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We are going all Italian this week here at JAETAF. Did you know that was our acronym, by the way? Jay-taff. Use it on the streets. See what happens.

This past Saturday we decided to do some heavy hitting in the Italian department. First up, some coal oven pizza at a NYC institution, Lombardi’s (incidentally, the only NYC pizzeria besides Grimaldi’s in DUMBO to operate a coal oven), followed by the Fiat Gallery in Soho with a GQ sponsored event where itty-bitty cars would be complemented by tiny shots of Lavazza espresso.

But first to fuel up on Margherita pies!

The Scene:
Lombardi’s is a pretty large place. There are multiple rooms and even a basement room (where John and I sat). From the start, the sheer size of the place concerned us. We had doubts whether a place that needed to churn out that many pies in such volume could maintain a high quality, brick oven product.  And volume needed to be produced because even though it was fairly early on a Saturday evening, the place was packed and we had to wait for a table. So we staked out seats at the bar and sipped Sixpoint beer in anticipation.  Sidenote – should an Italian brick oven pizzeria offer Sangria? Moving on…

The Grub:

We order a split pie: half Margherita to maintain standards of comparison, and half decorated with Lombardi’s house made pork and beef meatballs. Our 18″ pie has a few standout characteristics that put us on guard:

1. The crust is rather flat and evenly baked. No puffy Neapolitan cornicone here. And no coal-fired char marks, save for one large bubble.

2. The pie is stiff, lacking that floppy quality that makes a well functioning brick oven pie chewy and delightfully unwieldy.

However, there are some redeeming qualities: The basil is liberally applied, and the sauce has a simple, tangy, pure tomato taste of which we both approve.  John could have used a bit more, however.  Additionally, the cheese provides a noticeable salty, milky flavor.

As often happens, the meatballs steal the show. Moist, flavorful and bite-sized, like meat popcorn, they are a perfect pizza accessory.

The Bathrooms:

The lavatory was pretty standard issue. It seemed more like a closet with plumbing. But everything was clean. Bonus accessories included Windex (?) and a motion-sensored paper towel dispenser. The mirror was mesmerizing as well…

John and I were largely underwhelmed by Lombardi’s pie. Between the two coal oven contenders, we both agree that Grimaldi’s is considerably better. You may not – Yahoo doesn’t. You can read their opinion here.

Overall Experience: Vanilla Sky – The Average Restaurant

On with the show! We ambled several blocks to the Fiat Gallery on Wooster Street. We had been promised (via Urban Daddy) the possibility of test driving Fiats, and we both had Italian Job-esque dreams of hurtling through the streets of Soho in a perfectly polished red rollerskate.

Our test driving dreams were squashed, but we did get to sit in the show room models and make convincing vrooooom-vrooooom noises. That helped a bit.

All joking aside, the exhibit was pretty fun. The evening’s events were sponsored by GQ and we got to wander around artistically-rendered Fiat hoods, sample Lavazza espresso, sip Peroni’s, and get our photos taken!

John looks quite at home, no?

More events will be running until May 1st. You can check out the full list here.

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As you know, John and I like our pizza. We make it ourselves. We go on long journeys involving buses and tour guides to the far reaches of the world (Coney Island!) for a slice.

I even did a pizza internship for a day at my favorite Hoboken spot, Dozzino. They let me work the oven! So what happens when New York Wine Salon asks you (by which I mean me and John) to JUDGE pizza?

YOU (by which I mean me and John) SAY YES. And then you say yes again just to make sure they heard you properly.

So here’s the deal:

The Event: Wine’s Best Friend: NY Pizza

When: Thursday, April 28th 7pm – 9pm

Where: Alger House, Grennwich Village: 45 Downing Street, NYC 914-837-4853

What is Going on Anyway:
A parade of pies delivered piping-hot-fresh from favorite Greenwich Village pizzerias will be paired with bright reds and versatile whites, from Italy and beyond!

Find out which wines to pair with that mushroom pie…maybe Pinot? Pepperoni? Zin or Chianti sounds good. What about fresh basil, tomato and buffalo mozzarella… and your white pizza with fig compote, blue cheese and pancetta. Sauv Blanc anyone? Don’t count out Riesling….There are dozens of possible combinations. Come taste away and find out which you like best.

