Monday, October 17, 2016

Making Things Pizza

Paulie Gee's Hampden
3535 Chestnut Ave.
Baltimore MD

In a perverse way, Pizza Club is grateful for the logistical complications that stalled the opening of Paulie Gee's Hampden for lo these past three years. The resistance of the smoke-encrusted old Republican Club building, which had to be stripped down to the bricks, helped us reflect on our own knee-jerk feelings of resistance to the new and trendy. In the interval between proprietor Kelly Beckham's announcement that he would open a branch of the pioneering Brooklyn craft-pizzeria in Baltimore and the unveiling of said local branch, we walked past the building for weeks and months, watching it slowly metamorphose.

The passage of time mellowed our suspicions of parachute Brooklyn imperialism; Beckham was committed to his colleagues in the local pizza scene and to his Hampden location. Most neighbors we queried were unfamiliar with the Brooklyn Paulie Gee's and its status as a darling of national pizza tastemakers. The Baltimore location would have to stand on its merits; the whole trend that it embodied had already spread locally with venues like Verde and Hersch's working in the same vein of finely-crafted high-end Neapolitan pies in a casual-but-classy setting. When we finally walked through the glass doors into the high-ceilinged dining room of Paulie Gee's Hampden, we were simply curious to taste their pizza.

The pizza, however, is not entirely the point. I mean, it is – this is a business where workers devote their time to optimizing the number of charred spots on a round slab of dough. There's like a 90% chance that you'll eat a pie complying with the most stringent metrics of quality. But the underlying ethos of Paulie Gee's Hampden seems to center on process, experimentation, and technical mastery, an ethos very connected to PG's humble roots in deep pizza-nerd culture.

Indeed, pizzas are complex interactions between humans, objects, and physical laws. In a fast-food setting, the process is automated and black-boxed to maximize efficiency and consistency. In a high-end setting, the process is fetishized as the artistry of a “chef” who has total creative control. Neither of these is correct; neither invisible systems nor Great Men determine pizza's fate. Many contemporary theorists suggest that things are running the show.

With its cooking area fully-exposed in the center of the space, Paulie Gee's declares the networked nature of the human and non-human. The ovens have individual names and dispositions; people maneuver with and around these infernal agents, discovering their dynamic properties. Inches, degrees, and seconds execute powerful entanglements. A fickle mixture of flour, water, and bacteria sets the entire agenda.

Granted, this is the start-up phase of PG's operation, so everyone is focused on learning how to use new tools, combine ingredients, and run a restaurant. But the spiritual essence of the place is also being formed, and at its core is a characteristically American paradox. We want the authenticity of time-honored Old World traditions – ovens hand-built by Neapolitan craftsmen, meat slices that taste like pepperoni but have fancy Italian names so you know they're legit. At the same time, we're obsessed with innovation, optimization, and novelty. You can actually taste this paradox in Paulie Gee's pizza. Cognitive dissonance tastes really, really good sometimes, but its weird moments are a reminder that we're all adrift on the same greasy flow of global capital, grasping at signifiers of authenticity.

The menu itself is testimony to Paulie Gee's postmodern condition. Each pie is named with a goofy wordplay, often on a pop culture reference, concocted to make people on dates feel foolish when they order. However, beneath the celebrity puns we find perplexities. “The toppings seem random,” Kate said of their specialty pies. Mike concurred, “these descriptions aren't grabbing me. It all sounds the same.” Another Mike added, “there are lots of different kinds of pizza but not a lot of variety. If you're gonna have all these options they should be distinctive.” PG's is assertive about not doing gluten-free crust until they develop a recipe that meets their standards of excellence. They do, however, offer a strong slate of vegan pies with house-made cheese and meat replacements. At one point, we mistook the vegan sausage for real sausage.

Over the course of a marathon 4-hour pizzafest, Pizza Club got to sample a wide range of pies (and we tried making some ourselves, with mixed success). PG's workers were friendly and accommodating of our shambling party, and we were in very good hands hospitality-wise. The baseline, a cheese pizza (dubbed the “Regina”) featured pure and strong flavors, a sauce made only of crushed tomatoes under a perfect lacing of mozzarella and basil leaves. PG's Neapolitan stylings function optimally under these simple conditions: the crust has crunch, the moisture balance is good. 

