Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Duck, duck, pizza

1520 Clipper Road

We really liked Birroteca. We like what they're doing. But Birroteca is bigger than pizza. In what follows I will try to review Birroteca's pizza while also conveying a broader sense of how this new venue fits or does not fit into the densely-woven, shimmering fabric of Your Baltimore Life.

Your Baltimore Life
 This place opened in September and is probably in the running for best low-key-but-conspicuously-tasteful restaurant in the city. Many people on the Tuesday night that we visited appeared to be on dates, kind-of-dates, or after-work drinks that could potentially turn into a date (I inferred this from body language). Like the couple who we sat next to and whose conversation we interrupted throughout their meal to talk about pizza. Their date seemed to be going pretty well, but they looked like a seasoned couple, accustomed to having their nice evenings crashed by large groups of pizza fanatics. 

Nice on the inside
Here's how this works for a first date situation: you, if you happen to be the date asker, explain that the restaurant is in Hampden, which is a known quantity for most people even if they're afraid of Baltimore (which you haven't determined yet because it's the first date). The address, the Baltimore Sun reassures us, shows up on GPS. However, after driving the winding, unlit stretch of Falls and Clipper Mill roads leading to Birroteca, your date is a bit apprehensive and wondering if you have terrible taste or are crazy. The address is a squat former industrial building on a gravel lot under the highway. Then the date walks inside – and lo! - it is a carefully-designed upscale bistro with salvaged fixtures and chalkboard art and a retro bar and the acoustic ceiling tiles have been replaced with acoustic ceiling tiles designed to look like an antique tin ceiling. So this is a great way to impress your love interest who doesn't get around Baltimore much or is new to the city with your knowledge of the restaurant scene (which is apparently cooler than knowing about bands, food is the new rock, etc.). I'm not trying to run your life for you or anything, but Birroteca is definitely a good date place.

Incidentally, I used to think that when people talked about whether a city is “good” or “bad” to live in they were talking about access to amenities – art, music, museums, transportation, parks, Whole Foods, etc. Now I think they're referring to the number of good date restaurants. Baltimore is no better off by some measures than it was three years ago, but now we have so many good date restaurants that people will start moving here and spawn families and fill the proposed youth prison site with daffodils and rainbows.

Pizza is definitely part of this picture, since people who are not lactose-intolerant really like it (Birroteca is not equipped to provide fake-cheese substitutions). Once you've made it into Birroteca (and this is a challenge – it's so buzzy at the moment that they were booked up on a Tuesday and turning people away), you will have a specialty pizza selection as well as the option to choose your own toppings. There is also an infinite selection of local craft beers. Your knowledge of these beers and their local provenance will further impress your date, or make you look like an asshole. This isn't under your control – your manner of conveying craft beer knowledge is an indicator of deeper, underlying personality issues.

Pizza Club ordered the Locavore, Duck Duck Goose, Pesto, and Spicy Sausage Fennel pizzas. The waitstaff of Birroteca are very nice; they Facebook-messaged me to make sure we could get seats, because they thought that Pizza Club was pretty important (this remains for history to judge). 

The Locavore pizza was billed as having “roasted market vegetables,” mozzarella, and olive oil, but the vegetables turned out to be mostly arugula and sauteed onions, with possibly some squash underneath. This was not a bad thing; the crunchy bitter greens balanced the sweetness of the cheese, and it worked well texture-wise. I'd like to underline that their mozzarella was pretty good. The crust was a bit charred, and Adrian suggested that feta cheese and some kind of sauce would make good additions to the pie. Some found the salad-on-a-pie arrangement unwieldy, but others were comforted by the presence of vegetables.

Paul Giamatti: Friend of Ducks

Another thing that makes your casual dinner date tasteful and classy is the addition of small bits of duck meat to whatever you're eating. After seeing this Nature documentary about ducks, narrated by Paul Giamatti (who loves ducks), I can no longer support the killing of ducks for food. However, the Duck Duck Goose pizza was apparently very, very delicious. Chris's response to the first bite was “I would eat this pizza every day of my life.” The pie came with duck confit, fig and onion jam, a balsamic vinegar reduction, fontina and asagio cheeses, and a duck egg cracked on top and baked. It was that end of the slice with duck egg on it that people were really into. Everyone around me was closing their eyes to savor this duck egg on a pizza, at which point I began to wonder about my life and what I am doing. 
Tasty duck

