Wednesday, December 29, 2010


by Alicia Puglionesi

Thirteen ways of looking at a Blackbird pizza
(Blackbird Pizzeria, 507 S. 6th St., Philadelphia PA)

My brother recently revealed that he is a "vegan," and after all the pain and suffering that this lifestyle choice has caused for our family, I felt it was time to begin the healing process by bringing them a vegan pizza that we could share. The pizza would need to break down entrenched prejudices with sheer charm and tastiness. Upon the shoulders of this humble pizza would rest the happiness of a home torn asunder by dietary and ethical conflicts. Nothing and everything was at stake. Pizza doesn't have shoulders, that makes no sense.

Jason, newly-minted "vegan," recommended Blackbird Pizza in Philadelphia's Society Hill because it's the only place he knows that makes specialty vegan pizzas (and, for the record, vegan cheesesteaks, sandwiches, plus many other foods not addressed here). Decisions made by necessity are often the best decisions. In today's world of superfluous consumer choice, etc. etc. The Baltimore-based reader should also note that this pizza parlor is relevant because it's named after blackbirds, which are either the same as or related to ravens.

Thinking fast, I sent up a Pizza Club beacon (mass text) so that other pizza devotees might enjoy this hopefully-tasty treat and contribute their valuable insights. Joined in short order by a local expert, we departed for the "nice" part of the city where you have to pay for parking.

Founded by a former chef at Horizons, Philly's premier vegan fancy-pants restaurant, Blackbird is more humble in appearance but still a bit hard on the wallet (specialty pies run you $19, while [humungous] individual slices clock in at $2.50-$3.50). It opened this past summer at 507 S. 6th St., the space that formerly housed Gianna's Grille. This was confusing for me since I always refer out-of-town vegetarians to Govina's or Gianna's for a veggie cheesesteak fix. For the record, Blackbird's veggie cheesesteak is more expensive than Gianna's, and neither were/are as good as Govinda's, so if you get anything out of this paragraph it should be that you need to go to Govinda's for a Philly cheesesteak.

After pondering the menu and ruling out weird shit like nacho pizza and barbecue pizza, we decided on a Fungi pie (white pizza with exotic mushrooms, truffle oil, and garlic sauce) and a "South Philly Style Pizza" (red sauce, broccoli rabe, seitan steak pieces, and fennel). The staff was friendly and helpful, and the by-the-slice pies were flatteringly displayed behind glass. We sat by the fake fireplace/space heater and pondered the human condition, trading temporary tattoos for cigarettes and otherwise making the best of things.

When the pies were ready it became clear that, as I had known all along in the deepest recesses of my soul, we would have to eat some of the pizza on the spot, rather than bringing it all home to my hungry family. This is a basic evolutionary hunter-gatherer instinct, it's totally ok and not poor form at all to skim a little off the top. Also, it was crucial to utilize the expertise of my friend Joyce, resident Funguy expert, in evaluating the mushroom pizza.

The first bite of 'shroom 'za yielded what our resident expert termed "that genuine mushroom funk." Truffle oil, a trump card in terms of classy ingredients, gave the mushrooms some subtle nuance; garlic provided a sharp counterpoint to the fungal earthiness. I'd also like to use the word "bouquet" here. My brother took issue with the presence of a long human hair delicately adhering to the crust (pictured). The hair did not belong to any member of our party, but also did not match the hairstyle of anyone else in the restaurant. Our undimmed desire to continue eating is a testament to the fact that it was good pizza. The appearance of another mystery hair went entirely unremarked because who really wants to think about these things.

As a segue between pizzas, we can discuss what they had in common: a consistently good dough, compressed to a crunchy, flaky, unobtrusive vehicle underneath the toppings, and blossoming into an airy crust with those baked-cheese bubbles that are arise in the intermediate crustal zone and are secretly the best part of pizza.

Having said all these nice things about the crust, essentially setting it up for a victory lap, I'm sad to report that it didn't perform as well in pizza #2. Pizza Club members and auxiliary members and honorary member-experts engaged in extensive scientific debate regarding the causes of this disappointment. Two competing hypotheses emerged: the familiar "topping overload" hypothesis posited that the plethora of toppings on the South Philly pizza were simply more than the delicate crust could handle. Joyce advanced the more complex theory that the watery consistency of the vegan cheese plus sauce was causing the crust to soften, providing less structural support for toppings. This hypothesis eventually won out. We silently longed for knives and forks with which to tackle the floppy slices. (Note: there were knives and forks available at the counter, but no one wanted to be the first to show weakness).

