Saturday, April 28, 2012

New Haven Pizza Wars - Modern

My fourth and final battle of the New Haven Pizza Wars took place the other day at Modern Apizza, which I choose for a few reasons: it has some pretty stellar Yelp reviews, a handful of people I've met in New Haven mentioned it in their list of apizzarias to hit up ("oh, you gotta go to Sally's, definitely Moderne, Pepe's too..."), and it's not nestled within the much-hyped Wooster Square area that's home to my now-familiar apizza haunts. It was time to branch out from the usual.

By this point I knew the drill - arrive early on a weekday, marvel at the amount of people who already have giant pizzas on their tables, grab the first booth I can find, order myself a small mozzarella-and-mushroom-pie.

I first noticed how extremely nice and speedy the waitstaff was. While the folks at the other three restaurants weren't not nice, they were pretty blasé about the whole serving thing, and I definitely waited quite a while for things like water, food, and my check. At Modern, I was greeted immediately upon sitting down, given water mere seconds after that, and though the restaurant was almost completely full by the time I place my order (New Havenites really like their apizza), my lunch arrived just 9 minutes later.

It wasn't the most photogenic of apizzas. And at first sight, I wasn't too impressed - the cheese was an odd, pale color, I was uninspired by the mushrooms, and as I had since come to expect, burnt sections dotted the edges.

It was, however, pretty tasty. Ample amounts of cheese covered the crust - so much more than I'm now used to that I realized just how much cheese actually goes on a pizza (versus an apizza). Under my old Chicago-style circumstances, I would never had thought this was a lot of cheese.  The sauce was sweet, the crust had a nice crunch to it, and I was delighted to discover what I thought were completely burnt parts were instead just tastefully blackened. The mushrooms, though, were definitely out of a can.

With tax and tip, it cost $12.50, and I was happy to eat the leftovers for lunch breakfast the next day.

Stay tuned for next week, when I wrap up the war correspondence and determine, once and for all, who makes the best apizza in New Haven.

Want to read the previous Pizza War entries? Here's where I talk about Abate'sPepe's, and Sally's

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Nutella S'mores Mini Pies

While walking around downtown New Haven the other night, I caught a whiff of something I don't normally get to smell - a campfire. Maybe it was just someone burning some leaves in a nearby backyard (I think that's legal in CT), but nevertheless, normally all I smell around New York is garbage or the occasional hot nuts stand. I breathed in that evocative scent of a freshly lit wood-burning fire and was immediately transported back to summer days spent camping in Wisconsin and Northern Michigan, gathering around the fire with my friends, cooking up hot dogs and eating s'mores.

Which got me thinking, "Wow, how long has it been since I've had a s'more?"

To which I answered, "Well, there was that misguided experiment involving leftover Christmas candy and my microwave last January, but that didn't really count."

And then I realized that I was talking to myself while enthusiastically sniffing the air and that even the bums were starting to give me a weird look, so I quickly walked on.

The next day, I combined my great culinary skills with memories of summer, and made these.

6 mini graham cracker crust pie shells
8 oz. Philadelphia Cream Cheese
2 tbsp heavy cream
1/2 cup Nutella hazelnut spread
Marshmallow Fluff, for decoration

How to

In a large bowl, mix together the cream cheese, heavy cream and Nutella until smooth.

Spoon the mixture into each pie shell and refrigerate for about 30 minutes. This will make it easier for you to add the marshmallow topping.

When you're ready to decorate the pies, spread and dollop the Fluff in fun patterns.

Some things I discovered about working with Marshmallow Fluff:
   - It's a feisty condiment, and takes some encouraging to get it to do what you want it to do
   - If your fluff is too stiff to work with, put the entire jar in the microwave for about 10 seconds. This should make it maleable enough to work with for a while. If it starts to re-harden, warm it up again.
   - Disposable applicators are your friends - I used wooden chopsticks and a plastic fork to decorate my pies, because I had no desire to try to scrape fluff off of my silverware.

