Saturday, December 28, 2013

Patro's Pizza

We've all dabbled in the ever-shifting world of greasy corner pizza joints, which stay open very late, waiting for you. They know you'll come. Maybe not at 11pm, maybe not at midnight, but by 2am when the bar closes, there you are pondering the yellowed backlit display menu, its items photographed from inexplicable angles on desolate foam plates. Why wait until 2am? You can eat this pizza any time of the day.

Pizza Club visited Patro's at midnight to obtain a representative sample of their pie. They are located at 2334 N. Charles, across from the Safeway, which is not open at midnight in case you were thinking about that as an alternative. The former tenant of this space was American Wings and Pizza, not to be confused with American Pizza and Wings on 29th St., or Wings, Things, and Pizza on St. Paul. Or maybe Wings Things & Pizza was the one on Charles. Crap. The past flaps away beyond my reach like the shiny greased flesh of a chicken wing.

Also I lost my notes from this meeting, which were written on the back of a jumbo-size coffee filter. If you see a really big coffee filter with diagrams of pizza on it blowing around Charles Street, please capture and return it to me. We had some intelligence going into this experience -- Patrick advised us against a plain cheese pie, steering us towards feta and mushrooms. Patrick wins MVP for this meeting. You need some toppings on these pies to make them taste like anything, and the feta was tangy and pretty good. It helped with both texture and flavor. 

Although they represent themselves as a take-out and delivery place, Patro's does in fact have enough seating in their storefront for up to eight people to scarf pizza fresh from the conveyor belt. Seeing no possible benefit to waiting, we ate our pie in the white-tiled fluorescent glow. Like many crusts in the cheap-pizza range, this one uses buttery stuff to make up for lack of depth or integrity in the dough. So you get a heavy, spongy, kind of sweet crust that definitely fills your stomach. The cheese was laid on thick. We could see into the food-prep area, and they were using a big ol' bag of Sorrento, so unless Sorrento makes a special line of adulterated mozzarella for fast food places, at least this is legit (they advertise 100% real cheese on their online menu).

The mushrooms also seemed fresh; the sauce was plain and sweet. There was a bit of "swim," my new term for when cheese and toppings move around and the crust is too floppy/soggy to lift. As mentioned above, feta is a must. We were satisfied and this pizza even exceeded our expectations. It will cost you $10.50 for a large pie plus $1.25 per topping, but there are all these deals deals deals that you can get if you refer to their menu and want a bunch of Pepsi products to go with your seven pizzas.

The only other point of interest is that Patro's online menu lists an Indian Pizza with garlic, ginger, cauliflower, spinach, and paneer. This wasn't on their in-store menu, but seems worth investigating. I have many larger questions about the life of a corner fast-food place: why Patro's, why here, why now? What's a "papersteak"? Patro's seems to be doing good business, so I guess the delivery thing is working for them. Is this possible because of Foodler/GrubHub/etc., sites that let people order random food from the vacuum of the internet? Patro's offers free delivery. Boli's pizza is better, but Patro's is doing something unique and important: they're an active storefront on North Charles that's open late and has people coming and going all night. This is good for people walking or biking up Charles St. through an area that can get pretty dark and deserted. The guys who work at Patro's are friendly. Maybe that is enough of a service to Baltimore that you should get off your bike and have some pizza on your way home, although we have nothing to say about their by-the-slice option because that's not a good idea anywhere and you know it.

4/8 slices

Monday, December 16, 2013

Pizza Club Meeting: The Arthouse

The Arthouse
1115 W 36th St

 The ley lines underneath Hampden are shifting this year, bringing a new alignment of magnetic and spiritual forces, new vistas of astral energy, cheese plates, taxidermied badgers. I suspect that Woodberry Kitchen has obtained a chunk of Stonehenge and they are hiding it in their labyrinth deep under TV Hill, where it radiates ancient hexes.

