Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Eating America's Pizza Map--With a St. Louis Layover

As I’ve admitted in this blog previously, I’m still wet behind the ears when it comes to pizza. What I’ve learned in 10 months working at PMQ has just reinforced how much I have to learn about the craft and business of creating America’s favorite food. Heck, before I started writing about pizza and interviewing passionate pizzaioli around the country, I had no clue how many regional species of pies had evolved on these shores. Gothamites--and their minions everywhere—will testify, of course, that real pizza begins and ends with—whooda-thunk-it?—New York-style.

In my recent column on square-cut pizza, I referenced just a few rectangular standouts, including the Philly Tomato Pie, New Haven-style Pizza, Pennsylvania’s Old Forge Pizza, two types of Chicago-style pies, Detroit’s increasingly popular flagship pie and, finally, that enigmatic square share of Provel cheesiness called the St. Louis-style pizza.

As a pizza journalist, I’m professionally sworn to objectivity and candor. Well, I didn’t take an oath or anything. Just my way of admitting I’m not a big fan of this cracker-crusted Gateway City icon. Locals WILL argue—until the Cardinals come home—that the 65-year-old cheese experiment their beloved Imo’s pizzeria made famous rules over sliced bread. I lived and worked in the St. Louis area for more than 25 years. I can honestly tell you that, besides the revered Red Birds, no St. Louis institution engenders the devotion and yes, passion, that’s heaped on this square pizza platform supporting everything St. Louisans hold dear—and some grease. Your kid ever ask you: “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?” St. Louis comic and TV host Eric Christenson, recently agreed to wed a St. Louis-style pizza in front of the Gateway Arch. Son of a gun wasn’t even born there! Hope they change the sheets after the honeymoon. (http://www.pmq.com/September-2015/Comic-to-wed-a-St-Louis-style-pizza-in-front-of-arch/)

For me, a military brat who grew up near assorted Naval ports along the Eastern Seaboard, St. Louis’ pizza finest is never more than a one-night stand. Listen, when you’ve got the munchies; and that steaming Gateway to My Tummy mama is loaded with pepperoni, sausage and bacon; and you wash those funky, edgeless squares down with a cold Budweiser; she’ll get it done. But that Provel just ain’t right! Don’t stretch like mozzarella. Too much like a grilled cheese sandwich.

The point is, though, my pizza taste buds are still minor league. I’m a dough-and-cheese apprentice, a novice, a pizza rube in need of schoolin’. So I’m not down with St. Louis-style pizza. That’s just me. Millions disagree, and millions more are ready to debate like Lincoln and Douglas for their favorite slice. So please, PMQ.com and PMQ Pizza Magazine citizens, lay it on me! Check out page 80 of the October PMQ Pizza Magazine and go to PMQ.com/pizzamap so you can get all “interactive” with our cool Pizza Map. You’ll also find an online form to let you stump for the style of pizza individuality that put your region on the map.

We’re a hungry land built on pizza freedom, and this is your chance, Pizza Nation, to be heard!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pizza Cones Are Walk-Around Wonderful

I had my doubts about pizza cones. Doesn’t sound right. Cones are for ice cream, right? Double dip chocolate for me, or maybe, if I’m feeling really adventurous, pistachio. But cheese, tomato sauce and pepperoni? That’s not an adventure, it’s a perilous food quest to uncharted territory. It’s culinary chaos. It’s whacked.

Until you try one. Then it’s bliss in your hand. It’s walk-around wonderful! It’s vertical pizza deliciousness. I sampled some of these pizza hybrids a couple of months ago in the PMQ Pizza Test Kitchen and I was overcome with sensory input resembling the first time I tried a Cuban cigar: “This is gooood sh… I mean stuff,” I thought.

Ray Clapp opened Coneizza (www.coneizza.com) three months ago in Laguna Hills, California, about halfway between LA and San Diego. He says the response from anyone who tries one of his pizza cones is immediate and definitive: Sir, may I have another? “Their reaction has been ‘this is absolutely fabulous,’” says the transplanted Wisconsin native, who moved to the sunny Left Coast from the Badger State in the 1980s. Despite maintaining his allegiance to the Packers, Clapp has cheerfully adopted Southern Callie and its quirky idiosyncrasies, but pizza cones, he insists, are no fad. “They’re perfect food for any location where people are looking for something tasty and convenient,” he explains. “This is just an easy, fun way to eat pizza. It’s pizza shaped differently, with real pizza crust, the same sauce, cheese and fresh, nutritious toppings.”

With the help of his wife and kids, Clapp, a former executive with Hyatt’s food division, launched Coneizza in a mall without the greatest foot traffic. He sees the current site as a test kitchen for the pizza cone experiment. So far, his customers have unanimously endorsed his results in the first West Coast restaurant where you can experience pizza cones. His top seller is the “Americana,” meat nirvana stuffed with Pepperoni, sausage and meatballs. The “Garden Gnome” features olives, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and Mediterranean spices. The “Hawaiian” and “Downsouth” cones geographically balance Clapp’s conical collection. He also invites customers to erect their own cones and offers traditional horizontal pizza and salads at Coneizza. The key ingredient that sets Coneizza apart, adds Klapp, is health consciousness. “What makes us unique is that we use healthier-choice meats like turkey bacon and our rich pizza sauce is made with organic tomato paste.”