The Spicy Sausage Fennel pizza was less of a blockbuster – described as “underwhelming” and “non-threatening”. Some complained that there wasn't enough going on. Sauce and toppings were sparse, leaving mostly bread and cheese that, for some reason, wasn't as good as the other cheese on the first pizzas. This lack of other stuff led us to meditate on the crust. Birroteca is doing something with its crust that is more interesting than the typical gourmet-pizza-boom restaurant that installs a brick oven and assumes that whatever crust they put in it will come out delicious. Birroteca's crust was kind of pretzel-y and buttery, crisp on the outside and able to hold up its toppings despite being rolled thin. This is a special thing, and makes their pizza worth ordering even though they have many other authentic locally-sourced type menu items that are obviously quite good. It was great that we had the opportunity to notice this, but the sausage pizza was deemed “hollow and unsatisfying.” 

We didn't like the sausage that much but obviously we ate it all anyway
Finally, we ordered a Pesto pizza, which contained a lot of pesto. The crust on this one struck us as doughier, more flatbread-ish and less crispy. One would assume that all the dough in a restaurant is made from the same recipe, but we inferred that perhaps the baking times are different for different pies, leading to textural variation. We enjoyed the pesto and tomato combination, and the understated presence of mozzarella and ricotta. This would make a very solid appetizer pizza, as there's not too much going on – it's clean and each ingredient is there for a reason.


By the end of this Pizza Club meeting, we had all gone on a lovely date with each other and with the other people on dates around us whose dates we interrupted. Who says that dating is dead? Perhaps society is ready to move beyond a rigidly dyadic relationship concept. We are all in a relationship with pizza, and with each other, and as this relationship deepens and evolves, we will sometimes need to jazz things up by going to fancy restaurants and spending a lot of money. This may ultimately make the world a better place, but also the world may not last long enough for it to work.

6/8 slices

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

for president

by Josh LaFayette of Boston, MA (via Aaron Cohen / Super Precious Gallery)

That election was great and all but it's time for a viable third party candidate. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mozzarella in the free world

This Canadian-American smuggling ring suggests the pervasive cheese identity issues facing us in an increasingly globalized world. Is it worth betraying your country for cheap American imitation mozzarella? Perhaps, to make cheap American pizza. As far afield as Europe, questions of cheese authenticity are causing disruptions in cultures with an evolving relationship to crappy American food. I might translate this article from German so that we actually know what it means. Thanks to Marion Schmidt, keeping an eye on international pizza affairs.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Pope of Federal Hill

620 Fort Ave.
Baltimore, MD

First of all, this bar is not named after the 1987 film Barfly, in which a young Mickey Rourke plays a young Charles Bukowski. Mike, the proprietor, explained to us that "Barfly's" was the name of his fantasy football team, and thus when he opened a sports bar he gave it the same name. He had to explain this because Pizza Club members were all wearing our Mickey Rourke masks, believing it to be a Rourke and/or Bukoswki tribute bar, which was kind of awkward. Mike assured us that he does like the movie Barfly, and demonstrated his familiarity with Rourke's poignant career trajectory. There is a solitary Mickey Rourke poster in the alcove near the restroom, but the rest of the bar is decorated with sports and Baltimore memorabilia. All I'm saying is that this place could capitalize way more heavily on the drunk-belligerent-lost-to-the-world-Charles Bukowski angle and bring in a whole new demographic.

This brings us to my second preliminary point of discussion: the Great Federal Hill Pizza Bubble of 2012. Barfly's is one of a handful of new pizza establishments in Federal Hill, all offering gourmet pizza in a bar setting. We might classify their target demographic as "upscale bro": young people who want to drink, play foosball/darts/pool, and watch the game, and then get hungry and chow down on some gourmet pizza. There's variety within this bubble, with Hersh's skewing towards fancy sit-down restaurant, the Stalking Horse skewing towards sorority girls ("specializes in frozen slushy drinks with flavors like pina colada, purple grape vodka...and our most popular frozen Red Bull & Vodka Slushy"), and Pub Dog skewing towards dogs. They all make pretty delicious pizza, but is this sustainable? Will the Federal Hill Pizza Bubble burst when bros realize that they just want to eat falafel? And is it worth going all the way to Federal Hill for pizza if you are not part of the "upscale bro" demographic living in the immediate vicinity?

We brought up these questions with Mike, who is well aware that he's part of a burgeoning Pizza Bubble. He had an interesting take on the situation, arguing that more pizza in the neighborhood isn't a threat to his business. If there were more diverse culinary options - Mexican, Japanese, Middle Eastern, etc. - then customers might get distracted and drift away from plain old pizza. But in the current market, he's only competing with other gourmet pizza restaurants/bars, and he is confident that as long as he serves good pizza, people will choose his place. Mike is no vainglorious Pizza Bubble profiteer.