Is it any accident that pizza stones are also made out of stone? What would a pizza cooked on a piece of Stonehenge taste like, and would it confer godlike mystical knowledge upon the eater? Keep your eye on Woodberry's Winter 2014 menu to find out.
The powers-that-be are summoning these occult forces for a reason, namely, Paulie Gee's is soon to open in Hampden, upsetting the equilibrium of Baltimore's pizza ecosystem with its Brooklyn star power. Stirrings from Joe Squared in the south and Iggie's to the east suggest a pending clash of the pizza titans, during which one of two things will happen: Baltimore will be destroyed in an inferno of mozzarella, or we will reap the benefits of free-market competition. The free market will also eventually destroy us BTW. But until then, it allows us to enjoy at least four different kinds of really good pizza. 

These are troubling, perplexing times. How much longer can I afford to live in my neighborhood?  Isn't it great that Walmart gives people jobs? I mean, I can't unionize either and I just spent four years in grad school. For shelter from the storm of late capitalism, we highly recommend The Arthouse, newly opened on the Avenue in Hampden. 

None of us could remember going inside this storefront back when it was an art gallery. They've renovated very nicely, with warm-colored walls, tin ceiling, and a nice layout of bar and table seating. Go to the back and sit near the brick oven's roaring fire, order one of the Baltimore beers on tap, and drink until you are warm and rosy-faced and untroubled, at least for a while. 

The pizza here is promising on a technical level; they have really nailed the crust, which is the most important thing. It's crispy on the outside and pillowy on the inside with appropriate chewiness. Toppings come and go; specialty pies are like high-premium stock options fluctuating wildly in the night. The point is that this was a really good Pizza Club meeting. We had fun and enjoyed each other's company.

cheese pizza
As per our earlier discussion of ley lines, there are certain configurations of landscape, history and sensoria that help humans feel peaceful about our condition here on earth. Sometimes this bubbles up as nostalgia -- I mean, pizza -- explaining why pizza is having such a "moment" in popular culture. But glorifying pizza on the internet is a hollow exercise -- these felicitous configurations are only available in actual places, like The Arthouse in Hampden, where we ordered eight pies from their ample menu. 
spicy leek
Many people felt that the cheese pie was the best: it had a lot of cheese, kind of like a New York pizza but smaller. Mariam observed that "a good plain pie is hard to find," and she appreciated the tangy, garlicy sauce. (I found the thick layer of cheese a bit too sturdy, but I was alone in this.) They offer a number of vegetarian pies, including a "Fun Guy" (mushrooms, onion, fennel, brie, thyme, and balsamic reduction) and a "Spicy Leek" (leek, cherry pepper, mozzarella, romano, thyme). The Fun Guy was really heavy on the mushrooms, which some felt gave it an earthy or "dirt" flavor. I enjoy mushrooms, especially a lot of them. Other than the spice, which seemed to be red pepper flakes, the Spicy Leek pie was not too exciting. 
Italiano pizza
Meat-eaters enjoyed the Italiano (mozzarella, tomato sauce, sausage and pepperoni) best. They appreciated that it was simple and not greasy. The Duck Confit (pulled confit duck leg, black bean sauce, pickled onion, arugula, crema) was over-topped. Duck on pizza sounds like a good idea, but our tasters concluded that there are better things to put on pizza. 
duck confit pizza
The Arthouse also has an escargot pizza for those who like to push the envelope of vegetarianism. I tried it because whatever, I'd rather eat a snail than a duck. They kind of tasted like mushrooms, which I like. I thought the pie was well put together, though people who know more about escargot found it weird to eat them on pizza. 
escargot on pizza
The white pizza was the most controversial. Most of us found it a flavorless vehicle for ricotta cheese, while a vocal minority thought it was the best pie of the evening. Pro: "Balanced, sweet, amazing." Con: "Globs of ricotta on limp crust, needs herbs and garlic."
Mick observed that the Arthouse seems to be "very topping-oriented," striving for new and interesting combinations which can overwhelm a pie. Their pizza dough is great, so there's time for them to figure the rest out. Someone will always be enticed to order a duck confit pie just to see what it is, but does that strategy have enduring value? We crave excitement and variety, as though the world isn't varied and terrifying enough. Order the cheese pizza and you will be satisfied, and drink an extra beer with the money you save.

