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Archive for the ‘Pizza’ Category

Basils Pizza Review, an Homage to Joe Szabo (Northfield, MN)

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40 years ago, it was called “Bill’s,” and it was in the same location.  Hasn’t changed much, same counter, same booths, now fairly worn, the faux leather brittle with age.  The home-spun murals of scenes of Italy on the walls are fading.

But would the pizza hold up?   Did we love it because it was great?  Or because at the time, it was the only show in town?

My sophomore roommate was a guy from Chicago named Joe Szabo.   Nice guy.  Talented artist.  Wanted to grow up to be a famous talented artist.  Hope he made it.

Most college roommates experience the “either / or” phenomena, meaning that it’s pretty normal that one roommate has some money, and the other doesn’t.  The cycle reverses on a regular basis.

In our dorm room, whoever had the money had the power to dictate toppings:  Joe always got ground beef and diced onion; for me it was Italian sausage and sliced green olives.    Neither of us minded the other’s selection.

There were a couple of great things about rooming with Joe.   He had a car.   And a very tasty morsel of a girlfriend.   In a college dorm room, it’s hard not to become somewhat “familiar” with everything that goes on and Sara was, well (swoon).

One night Joe let me use his car (unheard of) so he and Sara could have a special “moment”.  He flipped me a sawbuck, too, and said “go have a ‘za’, and take your time.

I started off down College Avenue, it was winter, there were patches of ice, I was very careful with Joe’s pride, a green Beetle.   I stopped at the RR crossing for a slow moving freight, minding my own business, anticipating the ‘za, when WHAM!  I got re-ended.   As you probably know, the Beetle has the engine in the back, so a whack can cause serious damage.

No one was hurt, someone summoned the police, who informed me the drunk driver who just plowed into my roommate’s car was “so and so’s son”, and there was never, ever anything going to come of it.

And nothing did.   I got a pizza all by myself, Joe and Sara had their special moment, and if Joe was ever pissed about the accident, he never let on.

So nearly 40 years later, I show up at Basil’s, order a medium of (my) sausage and green olive, and (Joe’s) ground beef and onion, to compare and contrast as it were, to see if this is great pizza, or just a glorified memory.

I did notice a couple things while the dude is making the pie, things that (for me) are critical for a good pie: 1) sliced cheese, not shredded, and 2) bulk sausage, pinched by hand, in nice sized pieces.

The old Baker’s Pride ovens had lost some oomph, it would take a full 15 minutes to bake, with the requisite occasional door opening, and paddle spin.

I took my hot pies back to my motel room.   I tried one, then the other.  Then the first, then the other.  They were superb. Great melted cheese that clings to the crust, a cracker like crust, a big of tang to the sauce, and quality toppings.

Could I eat two mediums all by myself?  Nah. But 40 years ago I could.

Basil's Pizza on Urbanspoon

 

Basils Pizza Review

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Mandia Ciboitaliano Frozen Pizza Review

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Mandia Ciboitaliano Frozen PizzaI’ve wondered aloud many times why US frozen pizza manufacturers can’t make a really great pie. I’ve had a few really good ones from smaller Chicago manufacturers, such as Vito & Nicks II, and Home Run Inn, but the big guys? Totinos? Red Baron? Tombstone?

Yechh.  Fortunately, several years ago, I “discovered” the frozen pizzas at Trader Joes, all of which are imported from France or Italy and are f***ing great. There’s the Olympiad, with feta and olives, and the margherita that I’ve tried and been happy with.

Lo and behold, the other day I was in a “Fresh Thyme” market, and they have a pizza from Italy called Mandia Ciboitaliano, from a contract, private label manufacturer F.I.A.D. SRL.  Not much information is available online about the manufacturer.  This version is a margherita, with tomatos and cheese. Pretty hard actually to find a purer ingredient list: Wheat flour, water, tomatoots, mozzarella, grana padano cheese, egg whites, salt, EVOO, yeast. Wow.

It bakes up fast at 475, the box provides instructions for frozen or thawed, it just take a few moments if thawed, and less than ten if frozen.   Doughy crust, REAL cheese, and sauce that tastes like……………….wait for it…………………TOMATOES! 