As we ventured deeper into the specialty realm, things got soggier – an arugula-topped pie was “a little watery, but very light and fresh.” More maximal options, like the “In Ricotta da Vegan” with house-made cashew ricotta and vegan sausage, were laden down with their topping bounty. These are delicious, high-quality toppings; more is always better in America, but they strain the traditional delicacy of the crust.

PG's deploys an array of flavor-infused oils and reductions to add complexity to their pies, equivalent to what their down-market competition calls “afterbakes”. One Pizza Club member coined the term “post-oven philosophy” for this trend. At PG's “Mike's Hot Honey” is a mainstay, a spin-off product from the original Brooklyn restaurant. Pizza Club enjoyed how this honey layers sweetness and heat on top of salty mozzarella and tangy sauce, but some felt that it was overkill and certain pies became cloyingly sweet.

To highlight hand-made ingredients from other local establishments, PG's was offering a Blue Pit Brisket (BPB) pie. This proved controversial in our group. Some declared it an abomination against pizza (“Nothing is ok about this”), while others loved its “balance of sweet, smokey, and bitter” flavors. The individual toppings were “all good...but the sweetness [of BBQ sauce] is overpowering. I'd rather just eat brisket,” said one Pizza Club member. A fan of the pie deemed it “nice synergy, something that can only happen here. Well done!”

We recognized the BPB as a novelty pie, meant to jazz up the menu and cure pizza fatigue by smashing together two beloved food genres. Which is fine – that's a thing all pizza places do (see: taco pizza, Philly cheesesteak pizza, mac and cheese pizza) and it doesn't have to be a masterpiece for the ages. But given the great abundance of Baltimore food-makers who pickle, smoke, jam, and ferment, we'd hope for more considered use of local ingredients. “They get the kind of nice things people are into – honey, mezcal, balsamic infusions – but not how to combine them,” said one Pizza Club member; Mike concurred, “they have the nice tools, the nice techniques, the nice ingredients, but not the nice touch.” Faced with infinite possibilities, it kind of feels like PG's is systematically trying out every permutation, which worked for Paul Ehrlich.

We attest that at Paulie Gee's Hampden the practice of Neapolitan pizza-making is being pursued at a high level of technical proficiency. The crust is thin, crisp, and delicate, pillowing out around the edges and characteristically spotted. Some felt that the leopard spotting made their slices taste burned, but natural variation is part of the deal with this style, and if you don't like oven-char, Neapolitan might not be for you. Conceptually, Paulie Gee's is like very serious cosplay: an enthusiastic, obsessive, sometimes-artless appropriation of a thing that it recognizes it did not create and does not own. For Paulie Gee the man, pizza was an elective affinity cultivated through the internet. As in cosplay, there's a sheer joy that comes with giving this affinity concrete form, enmeshing it within the world of vital materials.

In short: the cost of PG's craftsmanship runs from $8 to $18 for a specialty pizza that feeds two moderately-hungry people. There is variability from pie to pie, both in terms of how they're cooked and the success of the ingredient combinations. These variations will fall below the noticeability threshold for most patrons, who will find a similar experience to other local mainstays of Neapolitan style. Pizza lovers who pay special attention will have the unique pleasure of participating in a living experiment. “In 20 years,” said Mark, “they might have the perfect pizza. Or maybe 2 years, who knows. It's kind of exciting because you can watch their craft grow. It's very ambitious.” Paulie Gee's offerings may not cohere into a culinary vision, but that's because its model favors process, enthusiasm, and technique over authorship, a practice-based approach to pizza and networked modernity.

6.5/8 slices

Photo credits: Graham

Monday, June 6, 2016

Pizza Royale

Horseshoe Casino Baltimore
Russell St.

It's great having a casino right here in Baltimore City. The casino's job is to create an atmosphere of luxury and excess that motivates you to spend money -- and moreover, makes you believe that you can win money from a system carefully engineered to take what you don't even have. For just one night, you can pretend you're the Mayor of Baltimore attending a real-estate developer convention in Las Vegas.