So, how good is this pizza? We ordered four pies (they serve 10-inch pies at $11-14 each): a plain cheese, a white spinach, a veggie, and a buffalo chicken. Before our pizza arrived Mike brought out some "special dressing" which he said is a customer favorite for dipping crust. "I don't know what's in it," he said, "but people come back for the dressing." We identified it a Caesar dressing with a lot of extra garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan, but it was indeed very good.

Barfly's serves all its food on paper plates, perhaps to accentuate the "upscale dive-bar" theme, but they were the compostable kind so I guess that's good. The pizza, which arrived promptly, had a crisp, bubbly appearance that promised good things to come. Indeed, the crust was crunchy on the outside and puffy on the inside, thick and almost buttery-tasting. We were impressed and couldn't figure out how they did it. I'm not sure if this is a trade secret, but Mike revealed that they achieve champion crust by adding Parmesan cheese to the dough, which is pretty brilliant.

cheez pizza

The plain cheese pie was, as per Mike's modest claim, "really pretty good." They use real cheese, and, as Dan attests, "real cheese goes a long way." Dan believed this to be the best pie. Other Pizza Club members, however, suggested that if you come all the way to Barfly's you'd do better to get a specialty pie with toppings.

The veggie pie, described as "muted," had olives, spinach, mushrooms, green pepper, red sauce, and mozzarella. The toppings are under the cheese, an effective way of preventing dry toppings and keeping them from falling off. The vegetables were all real and fresh, but we didn't get a strong impression of this pizza - it was just a nice bunch of stuff on a tasty crust.

top: veggie. bottom: buffalo chicken.

The buffalo chicken pizza was a group favorite, "harmonious", "saucy but not overwhelming", creamy, cheesy, etc. Ashley noted their effective use of chicken. We voted this pie "very, very good."

white spinach

The white spinach pizza tasted kind of like spanakopita because the crust is so buttery and pastry-like. White sauce was a bit much with this crust - it benefits from the counterbalancing bite of tomato sauce. But the spinach was fresh and if you're really into creaminess this could be the pie for you.

Sarah was asked "would you consider current-day Mickey Rourke attractive?"

We greatly enjoyed our Barfly's experience - it would be a perfect spot to watch a game, they have a bunch of beers on tap, and it probably doesn't get too crowded because a) it's a spacious/cavernous building and b) there are three bars per block in this part of town. If you care about pizza, it's worth making the trip to Barfly's at least once to try it on for size. It is definitely the kind of pizza you eat at a bar, but within that category I'd venture to say it's nipping at the heels of excellence. The place was pretty empty on a Wednesday night, although there was a pirate because it's Fed Hill and some lady mistook Dan for a woman due to his long flowing hair. Young Mickey Rourke (may he rest in peace) smiled down upon us as we ate pizza and played darts.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Too fast too loulou

Tooloulou Pizza
4311 Harford Rd.
nice logo. "tooloulou": Cajun for "crab"

I guess they probably have pizza in New Orleans, I don't really know because I still have not been there. They definitely have a lot of other food, like po'boys and catfish and muffalettas, that are respected worldwide as delicious and authoritative. When Pizza Club visited Tooloulou, a New Orleans-themed casual restaurant in Hamilton, we were hoping to put together the pieces of this puzzle: why do pizza? What could make a pizza embody "New Orleans"? Would that thing just be shrimp?

It wasn't just shrimp - it was also alligator, crab, and smoked duck. Tooloulou is definitely doing something good with its specialty seafood and meat pizzas. But looking at the rest of the menu made us wonder why anyone who was not there on a specifically pizza-oriented fact-finding mission would order pizza at all. The other stuff sounded great and distinctive, while piling onto the pizza wagon just meant piling novelty toppings onto a pretty standard pie.

gator time

We particularly recommend Tooloulou in the beverage department: they have every kind of root beer ever, as well as Cheerwine, sarsaparilla, birch beer, etc. etc. It's kind of small and hot inside their storefront, so these beverages were consumed in large refreshing quantities. The space is decorated with assorted punning wall plaques ("buy our pizza, we knead the dough") and Old Bay kitsch, but not aggressively so. There's only room for two tables and a bar, but we were the only people eating in at 8:30 on a Tuesday so it was fine. Folks came and went picking up boxes of pizza to-go, suggesting that Tooloulou already has a local following.

