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???"

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