But this isn't Vegas. Baltimore isn't super committed to maintaining any illusions. Watch the Horseshoe Casino try: they put the set of Dynasty in a big box and dropped it from the sky onto the bank of the Patapsco, where it's surrounded by giant billboards for its suburban competitor, the Maryland Live! casino in Arundel Mills. The billboards urge motorists groping towards the Horseshoe's chaotic left-turn lane to just "keep driving". The Horseshoe's vast parking garage is an inclined highway; ascending its majestic heights, you can gaze down upon the self-storage center on one side and the city incinerator on the other. One of the first people who spoke to us was a guy asking for spare change or something to eat, bringing to mind the extensive homeless encampment displaced from the nearby woods by the casino's construction.

A sporting effort has been made to create an opulent interior, with elaborate multi-tiered light fixtures, custom-milled mahogany trim, and gilded drop-ceiling. This is a 24-hour entertainment destination for young, hip partiers, with local beers on tap and a live-music stage for millennials who prefer varied stimuli over the tunnel-vision of slots.

However, the floor plan tells. A small area for table games front-and-center at the entrance evokes the idea of a casino in old movies where well-dressed people drink fancy cocktails and engage in libidinous/criminal intrigue; beyond, a blinking ocean of slot machines opens out on all sides. This scene is just not sexy, but it's not the Horseshoe's doing. The industry seems pretty centered on slots, to the point where they give away free soda to keep people awake and pressing a button instead of free booze to loosen up their poker game.

Pizza Club's destination was the casual dining area of the Horseshoe, a pseudo-vernacular historic main street with hand-painted signs in distressed lettering, containing Guy Fieri's Kitchen + Bar, Lenny's Deli, and Piezzetta, a fast-casual pizza establishment. Restaurateurs created this pizza concept exclusively for the Horseshoe, though they plan to add more locations in answer to the nation's inexhaustible need for alternatives to Chipotle. Surely they will succeed at selling lots of pizza from within other stucco rectangles surrounded by ample parking and Disneyland evocations of the urban streetscape.  But the essence of Piezzetta's pizza is so casino-specific that it really should be experienced within the Horseshoe.

What we found inside Piezzeta's quaint brick exterior was a sleekly engineered workflow of custom order assembly. The pies are around 12 inches in diameter, awkwardly too large for one person but not enough for two. For $14 you can cover a standard crust with infinite toppings, or select a prefab specialty pie. Much like the casino itself, a facade of enjoyment gave way to a utilitarian exchange of money for the satisfaction of an addictive drive. 

Kate appreciated that Piezzetta, unlike its local competitors in the fast-causal pizza business, "isn't pretending. It's like, we're a fast food place in the casino but you can have some decent pizza. Pizza Studio is all like, 'we're your loving artisanal pizza artists'." A few humane touches, like a hanging roll of butcher paper with hand-lettered lunch specials, seemed advised by a consultant and were dwarfed by at least four huge flat-screens bearing the actual menu.

The special pies were kind of decorative and not really thought out. Ben enjoyed a "Pineapple + Pig" pizza but found it "wet..self-destructing, must be scarfed or abandoned." Similarly, Mike observed that "the wetness of the pizza encourages gulping it down quickly." A pesto and artichoke pizza left Kate "mad that I paid $13.99 for this. It's really oily and tastes like a drawing of pesto." (The pesto sauce in general was not recommended). The "Meat lover's", a giant pile of meat, was "meaty, greasy, decent, but undistinguished."

Instead, we recommend whatever impulsive combination of toppings you happen to point to when they take your order. Those who adopted this approach were overall much happier. "I like mine because it's exactly what I've always wanted in a pizza," Sophie explained. Piezzetta has their fast-casual game down to a science: individual toppings are fresh, of a high quality, and there's a lot of them. Everyone was excited about the "after-bake" options, a variety of flavored glazes and reductions. The availability of whole wheat and gluten-free crust also appealed to the health-conscious. In three minutes or less, raw pies run through a heat-blasting conveyor-belt oven cleverly decorated with fake doors to look like a traditional pizza oven.