enter the duck

We ordered a smoked duck and a veggie pizza. This choice turned out to be strategic, as it created quite a study in contrasts. The smoked duck was delicious, well-put-together flavor-wise, and definitely a distinctive thing that you can't find elsewhere in Baltimore. The veggie pie, on the other hand, was a throwaway, making the resident vegetarians feel that there was nothing for them at Tooloulou (though, upon examining their menu, I discovered that they make a veggie po'boy with tofu and mushrooms that sounds ridiculous but I couldn't get that because we already ate pizza). Let's hash out the details.

golden ratio

The duck pizza contained tomato sauce, house smoked duck, caramelized onions, sweet peppers, and goat cheese with a balsamic reduction. The amount of duck was very generous, it was cooked to a nice texture and cut intelligently into bite-sized bits. What could have been a liquidy pizza with an overload of toppings was instead perfectly proportioned and integrated. The crust, too, was perfect, crisped and only slightly burnt where it formed delicious crunchy bubbles.

great expectations

The veggie pizza had a white sauce, mushrooms, spinach, capers, roasted cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella. The tomatoes didn't seem to actually be roasted at all, except for a few which were slightly wrinkly. The spinach looked pretty dessicated. There was lots of cheese, which had the texture and chew of a good quality cheese, but it just wasn't that exciting. Even the crust, which presumably was the same crust as the duck pizza, was softer and undercooked.

wilted expectations

"I actively want to eat more of the duck pizza," Jonah said while sampling the veggie. "I wish this slice would end so I could go back to the duck." Dan, who does not eat meat, turned his attention to unlocking the secret messages encoded in the restaurant's music playlist. "This pizza makes me hyper-aware of the sax solo in [the 1981 Men at Work chart-topper] 'Who Can It Be Now'" he remarked. Indeed, paranoia was the name of the game for vegetarians. Why were we being treated like second-class citizens? Also, I discovered that capers are some kind of weird mini brussels sprout. I always assumed they were salty bad-tasting berries that got rejected from breakfast cereal. No! They are sprouts. If you don't believe me and you are eating a boring vegetarian pizza with capers on it, definitely pick the capers off and dissect them and you'll see what I'm talking about.

cheesy expectations

In the end we got one delicious pizza and one ok pizza, but both were very filling and we wound up taking a lot home. Dan never figured out what it meant that so many Police, Dire Straits, and/or Sting songs kept playing in a particular order. The proprietor was a jocular man who gave us free watermelons on our way out, which was very nice of him (the restaurant offers seasonal, CSA-furnished produce specials, but I guess they could not use watermelon on pizza). If you are meat-enabled, you should try the specialty seafood and sausage pies at Tooloulou for a deluxe topping experience, but the veggie treatment suggests to us that nothing really novel is going on under the hood of these pizzas - it wouldn't be worthwhile to order a plain cheese pie. To even out their offerings, they just have to elevate the lowly vegetables up to the hallowed plane of smoked duck.

6/8 slices

Monday, September 3, 2012

What happened that night

Maxie's Pizza Bar & Grill
3003 N. Charles St.

We may never really know what happened at Maxie's on the night of August 8th. I certainly don't, because I was stuck in traffic on I-95. Various accounts survive, however, which offer us insight into the kind of pizza that people ate on that night, and whether it was good. On the internet, Maxie's calls itself, "Baltimore Charles Village Best Pizzeria Bar and Grill." What does this claim mean? Isn't it the only Pizzeria Bar and Grill in Charles Village? There seem to be many stipulations. Based on eyewitness testimony we may reconstruct certain aspects of the Maxie's experience.

The most complete testimony comes from Sara Tomko, who offers the following:
"My first experience at Maxie’s Pizza & Bar would be described as mediocre. I liked the basement bar with its clubhouse vibe and would return for the happy hour (1/2 prices bottles!) but would not dine in. The restaurant side was typical pizza parlor with hard plastic booths, which gives you no reason to stay any longer than to finish your slice. The pizza looked really appealing. I was dazzled by all the specialty slices. I ordered the Greek based on a friend’s recommendation and my inner frat boy gravitated to the chicken parm pizza. I started with the Greek, which was hard to navigate, being overloaded with toppings (shredded iceberg lettuce, kalamata olives, tomato slices, onion, feta cheese). With every bite, toppings tumbled to the table and floor and distracted me from enjoying what little taste the slice had to offer. The crust was on the thick side and chewy but couldn’t support the weight of the entire country of Greece, the hot lettuce was a turn off and the slice lacked flavor overall. I turned to the chicken parm for redemption but it tasted burnt. The chicken was dry, the cheese and sauce was nothing special and couldn’t save the dry, burnt chicken. I didn’t finish my slice, it was that bad. I would kill this at 2am with little food options but never again if I had the choice. I learned an important lesson: never listen to my friends or inner frat boy again!"