The South Philly pizza considered holistically had a notable fruity aftertaste, possibly related to the composition of the sauce. This fruity tang didn't compliment the seitan-and-broccoli-rabe faux-cheesesteak theme; a cheesesteak pizza should be meatier and more savory. Thinly-sliced fennel, a refined stand-in for the traditional onion topping, only added to our confusion. Perhaps Blackbird's sauce is not a strong point, as the white pizza we sampled had none of these weaknesses.

This leads us to the subject of fake cheese. Cheese is the cornerstone of American pizza. Let it be stated, upfront and with no righteous bullshitting, that whole-milk mozzarella cheese and select auxiliary cheeses are the true heirs to the throne of whatever used to go on top of pizzas before cheese was invented. Why, having made this remarkable leap of human ingenuity, would we reject the miracle of cheese and revert to a substance made out of fermented arrowroot flour and oil? The question of authenticity in American life is very interesting to me. Some people really believe in things and want to show you hidden-cellphone-camera footage of cows being horrifically abused in factory farms. Other people are not able to digest dairy.

Blackbird's stance on the fake cheese issue is that most fake cheese is bad-tasting and made of soy. They work with Daiya cheese, which is not soy-based. You can pretty much do your own research on the internet, but the claim is that this miracle-cheese-like-substance tastes cheesier and lacks the virtuous-soy aftertaste of the first-wave fromage substitutes. This is true for the most part. Its weakness is a liquidy consistency which, as noted above, contributes to goopiness and crust-collapse.

Now would be a good time to wrap up this review with a sentimental tableau of family reconciliation. By the time my brother and I got home with what remained of the two pizzas (there was PLENTY of pizza left, geeze), the rest of the nuclear unit was quite hungry and irritated. They were prepared to hate on this alien and potentially immoral species of decorated bread. But guess what? They liked it. So there you go. And I actually wrote thirteen paragraphs before I went back and numbered them and added the stupid title.

7/8 slices, plus points for answering the eternal maternal question, "You're a vegan?! How will you live? What did I do wrong???"

Friday, November 19, 2010

How To Make Everything Pizza

Although I'm sure the pizza is pretty good in Baltimore (you know what they say about pizza . . . ), when I left Baltimore a couple of years ago, I was lucky to land in Brooklyn, the epicenter of pizza. I live only about a mile away from the New York Times's declared best pizza in New York and just blocks away from my personal favorite pizza, handcrafted by the phenomenal Paulie Gee. Every pie served at Paulie Gee's is the best I've ever had, but when I visited a few weeks ago I was especially inspired by their Greenpointer pizza: a white pizza topped with arugula, cheese, and LEMON JUICE.

My friend Stephen has been honing his pizza skills lately with sauce and crust recipes from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. When we ran into each other at our last CSA pick up of the season, he invited me over to sample his undertakings. Inspired by the magical Paulie Gee's pizza and our CSA haul that week, I suggested that we top the pizza with kale, leeks, ricotta and lemon zest.

Stephen and his roommate made the dough and sauce ahead of time. We had both already used up our CSA kale by the time pizza making came around so I picked up some arugula on the way over. We also modified from my suggested ricotta to a mix of fresh mozzarella and parmesan. A key to this pizza was that the arugula and lemon were added after the pizza was removed from the oven, ensuring that the arugula was perfectly wilted without drying out or burning.

It was almost too beautiful to eat! But after fiddling around with digital cameras for a while we happily did eat it. The crust was delicious and more like a thin focaccia that a traditional thin crust pizza from a pizza joint. Everyone agreed that the leeks were a really great addition to the pizza and the sparing use of cheese allowed the delicate leeks to shine. I give it a hearty 8 out of 8 slices. After finishing the pizza, we got drunk on red wine and debated the pros and cons of raising the minimum age for collecting social security while listening to the Arcade Fire.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tutti Gusti

On October 7, 2010 we went to Tutti Gusti. We ordered three large pizzas. The Bianca, Pizza Con Spinach, and a square pizza.

The Bianca - broccoli, ricotta, tomato, and mozzarella cheese. The crust on the pizza was crispy and was quoted as being "quite exceptional".

Pizza Con Spinach - tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, spinach, and mozzarella. The spinach on this one was definitely real and there was a lot of it.

We also made our own on one of their square pizzas. We got it with sausage and sundried tomatoes. The square pizza was very doughy.