The crust had a subtle, rich flavor, which many enjoyed. Piezzetta's dough recipe seems optimized for the assembly-line rapid bake process, so it doesn't bubble and crisp around the edges like a normal pizza crust would. Increased fat content, perhaps olive oil or butter, combines with decreased yeast activity to produce a crust that fades to soggy nothingness in the middle.

Glancing around a table of Piezzetta diners, Pizza Club observed rivers of grease running down everyone's hands and wrists. All the pies were literally sopping with oil. We don't know where it came from. It flowed through cardboard trays and plates and napkins like credit through a slot machine, but the grease was very real and would have made it difficult to operate any kind of touch-screen game while eating. Sophie made the best of it: "I've stopped trying to wipe the olive oil off my hands and now I'm rubbing it in and feeling super moisturized." Indeed, such luxuriant use of olive oil, a valuable commodity prized by the wealthy of ancient Greece and Rome and burnt as an offering to the Old Testament God, is not just a passive response to the generalized American craving for salt and fat, but an active ingredient in the potent consumer psychology of a casino. We felt satiated after the heavy oil injection, like no one was holding back on anything and we shouldn't either. "This place will find a way to give you what you want," said Ben, in relation to the pizza but also the casino generally.

We tried to play the slots but they're not wasting time on dilettantes like us. You can't actually put coins from your pocket into a machine to gamble -- you have to give it your credit card, entering a plane of frictionless, indefinite flow. The minimum bet for table games is around 25 bucks. Maybe we didn't eat enough pizza to rise to that plane, or maybe we ate too much and got bogged down by the aftermath of greasy unease. Back on the roof of the parking garage, we brooded on how the Horseshoe makes subtle contextual reference to the two nearby landmarks as a self-storage unit for humans and an incinerator for the funds that may or may not exist on their credit cards.

4.5/8 slices
Photo credits: Ben and Graham

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Eternal return: Maria's of Hampden

Pizza Club sometimes wakes in the dead of night paralyzed by the terror of eternal recurrence. If there are a finite number of pizzas, and a finite number of pizza parlors, must not the same pizza reappear again and again in different times and places? Nietzsche suggests that there is no escape from this iron law of the universe and Pizza Club's function is to write this review over and over. Even as the mundane world is wracked by paroxysms of change and capitalism vomits up its bilious stream of innovations, we'll always be sitting at the same vinyl-topped table and eating the same pretty average pizza. Except at the new Maria's of Hampden, where there is no table.

We recently found ourselves once again in that basement corner of Keswick and 36th, a site once associated with Angelo's Big Slice, the "biggest" slice of "pizza" in Baltimore. The Big Slice died an ignominious death and now haunts the retirement tower on Roland and 40th. Its ghost is still tasty enough and they need your business so get up there and support Angelo's while enjoying a fantastic view. Meanwhile, the corner shop at 36th and Keswick was commandeered by a Frankenstein's monster, 36th Avenue Pizza, stitched together from spare parts. We did not have the opportunity to sample this pizza before the venture self-destructed.

Currently Maria's, a dine-in/carryout in Parkville, is attempting to operate a Baltimore branch in the same accursed corner. First mistake, Maria, is that the space has plenty of room for seating but you have not obtained tables. We are used to sitting under the awning outside Angelo's to eat gross slices of pizza. Baltimore's memory is long. Go to Home Depot and buy a plastic table. The bereft interior, combined with the forlorn 36th Ave Pizza sign still hanging out front makes us think that Maria's is hesitant about making a commitment to the location.

Pizza Club has no reason to believe that certain pizzas in New York City don't taste exactly like the greasy, sweet, bready pizza produced in Maria's ovens. Indeed, one Pizza Club member compared the cheese pies to a recently-scarfed dollar slice obtained around Union Station. Thus, some will call it passable New York style pie, which they may use as a synonym for what Kate called "totally reasonable" fast-food pizza. Plain, pleasantly crisped, mild and inoffensive. The free pepper flakes, garlic salt, and parmesan are there for a reason, but you need to remember to take them with you in a little plastic container because there's nowhere to sit. The price is right -- Maria's wants you to embrace the circularity of the universe by buying one large cheese pizza and getting the second for a dollar. For good measure, Pizza Club did this twice.