Sara's story is one of glossy surfaces, flashy toppings, and flavor disappointment. Others present that night concur, but see no redeeming qualities that would bring them back to Maxie's. When asked about his experience on the night of the 8th, Dan replied, "That meeting never happened." Pressed to confront his memories of Maxie's pizza, he managed to whisper, "So many toppings, so little flavor..." before breaking down in tears and running from the room.

Bonnie was also present at Maxie's. She reflected upon their pizza with equanimity: it is only by-the-slice college take-out pizza, she was only stopping by because she was hungry and in the neighborhood, etc. Even so, she found it unremarkable at best. Perhaps it had been on display all day, and lost any advantages that freshness could have offered.

Because this sample of Maxie's pizza only included by-the-slice offerings, it will be necessary for Pizza Club to evaluate a fresh-out-of-the-oven pizza at a future date, in the hope that this will be a significant improvement. Based on our most current witness testimony and forensic reconstructions, however, we do not recommend purchasing their slices unless you are substantially inebriated and/or just don't care.

2/8 for by-the-slice pizza

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

beer pizza / pizza beer

We know that these things go together on an elemental level. They have the same materials in them: grains, yeast, water. Then pizza has a bunch of other stuff on top of it, but its bedrock is grains and yeast. So is there any reason why pizza and beer should not exchange these essential substances in a grainy makeout session? Why not mix up the pizza and beer before they go into your stomach?

On a conceptual level I am all about this, and I think it should work in both directions: we should have pizza made from spent beer brewing grains, and beer made from the mountains of discarded pizza crusts left behind after kids' birthday parties, which ideally would ferment in an underground pit for five years and then be conditioned with tomato sauce infusions. However, I don't know much about the beer-making end of things, so my first objective in project beerpizza/pizzabeer was to make a pizza crust out of beer grains.

The concept of the beer pizza emerged during a recent high-powered meeting of Lady Brew Baltimore, an awesome homebrew club started by the lovely Laura Cohen. We were brewing a pumpkin brown ale, and after fishing the cheesecloth full of whole grains out of the boiling pot, Laura mentioned that the grains can be used in bread although most brewers throw them out. Fellow lady brewer Christine added that she once made a pizza crust with brewing grains. So I take no credit for this discovery, I only seek to advance the science of beer pizza and expose the general pizza-loving public to this innovation.

I snagged the sackfull of soggy grains and brought them home to experiment with. Fortunately the internet already knows everything and I got a recipe off there for "spent beer grains bread," figuring that pizza is just bread spread out flat with toppings on it.

This bread, however, is super grainy, as you might expect from something that contains more than 50% whole grains. (I'm not even sure what was in that cheesecloth - wheat, barley, some other stuff?). It's dark, molasses-brown in color, and the texture is moist and heavy. So, it doesn't taste anything like "pizza crust" as pizza crust is conventionally understood. However, it was still delicious topped with scallion pesto, figs, goat cheese, and balsamic vinegar. If you wanted to make it more recognizable as pizza, you could replace some of the beer grains and whole wheat flour with white flour. I'd also recommend cooking on a pizza stone, since the dough is very moist and can stay soggy underneath the toppings unless extreme heat is applied.

So here's a recipe for three loaves, or three really big pizza crusts (I halved this and got two medium-sized pies):

3 cups white flour
6 tsp vital wheat gluten
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp salt
2 tsp yeast
3 cups spent beer grains ground in a food processor
1/4 cup sugar or honey
1/4 cup butter or olive oil
1 egg beaten
3/4 cup milk

Combine the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients and add them together. Knead for 10 minutes by hand or 5 minutes with a bread hook mixer thing.
Let the dough rise in an oiled bowl until doubled (90 minutes), then punch down and divide into three balls.
Let those rise for another hour in their respective oiled bowls. In the meantime get your toppings ready and jack the oven up as hot as it will go.
After the second rise, gently coax the dough onto baking sheets or pizza stones and pull/roll/stretch it into shape. It's moist and tender, so dust everything including your hands with flour and don't be too aggressive or it will tear.
Put on some toppings (again, go easy on the saucy toppings because the crust might not crisp well).
Put it in the oven for 20 minutes or until the crust is crispy (this will depend on the temperatures achievable in your home oven).
Congratulations you have a beer pizza!

