2013 Summer Fancy Food Show, Day 1

Wow! What a year! We just returned from the 2013 Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City. And boy, are our mouths tired.

Another amazing show, another great summer event filled with old friends, new ones, tons of food, and plenty of new and exciting products to showcase before I get my cholesterol checked. We have come back with one of the craziest bounties yet, and are extremely excited to show you what’s in store.

We started our day out bright and early, leaving Connecticut on the train to New York. We were lucky enough to catch a little of the NY Pride excitement, too!
The first day was significantly less eventful than it’s been in previous years, likely due partially to the lack of sleep we’d had at the murder-y motel the evening before. At least we got to have Pepe’s summer tomato and sausage pie…

And a sweet lobster tail for dessert!
It could have also been because the first floor, typically the largest, was very quiet. Comprised mainly of international and some larger US sections, it just lacked the energy and excitement of the floor below. Still, we found some great products and spent some time at my personal favorite, Mexico’s cocktail booth with Junior Merino.

Here, we tried a knockout of a sweet corn, elderflower, hibiscus, pineapple, tequila, and lemongrass cocktail. Absolutely insane!

Pallini’s famous limoncello was next, along with a raspberry and a peach liqueur.

After getting our drink on, we admired some of the classic big shot products of the show, like huge legs of proscuitto from Fermin and 5J. 

Always a great snack!

This year had some of the prettiest packaging I’ve seen yet. From these brightly colored bottles and cans of olive oil from Italy, to some jewel-like bottles of balsamic vinegar inspired by perfume, the designs were sharp and pristine.

Cans that fly off the shelf!

Balsamic no. 20…for the lady and discerning gentleman.

Overall, our first day definitely swayed more toward the savory than the sweet side. We sampled more artisanal meats than our stomachs could handle, and checked out the latest from all of the cheese producers, too.

It seemed like the organization was tighter, but definitely led to a bit of monotony. There’s only so many square miles of cheese a person can eat in a day before she needs a break!

The Ginger People had a sauce fountain with their zippy ginger chili sauce for all to dip in. I was more amazed that I was able to sample the sauce without getting any on my shirt.

We bid the day goodbye with some dan dan noodles and a hot bath as the city moved below us.
Still, we had a great first day and met some wonderful new people with incredible products- stay tuned when we give you a peek of our second day, the two after-parties we checked out after the show, and finally, the top 15 sweet and savory products of 2013!

Pizza Hut Chèvre-Miel

It has been a long and trying week- thank you to everyone who emailed or commented on my post with words of support and encouragement. Many people came out of the woodwork to offer their condolences, and I am forever grateful to have heard your comments and to have interacted with you. Luckily, Miss Love was with me for a substantial amount of time, and we have been having a fantastic vacation together to make up for lost time.

Obviously, with our love for all things meta and bizarre, one of our first dates in Paris, a city resplendent with Michelin star-rated restaurants, gourmet tasting menus, and plenty of delicious cheese and wine, was to eat takeout from Pizza Hut. Because America, and also because chèvre miel. “Chèvre miel?” you say, trying to recall the latest American Pizza Hut promotion with Chèvremielarama, complete with stuffed pepperoni crust and cheese ooze, or the coveted Chèvre Miel Meal for Eight Pack released in 2008, but stop trying. It doesn’t exist outside of France. 
And yes, it means what you think it means. There is goat cheese on this pizza from Pizza Hut, the company that brought you pizza with a cheeseburger crust and space pizza. Baked goat cheese drizzled with honey. And yes, you’re still alive, and Darth Vader was Luke’s father the whole time. Mind blown yet? I should also mention that this pie was presented to me by my server like a bottle of 1982 Lafite-Rothschild, box open, hopeful beam upon her face that I would not scoff and discard such a masterpiece of lactose mediums.

It gets weirder, like some sort of reverse classicist restaurant franchise. Ye Olde Pizzae Hutten circles the pie with stuffed crust Cheesy Fun Bites, attached at the bread like hangnails, surrounding the mother pie like suckling puppies and breaking off if you even so much as look at the pizza the wrong way. Luckily, the pizza part of it tastes pretty decent, even if the crust bites are the Two-Face of a generally well-maintained Harvey Dent pie. 
Seriously, they are both awful and easy to eat, two bites of salt, semi-melted string cheese, and a hasty melange of spices. There is no reason, unless you have a rare salt lick deficiency, to be eating these bites. They lack balance and flavor, merely offering the comforting texture of solids to occupy your mouth while waiting for the molten hot pizza to cool. They’re a little dry, but Pizza Hut has a solution for that, and that solution is more oil. Peppered lubrication in single-use packets, to be precise.

