Saturday, January 25, 2014

Next Up - Rosati's Pizza Lunch Slices

We made a stop at Rosati's for a grab-and-go lunch slice.

I want to start by saying that I enjoy ordering a pizza from Rosati's.  I like the thin crust, and I think the flavor and quality stand up to a decent Chicago Pizza.

I want to continue by saying that this particular Rosati's does not sell their typical pizza as their lunch slices.  The crust is much thicker and is almost hard.  The slices we had may have been around (since they were grab-and-go), but probably not around long.  We were there before noon.  And this location is right next to an open-campus High School, meaning that volume is rarely a problem here.

Overall impression:  This location is a counter service take-out that bought the unit next door and retro-fitted it into a dining room.  Even so, we were just looking to take a to-go slice.  The people were friendly and efficient.  It was fairly basic, no frills, and just fine.  Score:  3 out of 5.

Crust:  I have enjoyed Roasti's crust in the past.  This was not what I enjoyed before.  It was thick and firm and had a cardboardy flavor.  The crust end was crispy and slightly reminiscent of a pastry crust - albeit one that might have been worked too hard resulting in a dense product.  The pizza was a belly bomb and it was because of the crust.  Score: 3 out of 10.

Cheese:  Had a decent flavor with a good grease ratio.  There wasn't much of it, however.  If the crust was thinner, it would have been just fine.  As it was, it was a bit slight.  Score:  3 out of 5.

Sauce:  I liked the flavor of the sauce just fine, even though it was a little sweeter than I typically like.  I give it a pass because the strong aroma of oregano helps blend the sauce flavor just right as I bite it.  Score: 4 out of 5.

Pepperoni:  The pepperoni was fairly mild with a slight metallic flavor.  Unremarkable.  Score: 2 out of 5.

Price/Value - They get high marks in this category.  It was just over $3 for a very large slice - probably a sixth of a large pizza.  Good value, and you walk away full, full, full.  Score:  5 out of 5.

All in all, I can't help but think that the lunch slices are designed for maximum appeal to the high schoolers taking their lunch off campus.  It is a great choice for mass consumption by teenagers anytime or older folks at bar time.  Yes, it would be a great bar time choice.

Overall score:  20 out of 35

Scorecard so far:

1.  Picasso's - 27 points
2.  Ian's on State - 26 points
3.  (tie) Falbo Brothers - 25 points
     (tie) La Fortuna - 25 points
5.  Pizza Pit Extreme - 21 points
6.  Rosati's - 20 points
7.  Costco - 19 points
8.  Pizza di Roma - 17 points
9.  Rocky Rococo - 14 points

Friday, November 15, 2013

Taste Test #8 - Picasso's Pizza

Let's take a moment to reflect on Chicago Pizza.

Over the past 20 years, pizza in Chicago has taken on a reputation of being all about a deep dish pie, with slices as heavy as lasagna.  Piled with cheese and overloaded with cardiac stopping toppings.

Well, it is true that there are several good restaurants and varieties that fit that description.  But I don't really see that as being real Chicago Pizza.

Those places are usually destination restaurants.  You go to Ginos East.  You go to Lou Malnati's.  You go to Giordanos.  They are fun, event restaurants where the server always delivers your pizza to the table with flexed forearms, full sized plates, and serves up the first piece to everybody.  But that's not the everyday pizza that you grab to take home to the game.

No, Chicago Pizza is much different from that.  The great thing about Chicago is that amazing pizza is located as far as the corner bar.  That's usually where you grab the pizza to take home.  (It helps that you can have a beer or two while you wait.)

True Chicago Pizza, in my opinion, is that thin, cracker-style crust, topped generously with items that create nice grease puddles on top.  And, it is always cut in squares.  Always.