So now the question is, can my vision of pizza beer ever be actualized in a way that is neither repulsive nor hazardous to human health? Were these two things ever meant to converge so early in their life-cycles, or is it an abomination against god and country? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Monday, July 16, 2012

No direction home, slice

HomeSlyce, 1741 Light St., Federal Hill

What constitutes a pizza? Let's venture into that swirling vortex of reflexivity and neurotic hand-wringing and arbitrary boundary-setting. Pizza can be on a bagel, while it cannot be on a Ritz ™ cracker. It can be inside a pita, but it cannot be inside a soft pretzel. How do we know these things? How do we sort our chaotic sensory impressions of the world into categories like “pizza” and “not-pizza” with relative consistency? Are these categories natural or constructed?

If you are game for this wild trip into the heart of the nature of reality, you should check out the new pizza place in Fed Hill. HomeSlyce is like a trendy hip contemporary pizza bar thing that is just slightly off the mark of being trendy and hip, which makes it quite tolerable as a place to hang out. They have a pool table. The interior is painted yellow and black, like a big friendly bumblebee clumsily ricocheting off your face. HomeSlyce offers a number of attractive specials that could make it worth your while if you are feeling ambivalent about trying something new: Mondays are “half price slyces,” which means that Pizza Club dined at a 50% discount after we reminded our server that it was “half price slyce” night and he recalculated our check.

So at HomeSlyce they make these things called “slyces.” Not pizzas, not calzones – a slyce is like a hybrid of the two, with folded-up edges and an open trough in the middle. Every time I write slyce with a “y” it makes me feel sad, so let's make it a proper noun and call them Slyces. A Slyce is like a pizza boat or canoe or kayak. This is a new thing under the sun (except that it comes from their parent restaurant, Cazbar, which serves Turkish pides which are basically the same thing, but with tasty Turkish food inside).


The Slyce, in general, has a lot of crustal surface area that is not within biting range of a topping: at each end is a knot of crust where the Slyce is sealed off, high-and-dry above any cheese or sauce. Even along the sides, the ratio of crust to topping skews towards the folded-over crust; if you are a crust-leaver-behinder, there will be a lot to leave behind. Of course, chain pizza joints solve the crust-leaving-behind problem by throwing in those cups of melted butter-flavored substance for you to dip the pizza ends in. We recommend a similar tactic for HomeSlyce: given the known crust/topping asymmetry, provide dipping sauce or something. We requested sauce and they gave us some marinara, but the situation demands a more inspired dipping option.

Probably chicken-pesto

The reason that I insist so vocally on the need for better dipping resources is a positive one: HomeSlyce crust was quite good, even when it was far from any topping, making us want to eat more. It was light and chewy, with browned edges and just enough crunch. So we were highly motivated to finish it.

Thanks to the Monday half-price special, we were able to sample most of the Slyces on the menu. A Slyce could feed two or three people, or one really hungry person – HomeSlyce also offers traditional pizzas in 10” and 16” sizes, which Pizza Club will evaluate at a later date.

HomeSlyce Classic - our #1 selection

The Margarita Slyce was a standard mozzarella-sauce-basil affair – those stuck with the end pieces observed that the crust was underdone, with some doughy areas where it got folded in on itself. A “Port the Bella” (?) Slyce comes with garlic sauce, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, spinach, portabella mushrooms and feta cheese. Some Pizza Club members wanted more oil on this pie, and felt that the mushrooms were not particularly fresh. A Chicken-Pesto Slyce, with “pesto sauce,” mozz, chicken breast, sun-dried tomatoes, peppers, onions, olives, and feta, was underwhelming. The sauce did not taste like pesto. The “Pop-Pie,” with garlic sauce, onions, spinach, and goat and gorgonzola cheeses was a favorite with some club members for its intense garlicky punch and good flavor balance.

Crusty remnants

The hands-down favorite, however, was the HomeSlyce classic, decked out with goat cheese, walnuts, eggplant, spinach, caramelized onions, roasted peppers and “HomeSlyce sauce.” We got two of them and they were the first to vanish. We theorized that, because of its lineage as a Cazbar-affiliated project, HomeSlyce might have particularly strong eggplant chops, and we recommend getting their pies with eggplant.