As I mentioned, I was kind of smitten with the pizza part, at least as smitten as anyone can be with a sweaty triangle of various dairies. The components- an herbaceous cream cheese sauce, crispy mozzarella-esque cheese, and thick rounds of creamy goat cheese with honey, were well-balanced, if depressing to look at once free of its crust lesions. With each bite, the salinity and sweetness had a tasty equilibrium, neither one overly cloying or sharp. Ultimately, though, the poor quality of the mozzarella, stringy and tough, made it unpleasant to eat more than a slice or two. The combination is bold for a franchise, and in the right hands, could make for a wonderful pizza pie. However, with Pizza Hut, it lacks the care and higher-quality ingredients to devote to this pie alone. How else can they serve La Louisiane and Big Spicy Texan pizzas? How can they sleep at night?

Vista Lounge Opening Party at Mohegan Sun, Uncasville, CT

What a weekend. Miss Love, Dillinger, and I drove down to Mohegan Sun, New England’s largest casino, for an evening of food, fun, and a killer opening party to celebrate their new bar, the Vista Lounge. Vista lounge and dance club officially opens on July 28th (this weekend!) but we were invited to a party featuring Jenny McCarthy as a host, along with a pumped dance floor and a selection of delicious cocktails to try. 

We arrived famished and, after checking into our sweet hotel room, ran down to Pepe’s for a quick bite to eat before the party. This was technically Miss Love’s official New Haven-style pizza deflowering, so we had our fingers crossed for an authentic experience. Honestly, I don’t know how they did it, but this pizza was perfect. It was exactly like the kind you’d get in Wooster Square, minus the lines, annoying tourists, and surly service. Witchcraft, I tell you. That, and a killer brick oven. Crispy and charred on the crust and bottom, with a bubbly, thin crisp and a bounty of homemade toppings. This is what all pizza aspires to be. I’m a Pepe’s fangirl, but god, it is so obvious why this is the best pizza in the world.

Obviously, there was an endless fountain of Foxon Park on tap, too. Ah, Connecticut. These are the things that I love. The pie we split, sausage and summer tomato, doesn’t come slathered in their spicy, sweet tomato sauce, but the roasted tomatoes and anise-spiked sausage are absolutely worth getting.

And then we changed into our party clothes and requisite party tee and headed to the dance! The new lounge looks amazing. Spanning two floors of secluded nooks, private blackjack tables, bar stools, and alcoves, all centered around a massive dance floor and blanketed by a functioning planetarium, the power and noise belies its intimate size. Oh, and Jenny McCarthy was there. She, however, was extremely popular and in demand from people taller and louder than I, so the best photo I managed to wrangle of her was a photo of someone else taking a photo of her on their iPhone. Watch out, Diane Arbus, I’m ‘a comin’ for yooooou!

The club was rocking and bopping and pumping and grinding well into the evening while the world gambled at our feet. We were kings and our libations, dessert-themed and surrounded by endless bowls of chocolate. A few notable potables: the Vista Signature Cocktail, with prosecco, lillet, Pama, Solerno, and lime juice. This was my first brush with both Pama, a pomegranate liqueur, and Solerno, but I suspect we’ll be seeing more of each other. This was zesty and not too sweet, with a lively bite and gentle effervescence. We also loved the melon cosmo, though the tart cranberry threatened to overwhelm the melon vodka.

And of course, the dessert martinis. Martinis in that they’re served in a martini glass, dessert in that they’re sweet and sexy and go down easier than actual cake. The salty chocolate-covered pretzels went well- perhaps a little too well, with the chocolate cake martini, a balanced example of the fatal attraction that vodka and chocolate have. Pictured above is the Tiramisu martini, with a butterscotch kick like an amped up coffee.

The party was wonderful, filled with decadent snacks (birthday cake-flavored chocolate-covered Oreos! Homemade turtle candies!) and great music. Halfway through, we found that we were in desperate need of food to balance all the drinks we’d been having.

And what better treat to indulge in than Krispy Kreme? At midnight, the store was still pumping out fresh, glistening doughnuts for all. We brought a selection back to the room- another first for Miss Love! Clockwise from the top: key lime pie, a freshly fried glazed doughnut, chocolate with chocolate cream, strawberry jam with sugar, and two marshmallow-creme filled. So perfect.

This new Key Lime doughnut was silky and tangy, with a wonderful spiced streusel topping.

We stopped back at the party to enjoy a few more drinks and then decided to take a swim, because, hey, there’s no better time than 1AM to do some laps, right? What we didn’t know was that we’d unknowingly wandered into another dance party in the pool area, filled to the brim with guys in suits and girls in bridesmaids dresses. With our t-shirts, repurposed gym shorts, and sandals, it was like a scene out of Pulp Fiction. (“You guys look like…what do they look like, Jimmie? “Dorks. They look like a couple of dorks.”) We took a seat in the hot tub and let the party come to us.