*Normally, I'd have a few more pictures of the pies. But right after getting the second close-up photo, my phone face-planted itself in the spiral pie. I then learned that of all the things you don't want your phone to be covered in, Marshmallow Fluff is pretty much #1. Luckily, I had invested in one of those plastic screen protectors and my phone is hearty and survived the fall, unscathed. But if you can help it, you should probably keep your phone away from all things Fluff. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Like most others, the demands of my job ebb and flow with complete irregularity. Sometimes I have hours upon hours to bake pies and eat pies and surround myself with all things pie. Other weeks, I actually have to go to work. This is one of those weeks.

On that note, I leave you with a picture of a delightfully yellow flower bed I discovered the other day - happy spring!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

New Haven Pizza Wars - Sally's

The following is an almost accurate transcription of the notes I took during the third and most fateful battle of the New Haven Pizza Wars.

Date: Sunday, April 15, 2012

Location: Sally's Apizza, New Haven, CT.

4:01pm - I begin the walk from my apartment to Sally's. My sources tell me this is the hardest of all apizzas to obtain, for the restaurant is only open six days a week, five hours a day (Tues-Sun, 5-10pm). This is parallel to almost all my work hours here in New Haven, so I have one chance, and one chance only to catch the elusive pie.

4:15pm - I arrive at Sally's. It's dark inside. No activity is spotted in the immediate area. In contrast, the line outside of Pepe's is nearing 20-deep. I question the "get here early" advice found on both Yelp and Sally's website, shrug, and walk around the neighborhood.

4:19pm - I find a nearby park playing host to the Wooster Square Cherry Blossom Festival. My allergies flare up. I stop to pet some dachshunds. This brightens my day.

4:27pm - I remember why I'm in the area in the first place and head back to Sally's.

4:33pm - In the 18 minutes I spent listening to someone from the New Haven Historical Society tell me about their cherry blossoms, people started lining up for pizza. I am now the 8th person in line.

4:37pm - 5 more people get in line

4:41pm - It starts drizzling. Not a heavy rain, but enough for me to notice that Sally's does not have an awning.

4:49pm - I put away the book I've been reading to occupy my wait in line because it's drizzling harder and I realize it's too hard to hold an umbrella and a hardcover book at the same time.

4:53pm - 18 people in line, and not a lot of them have umbrellas.

4:55pm - On his walk past Sally's, a gentleman from the neighborhood stops near the front of the line and loudly proclaims, "I can name three things better than Sally's: my mom, my wife, and my daughter!" He continues walking.

4:57pm - The group in front of me are passing the time by fondly recalling past Sally's visits ("Oh, I got mozzarella on mine once...oo yeah, you gotta get the mooz...and the clam pie, I had that once...oh yeah, you gotta get the clams...")

4:59pm - The group behind me notices that there's one minute left. "I am starving!" the lady calls out.

5:01pm - My stomach starts growling.

5:03pm - A cop and his brunette lady-friend walk past the line, into the restaurant, and get seated. 25 people in line now have mixed expressions of annoyance, respect, jealousy and awe.

5:07pm - There are now two lines - those of us waiting for a table, and a gaggle of locals watching those of us in line. The air is a mixture of excitement, hunger and humidity, and I feel like that time I spent 105 minutes waiting in line for a turn on Superman - The Ride at Great America and right before I got buckled in, I had this immense fear that it wasn't going to as good as those 2 hours of waiting had built it up to be.

5:08pm - Fluorescent lights go on, the door opens and...the groups of people who have been watching us are let in. Apparently they made reservations. "So much for being the first in line," says the guy at the (former) front of the line.

5:10pm - I enter the hallowed doorway. There is a brief reshuffling of seats when I tell the waiter "Just one...nope, only me, I'm by myself" and he moves two people from a really small table to a booth so I can be seated at the really small table.

