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