Finally, after some thirty-odd people jumped into the pool in their clothes, we were all herded out. The next logical thing to do was to have a snack. So we made brunch reservations, ate the last of our doughnuts and pizza (somehow over 9,000 times better cold) and slept, ready to meet the new day three hours later, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Find out what we did with our hangovers tomorrow! Hint: it involved lobster for breakfast…

Thanks again to Mohegan Sun for having us to photograph and write about the party. They went above and beyond and let us stay the night, comped our food, drinks, and hotel, and showed us a great time. I was so excited to do this and can’t wait to come back!

DiGiorno Three Meat Pizza Dipping Strips

I like my food to be interactive. Of course, there’s only so many ways you can jazz up lift food, insert in mouth, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to make it more exciting. I blame it on my parents, whose authentic airline-related commentary while flying the fork plane into my mouth as an infant would have made any TSA agent proud. So these days, where a spoon would suffice, I’ll stick a straw in. I like arranging plates to have as many condiments and dips as there are items on the plate itself, and a dinner just isn’t a dinner unless it has at least one experimental cocktail.

DiGiorno sent over some of their pizzas last week, in a bizarrely paradoxical “is it delivery or is it DiGiorno” situation. In this case, it was both, which seems to defy the laws of time and space, but whatever. Funny story: sometimes the press kits companies send over can be very convincing. In this case, I got a text from Miss Love while on my way home from work. “digiorno sent 1 pizza just put in freezer.” Curious to hear more, I called her, and we both expressed our confusion at having received one pizza in what she said was such a large box.

I came home later and found this in the freezer, with these inside.

Yup, they made their press kit so convincing that it fooled my poor girlfriend. Shit is crazy like a Foxwoods, I tell you. Luckily, thumbdrives can take a licking, so despite the fact that these were frozen, they turned out just fine. I also need to point out that this is one of the most impressive press kits I’ve recently received. They made a thumbdrive that’s meant to resemble a Dipping Strip. The operative word here is “meant,” as it errs more toward the side of skin disease demonstrative display (“Pepperonitis Simplica”) but it’s still freaking awesome.

I ran to the store and grabbed the Three Meat pizza for my first test. Maybe I’m just used to the slender, compostable Amy’s boxes we usually get, but this pizza was hefty. I swear I saw my triceps cry when I lifted it out of the freezer case. The Three Meat Pizza is topped with pepperoni, sausage, and beef, and comes with two tubes of garlic and marinara dipping sauce. I can understand the former, which seeks to deliver a certain pizza restaurant’s certain magical sauce to a certain masses, the likes of which rhymes with “Ploppa Han,” but the latter baffles me ever so slightly. I’ve never known anyone to add extra sauce to a pizza.

I’ve always liked DiGiorno’s pizzas, and this one was no exception. While I find the crust a little too thick and dense, the flavor is tasty without being oversalted and the toppings are generous. The execution of the dipping strips is a little unwieldy, though. The cheese extends and separates in a net-like form, leaving small pieces of beef and sausage in its wake like the children of divorced parents. As the cheese breaks off, they ultimately fall by the wayside until you plop them back on the pizza. The toppings are fairly nondescript- the pepperoni is gamey and fatty, distinctly reminiscent of packaged Hormel sausage or the cold slices you’d get in a Lunchable, and the sausage and beef are virtually indistinguishable. But still, meat toppings FTW. The real fun is in the dipping.

Both sauces feature easy-to-tear pouches and a slightly greasy exterior as well as the heady implications of explosion should you microwave them. Once again, I’m reminded of Lunchables. This pizza feels more and more like the adult version of the deep-dish pizza creator you were jealous about in the 4th grade. You know, the one with cold cheese and an animal-based crust that you’d have given a kidney for. Now it comes in 1 lb increments and has garlic sauce. You’re all grown up, baby. The marinara sauce was surprisingly, my favorite condiment, likely because it served as a zesty lubricant for the craggy pizza strips. The garlic sauce was congealed with oil and it had a thin, watery texture. It had a salty, non-garlicky texture and I ended up throwing it out.

This is a pretty successful frozen pizza, and it’s definitely a fun, easy way to portion out food. Many an argument has broken out chez nous over the last slice of pizza, and this way you can divide up your strips as evenly as we divided up land back in the 1800’s. While I’d love to see a thinner crust and some more diverse toppings and dips, it’s delicious, moderately nutritious, and better than the DIY version we had as kids.
Now with 100% more data!