Rating: 6/8 slices
Evan feels hope for the future

Thursday, December 12, 2013

from the deep pizza archive: earth wind & pizza

Life is so full of things that are not even pizza. I guess you can focus on material gain and professional advancement. Some people breed exotic cats. But where is the dignity in any of that? The plain old fashioned basic human dignity to which each of us is entitled by virtue of being born? The only way is to get back to pizza.
I don't even remember how long ago this meeting of the Pizza Club was, probably like May or April or something. Someone on the internet suggested that we go to Earth Wood & Pizza, which is up Falls Road past Mt. Washington and Robert E. Lee park, where there's that place that sells frozen yogurt, and a crepe shop, I think. Mark Twain says this about the spring time: “It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want—oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” 

We exited our parked car in the icy suburban breeze; we wanted pizza. The place had a "furniture store vibe," the makings of a franchise perhaps. Apparently they coal-fire their pizza in a thing called a Josper. Why is it called "Earth Wood & Fire" if there's no wood in the fire? What is a Jasper?
We felt that this pizza suffered from some overcooking of crust. This might be a risk of using a Josper, which I think is a bit like a grill. Some people like those burned bits of grilled food, but it is problematic with pizza because it can stiffen the crust too much. They also offer a whole wheat crust, which was pretty respectable for a "healthy option" but got even drier and crunchier than the regular crust as a result of the Josperization process.
 The broccoli-topped pie that we ordered had its broccoli cut into perfectly-sized florets, so they didn't burn in the Jasper. The other vegetable toppings were also good.  The real question in everyone's mind was, how was this pizza made? If a Josper is so great, why does the pizza taste mediocre? Is a Josper a fancy kitchen gadget popular among people who fill their kitchens with vintage espresso machines
 If you tried to dig a hole through the center of the earth, would you encounter a Josper?
A Josper is actually a sub-genre of Gothic fiction. Fortuitously, we brought along an English PhD who was able to identify the telltale Gothic themes: abandoned castles, lightening, the hollow earth, marrying your cousin, marrying your boss, hysterical blindness.
This pizza wasn't really good. We gave it 5.5 out of 8 slices. When we got there we were really hungry and looking forward to pizza; we left with our stomachs full, but we did not feel spiritually full.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Best of Pizza!


We are so obsessed with this place that we have a little piece of the original hanging sign (it blew down during the derecho or hurricane Sandy) swaddled in a velvet cloth in our silverware drawer. Is that weird?

Monday, April 22, 2013


 Vito's Pizzeria, 6304 York Rd. 
Fortunato Brothers' Pizza, 6374 York Rd.

At the beginning of this month of April Pizza Club visited two pizza parlors in the strip mall around Wells Liquors on York Road: Vito's Pizzeria and Fortunato Brothers' Pizza. First we went to the liquor store. That was the best part of this experience.

I lost my grease spattered notes from these pizzas but I pretty much remember what happened. First, people recommended both of these places on Facebook. Each place had its partisans. The whole thing seemed intriguing, with accusations of abusive management and this one time someone drove their car into the front of Fortunato's. So we decided to pit the two pizza places against each other to determine the best pizza of the York Road Shopping Plaza.

The best pizza of the York Road Shopping Plaza is Fortunato Brothers'. It was pretty good. The green vegetables were not quite thawed and baked properly, so they got kind of burnt, but tomatoes were employed to great effect. Someone said to try their white sauce with broccoli pie, and aside from the broccoli being weird (spinach would have been smarter perhaps) it was satisfying in all regards. The cheese was real and tasty. The crust was thin but pillowy. A lady at the next table was really struggling to eat a cannoli with a fork.

Fortunato's: guarded optimism. See cannoli lady in background

Before we could reach the haven of adequacy that is Fortunato's, however, we had to pass through the purgatory of Vito's. Some people really like Vito's. I'm not taking an anti-Vito's stance here, but I would conjecture that their pizza probably is much better when it's first cooked for the lunchtime crowd and served by-the-slice.