As an added bonus, John and I will be two of the judges blind taste-testing the pizzas to determine the best of the bunch! John’s vote doesn’t count – but don’t tell him that! Yes, you heard me correctly, John and I are judging pizza. It’s crazy. But true. Come watch it happen.

Check out the full invite here and sign up!

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Today, we bring you a review of John’s Pizza, on 87 Sussex Street in the Paulus Hook neighborhood of downtown Jersey City.  After some thorough internet research prior to our trip, I did indeed confirm that John’s of Jersey City was an offshoot of sorts from John’s on Bleecker.  This excited Elana and I.

The Scene: We went on a Monday night, but even for a Monday, it was pretty quiet.  Hopefully this was not an indication as to the quality of the pizza. It’s a pretty large spot for a pizza joint, with wood and stone floors throughout, and an upstairs that didn’t seem like it was getting a lick of use.  They had a full bar with beers on tap and, indeed, what appeared to be a coal fired, brick oven. If it was not so dang cold out, John’s would have been most likely sporting their outdoor seating scene, which appeared like a charming option.

The Grub: Prior to the pie, Elana and I sample some of our kryptonite, fried calamari (NOT pronounced cal-a-mod).  And while we realize making a crisp fried calamari is not exactly rocket science, some restaurants can still manage to bungle up calamari.  But not John’s – it’s close to perfect.  It is crispy and tender throughout, not rubbery or soggy.  Also, the squid is of sizable portion.  (Although it didn’t include the tentacles, which I like).  We also ordered what were termed “fried mozzarella wedges”  (creative!) which I very much enjoyed. They had a snapping crust and had a moist, even consistency throughout.  Each appetizer has an accompanying bowl of marinara, in which there are bits of basil leaves and perfect levels of olive oil lightly swimming about.  Chunks of freshly peeled tomatoes lend itself to a very smooth taste.

Onto the pizza.  Elana and I both got personal pies.  I ordered the “traditional” which was your basic margherita pie, while Elana ordered a pizza bianca – which had ricotta and mozzarella.  Both pies missed the mark a bit.  The Traditional had a TON of cheese, which was stretching all over the place, and slightly distracting me from the otherwise stellar sauce.   It’s definitely the tastier of the two.

Elana’s Bianca was a little bland.  Just like the traditional, the cheese is heavily applied, but it’s not packing a serious or sharp enough punch.  Both pies are unfortunately not sporting the “as-advertised” effects of a well functioning coal fired, brick oven.  The dough is a little crunchy and tough, with a noticeable stiffness throughout.

The Bathrooms – Elana reported: “The bathroom was clean and orderly, but a touch outdated and well-worn. Large mirrors were appreciated, but the potpourri and soap could have used more attractive containers.”

Overall, I must say that I was a bit let down by John’s.  Although a purported descendant of John’s on Bleecker, the apple seems to have fallen a bit far from the tree in this instance.  We prefer Grimaldi’s and Dozzino in Hoboken should you be looking for artisanal, Neapolitan style pizza within an earshot of an NJ path train.

Overall Score: Vanilla Sky

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What happens when a new pizzeria is coupled with considerably positive buzz?  Well, we review it of course.  Even if that means enduring a late winter rainstorm to check it out.  Such was the case with Rubirosa on 235 Mulberry St., which Elana and I visited just last Sunday.

Actually – while Rubirosa may be new to the immediate area, its pizza making philosophy has been around for quite some time.  Chef Angelo (A.J.) Pappalardo has cooked at Esca and Osteria del Circo, but his formative restaurant experience began at age 12 washing dishes and making pizza at his father Giuseppe’s Staten Island restaurant, Joe & Pat’s.” (NYMAG)

The Scene – And if indeed Rubirosa’s pies hail from old family tradition, so too does the overall feel of the place.  It’s a lot like your (Italian) Grandma’s house, especially if Grandma was really cool and kept a fully stocked bar with various kinds of whiskey and aperitifs.  It’s a long, somewhat narrow space, with a quaint and charming vibe – tin ceilings, mahogany framed pictures, filament visible light bulbs and, where we were sitting, antique radio equipment.  There’s even a steady collection of oldies music, which I’ve never had a problem with.  Even our water comes served in a large, old school carafe.