We observed that the large pies look much less appetizing coming out of the oven than the smaller ones, perhaps a consequence of heat distribution challenges. Maria's friendly teenage workers humored our questions about the principium individuationis and helped us stack up the pizza discounts. We left them to their fate and marched up 36th Street in a ragged pizza procession to share our shame with the denizens of the mostly-empty Belgian beer hall where you're allowed to bring your own self-destructive food preferences.

The cheese pie, as noted, was chewy and bland but pretty reasonable for what amounted to like $4 per pie. A mushroom and pepper pie did not inspire much interest. The exotic entry, a Greek pizza, was laden with vinegary pepperonchini which gave it some spice and flavor interest but did not strike us as especially Greek. The white-bread style crust is sturdy enough to support numerous toppings. Ben speculated that this pie would be good next-day pizza, but we were not able to investigate this as we gave away the leftover slices to the crust punks encamped in the vestibules of the Avenue.

"This is not great pizza," said Ben. "It is rubbery and sweet and not too flavorful. It is good pizza." When in Hampden, Pizza Club prefers Bella Roma or an Indian pie at Philly's Best. We spent a lot of time discussing Maria's selection of the classic pizza box design that depicts a brutalist courtyard in perspective with a giant flaming pizza sun setting behind a restaurant. Or is the fiery pizza sun rising? We are indifferent.

4/8 slices

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Imitations of metropolitan splendor

Pizzatella of Security Square Mall
6901 Security Boulevard, Baltimore, MD 21244

The southern annex of Security Square Mall, with almost 100% vacancy, frozen escalators, and piles of 90s-era debris accumulating behind burned-out karaoke-club neon, is a harbinger of the post-apocalyptic future in which squatter communities repopulate America's abandoned suburban retail habitats. The mall's central body remains vibrant despite this ghostly appendage; indeed, passing from the hollow, dust-marbled pall of the annex into the main commercial avenue, one feels like a dead soul rudely shaken back to life. The mall's classic design features – luxuriant terraces of tropical plants arranged beneath domed skylights like a cartoon version of nineteenth-century hothouse architecture – gestural fake cornices masking ventilation pipes – invites visitors to take their leisure and edification among the miniature retail environments occupied by slightly off-brand replacements for the major national chains that fled Security Square for newer strip malls. There's a cavernous inflatable-jumping-structure palace for children's parties, a popular Japanese buffet, and a custom menswear shop currently stocking Hawaiian-print suit jackets for summer.

There's also a food court with slightly-askew versions of standard food-court fare. Heated tureens of Chinese noodles glimmer with the promise of the familiar. Up close, things are not what they seem. Pizza Club gravitated towards a jazzy-looking sign for “Pizzatella”. Vaguely evocative – is it a reference to mozzarella? Or piatella, an uncommon Tuscan bean? Pizzatella has customized its niche in the food court panorama with a fake brick oven formed by building a box of red tiles around a normal stacked stainless steel unit, and with some close-up images of Italian food postered on the wall. Multiple flat-screens also show surreally saturated images of pizza.

Pizza Club obtained two huge and perfectly-sliced wedges of cheese and pepperoni pizza. Its shine was so blinding that it may have been a mirage. Scott carefully tracked the progress of this grease through the pies and thence through the layers of paper plates. We found the cheese elastic and toothsome – plausible as real mozzarella – but quickly on the heels of this texture came a chemical aftertaste, suggesting a synthetic cheese whose oil had separated out during re-heating to form the above-noted oily sheen.

The crust was white bread in style, but perfectly toasted and crunchy when fresh from the fake-brick oven. As it cooled, it got chewier and heavier, until the remnant crusts began to weigh down the greasy plates and sag through the vinyl-top tables, pressing towards a dense gravitational center under the mall made from decades worth of agglomerated uneaten pizza crust.

Scott posited that we had just consumed white bread with marinara sauce and American cheese, distorted by the mall's occult aura to look like a fresh, delicious slice of pizza. “My hunger is satisfied, but I'm not sure how I'll feel in an hour,” he stated. In an hour, would he even be the same Scott? Something resembling daylight filtered through the glass dome, amplified by wrap-around mirrors in the ceiling -- the consumer simulacrum of a Crystal Palace -- or a museum of natural history filled with processed cheese.

