Saturday, July 5, 2014

Make a Pizza Deal

Pizza Deal
519 E 25th St.

The injunction to make a “pizza deal” might sound like crass consumerism. The image is of two businessmen clasping hands after reaching an “understanding” in a smoke-filled backroom – indeed, the clasped hands rise above the facade of Pizza Deal like a new, hard-bargaining sun. But this is a deal that benefits all of us, unlike any other deal going down in the halls of power. The deal is between molten cheese and oregano. The deal is between tangy sauce and spongy crust. Ultimately, the deal is an experience generated within your own brain, where neurons make deals with each other, convincing you that there is a unified external reality in which the taste of pizza anchors you to agreed-upon forms of collective human existence.

Successful deal-makers

The establishment known as “Pizza Deal” on 25th and Greenmount is the best pizza that we've found in the Greenmount/Barclay/Harwood/Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello area. If you live nearby, this might be the pie that you should consult whenever you need a true and honest pizza.

We know this because Pizza Deal is endorsed by a true and honest man, our friend Scott, who's been making Pizza Deals for years now and reaps the dividends of these deals every day, in the form of robust health, good fortune, and upstanding citizenship. Scott feels that Pizza Deal is “expertly consistent,” delivering a satisfying pie that shows mastery of the basic components of pizza.

Pizza Deals are made in a one-room building which, on an early-July evening when we visited, was very hot. There's no seating, just the kitchen and a plexiglas booth where you stand to place your order, and a slot where money enters and pizza comes out. The woman who took our order seemed very happy to see us and not at all ruffled by the extreme temperature. “These people don't cry about the heat,” Scott explained of Pizza Dealers.
Must make pizza deal

We obtained an extra large pizza with mushrooms and olives for $13. This is a substantial pizza. Its base is a thick, chewy, sightly dense crust that still has the right amount of fluff and softness. Scott suggested that the pie is “underdone just the right amount.” Atop that is a generous amount of sauce that carries a hint of sweetness. The cheese is springy and supple – Pizza Club believes that real mozzarella is in use at this establishment. We were very pleased with the crust-sauce-cheese ratio. “I always feel like there's not enough sauce,” Katy explained, but Pizza Deal does not skimp. 

The toppings were standard for fast-food pizza. “The mushrooms are often more fresh than other shops,” Scott explained. “I bet they take them right out of the can, instead of letting them sit in a tub all day.” The only thing that kept this pie from reaching the ideal of takeout pizza is that it was a bit too salty.
Reach for the ideal -- the pizza-deal

The fact that Pizza Deal makes such solid crust is especially intriguing because, like most fast-food pizza joints, they get their dough from an outside supplier. We guessed that they might use Nino's, which is located nearby down Loch Raven. Although many pizza places in the city use this dough, they still produce different crusts. How is this? Scott proposed a metaphor: “Duron gives all the painters paint, but all the paintings don't look the same.” Indeed!

“I was skeptical,” Alishea said, “but Pizza Deal hits the spot.” This is a solid basic pizza, suitable for everyday consumption and affordable to boot.

6.5/8 slices

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The long-awaited Trinacria pizza: all in the toppings?

Trinacria Cafe
111 W. Centre St.

I wanted a lot of things from the new Trinacria cafe that just opened on Centre Street in Mt. Vernon. (This location, unfortunately, is cursed. It destroyed a 5 Guys Burger franchise, which is the most indestructible entity in America today). 

Regular Trinacria, on Paca St., has all the delicious things like cheese and pasta and cannolli and really cheap wine. They have all the exotic things in cans from Italy, and olives, and pickled things, and those green leaf-shaped cookie sandwiches with a layer of chocolate stuff. Regular Trinacria is a wonderful place and you should go there right now and order a muffaletto sandwich. The symbol of Trinacria is a Medusa head with three disembodied legs spiraling around it – this could be you right now, except instead of disembodied legs you would be surrounded by sandwiches and six-dollar bottles of wine, and you wouldn't have snakes for hair unless that's your preference.
Regular Trinacria

The idea of New Trinacria is to have trained professionals assemble the raw materials available at Regular Trinacria into food that you can eat right there on the premises, and is warm, unlike the Regular Trinacria sandwiches which are generally served cold and eaten on the curb, a park bench, or in one's office cubicle. Although New Trinacria also offers the classic sandwiches in case you hate change.

