet and Salty (caramelized onions and garlic, olives, parsley, and prosciutto which you can pick off if you're a vegetarian like me and really don't care). Because of their large size and round nature, we suggest that the olives be cut up rather than thrown on the pie whole.

There was consternation around the sauce, which some Pizza Club members thought was plain "like a spaghetti sauce.” They wanted to taste more herbs, more salt, and more tomato bite. At the same time, they requested greater quantities of this ideal sauce to balance out the breadiness of the crust. The White House, Trinacria's version of a white pie (mozzarella, ricotta, and roasted garlic) was “kind of bland,” although the cheeses were obviously top-notch.

Unlike other pizza places, where we've been overwhelmed with gratuitous toppings, Pizza Club would have preferred these pies with more stuff on them because “the toppings are what elevates it.” The quality of their ingredients make Trinacria's pizza operation very promising, but it lacks strong foundations in the realm of crust, sauce, and baking facilities (not that we'd urge them to jump on the brick-oven bandwagon – there must be other ways?).
L-R: olive, pepperoni, roasted garlic

We should emphasize that the people working at New Trinacria were very friendly, accommodating of our large group, and enthusiastic about their product. Eating there was a fun experience. We were excited to get out there right away and review their pizza, but perhaps we should have waited for them to work out the kinks. Maybe there was just too much at stake here pizza-wise. We hold Trinacria in such high regard that we began experiencing confusion, self-doubt and melancholic yearning. “I am incapable of thinking critically,” Patrick declared, while Chelsea reported that Trinacria pizza was “making me think of another, better pizza.”

May that other, better pizza one day meet us in the ground-floor corner retail space of that weird condo on Centre St. and Park Ave. May Stephanie Rawlings Blake award Trinacria an unaudited city contract to pump tapenade through the degraded water mains of this city in perpetuity. Don't let the curse of 111 Centre St. take down New Trinacria – just go get a sandwich.

4.5/8 slices