I am reminded of this because today's taste test visits Picasso's Pizza, which has the closest Chicago Style Pizza in Madison.  It's not even the cracker thin crust and grease puddles that make it so (although those help).  No, it's the unmistakable aroma and hint of oregano in every bite.  It gives it a feel and a flavor that takes me back to my buddy John Hehl's house, where we'd walk to the corner bar and pick up the pizza before going back to watch the Bears play.

But we're not ranking pizza based on warm nostalgia, we're ranking it based on taste.

Overall Impression:  It's a nice neighborhood restaurant, converted over several years from being a takeout Chicago hot dog joint into a restaurant that puts out good food.  The service here is, well, serviceable.  They were busy with customers, but didn't acknowledge me until it was my turn.  I get it, but there's a recognition and eye contact missing - elements of the best customer service places around.  But, once they do make contact, they are generally friendly.  I was helped by Chadwick, who I know is the owner of the place.  In general, it's an average impression for the storefront restaurant.  Nothing bad,  nothing great.  Score: 3 out of 5

Crust:  Stands up for the type of pizza it is.  It's cracker-thin throughout.  It crisps apart on the edges when bit and the center is softer and chewy.  Even so, it hold up to the toppings, which were generous but not overboard.  Not a flimsy crust, despite its thin nature (see it's cross section in comparison to the cardboard it is sitting on).  Score:  8 out of 10

Cheese:  The cheese has a smooth quality with a buttery flavor.  It's very well spread throughout the pizza - check out how it hits the edges!  Score: 4 out of 5

Sauce:  Spread thin, but flavorful throughout.  Hints of garlic with a steady oregano seasoning to the tomato sauce.  Really great for this type of pizza.  Score:  5 out of 5

Pepperoni:  Modest in quantity, but fine in that respect.  The slices have just the right flavor, I think.  If you eat one on its own, it has a spicy snap.  But that spiciness nicely blends into the pizza so that it doesn't dominate as a flavor.  It works with the other ingredients quite well.  Score:  4 out of 5

Price/Value:  No slices here, so I had to order a pie.  Not that I'm complaining.  So, for a quick lunch it might be on the costly side, but there is a chance of leftovers!  Ah, who am I kidding?  The thinness of the crust keeps it from being too filling.  I paid $13.19 for a 14" pizza.  If this wasn't so good, I'd give it a lower score.  Score: 3 out of 5

Overall Score: 27 out of 35.  We have a new leader in the clubhouse!

Scorecard so far:

1.  Picasso's = 27 points
2.  Ian's on State = 26 points
3.  (tie) Falbo Brothers = 25 points
     (tie) La Fortuna = 25 points
4.  Pizza Pit Extreme = 21 points
5.  Costco = 19 points
6.  Pizza di Roma = 17 points
7.  Rocky Rococo = 14 points

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Warehouse Pizza - Costco

Once this exercise is done, there won't be a pizza stone unturned.

Today, we dip down into the world of mass produced warehouse food with a trip to the Costco Food Court.  I am confident that the Costco experience will be consistent across their stores, so you could probably apply this review to the Costco in your own town!

As you can see . . . a slice of Pepperoni is $1.99.  That's on the less-expensive side of what I have been eating, for sure.  IF the pizza slices were a comparable size.

This is a behemoth slice of 'za.  It's a two-hander as you carry it to the plastic picnic bench.  So, they are off to a good start.

Plus, the smell of this slice was amazing.  I was eager to eat it, with the distinctive Italian food aroma wafting up to me.  It smelled spicy.  It enticed me with the aural blend of spices. This just might be the best value yet.  Maybe.

The taste, well . . . it jumped down into the "serviceable" realm.  Not bad, but ... let's just walk through it.

Overall Impression:  Well, it's a bustling warehouse.  With efficient, but not special, service.  Counter jockey takes and fulfills my order.  That's actually fine with me.  But, you are sitting on smooth plastic benches under massive lights.  So, you don't go to Costco for the unique dining atmosphere.  Score: 1 out of 5.