Since this is Pizza Club, we didn't try most of the things on the New Trinacria menu, which include salads, Hot Subs, Authentic Hot Italian Paninis, and Pastas. These items, prepared from the most choice of the Trinacria specialty Italian ingredients selection, are probably very good. Pizza Club convened an emergency meeting this February because New Trinacria is officially making pizza, and given the establishment's status as the reigning superior source of Italian things (at this point “Little Italy” is maintained entirely as a decoy to keep dumb people away from Trinacria), we urgently had to try their pizza.
photographic evidence from this meeting was lost

The family that runs Trinacria is of Sicilian origin, but I'm not sure how relevant this is to their version of pizza. Pizza in the United States is a confused creature of “Italian-American” cuisine. Pizza became a free-floating signifier that could latch onto different food-substances and insert itself into varied discourses: strange men named John claiming to be your “Papa,” crime-fighting mutant sewer-turtles, harried mothers placating their whiny post-piano-practice offspring.

Following the recent recovery of gourmet pizza by people who loved the fast-food pizza of their childhoods but now shop at Whole Foods, all bets are off as to what qualities “Italian,” “Neapolitan,” “Sicilian,” etc. actually indicate. At the New Trinacria, they seem to be going for a version of standard American gourmet pizza; unfortunately, it doesn't rival the pies that places like Iggies and Zella's have been making in these times of escalating pizza connoisseurship/fetishism.

They've always sold pizza dough at Regular Trinacria, and let's be honest, it's not the best. It's pretty much bread dough that you stretch out to pizza shape. When you put it in the oven at home, with delicious Trinacria cheese on top, it turns into cheesy bread. It's ok though, because you made it at home, you can feel good about not eating shit fast food, and there's probably enough fresh mozzarella left for tomorrow's sandwiches.

However, putting pizza on the menu at New Trinacria raises the stakes. At that point, they take on accountability for the preparation and final outcome of the pie. It must exceed that which we could accomplish at home by buying ingredients from their store. Or, it must be cheap enough to reflect that no value has been added aside from the convenience of not having to assemble and cook it. The pies range in price from $9 to $11 for a personal-sized pizza (about 8-10 inches across) so you must reflect upon your own depth of pocketbook vs. desire for instant gratification.

New Trinacria's pizza definitely didn't pass the “you could make it at home” test. For the moment, they're cooking it in a regular convection oven, which means that the crust tastes exactly like the crust you would have made in your own kitchen. Pizza Club agreed that, given the crust situation, this “pizza” is really more like a flatbread. There were multiple comparisons to frozen, microwaved, or cafeteria pizza crust.

We ordered every pizza on the menu because we were so excited about the cornucopia of Trinacria plenty before us. There are lots of good vegetarian options, though of course Trinacria's deli meats and sausage are top-notch, and the meat-eaters said that the Guido pie (sausage, pepperoni, and salami) was their favorite. The proprietors promised us that a mushroom pie will soon be added to their offerings.

Of the non-meat pies, people liked the Sweet and Salty (caramelized onions and garlic, olives, parsley, and prosciutto which you can pick off if you're a vegetarian like me and really don't care). Because of their large size and round nature, we suggest that the olives be cut up rather than thrown on the pie whole.

There was consternation around the sauce, which some Pizza Club members thought was plain "like a spaghetti sauce.” They wanted to taste more herbs, more salt, and more tomato bite. At the same time, they requested greater quantities of this ideal sauce to balance out the breadiness of the crust. The White House, Trinacria's version of a white pie (mozzarella, ricotta, and roasted garlic) was “kind of bland,” although the cheeses were obviously top-notch.

Unlike other pizza places, where we've been overwhelmed with gratuitous toppings, Pizza Club would have preferred these pies with more stuff on them because “the toppings are what elevates it.” The quality of their ingredients make Trinacria's pizza operation very promising, but it lacks strong foundations in the realm of crust, sauce, and baking facilities (not that we'd urge them to jump on the brick-oven bandwagon – there must be other ways?).
L-R: olive, pepperoni, roasted garlic

We should emphasize that the people working at New Trinacria were very friendly, accommodating of our large group, and enthusiastic about their product. Eating there was a fun experience. We were excited to get out there right away and review their pizza, but perhaps we should have waited for them to work out the kinks. Maybe there was just too much at stake here pizza-wise. We hold Trinacria in such high regard that we began experiencing confusion, self-doubt and melancholic yearning. “I am incapable of thinking critically,” Patrick declared, while Chelsea reported that Trinacria pizza was “making me think of another, better pizza.”

May that other, better pizza one day meet us in the ground-floor corner retail space of that weird condo on Centre St. and Park Ave. May Stephanie Rawlings Blake award Trinacria an unaudited city contract to pump tapenade through the degraded water mains of this city in perpetuity. Don't let the curse of 111 Centre St. take down New Trinacria – just go get a sandwich.