5:13pm - Sally starts working the room, greeting guests and hugging old friends. She's wearing a flowery blouse I'm pretty sure my grandmother once owned, an orange and yellow apron with 50-year old grease stains, and bifocals with the longest and most garishly beaded chain I've ever seen. She's adorable. I'm enchanted.

5:16pm - The waiter takes my order.

5:19pm - I notice the enthusiastic gentleman from outside laughing with Sally and others near the kitchen. It turns out he's an old friend of the establishment, not a crazy person as I had originally thought.

5:28pm - I get antsy and start taking still life's.

5:44pm - My apizza arrives.

5:47pm - It's not's ok, but it doesn't really taste like...anything? That can't be right.

5:49pm - I eat. I think. What makes this so different from not just all the (regular) pizza slices I've eaten, but the other two apizzas I've had?

5:51pm - Enlightenment. I get it. I get the point of an apizza - it's the perfect blend of the crust, sauce, and toppings - so that no one component outshines the others. Most other pizza's have a theme - Meat Lover's Pizza. Four-cheese. Hot-dog-in-crust. But a Sally's apizza isn't that at all. It doesn't have to showcase one ingredient over another, because it's created so everything fuses together. You don't really taste the sauce, the crust isn't that noticeable, the cheese doesn't come out and scream, "hey! I'm cheese!!" Instead, what you taste is the harmonic combination of it all - and it tastes good.

5:56pm - I get the check. My small mozzarella and mushroom cost around $8, but I ordered a ginger ale as well. With tax and tip, $12 total.

6pm - I'm out the door, giving my table to the next lucky customer.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

New Haven Pizza Wars - Pepe's

Reasons I think I'm qualified to eat and critique pizza pies:

* I was born and raised in Chicago, home of the gooey, cheesey delicious monstrosity known as the Deep Dish Pizza
* I have spent the better part of the last decade as a waitress in various sports bars and mid-scale (but with cloth napkins!) restaurants, so I know my way around a table setting
* One of those waitressing jobs was in my uncle's (now cousin's) pizza joint The Pizza Factory of Barrington. It was an immersion into the wild and wonderful world of pizza making, and I actually got good enough to just "know" when the slice was heated to perfection and ready to come out of the oven.
* I'm an American, dammit, and I have opinions, and if I self-publish any of them, they become official.

That being said, I ventured out of my apartment the other day to find and eat the second of my New Haven Pizza War's pie - Pepe's Pizza, home of the original New Haven apizza. Founded in 1925 by Frank Pepe, this apizza set the standard by which all other apizzas were to be baked. As is customary, ordering a "plain" will get you fresh tomato sauce, some grated cheese, olive oil, garlic, oregano, and not much else. Mozzarella is considered a topping.

I arrived at Pepe's around 11:45am on a Wednesday morning. Yes, that's early for pizza. That's actually too early for anything besides a bagel or maybe a breakfast sandwich, but here's the thing - Pepe's opens at 11:30am each day, but when I arrived just 15 minutes after the doors opened, the place was already half full. I had heard that waiting up to an hour for a table is common, regardless of the time or day of the week. I'm a busy person and had no desire to wait that long for a slice of pizza, so I arrived much earlier than I normally would have for a mid-week lunch.

Most of the patrons were elderly couples with only a few young families and solo business lunchers dotting the diner-like booths, which allows me to believe that this isn't just a tourist trap - people have been coming here for apizza for years. Maybe this wouldn't be quite the case on a Friday night in the summer, but I actually have no intention of seeing what that's like.

I luckily found a table right away and it wasn't too long before the waiter approached. I inquired of the difference between a tomato pizza with cheese and a margherita pizza, and was told that the margherita is made with fresh mozzarella, while everyday (processed) cheese is used on all the rest. Great! I ordered a margherita with mushrooms...and was told I couldn't alter the margherita pizza. Ok, fine, so instead I ordered the tomato pizza with mozzarella and mushrooms (I like mushrooms, and decided right then and there that if I was doing a true cross-pizza comparison, I should keep my toppings consistant).