Domino’s Pizza Introduces Gluten-Free Crust

On their website, Domino’s revealed the nation-wide introduction of its gluten-free crust. However, due to the large scale of its operation, the crust cannot officially be endorsed to celiac sufferers due to the potential for cross-contamination. An interesting point that we’ll later be exploring as we taste the pizza (also, only available in a 10-inch small regular pizza, artisan varieties excluded) and let you know our take on it.

Check out the press release! Also gotta love the tagline- “gluten-free pizza that doesn’t taste like the box it came in.” We’ll see about that, Domino’s!

Bufalina, Guilford, CT

There’s a chain restaurant with a particularly irksome saying- “when you’re here, you’re family.” Call me old-fashioned, but my idea of family never included passive waitstaff and large, generic dishes. In thinking of the ideal family meal (always better in theory than in practice), I consider attention to detail, shamelessly experimental dishes, like the time my father tried making beer-infused waffles for us, and above all, the suspension of time, where an hour turns into three and minutes pass quickly yet seem like forever. A good restaurant can mimic that with the enjoyment of a night out. And that, my friends, is Bufalina.
Bufalina opened in Guilford off of Route 1 in September in a space formerly occupied by an Israeli deli no larger than the common room in my dormitory. With eight seats, a hand-crafted wood-fire oven cooking up anything from crepes to cookies, and a large, round-table style of bumping elbows with your dining mates, it wins both the awards for the most claustrophobia-inducing and the most exclusive place in town. Reservations are easy to get and quick to disappear as the evening fills. Owners Matt Scialaba and Melissa Pelligrino dance around the kitchen as though performing a constantly fluctuating, interpretive tango with the preparation and the orders and the chit-chat coming in lightning fast.
Opening my ears, it was not unusual to hear hearty greetings from repeat customers, who soak up Matt and Melissa’s almost eidetic memories with gusto. “How’s your baby?” she’ll ask one couple, cooing over their photos on their iPhone. To another, Matt will discuss wine, eventually accepting a glass from a diner before they depart. Chatter of Italy, Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, shelter dogs, and such reverberate through the tiny room. It was like watching an elaborate ballet, seeing them cook, interact with customers, and serve food simultaneously.
Bufalina does not have a liquor license or a wine list, but they encourage customers to BYOB and open bottles happily either at the counter while you’re waiting for a table or at the table itself. A makeshift bar indeed, where dolcetto is happiest served in scotch tumblers as it is Schott Zweisel. We ordered both a Porri pizza, with caramelized leeks, aged mozzarella, and pancetta, and an order of their lasagna, hand-made daily using not noodles, but fresh crepes. The menu is minute, but carefully crafted. They’re still working out a rotating seasonal menu but have established some pretty well-loved standards. This was a favorite of both take-out customers and those dining in.
The pizza was otherworldly, the direct antithesis to the horrors we experienced at The Hungry Ghost, with a distinct woodsy flavor permeating the fluffy, bubbled crust. The crust has a classic style reminiscent of its New Haven apizza brothers, but a little denser and chewier, lacking that quintessential element of brittleness but bringing a little more body, with a slight tang from fermentation and a beautiful craggy undercarriage.
The toppings were not terribly plentiful, but were enough to get a bit of everything in each bite under the blanket of perfectly melted, soft mozzarella. The leeks were naturally sweet and yielded to each bite, and the lack of sauce was barely detectable as they were moist enough on their own. With the thick slices of pancetta, it was both smoky and sweet and thoroughly addictive. I was extremely tempted to order another as the first came out in record time, around eight minutes after we ordered.
Our lasagna also slid to the back of the oven after a quick assembly of crepes and a creme brulee-esque dusting of parmesan on top that crackled and crisped similar to its sweet counterpart. Served in a deep-dish foil tin oozing with cheese and charred bits of crepe edges poking out of the sides, it was molten hot and ethereally light, the crepes soaking up the sauce and melted mozzarella cheese while leaving a delicate lace of crispy parmesan on the bottom. It was a predominantly nutty and sweet lasagna that benefited from a little hot crushed red pepper on top and still remained luxurious and rich despite its airy texture. Pockets of cheese continued to delight as ricotta and mozzarella seeped out of each bite.
After overhearing that Melissa served not only as the waitstaff and manager but as the resident pastry chef as well, we couldn’t resist splitting a piece of the night’s special dessert, a chocolate ricotta crumb cake whose supply was quickly dwindling. In fact, shortly after we ordered our piece, a man who had come in with his wife at six for dinner popped back in at nine to grab the last few slices for dessert. The cake was the perfect end to the meal, bridging the gap between savory and sweet with a mild flavor from the powdered sugar topping and a cloud-like, fluffy charcoal center, crisp from the bottom of the oven and slightly smoky. With the final sips of our dolcetto, it was a wonderful way to depart.
And yet, we lingered over our check, listening to the quiet clamor of cleanup and the last of the conversations trailing off. Our bill was incredibly reasonable, $27 and change for two, and was worth twice the cost for the bonhomie and delicately prepared food. As we left, one customer was talking on the phone to a friend who was a tomato farmer, “Listen, you’ve got to check this place out…” as Matt showed another his most recent magazine article. Three waved as we left, wishing us a safe drive on the cold and rainy evening. We didn’t know their names yet left feeling as though we’d departed from a comforting and intimate dinner party. Looking through the window you’d have no idea it wasn’t a simple gathering with friends.
The euphoria lasted well into the evening, the good vibes and care from the customers and staff lingering on our tongues and in our minds. If restaurants like Bufalina continue to thrive, we can say goodbye to the cookie cutter idea of the sterile “family restaurant” and move onto a brighter horizon where we’re all just a little more human.