AND IT’S A GREAT PIE.

I’ll do it again. Often.  Don’t know if they make other varieties, but I’m find with this basic cheese version, and I can pile on processed pork pizza toppings if I am so inclined.

If you see these in your store, stock up. They may be available at Whole Foods, I’ve seen a reference to that, but cannot personally attest to the fact.

Mandia Ciboitaliano Frozen Pizza

Unbaked

Mandia Ciboitaliano Frozen Pizza

8 Minutes, 475

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mandia Ciboitaliano Frozen Pizza Review

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JJ Twigs Pizza Review, Palatine, IL

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JJ Twigs Pizza ReviewWe first started going to JJ Twigs shortly after we moved to the Chicago suburbs in the 80s, and my kid was just a sprout.

They had peanuts on the table, and she got a huge kick out being able to throw the shells on the floor…. being messy on purpose!

I liked the thin crust pizza (OK, and the peanuts, too), the restaurant uses fresh made Italian sausage, and whole milk mozzarella, which gives the cheese a nice stretchiness quality. They had a smattering of herbs which I find pleasing, as well.

The original location was overlooking serene Lake Zurich, IL, but that location burned down in 2004. They moved up the road inside the arcade building at a mini golf, and I stopped in there once or twice over the years, but only for take out.

Finally they moved to their present location, on Highway 14 in Palatine, into s cozy building that was previously another pizzeria, which I can’t JJ Twigs Pizza Reviewremember the name of. It’s smaller than the original location, but a warmer decor, and they offer their entire lengthy menu of pizza, sandwiches, and entrees, along with a full bar.

JJ Twigs is known for their unique “double decker” pizza, which is two fully topped thin crust pizzas, one atop the other, sealed together with a thick hand-turned outer crust.  I’ve never tried it.

I had my “usual,” a thin crust sausage with green olive, and double cheese. And it was fabulous. Chased it down with an Italian beef, (and a shot of insulin) but took most of both home, of course. The pie is every bit as good as I remembered, and I’d stop by more often, but it’s quite a hike for me.

They have quite a few TVs as well as a separate room, JJ Twigs would be a fun place to have a small party or catch the game.

There are four additional locations, one in Wauconda, IL, and three in St. Louis. Same menus, recipes. Here’s the local pizza menu. JJ Twigs menu is competitively priced for the area.

 
JJ Twig's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
JJ Twigs Pizza Review

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Urban Pie Pizza Review

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Urban Pie Frozen Pizza ReviewThere was a time when the major beer companies started putting out “small brands” (semi-anonymously) to compete with the rapidly-growing craft beer industry.

Seems that Milwaukee’s Palermo Pizza, which has been around forever, took a tip from the brewers, and have  rolled out (I think) six new ‘brands’ over the past two years.  I’ve tried a bunch of them, including their Classic, Sasquatch (available at WalMart only), P’Mos, and the Screamin’ Sicilian. I had mixed feelings about some of them, but I continue to buy Screamin’ Sicilian, because I like the amble toppings.

Urban Pie is their latest offering, and they come in four different varieties, “styled after” specific neighborhoods in the U.S.  I chose the “Mission District,” which boasts Uncured Pepperoni. Chicken Sausage, Roasted Red Bell Pepper Sauce, Tomatoes, Basil, Green Peppers, Onions, Crimini Mushrooms. and a four cheese mix – Romano – Mozzarella – Parmesan – Provolone.

That’s a pile of ingredients for my personal tastes, I like a couple-three toppings at most, and my personal preference is a cracker thin crispy crust. But surprise, I liked this. The crust is about the thickness of what some shops call “hand-tossed,” but it’s flaky – almost like a matzoh flour, unique, I think, in the frozen pizza biz.  Good show.

The “Little Italy” has pesto, fresh mozz, and tomatoes. “Lakeview” is chicken sausage, roasted yellow peppers and spinach. “Northend” is a mushroom and truffle pie, with a three cheese combination, including Asiago.