Although we ordered at a counter, they brought the pizza to the table. The service was very friendly at this casual dining establishment. They did have the tv on, which was distracting. They also serve pizza by the slice pasta, calzones, and subs which we assume are really good. Overall we definitely got our money's worth of fresh and delicious pizza. Tutti Gusti is located in the Canton area, so for some it is a bit of a hike to get to. If you are going to be in the area, you should check it out.

Our overall rating was:
The Bianca - 6/8 slices
Pizza Con Spinach - 5/8 slices
Square - 7.5/8 slices

Tutti Gusti
3102 Fait Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21224
(410) 534-4040

Monday, October 4, 2010

Next Meeting

The next meeting will be this Thursday, October 7. Please meet at Tutti Gusti at 5:30 pm. They are located at 3102 Fait Ave. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Johnny Rad's

We went to Johnny Rad’s on September 13, 2010. We ordered a couple of small pizzas as opposed to large ones because this was actually more cost effective and allowed us to have more variety. Usually it is cheaper the other way around. The small offered more slices that other small pizzas we have encountered. These were not personal pan pizza smalls. The small is 11” and the large is 15”. The owner came over to us and explained the difference between the small and large pizzas. The larger pizza allows (obviously) a larger canvas for the toppings. 10 oz versus 8.5 oz. Also he explained that the crust dynamics was very different between the sizes. I think an important quote from the evening should be brought to everyone’s attention now:

“The crust is really good. I want to eat it.”

This is fantastic! Some people never seem to get down with the crust of pizza and their plates inevitably become a crust wasteland. We’re not going to talk about those people now, we are going to talk about Johnny Rad’s crust. It is really good. It really is crust you want to eat.

I am going to give a personal tip on how to ensure crust enjoyment. The trick is to save about an inch of actual pizza and fold that over the crust. Say goodbye to eating only bread and say hello to being able to savour the texture and flavor of the dough.

We ordered:

-The El Gato, a white pizza with garlic olive oil, fresh basil, mozzarella, ricotta cheese, and sea salt.

-The Pesto Vitello, fresh pesto sauce with sliced tomato, fresh mozzarella and sea salt.

-The Tilt Mode, tomato sauce, mozzarella and ricotta, sliced red onion, baby spinach and arugula, and olive oil.

-The Templeton (with vegan cheese), a classic Marinara style pizza with tomato sauce, fresh garlic, oregano, olive oil and basil.

The El Gato was not just salad put on pizza, it provides a nice balance of vegetables to pizza.

Some concerns were on the pepperiness of the pizza, more specifically on the size of the peppercorns which some people found to be still whole and were hard to eat. I didn’t really experience this and could chalk it up to a non-functioning pepper grinder. If this is intentional, then this is a warning to future patrons: The pepper corns will be whole, so just be prepared. Ultimately it’s going to be ok.

The atmosphere was alright. We did happen to go during a televised Ravens game, so it was loud, but it emptied out by 9:40. Johnny Rad’s has a semi-punk/skateboarding theme going on, but not to the point that you wouldn’t want to go there if you were over the age of 22. Overall the employees were very nice and the pizza was in fact pretty “rad”. I definitely would go back to Johnny Rad’s and would recommend it.

If you’re looking to eat some good pizza and try some place new, check out Johnny Rad’s. It’s also across the street from the Patterson Bowling Center! (Hint: That would make a really good date).

7 out of 8 slices.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pizza News: 7 Worst Pizzas in America

7 Worst Pizzas in America

Worst Pizzas in America

By David Zinczenko
Sep 20, 2010

Eat This, Not That

When pizza was first invented, back in some long forgotten Italian village, it was a nearly perfect slice of nutrition: A thin crust of carbohydrates for energy, slathered with tomato sauce for vitamins and minerals, and topped with calcium-rich, protein-boosting mozzarella. It was like a food pyramid in pie form!

So what happened? How did this healthy Italian invention acquire a reputation for being so terribly unhealthy? Well, to start, American food manufacturers got their greedy little hands on it. As we began researching the Eat This, Not That! book series, we discovered marketers were up to all sorts of mischief that has made it easier for Americans to gain weight—doing creepy things like loading the top up with fatty meats, infusing the crust with hidden cheeses, and otherwise turning the healthy pizza pie into a Big Mac with crust. Mama Mia!