Solution to crustal excess

This is definitely a new venue – the staff seemed a bit addled and the first thing our waitress did was spill water down Jen's back (for which she apologized profusely). In a way, this pizza is “fancy but not” - an everyman pizza in a fancy package. The different pies that we sampled all tasted somewhat similar – at least, the experience of eating them was similar, with the abundant crust overwhelming the other elements and the different sauces not very differentiated. As mentioned above, there is a psychological element to the Slyce experience in which one's bedrock assumptions about pizza are challenged, so perhaps the concept overshadowed the execution. We liked what we ate, but upon analysis it seems to be your typical upscale bar pizza – you would eat it if you were there anyway for a drink, but it wouldn't merit a special trip after the novelty of the first encounter wore off.

Pizza Club rejoiceth

It should also be noted that Dan attempted to order a plain cheese Slyce as a baseline indicator. This order was lost, caught in some ethereal twilight dimension of Federal Hill, rediscovered, and became the last pie to come out of the kitchen. Dan loved this pizza at first bite. It was described as “very gooey, messy,” and also possibly the best Slyce of the evening. This seal of approval suggests that HomeSlyce has its basics figured out. They just have to rise to the challenge of making this new pizza concept into a satisfying reality.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: Kyro Pizza

Kyro Pizza
900 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD

We arrived at Kyro Pizza on a dreary evening and were treated to dreary pizza. Not that it was bad pizza necessarily, but it was not the kind of pizza that inspires faith in the progress of civilization. With so much going on in the pizza world, and the stakes in the gourmet pie game growing ever higher, it's disappointing to encounter a place with the form, but not the content, of pizza connoisseurship.

nice-looking wall thing
Kyro has a snazzy design scheme, with website, menu, and interior d├ęcor coordinated to convey some kind of young, hip, trendy vibe. But is it enough to install a brick oven and write “Maryland's best brick oven pizza” on your website banner? They offer a lot of other Middle Eastern menu items which are perhaps better than their pizza – for some reason, restaurants like to tack pizza onto their normal offerings, but it's a bad move to promote lackluster pizza over the things that you actually make well. Really, our gripe with Kyro was the over-hyping – you can't design your way around average pizza with pretty signs.

When we slogged in from the rain on a swampy Wednesday night, there was one other occupied booth in the place. As we waited for pies, a discourse on cheese-pizza essentialism unfolded - I think the point was that plain cheese pizza is the closest that one can get to the pure Platonic form of pizza while trapped within the finite bounds of human consciousness. This conversation was relevant because there's a lot of stuff on the Kyro menu that my mom would think is “weird”/“crazy”: they are particularly noted for exotic pies like the Sharm el-Shek (salmon and caviar), the sloppy joe and hotdog pizzas, and the General Kyro, which is a pizza with General Tso's chicken on it. These items demonstrate that they are willing to put anything on a pizza, so we're supposed to give them credit for adventurousness. But what about the foundations? We ordered with an eye to uncovering the pure form of a Kyro pizza.

foundations: elasticity

We got four pies: a Margarita (tomato sauce and cheese, determined to be the most elemental cheese pizza out of four on the menu), a Dahb (grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, garlic, tomato sauce, sun-dried tomatoes), Di Funghi (sauce, cheese, and mushrooms), and an India (Tandoori chicken, spicy tomato yogurt curry, squash and mozzarella with mango chutney). 

just regular pizza

The cheese pizza, a litmus test, did not bode well. Dan pointed out that Kyro's use of a brick oven was technically adept: the thin crust was correctly cooked, with a nice even bake, and the dough had been proofed correctly because there were no huge air bubbles. However, the crust lacked spring or bounce – it was very typical, and not really worth finishing. The central part of the pie could have used more sauce. The cheese was “fresh enough,” but too salty, and the whole thing lacked “zing.” Dan observed that pizza, like sex, is good even when it's bad, which is one way of looking at it.

Dahb pizza

We asked for a Dahb pizza with whole wheat crust, which, in light of their issues with regular crust, was a mistake. It was crunchy but bland and flavorless. The toppings were excellent, especially the eggplant, suggesting that it might be smart to order non-pizza menu items containing eggplant. The sauce, again, was standard pizza parlor sauce. What were we thinking, dragging down an adequate pizza in the name of health? I would caution against it. Get your whole grain fiber somewhere else.

vegan mushroom pizza

We also customized our mushroom pizza with soy cheese to test out Kyro's vegan accommodations (past reviewers have praised their vegan food). Nobody noticed the soy cheese, but that's because the pizza itself was just boring. It resembled any other pie you would get at a standard pizza parlor. In a world of specialty pizza inflation (see: Joe Squared's mushroom pizza with forty kinds of mushrooms), paying premium prices for shrively plain mushrooms is not cool ($15.50 for a 14” pie). This seems equitable towards the dairy and non-dairy consumer, at least, since veganizing made no noticeable difference in quality.