Crust:  It featured a chewy crust that was the right size under the toppings and quite bready at the edges.  It was not bad, but not special. You will certainly get full if you eat it all, although you may elect to leave some of the crust edge behind unless you are famished and need a full belly for a while.  It gets extra points because it can hold the weight of the toppings pretty well.  Score: 5 out of 10

Cheese:  The quantity is fine, but the only word I could come up with was "unremarkable."  The score would go up if either the cheese seemed like a higher quality or you got a massive quantity.  They sell their pizzas as bake-at-home, too, and I'd probably add some flavorful mix to the pie before baking.  One interesting note - as I ate it, I felt like I was eating a greasy pizza, but my fingers and face weren't greasy at all.  Curious . . .
Score: 2 out of 5

Sauce:  Slightly bland.  Accessible for all.  Not the reason to buy the slice, but not a major detraction.  Score: 2 out of 5

Pepperoni:  There is a slightly smoky char flavor to the pepperoni slices, which is very nice.  I like the spiciness of what is the best feature of this pizza.  Score: 4 out of 5.

Price/Value:  Based on sheer weight alone (the photo of the pizza is on a full size plate, not an appetizer-sized plate), this is a winner.  $1.99 for mega-pounds of junk food?  Good deal.  The full pie is 18" and they get 6 slices out of it.  That's a big slice.  Score: 5 out of 5.

Overall score:  19 out of 35.  Yep.  If you happen to be in Costco and don't like Hot Dogs, this is an okay choice to get real full, real fast.  But you wouldn't seek it out. (Their Hot Dogs are the best deal in fast food - better than gas station deals!  $1.50 for a 1/4 pound+ Hot Dog and a 20oz refillable soda.  Crazy.)

Scorecard so far:

1.  Ian's on State = 26 points
2. (tie) Falbo Brothers = 25 points
    (tie) La Fortuna = 25 points
4.  Pizza Pit Extreme = 21 points
5.  Costco = 19 points
6.  Pizza di Roma = 17 points
7.  Rocky Rococo = 14 points

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Taste Test #6 - Pizza Pit . . . Extreme

Today we're stopping at the Pizza Extreme on Fish Hatchery Road.  Well, it used to be Pizza Extreme, but they merged with the local chain Pizza Pit a few years ago to become the Pizza Pit Extreme.  I was never a fan of the Pit, but always liked the Extreme.  This is my first try of the new hybrid pizza company.

Pizza Pit Extreme offers lunch specials for $4.99 as well as sandwiches, gyros, and other items.  Pizza by the slice is a big seller here, and when I walked in there were 4 thin pizza and 4 stuffed pizza varieties to chose from for slices.  In keeping with the comparisons, I went with the thin crust pepperoni.

Overall Impression:  The place is kind of a hole in the wall, which adds to the attraction for me.  As my cousin noted once, our family has a passion for meals wrapped in paper.  My pizza slice cost $2.37 with the tax, so it was a good value.  The styrofoam box wasn't all that heavy, though . . .  Score: 2 out of 5

Crust - The crust was interesting.  It works, I think.  It was a thin crust that had a compact quality where the toppings were but an airy quality at the edge.  This was a nice contrast which added to the experience.  I was disappointed (and took marks off) for the big crust bubble that grew near the edge.  A closer photo of my pizza bubble is included later in this post.  The pie wasn't topped well enough to keep the crust down, so it slid them away from where it rose while baking.  Score - 6 out of 10

Cheese - What was on the pizza was in the "fine" category.  spread a bit thin . . . thinner than I recall  from the old Pizza Extreme.  I'm suspecting that they kept the Pizza Pit recipe/method for the thin and the Extreme recipe/method for the stuffed.  Score - 2 out of 5

Sauce - The sauce was quite serviceable, with a good herbed tomato flavor.  It did have a slight sweetness, however, which held it back for me.  Still, in the category of average and good pizza sauce. This really must be the "Pit" sauce; Extreme was always more tangy.  Score - 3 out of 5