It’s too bad, too, because pizza is a staple of American life. During last year’s Super Bowl, Papa Johns sold more pies than there are people in Delaware. And it’s only the third-biggest pizza chain (Papa Johns, not Delaware). So if you want the best of both worlds—the health benefits of the Italian style and the football-rooting fun of the American way of life, then you need to know which pizzas should be showing up at your door at halftime—and which should get called for a 15-pound penalty.

#7: Worst Supermarket Pizza
DiGiorno For One Traditional Crust Supreme Pizza
790 calories
36 g fat (14 g saturated fat, 3 g trans fats)
1,460 mg sodium

No, it’s not delivery, but it is dangerous. This is how DiGiorno handles the personal pie: with 60 percent of your day’s sodium, 70 percent of your saturated fat, and more trans fat than you should consume in an entire day. If your heart had a voice box, it would be screaming in outrage.

Eat This Instead!
Stouffer’s French Bread Deluxe Pizza (1 pizza)
430 calories
21 g fat (7 g saturated)
820 mg sodium

#6: Worst Multi-National Pizza
California Pizza Kitchen Tostada Pizza with Grilled Steak (1/2 pie)
840 calories
16 g saturated fat
1,649 mg sodium

With a caloric heft like this, you’d expect this Tex-Mex pie to be massively portioned. It’s not. The big fatty price tag draws not from size, but from the combo effect of tortilla chips and ranch dressing. Switch to the equally interesting Four Seasons Pizza, which carries artichoke hearts, salami, mushroom, tomatoes, onions, and two cheeses, and you drop nearly 400 calories per half-pie serving.

Eat This Instead!
Thin Crust Four Seasons Pizza
480 calories
9 g saturated fat
1,567 mg sodium

Bonus Tip: Take a look at the weapons of mass inflation being whipped up in the labs of the mad fast-food scientists: The 20 Scariest New Restaurant Foods! Be afraid—be very afraid!

#5: Worst Single Slice
Sbarro Stuffed Pepperoni Pizza
960 calories
42 g fat
3,200 mg sodium

Sbarro serves up elephantine slices, so you should know better than to order one that essentially consists of two of those slices folded one atop another. In this one wedge of pizza, Sbarro manages to pack in nearly as many calories as you’d find in four pepperoni slices from Pizza Hut! You want to survive the Sbarro super-slice challenge? Stick to a regular pie, nix the pepperoni and sausage, and limit yourself to one slice.

Eat This Instead!
Fresh Tomato Pizza
450 calories
14 g fat
1,040 mg sodium

Bonus Tip: Sure, pizza has the potential to inflate, but it’s certainly not the only food to cause widespread weight gain. Case in point: The 15 Worst Burgers in America. You'll also learn which burgers to eat instead, so you can enjoy your favorite foods and still lose weight—without ever dieting.

#4: Worst Specialty Crust Pizza
Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust Meat Lover’s Pizza (2 slices, 14” pie)
960 calories
52 g fat (24 g saturated, 1 g trans)
2,780 mg sodium

Around the perimeter of this pie is what essentially amounts to a hula-hoop ring of cheese. Gross, right? But it's not just cheese. Also inside that ring: two types of sausage, ham, beef, and bacon. The impact of all those salt-cured meats is more than a day’s worth of sodium in each two-slice serving—oh, and as much saturated fat as a dozen Extra Crispy Drumsticks from KFC! Here’s a simple mnemonic device: Stuffed pizza = stuffed potbelly. Stick to thin crust and lean meats and you’ll live to eat well another day.

Eat This Instead!
2 Slices Thin ‘N Crispy Ham & Pineapple Pizza (2 slices, 12'' pie)
360 calories
12 g fat (6 g saturated)
1,080 mg sodium

Bonus Tip: To see more proof of how wayward beverages can utterly destroy your diet, check out the 20 Worst Drinks in America. Many of these disastrous drinks contain more than a day's worth of calories, sugar, and fat!

#3: Worst Flatbread
Cosi Chicken Gorgonzola with Fig Flatbread with Traditional Crust
1,073 calories
41 g fat (9 g saturated)
1,057 mg sodium

At first blush, flatbread seems like a healthy version of pizza—especially when it comes adorned with fanciful toppings like Gorgonzola and figs. But let this be a lesson: Just because it’s fancy doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Cosi’s traditional crust is essentially the same carpet of bread you might find underneath a circular pie. The rules of pizza selection apply to flatbreads as well: Lean toppings, light cheese, and thin crust.