Not gonna lie - I had high expectations for Pepe's. It's "the" pizza place in New Haven, a bunch of people told me I absolutely had to go there, and after finding a really good pizza at last week's restaurant, I was expecting nothing short of cullinary gold. And when I finally bit into the wasn't good.

I don't want to bash the place too much. It is, after all, one of New Haven's most-loved restaurants. And it's very possible I caught them on an off day. Or maybe they bring in their B-Team on Wednesday mornings. But in no particular order, here is how an 87-year-old pizzeria screwed up my lunch:
   - The sauce - bland. I'm pretty sure it had no spices whatsoever, and I like a sweeter sauce with a bit of a bite.
   - The cheese - meh. And VERY oily. There were pools of grease atop the pizza, so many that I had to blot each slice like I did back in high school when it was pizza day and I was concerned about fitting into my Winter Dance dress.
   - The crust - awful. It was doughy cardboard for the first half of the slice, but then switched to crisp cardboard for the latter half.
   - Large swaths of the cheese and crust were burnt. I'm all for a coal-oven cooking method, but I think someone in the kitchen forgot to take my pizza out on time.
   - Mushrooms - there could have been more. And I guess they were fresh, but I was too busy gnawing at the crust to really notice.

And I was one of the first customers of the day! Maybe the ovens were still working their way to regulation temperatures, maybe the chefs were still warming and/or waking up, but still. I ate three pieces because I was hungry, but didn't enjoy any of them. I took the rest to go in hopes that it would make for some good cold pizza - on the contrary, I think it got worse in the fridge.

Ho hum. You win some, you lose some. I suppose that at $12 (pizza, tax, and tip) it wasn't a huge monetary loss. And I did eat the rest of the leftovers over the next few days (it was bad, not inedible. And I don't believe in wasting food). But here's hoping my the next New Haven apizza I order doesn't leave me seriously considering a permanent relocation back to Chicago.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In search of whoopie pies.

I drove up to Maine over Easter weekend. Other than a few long drives on I-80 over the past few years and a wonderful 12 hours I spent wandering around Venice in late 2005, I have never gone somewhere new completely by myself. A last minute four-day holiday weekend and some really cheap rates on a Hertz car were all I needed to get me off the computer and on the road to my first attempt at solo travel.

That, and I had whoopie pies to find.

While there is some debate as to where the whoopie pie actually originated (some say Maine, some say Lancaster County, PA, and still others believe the town of Roxbury, Massachusetts gave birth to the dessert), it is a cold hard fact that the whoopie pie is the official state treat of Maine.

I got to Maine around 5ish on Saturday evening, and after a brief walk on York Beach, I settled in for a tall beer, a warm cup of clam chowder, and the aural pleasure of listening to the fantastic locals' accents at the hotel bar. I considered trying a slice of the blueberry pie that was offered on the menu, but after the beer and soup (and let's be honest: I may have eaten an entire bag of Chex-Mix on the drive up) I was stuffed.

Really, who can think of pie when you have a view like this?

Well-rested after a night of doing absolutely nothing and loving it, I set out into town to find some whoopie pie.

Unfortunately, it was April, and the town was all but completely closed.

Being a New Yorker, I tend to forget that some cities have "off-seasons" in which important things like stores and restaurants and pie shops close for the winter.

Nevertheless, I still managed to catch a glimpse of the country's first lighthouse.

After the Nubbe Lighthouse, I headed north to Ogunquit and the beaches that surrond it.

Just as in York, I found a would-be-charming-and-full-of-pie-had-it-not-been-April little town.

Now I was running out of time. It was after 1pm, and I wanted to be back in New Haven before it got dark (I'm not a big fan of driving at night...yes, I'm old.) I had just enough time to hit one more town on Route 1, but if they were sans-pie as well, I'd be out of luck. So with one last look at the beaches, I put my nose to the grindstone and focused on the pie at hand.

I realize at this point in my story, you're probably thinking "jeeze, Mary, the Internet probably could have helped you in your pie search, didn't you do any research before heading to Maine?!"