Pepperoni - They get high marks for this pepperoni.  Just what you want, a nice cured Italian flavor with a nice, crisp edge from the baking.  I liked this quite a bit.  Score - 4 out of 5

Price/Value - The price was just right, at $2.37 for the slice.  But it wouldn't fill up anyone but the smallest child, I think.  They do offer a deal for 2 slices plus a drink for $4.99.  That, also, is a good deal.  So, they get some good marks for pricing.  Score - 4 out of 5

Overall score - 21 out of a possible 35.  Fine for a quick lunch, but I wouldn't make a special trip to Madison to eat it.

It's worth noting that I plan to add the stuffed version to this review list.  I have full confidence that that slice will achieve a higher score than this one did.

Scorecard so far:

1.  Ian's on State = 26 points
2. (tie) Falbo Brothers = 25 points
    (tie) La Fortuna = 25 points
4.  Pizza Pit Extreme = 21 points
5.  Pizza di Roma = 17 points
6.  Rocky Rococo = 14 points

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

La Fortuna Makes the Taste Test List

Thanks to a reader of this blog, I was made aware of La Fortuna.  This company is a regular vendor at the Verona Farmers Market and also makes appearances at special events and parties.  I had some extra interest in an operation like this since my Uncle's friend Louie the Glove tried to make a go at selling Napoli-style, wood oven pizza out of a cart near campus a couple of years ago.  Unfortunately, Louie left town before I could try the product out, but it looks like I'll get my chance with an operation with a solid track record.

They have a nice tent set-up, with a screened order + prep area, a sliding window to pass out the assembled pizzas, and a brick oven on wheels that is firey and hot and ready to cook a pizza in 90 seconds.

They have a nice menu of choices, featuring unique and fresh ingredients.  All are classically Italian, and their cheese is mainly layered thin slices of provolone and parmesan.  The result is a thin, flavorful melted cheese with an aged quality.  It comes out of the oven sizzling and quickly settles as it cools.

In keeping with the tenets of this blog, I ordered the "Bavarian," which was billed as "The La Fortuna take on a classic pepperoni pizza."  It features Organic Tomato Sauce, Provolono & Parmesan cheeses, and Red wine salami.  The salami were cut thin and were of a modest size, for a salami.  It certainly is close enough in flavor and size to be considered pepperoni for comparison purposes.

The pizza was made, and it went into the oven for a short time.

I should say that the people on hand working at La Fortuna are terrific.  Skillful, friendly, engaging, and funny.  They interacted well with customers and kept a lively conversation going with everyone.  It was clear that they have customers who come to the Farmers Market specifically for their pizza, and people in line were eager to suggest their favorites to us.

The pizza came out sizzling with the cheese bubbling like lava.  It quickly subsided and was cut almost immediately.

The pizza was about the size of a paper plate.  It is a reasonable sized serving for one.  If you're hoping to share, I'd recommend getting as many pizzas as you have people and try out the other interesting combinations they sell.

Overall Impression:  This was a cool experience that really felt close to the community.  Everyone was happy, engaged, and truly proud of the food they were putting out.  Their signs suggest that they are focused on quality ingredients, and the end result supports that.  They make you want to come back.  Score: 5 out of 5.

Crust:  This was light and airy at the edge and thin in the middle.  They portion the toppings just right for what the crust can support.  It means that they understand how important the crust is, being the foundation of the pizza.  If there were more toppings, it would flop and sog.  Instead it holds up well.  It is a basic dough, with much of the flavor coming from the wood fire in the oven.  For my personal taste, there were a few too many large bubbles.  Yet, it worked.  The crust held up well in the center, and was easy to bite yet chewy at the edge.  Score: 7 out of 10.