Gross Food Week #4: The Hungry Ghost Bakery, Northampton, MA

In planning out my selections for Gross Week, I initially thought it would be overkill to include a restaurant in an undoubtedly negatively centered theme. However, after trying the pizza at The Hungry Ghost Bakery in Northampton, Massachusetts, all bets are off. To some Northamptonites, this review will strike the wrong chord. They will place it in the same shock category as a “Nobama” bumper sticker. The Hungry Ghost, a two-time James Beard semifinalist, is a small town staple atop a small hill in the center of town, flanked by office buildings and groceries just off the main drag. When I first came here for school, it was all everyone spoke about.
“Oh, you must try the Ghost- they only bake one kind of specialty bread a day and don’t bake any more when they run out! The owner wrote a ballad about the bakery! They have a schedule for their bread.” Handwritten menus and a shabby workspace pass for status indicators in this area, I noticed. In fact, I entered the bakery twice prior to their late 2011 renovation and left before ordering as I was appalled with the putrid state of conditions there. Formerly a dusty, dank bakery, albeit one with lovely smells, the reviews of The Hungry Ghost’s bread range from passionate to pallid. But it was their recent renovation and switch to pizza that piqued my curiosity one evening, prompted by an October 2011 review by Serious Eats writer Liz Bomze, when the bakery had first branched out to pizza. I’m not one to place SE on a pedestal, but I respect their input and recognize their experience in eating many different types of pizza, so their range of comparison would be vast and hopefully serve as a good benchmark for my own experience.
What Liz described as “some of the best pizza in New England” was something I wouldn’t have the heart to feed my dog. (Who, for the record, was raised on New Haven apizza crusts slipped under the table.) Perhaps this would pass for good pizza to someone who was heretofore fed exclusively Domino’s and Digiorno, but for a Connecticut resident, this barely has the life and character of a freezer-burnt Ellio’s. Entering the bakery, we were the only patrons yet stood for a few minutes as the cashier finished a lengthy conversation about boys with a friend of hers. When we made a motion to order and ask for a recommendation, as it was our first time checking the place out, it was made painfully clear that the delicate rhythm of the discourse was disrupted by our presence. This was reflected in the service. Hideously annoyed that her soliloquy about menfolk was stopped in its tracks, the cashier was surly, exhibiting a vapid passivity nearing autistic levels, thrusting a paper menu toward us and all but telling us to go screw ourselves. Any further requests for recommendations yielded blank stares and eye rolls.
We finally agreed to try their margherita pizza, a basic set of flavors that, when done well, transport the eater back to summertime. A simple choice for a first time. Informed that the pizza would take twenty minutes to cook, a strangely long time in a brand new Llopis wood-fire oven, we were told to come back. We perused a local deli and returned only to be informed that the bakery was cash-only. No signage alerted us to this fact, nor did our server choose to capitalize on our twenty minute wait by offering up this fact. Thus, our pizza was delayed another ten minutes as we found an ATM per her vague directions and went on our way.
That ten minutes made no difference at all. In fact, I doubt ten seconds would have made a difference, because this pizza was abhorrent both hot and cold. For starters, the composition. A margherita pizza is retardedly simple: tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and a little extra virgin olive oil. Our pizza had rivulets of grease pocking its surface and running down the sides and into the crust and was sparse in the basil department. Apparently there’s a shortage of skimpy, free-range basil leaves in the region. Fresh tomatoes were replaced with what tasted like canned tomato sauce, and the cheese was barely browned. Checking out the upskirt, we were once again dismayed by the shoddy performance of this seemingly new oven. I’m not sure if the owners got an upcycled oven or if it was left on the curb and posted on freecycle, but it yielded a flaccid, soggy crust with a gummy interior, each piece collapsing on itself, saturated and glistening with more oil than a male model and shedding dandruffy flakes of cornmeal and flour when moved from box to plate.
The first few bites of each slice were wet, thick, and slimy, the result of the copious amounts oil migrating to the center of the pie. With each bite, I was waiting for International Bird Rescue to come clean my mouth in the same way oiled seagulls are cleaned after a disaster. $13 bought an extremely bland, oversweetened twelve inch pizza that left a sheen on our lips and carried a pervasively annoying sourdough tang, more tangy and sour than their bread. I’ve suffered from heartburn with a more nuanced flavor than this.
Unfortunately, Jesus did not grace our grease-stained napkin with His presence. He must have seen our pitiful meal and appeared in the craggy crust of a McNugget across the street instead.
An undistinguished and frugally filled alfajore did not make for a delightful end to the meal.
We had structured our day around getting this pizza tonight. I’m just pleased that we didn’t go “full pizza” and snag more than one pie or even upgrade to a larger size. This was so unappetizing that we didn’t even bother to sit down at the table with it, much less open the bottle of Mondavi we’d left chilling for the occasion. From the many Bret Easton Ellis novels and old issues of the New Yorker I’ve perused, I gather that high-end restaurants of the 80’s were proud of being stingy and standoffish, cultivating the type of clientele who would know better than to question the difference between ceviche and cilantro. I don’t, however, understand why this snobby “value” is superimposed onto the more mediocre examples of fine dining I’ve seen in small towns. It seems like a certain strain of naive people equate this attitude with quality dining, and it unfortunately causes restaurants like this to thrive where they can be king of the college pizza scene. Hungry Ghost comes across as a ludicrously arrogant big fish in a small pond. The hype is not deserved.