Recently PMQ.com posted a story (http://www.pmq.com/August-2015/New-Jersey-entrepreneurs-offer-pizza-cones-after-buying-Italian-franchise/) on some New Jersey entrepreneurs running a Kono (the Italian company that pioneered pizza cones) franchise. The family is trucking pizza cones to big-attendance events around South Jersey and Philadelphia. There seems to be a worldwide craving for pizza that’s not only carry-out—but carry-with-you. Clapp precisely points out the packing power of munchable pizza projectiles in language any potential purveyor, or consumer, would appreciate: “People enjoy pizza cones because they taste great just like pizza, they’re easy and fun to eat, they’re not messy and they’re perfect for any grab-and-go environment like a mall.”

I’m sold, Ray. Who needs funnel cakes dusting your clothes and kisser when you can stuff your face with pizza cones at the fair? Unlike the unholy hot-dog-stuffed pizza crust, pizza cones are an evolutionary step on the pizza progress timeline that deserves to spiral upward and onward. They taste great and you can bite off the end to suck out the oozing goodness, just like that double dip of chocolate. They don’t melt, they just get cold, and we all know extensive clinical trials have proven cold pizza is an even better hangover remedy than cold fries. Heck, the Leaning Tower of Smooshed Cheese and Tomato Sauce is way more handy than an olive-spraying flat pizza slice to wave tauntingly in the face of your rivals when watching football on TV. Which is great, as long as you’re prepared for the equally likely scenario that your toddler will use one of them like a large paint brush to smear said TV or laptop screen.

I say: Small price to pay for one of mankind’s greatest, most portable and aesthetically awesome culinary inventions. The era of the pizza cone has begun.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Counting Calories Isn't a Square Deal in Pizza Universe

It’s cool to be square. I’m talking deep-dish pizza squares, like the renowned Chicago-style variety perfected by our friends at Rosati’s. They craft their square-cut gems at 48 sites in seven states around the country. Rosati’s president, Marla Topliff, is worried about whacked wording in the FDA’s menu labeling mandate, re-scheduled to take effect December 1, 2016, that, she says, penalizes square-cut pizza operators (with more than 20 locations) for daring to divide pies into non-uniform slices. That’s what you get when you try to cut round pies into square pieces. Yep, you get that delicious little odd-shaped rectangular nubbin salvaged from the pizza perimeter. No, I mean you get a competition-busting edict from the Feds requiring the square-cut rebels to post in-store calorie information for the whole pie instead of each slice. That spells a potential 800% calorie over-count and market meltdown vs. the big chains just to comply with the regulation.

The only course I flunked in high school was geometry so maybe I’m not the guy to expound on the case for square food over triangles, but here goes. You see, traditional triangular slices, like they carve out of their perfectly symmetrical round pies at Empire franchises in the Pizza Giant star systems, are considered “uniform sectors” by the pizzeria planet’s FDA overlords. Has something to do with a dude named Euclid and pi without the “e.” Now geometry disgrace that I sadly personify, still seems to me that pizza triangles are curved at the base and so—ipso facto—not really triangles at all. Pizza was invented to fuel the Roman Legions, you know? These tomato-and-cheese-pointers have a streamlined advantage when it comes to modern data tabulation—and that’s unfair, un-American and uncool. Bogus because it’s big-time disrespectful to some of the tastiest pizza types ever munched.

The short list of non-circular pizza magnificence starts with pan-made, Sicilian-style squareish varieties, including the Philly Tomato Pie, Pizza Al Taglio and Grandma Pie. Consider the oblong (more geometry) New Haven-style Pizza, Pennsylvania’s Old Forge Pizza, shaped a little like the Quaker State itself, and Grilled Pizza, which shares a similar outline to a random milk spill. Back in the beautiful, non-uniform Midwest, we find the thin-crust Chicago-style (think White Sox, Cubs), the amorphous self-described Midwestern Pizza, the cracker-crusted St. Louis-style pizza hybrid and, finally, the ever-more-popular Detroit-style dough barge of goodness that could haul the Motor City to recovery all by itself.

A plethora of non-triangular pizza slabs: Perfect in their rectangular non-uniformity; deliciously defiant in their non-compliance. The insurgency against the FDA’s imperial pizza bias is led by Jedis like Topliff and Betsy Craig, CEO and founder of the nutritional data consulting firm MenuTrinfo, who consult with Rosati’s. “This unfortunate, rigid stance by the FDA puts all Chicago-style pizzerias at a massive disadvantage,” she says. “Big chains, like Domino’s and Pizza Hut, won’t face the same calorie sticker shock per slice.” As a compromise, Craig suggests the FDA adopt the same “calories per average slice of uniform weight” standard that they’ve mandated for grocery store pizzas.