Cheese:  The cheese was of high quality and thinly applied.  For the type of pizza it is, it works.  It had an aged and slightly pungent flavor that you'd expect from good cheeses.  It's hard to compare to others, though it's not my favorite.  I've always been a fan of buffalo mozzarella on this type of pizza, but I agree that La Fortuna made the best choice for the flavor combinations they are creating.  Score: 3 out of 5.

Sauce:  This was tomato sauce.  It had the slight tang that you would get in a freshly made sauce with a little sweetness from added ingredients.  It serviced the dish well, but was fairly thin.  Score: 3 out of 5.

Pepperoni:  This was nice, even though it was red wine salami and not pepperoni.  The super-hot oven gave the slices a nice crisp edge, yet it retained the chewiness you'd expect from salami.  As I noted before, the flavor profile is similar to pepperoni, so it can be fairly compared.  Score: 4 out of 5

Price/Value:  The pie was $7, but they were fresh ingredients made with pride. This is not the type of thing you can just get in any town.  Still, in comparison to some of the others . . . ahh . . . it's hard to say.  I believe that this is well priced.  Not a bargain, but not too expensive to put on your list once in a while.  Score: 3 out of 5.

Overall score for La Fortuna: 25 out of 35.  It's hard to compare La Fortuna with the other pizzas in this taste test because I'd put it in a completely different food group.  The blog is generally looking for that guilty pleasure, while the pies from La Fortuna make you feel glad you went there.  You feel good after eating them.

Scorecard so far
1.  Ian's on State = 26 points
2. (tie) Falbo Brothers = 25 points
    (tie) La Fortuna = 25 points
3.  Pizza di Roma = 17 points
4.  Rocky Rococo = 14 points

Friday, August 23, 2013

Pizza Time with Falbo Brothers

We're back on the Taste Test trail with a visit to Falbo Brothers on Park Street in Madison.  According to their website, they have 6 stores in Wisconsin, 4 in Iowa, and 1 in Colorado.

Like many pizza places, Falbo Bros offers lunchtime slices, so I grabbed a Pepperoni slice.  They had a tabletop display case with round shelves of various selections.  My slice had been prepared long before I arrived, so the pizza was not hot - not even close.  I won't mark them down very much for that as it was clearly made fresh and it's hard to predict how fast certain flavors and slices will go.

The piece itself was fairly thick, although I would not consider it deep dish.  The crust heel was built up at the edge, so this pizza is baked in a deep pan.  The resulting pie had a thin crust along the bottom.

Overall impression:  Despite it being on the cool side, I was impressed by the weight and appearance of the pizza.  Their restaurant on Park Street is more of a take-out counter, although there are 2 tables available if you choose to eat in.  Score: 2 out of 5.

Crust:  The crust was a cross between a traditional recipe and a Chicago-style crust.  What makes a crust "Chicago Style?"  Shortening, baby.  There was some sort of shortening or oil used in the crust, which adds weight and depth.  It wasn't quite like a pastry pie crust, but it had that kind of texture to it.  Score: 8 out of 10

Cheese:  Falbo Brothers piles it on - at least in the slice I got.  I was impressed that the cheese layer was slightly thicker than the crust beneath it.  Big bonus points for quantity.  It had cooled quite a bit, so it's hard to determine its quality when hot.  When only warm, however, it had nice flavor, a reasonable grease content, and served the pizza well.  Score: 4 out of 5

Sauce:  The sauce is salty with a tomato and oregano flavor.  I'm a fan of oregano on pizza.  It was a thin amount of sauce, which worked fine but was less than I would have chosen.  Still good.  Score: 3 out of 5.

Pepperoni:  Not special, but straight ahead pepperoni with good flavor.  Sliced thin.  If you looked up "pepperoni" in the dictionary, this is probably what they are talking about.  Score: 3 out of 5

Price/Value:  They charged me $2 for the piece.  Seriously.  It was a good price for a slice of this flavor and weight.  Score: 5 out of 5.

