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