4.5/8 slices

Monday, January 27, 2014

Arbutus: Pizza Paradise of the southwest

"The meaning of pizza is convenience"

Pizza Paradise
5411 East Dr, Halethorpe, MD

Sorrento's of Arbutus
5401 East Dr, Halethorpe, MD

It's suburban Maryland: neighborhoods, schools, nameless warehouses, seafood shacks, strip malls, installations of the security state, shining white surveillance blimps overhead. Where to get pizza? Nestled in the crook of I-95 and the Beltway is Pizza Paradise. It's a convenient drive from both UMBC and the National Security Agency's Friendship Annex.

I read some Yelp reviews of Pizza Paradise, where people claimed that the pizza poisoned them and their dogs and mutated their genes such that their offspring were born horrible frog-creatures. This isn't true. I mean, I didn't see their frog-creature offspring since Arbutus was pretty deserted on Tuesday night, but the pizza was fine.  Most of these reviewers recommended going to the Domino's Pizza across the street from Pizza Paradise, which helps us understand where they're coming from, and why we should not listen to them.

Pizza Paradise is a large open shack-style establishment with humming overhead lights, dingy booths, and gigantic maps of the delivery area taped to the walls. We drove through the deep-frozen polar vortex night to get there -- everyone else was busy plundering Safeway in preparation for an expected five inches of snow -- and it's dark out there in the suburbs, and the windows of the houses are like cold dead eyes.  The main drag of Arbutus, around the intersection of Sulphur Spring, East Dr., and Oregon Ave., was thankfully illuminated and showed signs of life.

"Sometimes the crust even sprouts bubbles, allowing for a light, flaky consistency that will have anyone coming back."
 The proprietors of Pizza Paradise were friendly and joked with us as we wavered indecisively over the menu. They offer some specialty options, but the word on Pizza Paradise is that the sauce is the most important thing they do, so we ordered a cheese pie to get a clean sample. After a few minutes wait, we were served a pizza that was crisp on the bottom, soft and chewy in crust, and topped with a subtle but spicy sauce. "I would definitely get takeout if I lived around here," Katy said. "It's a little greasy, but in the way that you'd want it to be." Layne noted that the grease seemed to emanate from the molten cheese -- i.e., naturally-occurring rather than poured on top, as some places feel compelled to do. Katy had eaten at Pizza Paradise before and remembered the sauce being spicier, but upon eating a leftover slice the next day, she reported that it increases in spice when chilled.

Among the few people we encountered in Arbutus were a gaggle of local teens who came into Pizza Paradise for chicken cheese steaks. They were confused about why we were talking to them, but expressed positive feelings about the pizza. It is not excellent pizza, but it's better than a lot of the corner take-out places in Baltimore, and the spicy sauce makes it "a little bit special."

Sorrento's veggie (L) and shrimp (R)
 Since we came all the way to Arbutus (or Halethorpe -- which is it? Different maps and signs say different things), we decided to sample another one of its pizza sources. A block down from the humble Pizza Paradise is a large, shiny, "family style" establishment called Sorrento's. Sorrento's has been around since the 1970s, and seems to be a good citizen of Arbutus, with many ye olde photos and portraits of local notables on its walls. Sorrento's is more of a hangout, with beer on tap, lots of booths, a small arcade area, and a stack of those gumball machine things with toys in them.

Gazing into the future of the past
 This was definitely a more comfortable place to hang out than Pizza Paradise, which mainly does delivery and pick-up. However, their pizza, like the establishment itself, reflected a 1970s understanding of food. Pizza Club thought that the crust was both too thin and too doughy, and was covered with too much of an "unremarkable" sweet tomato sauce. They offer many special pies overloaded with toppings, which is what American pizza does to convince the customer of its value in the absence of flavor.

"Styles, colors, and sounds."
We ordered a veggie pie, which fell into the "salad-on-a-pizza" category; all the ingredients were fresh, but the pizza underneath them was not worth eating, so why not just get a salad if you want to feel healthy. The other pie, plain cheese with shrimp, had good shrimp. Why not just eat shrimp with a piece of bread?

"Pizza is a magical thing in the hearts and minds of men, women, and children."
What would a Pizza Paradise actually look like? It seems that one person's Pizza Paradise could be another person's Pizza Hell. My understanding is that Pizza Paradise is a kind of quest, calling us ever further from safe, familiar harbors, out into the unknown, wandering blindly through the suburban night.

Pizza Paradise: 4.5/8 slices
Sorrento's: 4/8 slices