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.


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