By the time we got there at 7 or 8, the slices on display did not look appetizing, and we decided that it would be more fair to order a fresh pie. In this, we were sorely misguided. We got one plain pie and one with something on it, I don't know, mushrooms or something that comes from a can and you can't mess it up. Nothing was 'messed up,' per se, but the whole thing was kind of a slog. We wound up not finishing the cheese pizza because the cheese was not too edible. If anyone who was there remembers anything more specific, please contact me with this information.

It should be noted that both places were affordably priced for events such as birthday parties or office lunches, where you are on a budget but don't want to give up on life and order Papa John's. Don't give up, please.

the end of a long day
Also, Vito's reminded us very much of the place where your middle school boy/girlfriend breaks up with you. Like, after band practice. Not that Pizza Club was in the band or had a boy/girlfriend, but this is the kind of place where you go for such mundane but necessary functions as eating pizza and ending a two-day middle school relationship. But you could do much better at Fortunato's, so go there unless you're on a by-the-slice mission some day around noon and want to report back to us about it.

Vito's Pizzeria: 2/8 slices
Fortunato Brothers' Pizza: 3.5/8 slices

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Nuke the Whales

Peace a Pizza
15 Mellor Avenue, Catonsville, MD

Let me begin this review with a mea culpa. One should never trust one's faded childhood memories over the present-day testimony of trusted friends and associates who have one's best interests at heart. Although People Who Would Know reported unfortunate incidents at the Catonsville Peace a Pizza and strongly discouraged us from trying it, I, in pursuit of a misguided nostalgia or the phantom of youthful innocence, insisted that it was a good idea to drive half an hour to Catonsville for this pizza. As a direct result of my actions, people ate pizza that was not particularly good. But that's how it is - this is the duty of Pizza Club, whose adherents bravely eat unknown pizza so that others may benefit from our experience, be it harrowing or exalted.

Some history: Peace a Pizza was founded in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, not far from where I grew up. There was some kind of vague hippie branding to it, although as far as I can discern, the business has no affiliations with the counterculture. I think they went for the hippie thing because they put green vegetables on their pies, which was novel at the time. This was probably like 1990 or so, when there was NO SUCH THING AS GOURMET PIZZA. Pizza was fast food. Pizza Hut and Dominoes were the big players. In a town like mine, there was also a crappy pizza parlor on every block, but as a kid you wanted the Domino's pizza, because they had TV commercials, and tasted like processed plasticine runoff. Peace a Pizza entered this food ecosystem with new ideas - put things like goat cheese, pesto, baked ziti, hamburgers, etc. on a pizza. It was zany! When they started opening franchise locations, the unifying theme was tie-dye and the neon sign that says, "Sorry We're Open." There was a location in Ardmore, PA, where me and my friends would hang out there and feel smarter than everyone else (unifying theme of my teen years). I remember the pizza being pretty good, but what do I know.

So they recently opened a Peace a Pizza franchise in Catonsville, which Pizza Club's Pennsylvania expatriates were keen to try out. Catonsville is pretty cool. It has a nice little main street area with music shops and bars and restaurants - would be very nice to walk around when not on a pizza mission. Peace a Pizza is positioned not on this historic main street, but around a corner in a boxy stucco building in the middle of a parking lot. It looks like a great place to take your kids after soccer. 
We ordered our pies in advance, on the advice of the Peace a Pizza staff, since they close at 8.30pm on weeknights (which seems crazy, but whatever). This may have had a negative impact on our experience, as I suspect that the pies were cooked sometime earlier and then reheated when we got there at 8. Lunch may be their optimum pizza-quality time.
discoursing on pizza networks

In an attempt to balance novelty with pizza staples, we ordered an eggplant parmesan, a vegetable primavera, an "upside-down," and a mac-and-cheese pizza. All of these will run you about $16 for a fourteen-inch or $18 for a sixteen-inch pie. This is pretty much what you'd pay in Baltimore City for actual gourmet pizza prepared by a person who has obsessively studied traditional Neapolitan pizza-making, which is very confusing. In fairness, we should note that they advertise "Gourmet-Style" pizza, rather than actual gourmet pizza, making the charade all the more consensual on the part of those who move to the suburbs and consent to pay for this stuff. The interior of Peace a Pizza was sparse and brightly-colored, full of smooth plastic surfaces. Chris said that it reminded him of high school, which is kind of the point, but why do we do this to ourselves? Some were bothered by a non-specific humming noise in the background.