Topliff, who serves on the National Restaurant Association’s Pizza Council, adds the FDA’s apparent ignorance about America’s rich and diverse pizza portfolio isn’t shared by pizza-loving shape-shifters nationwide. “Great pizza is created in different shapes and unique styles around the country,” she says. “When you go into a pizzeria like Rosati’s, you’ll find loyal customers who are willing to stand up and fight for their favorite kind of pizza. They’ll argue endlessly about what’s better—Chicago-style or New York-style. Bottom line: Pizza fans are the most loyal consumers of any food item. They’re not looking for cookie-cutter uniformity. They want pizza that meets their needs and that’s exactly what we intend to continue to offer them.”

May the Force be with you, Marla! Indeed, victory may be on the horizon. As we’ve reported in PMQ.com, new bipartisan legislation called the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2015 may exempt all pizzerias (yes, even those non-squares at Pizza Hut and Domino’s can feel the pizza love) from in-store menu board hell. Unfortunately, the geometry tsars in Washington haven’t resolved the calorie count dilemma for a square slice in a round whole pizza.     

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Find Pizza Inspiration in Sardis, Mississippi

Who knew that a Neapolitan-style pizzeria with an old-school brick wood-fired oven was baking up some of the best pizza in America—and doing it in small-town Mississippi? Well, a growing number of local folks and energized fall newcomers visiting the football-crazy Oxford, Mississippi, area, home of Ole Miss, know. They're savoring some of the best pies west of Naples on sale about 45 minutes away from Oxford in charming Sardis, Mississippi.

Dutch and Rebecca Van Oostendorp, originally from New York, opened the TriBecca Allie Café eight years ago. Dutch came to Mississippi to pursue his passion for golf and Rebecca, the brightly smiling woman that would become his wife. Rebecca, inspiration for the name TriBeccca, was already in the Magnolia State coaching swimming and working at Ole Miss. Before long, the athletic soulmates, now living in the pastoral lake community of Sardis, had found a unique way to channel their shared drive for excellence and East Coast food favorites. They found it in the comforting, fragrant warmth of homemade bread loaves.

When Dutch realized instructing aspiring golfers in the laid-back south was not his cup of sweet tea, he and Rebecca went back to their Northeastern roots—without leaving Mississippi.  The Van Oostendorps built a brick oven in their Sardis home and started a small business selling their lovingly baked artisan breads to local farmers markets. But when the ideally situated TriBecca Allie location at 216 South Main became available in 2007, right next to the Sardis Playhouse theater, the couple jumped at the opportunity. They erected the only wood-fired brick pizza oven in Mississippi at the restaurant. Then they piled on grueling working hours building an award-winning reputation for delicious old-world, thin-crust, authentically Neapolitan pizza. “At first it was a bit of a challenge educating our customers that a little char on the bottom of their pizza didn’t mean it was burned,” Dutch explains. “We like to think we’ve helped out regular customers become pizza connoisseurs.”

It doesn’t take a pizza expert, however, to fall in love with menu selections like the Magnola Rosa Insalata, 12 inches of pizza preeminence topped with mixed greens, pine nuts, house-made balsamic vinegar and Pecorino Romano cheese. You don’t even have to love pizza to dig TriBecca, since they offer daily home-cooked specials and wonderful desserts.

But the pizza here is remarkable, and more than worth a few words of description. The original Magnolia Rosa pays tribute to the Van Oostendorp’s adopted home state featuring Mississippi pecans, and TriBecca’s Margherita owes its tangy “Viva Italia” signature flavor to homemade marinara sauce and fresh, whole-milk mozzarella. Don’t worry, meat lovers are never short-changed at TriBecca. They stake claim to their own protein plenty with sausage, ham, bacon, pepperoni, chicken and meatball options. Again, while you might not have to be a pizza perfectionist to appreciate these hand-crafted pies, the pizza pantheon has already spoken. The Magnolia Rosa Insalata brought home culinary glory to Mississippi and the Van Oostendorps when TriBecca Allie's masterpiece earned second-place in the World Pizza Championship in Orlando, Florida, in 2010.

So what did I think when I visited the picturesque pizzeria with attached gelato shop last week? I was deeply moved by the quality of the pizza and the quality of the professionals who run this family dream-come-true. To watch Dutch and Rebecca in action, tandem pizza chefs maneuvering their peel-poised pies into the fiery dark promise of TriBecca’s red brick oven, is to witness the definition of teamwork. Watching them chat with customers and staff, and especially, to see these committed partners smile at each other, is to share a vision of service, respect and pride that is as meaningful as it is simple. They create this touching taste and dining experience with time-tested tools and ingredients—at their own pace with standards that are never compromised. And they carry out their life’s passion in a place where enduring values mean everything. I think a trip to Sardis, Mississippi, and TriBecca Allie Café is simply extraordinary.