3/8 slices

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Pizza Club remembers memories: Chuck E. Cheese’s

My marketing department just had a shitfit: ‘You can’t call a restaurant a rat place! People think rats are dirty. It’s not going to work.’
-- Chuck E. Cheese’s founder Nolan Bushnell 

In the wake of a recent near-collision with a rogue pizza delivery vehicle – watch out for that drunk Michelangelo's driver, guys – many things were shaken loose and rearranged within the brain of Pizza Club. Memories of the distant past rose up vividly as Pizza Club wandered in a gauzy realm of fever dreams fueled by the heat of a million brick ovens coursing through its head and neck regions. Among the kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of funny cat gifs, tessellating shapes, and talking trees, a fragmentary vision kept recurring – a band of anthropomorphic swamp creatures  lit by colorful spotlights on a shallow stage, strumming  and tootling their respective instruments with jerky, hypnotic motions. Sometimes the song  was “Happy birthday to you, sometimes “Sweet Home Alabama” – the creaking of their fur-wrapped metal joints was audible as they pivoted, “jumping and jiving” to the demonic melodies. At first Pizza Club feared that a long-repressed childhood trauma was surfacing from deep memory banks. Fortunately this was a more recent experience; we were at Chuck-E-Cheese only a few short months ago and just forgot to review their pizza. With the strains of swampy music fading once again, we hasten to put pen to paper. 

Pizza Club was out at the sewage treatment plant in Essex last fall, the one across from the abandoned Diamond Point Plaza mall. The only business still in operation at Diamond Point Plaza is Chuck-E-Cheese's. Hungry after a long afternoon of learning about sewage treatment, and with no standards of palatability left to uphold, Pizza Club decided it was time to return to a place which, for many, is the gateway into American pizza culture. 

The first thing to know about visiting Chuck E. Cheese as an adult is that the place is a seething ocean of kid-borne germs. Pizza Club has never been prone to germophobia but it has also never seen so many kids coughing, sneezing, drooling, and wiping boogers on every surface in a small enclosed space. The vigorous activity of pathogens was so palpable that we resigned ourselves to inevitable cold and flu. 

The second thing is that Chuck E. Cheese is still a paradise of childhood. Even in an abandoned mall across from a sewage treatment plant in a former red-light district on the outskirts of Baltimore, kids were having a fantastic time immersed in a self-contained universe of flashing lights and frantic over-stimulating games. Chuck E. Cheese has its own currency. It temporarily appropriates the signifiers of adult power and domination under the banner of its furry animatronic mascot. Children of all different races classes etc. etc. were playing in harmony, rolling on a collective sugar high while harried parents and older siblings sat back in germ-coated plastic booths enjoying a respite from the typhoon of kid energy swirling all around. 

Pizza Club was fascinated to find that no time has passed in Chuck E. Cheese since the late 1980s. Except for a different line-up of Disney themed cakes, everything is as it was and we saw that it was good. 

We rallied our courage, absorbing quizzical glances from parents alarmed by the arrival of multiple childless adults. We smiled and nodded at them as though to acknowledge that hanging out in Chuck E. Cheese is a creepy thing to do, but we were there for scientific purposes. Pizza Club marched to the food counter and ordered one personal pan pizza. Obviously a large pie would be more representative, but we were trespassing on these kids' turf and wanted to get out before catching the flu. While waiting for our tiny pizza we spent all our change on skeeball, won reams of Chuck E. Cheese tickets, got really excited, and then remembered that it takes a million Chuck E. Cheese tickets to buy an entry-level novelty eraser. 

Before we could register disappointment we got distracted by the arrival of pizza. There's no time to feel anything in the blissful Chuck E. Cheese vortex – it doesn't matter if you win or lose, if it's your birthday or some other kid's, if the swamp band is made up of benevolent or sinister robots. Gingerly we sat on slime encrusted benches and each seized a pizza wedge in unwashed hands, prepared to pay any price for knowledge. 
Chuck E. Cheese's pizza tastes the same as it did in 1992.

3/8 slices