The answer is a.) you're right and b.) no, I did not.

I spend my days planning and scheduling other people's crazy lives, and I wanted 24 hours without pre-planning, without sticking to a schedule, without having to stay ten minutes ahead of everyone else.

So I threw caution to the wind and let the fates decide my future. In an existential haze, I headed to Kennebunkport. After declaring this the Fourth Most Fun Town Name To Say (#3 Keokuk.  #2 Sheboygan. #1 Cucamonga) I delighted upon this sign:

Though it looked exactly like Ms. Halpin's 2nd-grade classroom bulletin board, it contained all I needed to know. It belonged to the side wall of H.B. Provisions general store, and was indeed selling whoopie pies.

I hadn't intended to start a trend of buying pies at small-town general stores, but after the success(?) of Santa Fe's Frito Pie, I knew I had to keep on going.

The inside of the the store (like all general stores, I'm beginning to learn) wasn't great. But there were a handful of people sitting at tables and happily consuming food purchased from the store, so that was a good sign. I went over to the deli counter and was a little dismayed to see lots of fresh and expensive lobster rolls, but only a small table of pre-wrapped whoopie pies. I ordered a cup of coffee, grabbed a pie, and headed to a table.

There's not much to a whoopie pie. 2 cake-like rounds with creamy filling sandwiched inside. It's basically as if you took the bottom of a cupcake and put it on the top. Which isn't a bad idea, it's just not...quite...a pie.

Here's the thing. I started this blog because I like pie. If I liked cake, I probably would have started writing about cake. But I don't like cake. I like pie. And while the whoopie pie was well made with moist cake and fluffly filling, it just so happened to be comprised of two things I'm not very fond of. And, it was absolutely gigantic. I had about three bites and was stuffed, regardless of my affinity for the snack.

It's possible that I committed some sort of New England sin, but I threw out the rest of my whoopie pie. Had I a friend with me, we would have split it. But I did not, and I also didn't want to find out how well an unwrapped whoopie pie travelled across state lines in a rental car.

Oh well. Until the next small-town general store.

Monday, April 9, 2012

DIY - Extracts!

While traveling through Denver last month, I was able to make a stop at the fantastic Savory Spice Shop, a little store with a huge selection of delicious and hard-to-find herbs, spices and seasonings.

Savory Spice Shop - Denver, CO

The store sells in bulk, which means that things come cheap. For example, I bought 3 whole Madagascan Vanilla Beans for $5. Whole Foods sells one bean for over $10. My entire purchase (3 different herbs, 2 spices, the 3 vanilla beans and 5 cinnamon sticks) rang in at just over $20.

One of the many knowledgeable staff members 

One of my big plans for everything I bought was to make my own extracts. Waaayyy cheaper than buying pre-made pure extracts and really easy to do, making your own extracts is a fun project for any chef or baker, and they make a great gift - a soon-to-be-married friend invited me over for tea this past weekend, and I gave her and her foodie fiance a set of the extracts as a house-warming/sorry-I-missed-your-bridal-shower-present.

Dried herbs - I used lavender, rose petals, and hibiscus flowers
Cinnamon sticks
Whole vanilla beans
Glass jars (with lids)
Vodka - bottom shelf vodka is fine. Buy a handle of Fleischmann's, give a toast to your college years, and call it a day.
**There is no set measurements for the above ingredients - it depends on how big your jars are. A good rule of thumb is to use a 3:1 ratio - about 3 parts vodka for every one part of the herb you're extracting.

These used to be hotel-room service condiment jars

How to
For the vanilla extract:

Using a sharp knife, cut a slit down the center of the bean. Leave the ends in tact (kind of like you would pierce a hot dog before putting it in the microwave).

Leave all the other ingredients in tact. Depending on the size of your jar, you might have to bend the vanilla bean or snap the cinnamon stick in half, but keep the herbs as whole as you can.