San Matteo Panuozzo, New York, New York

I know most of you already know this, but to some, it may come as a bit of a culture shock. Olive Garden is not Italian cuisine. I’m a quarter Italian. Keepitcoming is half. True to my blasphemous self, I’m admittedly quite happy when I’m noshing on pasta laden with thirty kinds of cheeses or a thick piece of reheated pizza oozing with oil, but Miss Love is harder to please. When Birra Moretti offered us the chance to enjoy pizza and beer in Manhattan, we couldn’t help but oblige. We chose a small cafe on the Upper East Side, San Matteo Panuozzo, a squat cafe filled with wine bottles, speakers blaring Raphael Gualazzi (Italy’s answer to Michael Buble) and housing a massive wood-fire pizza oven in the back- no small feat for a restaurant the size of your average Manhattan studio. Owned by brothers Ciro and Fabio Casella, the restaurant is just over a year old.

In the vast, dense world of New York pizza, I can proudly say this is some of the tastiest I’ve had the pleasure to sample. Then again, I’m a Connecticut native, so take my words at face value. But I’ve traveled around Italy, and eating this brought back memories of the flat, fragrant, chewy pizzettes offered in cafes all around the country. This is definitely the closest to authentic Italian pizza I’ve had since voyaging abroad, where the toppings are applied in an almost scientific sense, in moderate and careful doses across the dough- a personal favorite with a charred, chewy crust and moist interior. Despite taking a back seat to the restaurant’s signature specialty, the panuozzo, the pizzas are not to be ignored. We tried two, the Arechi, with roasted butternut squash and smoked buffalo mozzarella, and the Salsiccia e Friarielli with broccoli rabe, Italian sausage, and mozzarella made fresh daily by Fabio himself. Each pizza carried an ample amount of toppings, yet not so much that the crust was overwhelmed, and was crispy and charred on the undercarriage, a cross between my beloved New Haven pizza and the soft Manhattan slices, and were cut into four pieces. Personally, I found these a hair too large and deceptively filling, but hearty and rustic to behold.
We ate all of these with Birra Moretti, an Italian pale lager dating back to 1859. For me, an ever-ambivalent beer taster, this was a fantastic choice to pair with our pizzas. It transitioned seamlessly from the smoky pizza to the sweet, rich panuozzo, with a strong, forward flavor and a clean finish. And with that, I have exhausted my knowledge and capacity to describe beer.
Of these two pizzas, we were smitten with the Arechi, with its host of comforting, autumnal flavors. I was initially afraid that this would be a drier pizza with chunks of cheese and pieces of squash scattered haphazardly, but the comingling of flavors was so much more complex than that. Acting in lieu of sauce, the squash was pureed on top, absorbing a dual layer of charred smokiness from the natural smoke in the cheese and the crispy crust below, with rich natural sugars from the vegetable and a sweet, underlying smokiness. The cheese provided even more meaty flavor, with a creamy texture and stringy consistency. Speaking as a self-proclaimed meatatarian, I’d give up pepperoni for this any day of the week. It executed the perfect combination of flavors typically associated with the season of fall and left a lingering, sweet flavor in the mouth long after each bite.
Our second pizza was a more classic favorite, sausage and broccoli rabe. Compared to the slew of flavors represented in the Arechi, this was a more understated and seemed to lack the delicate balance of proportions of the former. The homemade mozzarella was an absolute joy to eat, with a creamy, firm texture and a slight salinity. This was a good pizza, but didn’t strike me as artful as the first. There were a few textural components that didn’t seem to work as well with the crisp crust- the broccoli rabe was plentiful, yet exuded a significant amount of moisture that soaked through the crust. The sausage was also tender, yet moist, which contributed to the somewhat slippery nature of the slices. The flavor was tasty, with the earthy, bitter greens cutting through the spices in the sausage, but was subdued overall, and left us longing for a small shake of red pepper flakes or a few slices of hot pepperocini to remove some of the flatness.
We also had the pleasure to sample one of San Matteo’s flagship entrees, a pork panuozzo. The panuozzo is a sandwich native to the town of Gragnano, near Napoli, and is a beautifully executed cross between a plump panino and a calzone, made from a loaf of fresh pizza dough quickly baked in their pizza oven, whisked out immediately after cooking, and stuffed with fresh toppings. Ours included house-roasted pork, more homemade mozzarella, and arugula microgreens.