India pizza (chutney not pictured)

Finally, the meat-friendly dug in to the India pizza. They really liked the mango chutney that came in plastic containers on the side. “It's like dessert on a pizza,” said Chris. Upon closer examination we concluded that it might be Smucker's apricot jam. The tandoori chicken was a bit chewy, and nobody noticed the yogurt sauce. We proceeded to spread “chutney” on the remaining slices of every pie to make them more palatable.

yes to chutney

This may seem like an overly harsh evaluation, and it probably is. But things are competitive out there. A new high-end fancy pizza place opens every week. Claiming to be “the best” in this booming industry is an invitation to critical scrutiny, and Kyro Pizza doesn't hold up very well. At around $17 for a large specialty pie, you could do better somewhere else. If you really want caviar, and you want it on a pizza, then this is the place for you. However, from our perspective, fancy toppings don't make up for lackluster foundations.

“Good but not life-changing”


Monday, May 7, 2012

Casa Mia (that pizza place in the Rotunda across from the box office)

Casa Mia's of the Rotunda
711 W 40th St
Baltimore, MD 21211

  Today we are talking about solid pizza. Where I grew up, there was this stupid pizza place where all the cool kids hung out after school. But the pizza there was really bad. Like, big floppy rubbery vast sprawling grease-ocean bad – the kind of crap that people only feed to eleven-year-olds just because they can get away with it. So me and my bespectacled braces-wearing friends took secret pride in going to the other pizza place, three blocks away, where the pizza was of highest quality and we could talk shit on the cool kids without being disturbed. This became a sort of ritual until we discovered that the Chinese restaurant around the corner was EVEN COOLER (i.e., a place that no one our age would ever go).

I thought of this because Casa Mia, that pizza place in the Rotunda across from the box office, is the place I'd go after school if I was eleven. It's hard to explain what makes it perfect, but it's in a basement and next to a movie theater past this weird deserted hall of mirrors, and there's hardly ever anyone around.

The Casa Mia target demographic is movie-goers, casual by-the-slice buyers, so when I called them up and wanted four large pizzas they seemed a bit caught off guard. However, they were very helpful in explaining Casa Mia's offerings. We ordered two traditional pizzas (a meat and a cheese) and two specialty pizzas (one vegetarian white and one spinach and tomato with white sauce).

When I showed up to get the pies they were still in the oven, so I hung around the Rotunda where there was some kind of pit bull rescue charity event going on that involved nice old ladies wearing “I heart pitbulls” t-shirts. The guys at Casa Mia were busy taking small orders from the theater crowd, but they provided reassurance and glimpses into the oven until my pies were ready. I stared at a poster for the Hunger Games, which I didn't realize was a CGI movie about a young woman who suffers a breakdown after applying too much bronzer.

I drove the pizza home as quickly as possible because we were having a party, the kind of party where you invite people over to eat pizza and then demand that they provide a sophisticated critical analysis of said pizza. The general consensus was that Casa Mia is a solid pizza place for normal, everyday pizza consumption.

The meat pie seemed to have somewhat runny sauce, and the toppings weren't particularly distinguished although the sausage was said to have “good character.” Sara found the sauce on the cheese pizza spicy, and Patrick commented positively on the cheese itself. Patrick is also a closet Casa Mia devotee, which was news to us. He has long believed that their traditional cheese pizza is “the best.”

The specialty pies offered both more rewards and more perils. Some of the vegetable toppings weren't properly prepared to grace a pizza – Milana found the broccoli wet and “strange,” while the spinach was still clumped up, having recently emerged from the can.

The white sauce was a good base for the spinach-tomato pie because it didn't overwhelm the toppings, though some people thought it was too squishy. The toppings were strategically placed under the cheese, preventing messy spills. The vegetarian special boasted a solid sheet of vegetables on top, a happy sight for the health-conscious who like to mask their pizza in greenery. The onions and tomatoes were crunchy and fresh, while the artichokes and broccoli were canned/frozen (as is reasonable for a pizza place in the Rotunda).

The crust was just the right thickness, bearing up well under many toppings and some liquidy sauces. “Not super-special, not cardboard,” one diner remarked. We all ate way too much pizza, just like when we were eleven.

5.5/8 slices