Fill the bottoms of the each jar with one ingredient each (although if you get creative, feel free to experiment with your own blends and mixes. I didn't combine any of my herbs, but maybe that'll be my next extract project!).

Pour vodka into the jars, filling them to the top. Cap tightly, shake for good measure, and store in a cool, dark place. Shake the ingredients around every few days, but you can pretty much leave them alone. It takes about seven weeks for the vodka to turn into usable extract, so you'll have to wait a little while before you can incorporate this into your cooking. But think of all the recipes you can find and plan out while you wait!

I made a set for myself using the smaller condiment jars, but I found spice jars at Ikea that fit beautifully into one of their small metal baskets (or maybe the good folks at Ikea intended for that to happen. I can never figure that place out). They were the perfect present size, so I added a hand-written label and a little bow, and delivered it with a smile.

Monday, April 2, 2012

New Haven Pizza Wars - Abate's

I am spending the month of April living in the delightfully collegiate town of New Haven, CT, which means a few things:
   1.) I am soaking up so many Yale brain waves that my intellect has increased tenfold. I am sure to go back to my standard level of thought-processing the second I cross back into New York.
   2.) Due to archaic liquor sale laws, the state of Connecticut does not sell alcohol on Sundays. Therefore, I have to remember to purchase on Saturday all the alcohol I think I'll want to drink on Sunday. This is harder than it seems.
   3.) I will be writing about the phenomenon know as the New Haven Pizza Wars, because this is a blog about pie, and after a good mixed berry, there's nothing quite like a slice of pizza pie. That, and New Haven is decidedly not known for their dessert pies.

According to this Wikipedia article, the Neapolitan-style pizza found in New Haven is known locally as apizza. It is characterized by a thin, crispy crust that is topped with tomato sauce, oregano, and a sprinkle of romano cheese, and baked in a brick or high-temperature oven. Mozzarella is considered to be a topping (if you order a "plain" pizza, don't expect it to come covered in cheese). The apizza dates back to the early 1920's, when a man named Frank Pepe started serving "tomato pies" at his shop on Wooster Street. Many others followed suit, and to this day the area serves as New Haven's "Little Italy" and is dotted with gelaterias, delis, and pizzerias.

This afternoon, I found myself on Wooster St. after a failed attempt to walk to Ikea (after living in New York City, I'm alway shocked to discover just how much of the rest of the country is NOT pedestrian-friendly). Disappointed in my lack of Sweedish meatballs, I decided to find out what this apizza buzz was really about and stopped in the first place I saw.

Abate's seems at first to be the annoying younger brother of the apizza dynasty. Whereas the other big-time players all opened their doors in the 1920's-1930's, Abate's wasn't born until 1992 but nevertheless totes itself as one of the main contenders. Having eaten my first bite of apizza only a few hours ago, I cannot compare Abate's with the others (spoiler's entirely probable that I'll try as many New Haven pizzas as possible and then declare a winner at the end of my time here...), but I CAN say that I was incredibly surprised and impressed with what I ordered.

Mozzarella and mushroom apizza from Abate's

First of all, this was the closest I've come in all of New England to eating a pizza that tastes like my beloved Chicago-style-thin-crust. Only the very center of the pie had a limp crust (as opposed to New York-style slices that you can literally fold in half), the rest was crispy and crunchy, and actually had traces of the cornmeal that's spread on the counter before rolling the dough. The sauce was sweet and tangy. The mushrooms were fresh. The cheese, though minimal, was tasty.

What impressed me most, though, was the crust. Anyone can spread sauce and cheese on some baked bread and call it a pizza. Not everyone can make a homemade crust in which you can actually see the striations of dough and taste traces of the cornmeal that's spread on the counter before it's rolled. I am a fan of such crusts.

This pizza also was pretty moderately priced - with tax and tip, the 12" mozzarella + one topping pizza cost $12 - and I brought half of it home for dinner. I'm pretty excited to try all the other apizza places that New Haven has to offer; if they taste anything like Abate's, I will certainly not go hungry in this city.