Eat This Instead!
Margherita Flatbread with Thin Crust
451 calories
26 g fat (13 g saturated)
328 mg sodium

#2: Worst Thin Crust Pizza
Domino’s Brooklyn Style ExtravaganZZa Feast Pizza (2 slices 16” pie)
1,180 calories
60 g fat (27 g saturated)
3,420 mg sodium

To be fair, Domino’s Brooklyn Style isn’t promoted as thin crust, but it was created with fold-ability in mind. That requires slices that are soft, thin, and—in Domino’s case—massive. The typical Domino’s pie comes sliced into eighths, but order the Brooklyn-inspired pie and you’ll get only six slices. What happened to the other two slices? They were absorbed—along with their calories, fat, and sodium—into the other slices. Your better option is to build your own pie on a legitimate thin crust. Top that pie chicken and chorizo and you cut out 730 calories. Do that a couple times a week and you’ll cut close to two pounds of flab per month.

Eat This Instead!
Thin Crust Grilled Chicken and Chorizo (2 slices, 14” pie)
450 calories
20 g fat (7 g saturated)
1,030 mg sodium

Bonus Tip: Eating healthy on the go is far easier than it sounds. Check out these 9 Ways to Lose Weight Eating Fast-Food for body slimming tips that don’t cost a minute of your time.

#1: Worst Pizza in America
Uno Chicago Grill Chicago Classic Deep Dish Pizza (Individual)
2,310 calories
162 g fat (54 g saturated fat)
4,920 mg sodium

Wait, wait, wait. This is a one-person pizza? Yup. All 2,310 calories are destined for one soon-to-be expanding belly. This pie has been a perennial pick for us over the past three years, and the reason is simple: No other personal pizza in the country even begins to approach these numbers. It breaks every single caloric recommendation on the books, and it does it under the guise of a must-have “classic” dish. With the country being plagued by obesity, Uno should have the decency to banish—or significantly improve—this dish.

Eat This Instead!
Cheese and Tomato Thin Crust Pizza (Individual)
840 calories
33 g fat (15 g saturated fat)
1,770 mg sodium

ps this is a picture of David Zinczenko, the author of this piece. I don't really believe that he ate all those pizzas himself, but that's just me.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Gil's Pizza

I have driven past Gil's on Belair road many times and had been wanting to stop by for a while. After an exhausting trip to IKEA, we decided we needed sustenance; we needed Gil's pizza. No dining in here, this place only does carry out. They only serve pizza and one size of it. They do offer "double dough" as an additional topping. We were told that this is not Sicilian style, but an additional ball of dough added; same diameter, only thicker. We ordered a mushroom pizza. They put the topping under the cheese.

A plain tomato and cheese pie costs $9.25 with each topping costing an additional $1.25.

Gil's has been around since 1958. Sadly Gil is no longer with us. The current owner bought it about 8 years ago. It took him two months of non-stop pizza eating for it to get kinda old, I feel that pizza is one of the few foods that I could eat everyday and not get sick of it. He says he still eats pizza once a week. He has been making pizza for almost his entire life. Perhaps I am making that up, but Gil's pizza is definitely on it.

There was a comfortable balance of crust/sauce/cheese. After ordering the pizza, we stood at the counter and watched him roll out the dough, put on the topping, and put it in the oven. It really connects you to the pizza making process. This is the pizza that you imagine when you say "I just want pizza, no messing around." While the trend of Baltimore pizza tends to be on the thinner crust side, Gil's crust is of a more traditional thickness. This pizza would be perfect with soda and/or beer.

Real cheese. No nonsense.

7.5 out of 8 slices

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Gil's Pizza
5132 Belair Road
Baltimore, MD 21206

Pizza Everyday - Big City Zza

In New York City this past weekend I had three pizza experiences, each one being significantly better than the last. First stop, Coney Island.

This "school cafeteria" style slice was $3. Pretty terrible, but being very hungry after doing stuff all day and not eating helped a bit. Still, it deserves 1.5/8 slices.

The slice from this place, where a can of Coors Light costs $4.50, is pictured here.

After going on the $5 "Spook-A-Rama" ride (soooo worth it), my friend Jac picked up this gem for $3. Same price as the previous slice, but like 10 times better. 4/8 slices. (Note the actual cheese on this one).

Finally, the next night we went to a real Pizza place, John's Pizzeria on Bleecker Street (where, as Vanilla Ice suggests on their website, they should "Keep Making the 'Dope' Pizza.") Yes, Vanilla, the pizza was "Dope". We got a large cheese and it totally hit the spot, aka the emptiness in my stomach, and was priced well. $14. It was a 7/8.