The crust was somewhere between deep-dish and regular, thick and pillowy in places, with some spice to it. Moira praised it as "bread that you want to eat" as opposed to dry boring crusts on thinner pies. Others found it "aggressively doughy." It definitely had a thick skin on the bottom - we were unable to cut slices in half with a plastic knife - but this could be a reheating problem. Likewise, the cheese was pretty much solidified and didn't have anything distinctive about it. The sauce was sweet and bland, also congealed. An advantage of this pizza is that it lacks the vast pools of grease found on standard pizza parlor pies. It might be kind of healthy, who knows.

vegetable primavera
The vegetable primavera was a jumble of discarded vegetable parts from the pre-cut-and-bagged vegetable junkyard. As Moira tried a slice of this one, Chris observed, "I can see the joy draining from your face." We agreed, however, that it could be worse.
Eggplant parm

The eggplant parmesan pizza was weirdly grainy due to the breading on the eggplant. Its design seemed to have functionality in mind - it was a stout slice, solidified and not prone to bending or sliding. However, in terms of taste it was "an oil spill," according to Dan. The group was "completely underwhelmed."
"upside down"

I ordered an "upside-down" pie because this is supposed to be a wacky novelty thing that Peace a Pizza does. I never tried it in high school because why would you do that? It's pizza with the cheese under the sauce. The taste of this pizza was summarized as "Bagel Bites."

mac and cheese uggggh why
The mac-and-cheese pizza was the standout of the evening, as in, it was "the favorite of a not very inspiring bunch." Franco found it "delicious and decadent - exceeds expectations." Let's clarify: this is a pizza with white sauce and cheese, and then, on top of that, ziti pasta with more alfredo sauce and cheese. Embracing the overkill seems to be a strong point of PaP. "Gourmet" pizza is no longer the correct word for what they do, since a gourmet pizza industry has developed over the past ten years that puts vegetables on pizza in a way that tastes good. "Novelty pizza" would better capture their strengths. They're like, "heyyyyy woah let's put mac and cheese on pizza" and then they do it and it's a bad trip for the arteries but it's so loaded with cheese and starch that it can't taste bad. Maggie termed this strategy "an embracing of flavorlessness."
this pizza will not be divided

 This might be a franchise issue, I'll have to check next time I'm in suburban Pennsylvania. Because multiple people remember that pizza being much better than the pizza we ate in Catonsville. "Once Peace a Pizza leaves PA, it's not the same," Moira observed, though she attested that they still have great salads, and their partner business, Hope's Cookies, still sells good cookies out of this location.

"It's totally standard college pizza," Chris concluded. The staff were mostly high school and college-aged kids, and PaP is a pretty decent place to work during that time of life, in the suburbs, trying to save money for a car. I must make a concession to the gourmet pizza freaks who ship all their expensive ingredients from Italy and go on intensive pizza-making retreats and sing to their dough while it rises: it is not a totally mindless task to make a good pizza. This is a craft; suburban teens do not know how to make good pizza. Fortunately, if my memory is any testament, suburban teens also don't know or care what good pizza tastes like. "Good" is a relative thing. Sometimes you just need a place to hang out that's got food and some guy you have a crush on works there.
a riddle that cannot be solved

"I applaud them for their audacity," said Franco, "but this whole experience was like a riddle that I couldn't solve." Indeed. That's because there are no answers, only more mind-expanding questions and an endlessly-receding horizon of human possibility. But really, guys, could you make better pizza, like we remember it from Pennsylvania?

2/8 slices

Monday, January 7, 2013

Green pies and other things that will come to bother you someday if you spend too much time thinking about pizza

641 S. Montford Avenue
classy lightbulbs
Many have suggested that Verde, new kid on the scene, impeccable, authentic Neapolitan, etc., is making the best pizza in Baltimore right now. A few weeks ago, Pizza Club went all-in, ordering almost every pizza on their menu to determine what the buzz is about. Since we tried so many pies (they are "personal" sized, enough for two moderately hungry people), I will simply present you with the anonymous findings of the individuals who ordered each pie (although there was much sharing, the person who ordered the pie must take ultimate responsibility for it). It should be noted that pies are divided into red or white sauce categories and cost in the $8 to $16 range.

this is a pizza montage


Padrino: "Lemony preserved olives, sharp sopprasetta, and a cheese I've never had before deliver powerful flavor. Sauce is delicious and thick, basil lovely. A bit floppy when hot."