This is no ordinary sandwich. For starters, it weighs about three pounds and contains roughly four regular sandwiches’ worth of filling. The pork slices are massive and put Boar’s Head to shame, with a thick, tender middle and addictively crispy strings of skin curling around the outside of each piece. The tender greens added an element of crispy bitterness to the sandwich and the mozzarella bound the entire sandwich together around the crispy, fluffy sandwich dough. What a phenomenal thing to eat. We each finished one of the four slices and took the rest home. Speaking from the point of view of the person who ate the remaining two slices for both lunch and dinner yesterday, this panuozzo got better each time I bit into a thick, savory slice. If I had my druthers and my stocks tied up in Hathaway A, I’d have one of these shipped in every day for lunch.
We ended our meal with two fresh cheeses imported from Italy and a delicious espresso. Fabio, who also works as an Italian foods importer, assured us that these cheeses, a fresh ricotta and burrata, were as fresh as we could get. Nobody doubted him. The burrata released a creamy midsection out of a firm outer shell of chewy cheese with a salty, creamy flavor and a tender consistency. The ricotta stole the show, though, molded and densely packed into an upright shape far different from its wet, calzone-filled counterpart. This ricotta was our favorite, and with its light, crumbly texture, made a tempting proposition as a stand-alone meal spread atop our pizza crusts. After, we were simply too full to partake in any additional confection, but if a treat had been offered with this ricotta as a key component, I would have found some room in my stomach.
With a traditional espresso bidding us farewell into the balmy night, we left San Matteo Panuozzo with full stomachs and beaming smiles, dreaming of the leftovers of the present and dinners of the future. Again, I know I’m not the be all, end all word on New York pizza, but trust me on this one, this is the place to go when you want to feel like you’re eating in a gentler, kinder city. It doesn’t get friendlier or more intimate than this.

California Pizza Kitchen Limited Edition Chicken and Bacon Ranch

Ah, legal loopholes. That simple twist of the tongue that leads to so many Homer Simpson “d’oh!” moments during checkout at the grocery store. Personal favorites include chocolate flavored, Chick’n, and as we’ve seen with the Taco Bell Chicken Bacon Ranch flatbread, “baconranch” the ex dolo malo of the food world, hated by all and loved by the toothless. When I brought this pizza home, I slapped my forehead in disgust, worrying that when I opened the box, I’d see a smattering of bacon-flavored ranch sauce covered with anemic tomatoes and little else. I sometimes feel like the abused child of the CPK industry. I’ve been burnt too many times.
This time was different, though. I can’t say that CPK will stay this good, but this time, they were pretty decent. Much like my inherent weakness for small succulent plants, roadside tacos, and tight pants, I feel the compulsive need to purchase every single new pizza they’ve put out, despite their failure time and time again. Then again, it could be because they keep slapping “limited edition” on all their freaking pizzas. Not this time, Roasted 15 Veggie. Not this time.
I liked this pizza. It seemed as though with every misconception I had about this came a rebuttal of the finest form that blew my argument right out of the water. There will be no bacon! Oh, wait, actually, there’s a metric asston (not to be confused with the hogshead) of bacon and it’s all ground up and crispy and delicious. Oh. Okay, well, the tomatoes will suck? Mmm, wrong again, they’re actually pretty juicy, some are yellow, and they’re cut up in small enough pieces to get a bunch in every bite.
This was the point in the consumption where I furrowed my brow. Might I have actually gone out and purchased a pizza from a store and tried to trick myself using magical thinking to pretend this was from CPK? But the box was in the trash. It’s not like this was a perfect, magical pizza. The crust was, as always damningly thin and crispy, but worked better with this combination of flavors than it had in the past. It created a crisped open-faced panini effect on the pie and lent itself to sandwiching quite well. The main drawback with this was that it was incredibly salty, no doubt aided in part by the gluey ranch sauce adhering its components together. Thankfully, the chicken wasn’t seasoned and was strangely quiet throughout the entire lunch. I don’t think I’ve ever had a prepackaged food item, pizza or otherwise, where the amount of bacon outweighed the amount of other proteins. It was strange. And yet, so epic.
But damn it, CPK, your website still looks like a Geocities reject. Why is that? Y U no change that? And so upsettingly sparse in places. I want wine recommendations for my chicken bacon ranchathon, please.