Urban Pie has a locator on the top, right hand side of their site.  At the bottom of this post, you’ll find the ingredient panel from the package. That’s alotta stuff!

Urban Pie Frozen Pizza Review

Out of the Box

 

 

 

 

 

Urban Pie Frozen Pizza Review

Out of the Oven – 15 minutes at 425

Urban Pie Pizza Review

Ingredients

 

 

 

 

Urban Pie Pizza Review

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Frozen Pizza Review – Green Mill

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Green Mill Frozen Pizza ReviewSuzy Applebaum introduced me to the Green Mill;  we were both employed at KSTP in Minneapolis- St. Paul, and I had asked her to go to lunch.  She suggested the Green Mill.  At the time, it was a small bar on Hamline Avenue in St. Paul that specialized in deep dish pizza.  It had opened in the 30s as a soda fountain at the same location.

I had a monster crush on Suzy, who hailed from a local grocery store dynasty family;  if I knew then I was going to spend the rest of my life obsessed with food, well, I might have wised up and pursued Suzy with vigor, but I knew I was outclassed from the get-go.

The legend of the local bar with great pizza grew, and today, there are 27 locations across the Midwest, serving a full menu in addition to their pizza.

There was one other significant event in my life that took place at a Green Mill, the rehearsal dinner for my wedding.  It was at the Uptown location on South Hennepin in Minneapolis, and no, it wasn’t my  selfish love of pizza that made that event happen there, but was rather my mother’s choice.  My mother loved to go with me to places that were “on the wrong side of the tracks”, and it was “our thing” to explore someplace new every time she came to the Twin Cities when I was living there.

As with most successful pizzerias, Green Mill has launched a frozen pizza line, and they are being made and distributed by a Minnesota pizza manufacturer, Bernatellos.  Minnesota somehow became the frozen pizza capital of the US, with a gaggle of brands being made across the state:  Jeno’s, Totino’s, Roma, Red Baron, Freschetta, Tony’s, Giovannis, Kettle River….I’m sure I’m forgetting many, but you get the idea.

I purchased the “Thin and Crispy” style with three meats, sausage, pepperoni and bacon.  It’s a 15 ounce affair and was priced at 2 / $11 or .73 per ounce, and that’s steep for a frozen pie.

The three pix below represent the box, note the “authentic restaurant-style flavors”  (boy, that’s as vague as can be, isn’t it?);  the unbaked pie is kind of a misrepresentation, I pushed all the included pepperoni to one side of the pie.  The last picture represents the baked pie, 10 minutes at 425.

The picture of the cooked pizza kind of tells the whole story, when you note the “glistening” on the surface.  This is a fairly greasy pizza, and the ‘cupping’ and slight char on the pepperoni indicates a high fat content (which would explain some of the oil).  The pork sausage is realtively unseasoned.  It’s a crispy crust, pleasant enough, nice herb treatment, including fennel.  Tomato sauce on the sweet side.

The ingredients list doesn’t include a whole lot of preservatives, these are pretty pure ingredients.   The flavor is simply not to my taste, but it might be perfect for you!

 

green mill

 

 

Green Mill Frozen Pizza

Unbaked

 

Green Mill Frozen Pizza

Baked, 10 minutes at 425

 

 

 

 

Frozen Pizza Review

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Eastside Cafe Pizza Review

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Eastside Cafe Pizza ReviewOne of my local grocery stores is huge. I get exhausted going there.  But the upside is they have really deep selections of product, including frozen pizza –  they have four 30 foot long coolers of different brands, and in a separate vertical cooler, organic, vegan, and gluten free offerings.

Any time I go in there, there are new brands, or at least ones I haven’t seen.

This week it was “Eastside Cafe,” from a small manufacturer outside of Chicago – it looks like they are primarily in the contract manufacturing business for groceries and other outlets – both fresh and frozen pies.

Their mission statement: “We are manufacturers of fresh frozen pizzas serving many retail and recreational bussinesses within the United States. Eastside Café was established in 1992, and we pride ourselves on providing customers with high-quality products and personal service. Our office is conveniently located in Warrenville, Illinois”

I picked up an individual size meat lovers, sausage, pepperoni and bacon.