The Grub – Elana and I start things off with 3 rice balls, which come accompanied by a small bowl of extremely fresh and flavorful tomato sauce.  They have a wonderful snapping but forgiving crust, which gives way to a great tasting mixture of cheese, rice and pork bits.  The breaded spheres have very good consistency – the goo is not gushing, and the crust is not crusty.  There is perfect moisture and togetherness throughout each bite.

For pizza, we order their Vodka Pizza and their Classic Pizza (we opt for the smaller sizes of each).  Of the two, the Vodka is the winner.  It’s a hot mess of sauce, melted cheese, and a thin crust – which gets utterly, yet somehow beautifully, dominated by the pie’s heavy ingredients.  As I lifted each slice from the pan, portions of it would get left behind due to the weight of it all until what was finally on my plate wasn’t actually a slice at all, but rather a steaming mound of saucy, succulent slop.  And it’s delicious! The Vodka sauce is creamy, it’s cheesy, and it keeps its tomato flavor well.  A little more kick could have made it flawless, although Rubirosa does provide some crushed red pepper should you desire.

The ingredients of the Classic are as you’d expect – cheese, bread, sauce.  Both pies have a very thin, evenly pressed crust, yet the Classic’s has not been soggily penetrated by an abundance of Vodka sauce.  The tomato sauce stands out, it is exceptional. Almost in Grimaldi’s league.  The cheese, however, is a bit unnoticeable and sparingly applied.  It’s still a darn good slice however, easily foldable and light – almost effortless to take down.  As a server was kind enough to show me, each pizza is made within a gas pizza oven, with revolving shelves.

The Bathrooms:  I send sis off to the Bathroom to pick the food out from her teeth.  Her review is as follows: “There may not have been subway tiles, but the vertical wood panels continued the “grandma’s basement-chic” style. The chalkboard paint on the walls, gave the atmosphere a more playful vibe, although I would have liked some chalk to add to the decor. Large mirrors and a supply cabinet were pluses.”

Rubirosa is proof of my latest theory that there is no wrong way to make a pizza, provided you know what the heck you are doing.  And they clearly do. I’ve never quite had a pie like this, and I’m glad I came to experience it.  If you go, make sure to order a Vodka Pie, which was the highlight of the meal.  Unfortunately, this does not count as a visit to Grandma’s house. Ungrateful bastards.

Movie equivalent – Top Gun – The Well Working Formula

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This past winter, Elana and I accompanied mom on one of her local group trips to Brooklyn.  It was a guided tour throughout some of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, stopping along the way at the area’s most festively decorated residences for the holiday season.  It was a very entertaining experience to say the least, with the energy being maintained between stops by our animated and knowledgeable tour guide, Tony Muia.  On that trip, Tony had encouraged me to come on one of his his company‘s pizza tours.  This last weekend, Elana and I did just that.

The launch location for this trip was from Union Square, where Tony’s Cousin, Paula (who was our tour guide for the day), was enthusiastically welcoming all participants onto the bus.   To say Paula is an extrovert would be an understatement; within 10 minutes of the trip, she has already told various jokes, given nicknames to everyone on the bus, and dropped a few hundred “fughediboudits.”  “This is going to be fun,” comments sis.

The first out of two pizza stops for the day: Grimaldi’s on 19 Old Fulton St
in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn.  But, prior to that, Paula directs the group through a nearby park  to view the Brooklyn Bridge (which, by the way, has all of its original cables, Paula adds), as well a detour through the Jacques Torres Chocolate Shop, where Elana and I sample some of their delicious spicy hot chocolate.