Pizza Verde Rossa: "Really successful salad-on-a-pizza style pie with delicate prosciutto and arugula over buffalo mozzarella and red sauce - bursts of flavor from the basil and pecorino romano sprinkled throughout. Plenty of sauce, thinnish but not crispy crust."

Marinara: "This 'za was tasty though slightly bland. This is not to say 'bad.' I know that a lactard [editor's note: this blog has no position on the moral status of the lactose intolerant] should not be so critical of a slice without cheese, but this was essentially boring bruschetta. I would probably eat again though."

White Prosciutto: "Delicious crust and great ingredients, but the white sauce aesthetic falls flat."

Daily Special ('Risotto' sauce with squash and zucchini): "You see the squash but do not taste it. Savory/sweet, not enough veggies. The point of the crust was mush" [editor's note: many pies had structural problems due to crust thinness - the middle of the pie tended to collapse into mush. Some people eat pizza with a knife and fork, and this would be appropriate rather than laughable at Verde. I suppose it's not bad, but it doesn't seem like it's doing anything for the pizza. Also, this pizza was the group's favorite.]

Sorrentina: "Unique pizza with smokey cheese and lemon but TOO MUCH of one thing, should cut it with broccoli rabe or anything really. Furthermore, there were many naked slices with no topping."

Funghi: "Lameghi!"

Margherita: "Subtle, surprising, perfect balance of flavors."

Salame: "Salty at first, followed by a zesty-ness. Crust was ok. Improved as I got closer to the edge. Cheese was good but not a dominant feature."

no pizza was injured

After the ritual consumption of pizza, we regrouped to discuss the bigger issues at stake. Is Verde a standout among the recent crop of high-end gourmet pizza places popping up in Baltimore? In terms of the basics: we felt that their dough was promising but didn't deliver a good holistic experience. It was chewy and crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside around the crust, but under the cheese it succumbed to sogginess and disintegration. Such a slice cannot be lifted. Flavor-wise, however, veteran pizza-clubbers suggested that it was superior to the crust at Birroteca, a new restaurant comparable to Verde on almost every count. The red sauce was tangy and garlicky, an agreed-upon strong point, but many regarded the white sauce as bland in comparison.

In terms of the crass but very real value-for-money question, I have no doubt that Verde's ingredients are top-notch and worth the expenditure, but I'm beginning to wonder if you could make a good pizza that is more accessibly priced. The market seems to have settled on the $12-18 range for an 8-10 inch thin-crust pizza with a couple of toppings. Meanwhile, 7-11 suggests that we keep our new year's resolutions by "tightening our belts" which means purchasing their large pepperoni pizza for $9.99. Let us for the moment pass over the deeply troubling contradictions of this promotion; what I'm saying is that there should be a palatable middle ground.

No one in our group seemed to feel that Verde's pizza itself was particularly memorable, although the rustic-industrial atmosphere, some side dishes, and some nice Italian wine would make it a memorable evening out, unless you're Dan, who couldn't stop thinking about how the antique reproduction Edison lightbulbs are "massively inefficient." Heather speculated that perhaps high-end pizza will become a phenomenon similar to the corner bodega: "it becomes a matter of location, ambiance, etc. If I wanted this pizza would I go here? No, I'd go to Birroteca because it's closer. But this is good for the neighborhood." Perhaps the Baltimore pizza glut of 2012 is finally hitting home, and we can no longer recall the difference between one authentic Neapolitan pie with organic local toppings and another authentic Neapolitan pie with organic local toppings. Pizza Club is currently searching out the cheapest, most gut-busting fast-food pizza joint in Baltimore to recalibrate our critical machinery.

 5.5/8 slices