Pizza Party

October 29, 2012

If you’ve followed along on Facebook, I’ve been trying to share each of All Over Albany’s Tournament of Pizza 2012 posts as they hit live. It’s been a great privilege and lots of fun working with AOA and serving on the panel last year and this year. They can tell you, I’m pretty passionate about pizza (I always say it’s my gateway food; it is. The last 7 weeks have been hell on my fitness plan.), and I bring some practical knowledge about it. I know where to set my expectations. And, most importantly, I make sure judgements and any comments that I give provides information that is useful to a reader, and I take that part of it very seriously.

I always brought my own beverage, orange soda, and for the finals, I took it a step further.

This year, the brackets panned out very interestingly. I’m going to back up to the beginning of the tournament to tell the story from my perspective.

For the first round, four pizzerias from each region (Albany, Troy, Schenectady, and Saratoga) faced off in battle sausage. The minds behind the tournament tried to “fool the foodies,” as I put it, by sneaking chain pizzerias (Cici’s, Papa Johns, Dominos, and Pizza Hut, respectively) into the brackets. They also brought in the champions from each region from 2011, which relieved me a bit, because, without going into the details, it still doesn’t sit well with me the way the semi-finals and even the finals went down last year.

The sausage round this year was interesting. There was a wide spectrum of flavor and composition of the toppings from the 16 different places. Only one or two places used sliced, boiled Italian sausage, and I think that variation shows great character for the area. Everybody who likes their neighborhood pizzeria can usually say theirs does something unique, and the sausage round exemplified that.

To narrow it down further and determine winners in the regions, pizzas were ordered with veggies. My understanding is that green peppers, mushrooms, onions, and black olives were specified, but these are standards on the average veggie supreme. Hey. It’s probably the last thing I’d order on pizza, but at least it’s a standard menu option and something that I know is popular based on my talks with real-world pizzaiolos. I thought this round was appropriate because it was very clear which places were assembling their pizzas with care and which ones were being sloppy, and that usually reflected the tastes of the pies.

The peppers and onions on all of the pizzas were fresh, but the majority of the places used your standard canned black olives and substandard jarred sliced mushrooms. It makes sense that the jarred stuff would appeal to a pizzeria as they have a shelf life of more than the 30 minutes fresh sliced mushrooms have and can be very flavorful. Of the few places that gave fresh mushrooms, only DeFazio’s weren’t black, oxidized, and miserable, and actually were the component that I thought set theirs ahead of their competitor in that round.

I don’t remember the specific numbers, but I recall scoring the veggie pizzas very close in each of the regions. Because of the sog factor and the fact that it’s easy for peppers to overwhelm the other flavors, all scored more or less average and below average in my book.

The semi-finals was down to DeFazio’s (Troy) vs. Amore (Saratoga) and Mario’s (Niskayuna) vs. Marisa’s (Guilderland). Buffalo chicken was a great style to narrow this down. The first reason is that lots of people order that (if the people reading this stuff can’t get any information from it, the whole thing is useless), the other is that every place seems to do it differently. Some use tomato sauce as the base, some add blue cheese to the top, some use breaded chicken, some don’t, and the differences go on and on. For me, DeFazio’s dwarfed Amore because of its bold Buffalo sauce flavor and the blue cheese to balance it as well as tender and juicy chicken (and herbs). Marisa’s emerged ahead of Mario’s because the outstanding flavor of their crust held up great against all that was on top, and the chicken, albeit dry and probably over-applied, had some intense Buffalo sauce in addition to some tomato sauce on the base (that match-up was kind of close for me, though).

The finals was the showdown of DeFazio’s, the one place that consistently makes it all the way to the end but has never won (i.e. the Buffalo Bills of Capital Region Pizza), against Marisa’s, and they were each able to send whatever they wanted to try to win the competition this year. DeFazio’s sent their four cheese pizza (Gorgonzola Cheese, Mozzarella Cheese, Fontinella Cheese and Romano Cheese with Fresh Chopped Garlic and Spices) and fresh tomato slices. Marisa’s sent their pizza Rusticana (Italian proscuitto, roasted red peppers, asparagus, portobello mushrooms, mozzarella, basil, and garlic.). [Judges were not told what each place sent.]

For the finals, I thought it was necessary to elevate the drink selection, so I brought chinotto, a bitter orange soda that’s very popular to have with pizza and other foods in Italy and even in Brooklyn.

This round was really interesting for me. The first slice put in front of me was Marisa’s, and I actually thought it was DeFazio’s being cute again this year because of the asparagus and placement of everything. The second slice was given to me, and the gorgonzola force was strong.

Marisa’s pizza was beautiful. The ingredients were artfully arranged on top, and the flavors played nicely off of each other. Even the asparagus, which had me concerned, had a home on top of this, and the vibrancy and slight bitterness worked against the bright roasted red peppers. The roasted peppers also enhanced the sauce along with the garlic and proscuitto. The fresh mozzarella also had me concerned a little because fresh mozzarella did DeFazio’s in last year with some of the judges. On Marisa’s this year, the mozzarella kept some moisture, so even in transit, it was juicy; it left the crust a little gummy, but the flavor that their crust picks up in their oven helped keep everything balanced, even if the bottom wasn’t crisp to everyone’s liking.

DeFazio’s pizza wasn’t bad. I like an extra cheesy pizza from time to time. The tomatoes were more of a visual distraction than anything. They didn’t add anything, and they didn’t take anything away flavor-wise. It was a sea of cheese on top of a crust. The gorgonzola cheese was very overpowering, and there wasn’t anything there aside from crust to foil its pungent taste. The fontinella cheese made things a bit more muddled; it just helped to pool everything together and distribute the gorgonzola flavor; in contrast with last year, the cheese mixture actually traveled great, and was rich and luxurious even after the trip from Troy to Albany in a box. The sauce got lost in the mix.

In the end, Marisa’s came out on top, and it was deserved based on what each place sent. I joked after the semi-finals that DeFazio’s should send a Buffalo chicken pizza to take it this year; it’s the highest scoring pizza ever in the tournament. It’s kind of too bad they didn’t; that pizza would have easily topped Marisa’s Rusticana.

I think the actual winner is a bit of a moot point. DeFazio’s and Marisa’s make some of the best pizza in the area. That is a fact. For the past two years, both places have consistently come out ahead of all of their competition in six collective rounds. Outside of the tournament, I visited both over the course of the past year, and had some of the most delicious pizza I’ve ever had [see Marisa's Pizza Bianca Mediterraneo and DeFazio's Meat Lovers Whole Wheat Pizza.].

The beauty it is that there are two completely different styles of places here that you can count on. Marisa’s is a Brooklyn-style shop with slices on the counter and an extensive menu. DeFazio’s has the charm of Troy and is totally an institution; once you sit down inside and enjoy a pie hot from the wood-fired oven, you totally get it.

Both should be applauded for their performances in the tournament and, most importantly, for their dedication to high standards. Their pizzas are consistently good, and they’re both using high quality ingredients. These two things put them far ahead of many of the areas pizzerias. I hope that being showcased on AOA’s Tournament of Pizza brings them some more exposure and that people who normally don’t visit these places take the initiative to give them a try.

Go eat some pizza!

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