The group is more than happy to wander around this beautiful area while peppering Paula with questions.  “Did ya know,” Paula adds, and proceeds to tell us that Grimaldi’s coal heated oven is one of the last of its kind within the city, as environmental regulation put a stop to the installation of coal  burning ovens in the 1980s.  She also advises us not to make eye contact with the long line of people waiting to get into Grimaldi’s.  Why?  Well, today, we don’t have to wait in the line.  A spot on the Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour grants you VIP access into the storied pizza shop. (It doesn’t, however, isolate you from the frustrated mutterings/shouts from those who you cut in line, which you will inevitably receive).  I mean, just how does the other half live?  Also, is it wrong that I secretly take pleasure in this moment of blatent line cutting?  Moving on…

Being one of the first let inside Grimaldi’s allows me to quietly watch the pies get made.  There is a system at work here – mountainous piles of sliced fresh mozzarella, jars of ingredients, stacks of wooden crates filled with unpressed dough, and then the oven itself – an almost Medievil looking heat terminal of coal burning excellence.  According to Paula, pies endure a stay of around 2 minutes and 43 seconds within the oven.  How’s that for specific  information?

I had not been back to the original Grimaldi’s in some time.  Indeed, I have a local Grimaldi’s in Hoboken that I visit  from time to time without having to wait in line, but I was looking forward to retesting the original.

The original is a better tasting pie. Its crust is a bit more charred vs. the Hoboken shop’s, with portions of its underbelly completely scorched by coal.  This, in my opinion, lends itself to a unique taste and separates Grimaldi’s from some of the other Napoletana style Pizzerias which use wood, gas, or a combination of the two.  The sauce quality is simply excellent here: fresh and flavorful.  And, even if the cheese may be a touch bland, Grimaldi’s (the original) does not let me down.  I put down 2 and 1/2 slices in about as many bites.

As we pull away from Grimaldi’s en route to our next stop (L & B Spumoni Gardens), Paula cues up appropriate movie clips while we are still in Dumbo – such as the scene from Scent of a Woman (one of my favorites) where Charlie and Colonel Frank Slade (WHOOAA!) take the Ferrari out for a test drive.  Our bus is traveling on those identical roads. I elbow Elana with excitement.

The seamless infusion of movie clips throughout the tour is a big theme.  While traveling out to L & B’s, Paula continues to add context to our voyage with additional clips, as well landmark descriptions and famous/infamous stories about the immediate surrounding area.  We also journey through Dyker Heights and view the million dollar homes along Shore Road in Bay Ridge.

And then, more pizza!  Our second and final pizza stop is L & B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst, which we featured on the blog not too long ago.  It’s a wonderful pizza to feature, particularly due to its contrast from Grimaldi’s; the two could not be more dissimilar.  Grimaldi’s is round; L & B’s is square.  Coal oven vs. gas.  Neapolitan vs. Sicilian.  Is one better than the other?  Who cares!  They are both amazing.

While they are both “pizzas”, comparing the two is like apples and oranges.  And on this day, I just can’t seem to stop putting down these scrumptious squares of sauce splattered satisfaction.  It doesn’t bother me in the slightest to effortlessly own a 3rd slice (that’s 5 and 1/2 for those keeping count) since others are full.  Especially since Paula had noted earlier that the L & B pizza feels “lighter” due to the dough rising twice.

And I’m not scared of dessert either.  Elana and I split some addictive spumoni ice cream, which isn’t quite ice cream at all.  It’s ice cream mixed with whipped cream which, yet again, has a “lighter” texture to it than what you would expect.   I again say “lighter” because, hey, let’s face it… I’m ingesting pizza and ice cream like Jaws gobbles up chum… I’m probably well beyond the point of characterizing this as a mere snack.  Whatever.  When in Rome….   er….   Bensonhurst, I guess.

After L & B’s, the tour makes its final stop to Coney Island, where Paula takes us along the boardwalk.   She notes the simultaneous (and hilarious) sensations of danger/excitement surrounding the various rides, such as the Parachute Drop and the Cyclone, with toothpick thick 2 x 4’s anchoring its highest peaks.