Overall score for Falbo Brothers: 25 out of a potential 35.  This is a worthy contender, and I was surprised.  I have happy memories of this largely because of the low price for what I got.  I'd do it again.

Scorecard so far
1.  Ian's on State = 26 points
2.  Falbo Brothers = 25 points
3.  Pizza di Roma = 17 points
4.  Rocky Rococo = 14 points

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Pizza Time #3 - Rocky Rococo's

So, have you ever looked at a fast food item and say "that doesn't look anything like the photo in the advertising?"  Well, I would say that Rocky Rococo consistently puts out fast food that looks as delicious as it's photographs.

The appearance is pleasing, as you anticipate the melty cheese and savory toppings piled upon a bountiful crust.  Yep, it looks good.
 But it's not quite as tasty as it looks, sad to say.

Rocky Rococo is a fast food pizza chain specializing in slices all day.  They do make whole pizzas, too, and are fun for a party.  Several locations have a modest, but nice, salad bar.  They also offer appetizers and a couple of pasta dishes (mainly spaghetti).  As far as quality pizza goes, it certainly compares to great pizza the same way a Whopper compares to a great hamburger.  Good for what it is, but would rarely win a contest.

Overall Impression:  I ordered a slice of Pepperoni, which took no wait whatsoever.  My food was on my tray before I paid!  This is a trade-off, because it means that my item was cooked and boxed up well before I arrived.  So, the temperature was moderate, not piping hot.  On the plus side, I was able to eat it right away.  The restaurant had ample seating, but it was basic fast-food booths and tables.  Nothing special.  It was "fine."  Score:  2 out of 5

Crust:  The crust is the main event, always.  But Rocky's takes this to the extreme.  If my pizza weighed 10 ounces, it meant that there was 9 ounces of dough.  This is a very bready pizza.  It's not bad in and of itself.  It has a slightly sweet flavor to the dough, similar to a good yeast roll.  But it was heavy and dense.  When you look at the pizza, you see a thick slice of deep dish.  But, being from Chicago, the "deep dish" part of deep dish for me is usually cheese and toppings.  Not bread.  Score: 3 out of 10.

Sauce:  The sauce has a mild sweetness flavored with oregano and garlic.  Not my favorite, but good if you like you sauce on the sweeter side.  Score: 2 out of 5

Cheese:  Barely there.  Stringy cheese, but not much of it.  Enough to look ample when you look at it.  Until you bite it and you see that it's mostly crust in the cross section.  The cheese is deceptive.  (Note:  I have had Rocky's plenty of times at multiple locations, so I know their typical product.  This was their typical product.) Results improve when you get more toppings on a Rockys pizza.  The toppings help the overall product, and cheese is not a "main" ingredient . . . just another of the toppings.  Score: 1 out of 5

Pepperoni:  Decent pepperoni with a little zest.  They describe it as "spicy pepperoni," although I wouldn't characterize it that way.  Still, it had good flavor and a bit of a crisp edge to it, which I like.  Score: 3 out of 5.

Price/Value:  This isn't bad, priced at $3.25 for a slice.  It's a heavy slice, and you certainly get full on Rocky's pizza.  But that's mainly because of the heavy crust.  I would recommend ordering a whole pizza be made up, for freshness sake.  If you order extra cheese, you'll probably be happy.  If you need people to get good and full, you won't go wrong.  Score: 3 out of 5.

One other "experience" note.  They serve it with a fork and knife, which you'll need if the pizza is super hot.  Since it wasn't, I was able to use my preferred method: hands.  But taking a bite straight from the pie can give your face that "greasy" feeling after each bite.  Take plenty of napkins.

Overall, it is what it is.  Which is not a bad thing, just be aware of what you're getting into!  Their overall score is 14 out of 35.

Overall Pizza Standings
1.  Ian's on State - 26 points
2.  Pizza Di Roma - 17 points
3.  Rocky Rococo's - 14 points