Domino’s Artisan Pizza Italian Sausage and Pepper Trio

I’m a snob. There, I said it. The hard part is over and this post can commence like a meeting of AA with better coffee and no clothes. I’m a big ol’ snob and I kind of resent the ironic tone of the Domino’s ads and pizza box. “We’re not artisans,” it begins, as if one ordered Domino’s to experience the full throttle perfection of a New Haven or Chicago pie to begin with but just got frustrated with the lack of computer systems and cute boxes. “We don’t wear black berets, cook with wood-fired ovens, or apprentice with the masters in Italy.” Nor do we trim our plush, black moustaches or refrain from using tried stereotypes, but whatever. I can deal. This is all below a line for your proud pizza parent to sign after its conception. Oy. With this strange marketing concept, eaters start with the knowledge that Domino’s, like your single neighbor Chuck and his closet full of lingerie, is desperately trying to casually deny an identity it secretly desires.

But seeing as I’m a fan of all things admittedly artisanal or not, I still wanted to eat one of these. I had neither the cash nor the hunger to order three of these, but did go out on a limb and order the Italian Sausage and Pepper Trio one night. At $7.99, I’m not sold on the price. Maybe because there’s a pizza joint nearby that offers a freshly made slice with two toppings roughly the size of an infant for $3, or maybe because I’m wondering if this is a result of the artisan tagline. It’s basically their regular pizza in a different shape. I built a medium pizza with the same toppings for an annoying $13.34, so while this is more cost effective, it just doesn’t scream artisanal. It would have served two people if we’d enjoyed it, I’m sure. That being said, we did not.
Opening the box, which was unsigned by our embarrassed pizziolo, the pizza was fragrant and thankfully, not dripping with greasy sausage remnants. The whole “tough guy” artisan persona seeps into the ordering system- an eater can take off toppings, but not add anything additional. This pizza came with a red sauce base, parmesan-asiago blend, Italian sausage slices, and green, red, and yellow roasted peppers. It smelled excellent and appeared to have generous toppings. But from the get-go, it was clear that not all the slices were born to be equally delicious.
The bad.
The ugly.
It was incredibly annoying to have the fact that these were carefully hand-made drummed into our heads and yet still find pieces that were half crust with two measly pieces of sausage and no cheese. I understand that a little human error is expected when you employ bored college kids to goof around and make pizzas, but we couldn’t eat half of that piece because of all the crust.
The sausage was moist, but the tempting fennel and spice aromas were overwhelmed by the fatty, salty flavor. This was pretty one-noted, and needed some spice. If I could make a replacement to this pizza without fearing the wrath of the artisan pizza bros, it would be the addition of a spicier sauce, red pepper flakes, and replacing the banana peppers, slippery, vinegary pieces better suited to a deli sandwich, with roasted jalapeno pieces. The roasted green and red peppers complimented the sausage in a nostalgic way for me, as my family used to get wonderful sausage and pepper pies at a pizzeria near my grandmother’s, but the banana peppers were just a sharp and cloying annoyance. I ended up picking them off.
Ironically, if Domino’s enforced the artisanal approach instead of making fun of it, I think they could have a good pie. The topping choices are decent, if uninspired, and the square party pizza style slices are easy to share and portion. I think it’s snooty to not allow any substitutions or changes to a reasonable extent, and somewhat of a cop-out to use existing toppings from their repertoire. Instead of not allowing the customers to substitute toppings, how about having toppings exclusive to the artisan pizzas? Marinated eggplant, sundried tomatoes, fried egg, fresh mozzarella or goat cheese and red potato come to mind as things I’d definitely be interested in ordering from Domino’s simply because it would be different. By shedding the artisanal values and ingenuity, they stunt themselves in appealing to the every-man. Domino’s is an average, mass-produced pizza company. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if they want to step outside of the box, their customers should be pleased and surprised by the deviation from their norm.