And even as the tour nears an end, there are additional movie clips to watch or more sites to see, such as the National, an oddly, yet awesomely decorated Russian restaurant/banquet hall; or the picturesque grounds at Poly Prep – there is never a dull moment.  So whether you are visiting Brooklyn for the first or you’re a full time BK resident, this tour really has something for everyone.  You’d be hard pressed to find more prideful and informative guides than Tony and Paula.  And, even for the so called know-it-alls, how else are you cutting the line at Grimaldi’s?

Click here for more information on A Slice of Brooklyn’s pizza and other tours of Brooklyn.

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This month’s BATHROOOOOOM of the MONTH goes to Co. Restaurant. Not only do their pizzas get top marks, but their bathrooms top the charts this month with a pleasing combination of dark red subway tiles, random art (like a visual non sequitur) and fancy accessories (lemon scented hand soap from C.O. Bigelow). My favorite part was the paper towel cubby hole. Nice work, guys. For our full review of Co. Restaurant, please click here.

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Ever since I read Jim Lahey’s book, My Bread and baked many of the recipes, I’ve been a bit obsessed with Mr. Lahey. Nothing crazy – no stalkerish tendencies. Just a serious admiration for the man’s bread baking talent. I headed up to his restaurant Co. in Chelsea to sample his bread – and PIZZA – first hand.

On a scale of 1-1,000, can you guess how excited I was? Place your bets in the comments section.

The Scene:
Pushing away the velvet curtains at the front door reveals a delightfully warm, pizza-smelling atmosphere that fogs up the windows with bread-baking steam. All around me is friendly chatter – not too loud not too quiet. Perfect for either a friendly get together or a date.

The attentive hostess greets me with an ETS (Estimated Time of Seating) – about 30 minutes, and I take a seat at the bar to await a friend.

Caramel colored wood paneling graces the walls with an interjection of one mirrored panel leading to a window through which you can peep the wood burning oven. This same oven is projected on the wall above the tables like a movie screen – like one of those Yule Log DVDs. Customers have apparently asked to buy a copy of the recording, but it’s not for sale, as you can hear the owner cursing in the background if you listen closely. In my opinion, this only adds to its kitchy charm.

Sam and Dave are crooning on the sound system and I hum, “Hold on (pizza), I’m coming….” to myself as one of the “company people” (identifiable by their matching brown t-shirts) ambles up over to take our order. We select:

The Grub:

First things first: BEER. I’ve been dying to try Kelso beer ever since I started following them around on Twitter. Luckily, Co. happens to serve Kelso Nut Brown Lager, which we promptly ordered a growler of (growler is a new term for me and basically means a helluva big jug o’ beer). We were very pleased – it complemented everything we ordered, especially the Popeye pizza (more on that below). We easily polished off that growler.

Next up: The Cannellini Bean and the Chicken Liver Toasts.

I LOVE chicken liver. You might remember me mentioning this around Thanksgiving time. It’s a weird thing to love, I know, but I really do. Co.’s version did not disappoint: pure perfection, whipped to a frosting-like consistency while still offering that signature tangy taste. As an added bonus, the spread was very generously applied.

The cannelini beans were like a meat broth stew (minus the broth) – bean bolognese, if you will. And I did! And would do it again, please and thank you.


Pizzas:
We selected the Margherita and the Popeye pizzas.

The Margherita was a perfect blend of tomato, mozzarella and parmesan with large basil leaves resting on top. The crust was crispy, charred and moist all at the same time, and the mozzarella had flavor – actual flavor all its own! I dubbed it King Pizza of the night.

The Popeye (pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, spinach, black pepper and garlic) was a study in delicious contradiction. The spinach, both crispy and tender, was a perfect balance to the tangy and gooey gruyere. For added fun, the spinach seemed to have been marinated in oil and garlic.

And they have sundaes! I enjoyed a vanilla and salted peanut topped with caramel sauce, cream and pomegranate seeds.

The Bathrooms:
I was happy to find the bathrooms as orderly and well-constructed as the pizza (yes, I know that’s a weird thing to say). Clean, modern and supplied with fun extras like C.O. Bigelow lemon-scented hand soap and ART (that’s a crab in the framed photo).

The Experience:
The Shawshank Redemption – The Happy Ending

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