Now these guys tried it and loved it.

 

Me? Not so much.

The cheese is good, note on the photo of the unbaked pie that the cheese is in ‘gobs’ instead of ‘shreds’ as most frozen pies come.That move apparently makes for a nicer melt, judging from the finished product.

The sauce was really pedantic. Ordinary. The crust was ok, from the thickness I would have thought it would have been crispier, but it was chewy, not crispy. Pepperoni, good flavor and texture. Sausage, no apparently seasoning. Bacon? Couldn’t really tell there was any on board.

So this one brand won’t be on my regular buy rotation. You, however, may find it’s your new favorite!  You can check them out on Facebook.

The company is located in Warrenville, IL, in the office park pictured below.

 

Eastside Cafe Pizza Review

 Unbaked

Eastside Cafe Pizza Review

Baked, top shelf, 400, 13 minutes

 

Eastside Cafe Pizza Review

Eastside Cafe Headquarters

 

 

 

 

Eastside Cafe Pizza Review

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Thorntons Pizza Review

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Thortons Gas Pizza ReviewThorntons is a regional gas station chain, started in 1971 in Louisville; they have about 200 locations in six states, and about 20 % of them have expanded hot food offerings.

They have a few stations around me, in suburban Chicago, and a brand new one opened just up the road last September.  When they opened, their food offerings were typical mini mart / gas station stuff; wrapped sandwiches, roller grill treats, pastries.  A buncha coffees and soft drinks.

I am not sure why they waited to install the “kitchen,” perhaps just part of a chain-wide roll out, or maybe the equipment/contractor wasn’t available until now.  In any case, a few weeks ago, in a matter of days, they put together an open food prep area, a monster exhaust hood, and a couple of very expensive convection ovens.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think anything is actually prepared on site; it seems more like a heat and eat operation. I think if they were preparing from scratch, they’d have  real quality control  and timing problems.  Their tagline to cover the subject is “Made Fresh.” I’m going to write an entire piece on that phrase in a day or so.

Being in the first few weeks of kitchen operation, the company made sure the neighborhood has a supply of coupons, each of which provided a free food item with the purchase of a fountain drink or coffee.  Among the items I have seen at this outlet are single serving pepperoni pizzas, cheese bread, chicken tenders, breakfast and lunch sandwiches, soft pretzels, fruit,  and a few other items.  Full menu.  (Not sure if all items are available at every location).

The company decided to go with a “Detroit-Style” pizza, and if you are not familiar with the term, think Little Caesars deep dish, or square pies from Jet’s (both Detroit based companies).

It’s a thick  bready crust, crispy on the exterior, chewably soft on the interior. The Thorton’s recipe calls for lots of cheese, with a great melt, and they offer cheese or pepperoni models.  They are fairly generous with the pepperoni, and it’s good quality.  There is no charring or cupping, which indicates a lower fat content.

The tomato sauce is nondescript, as it probably should be to appeal to the masses.

If I have an objection to Thornton’s offerings, I think they are pretty expensive, compared to competitors.  The pizza is $3.99, the tenders are 2 for $2.59.  In all fairness, the pizza would probably satisfy two ‘normal’ appetites.

I got my pie free with a coupon and the purchase of a small drink.  Would I buy it again?  Yep.  It’s hot and tasty. 7-Eleven is big in the pizza business, but not around here.   The largest supplier of pizzas for gas station type operations is Hunt Brothers, with over 7000 locations; I tried it in Montana, but again, haven’t seen it locally. Might be available at one of the truck stops down the road.  Kwik Trip, a Wisconsin based convenience chain, and Casey’s General Store, an Iowa based chain, have a ton of outlets in the Upper Midwest, and both offer whole pies or by the slice. I’ve written about both Casey’s and Kwik Trip’s pizzas.  Other gas station/c-store suppliers include Noble Roman’s, Picadilly, Hot Stuff, and Bellaricos. Of all these, Casey’s is my favorite, but Thornton’s moves up to # 2.  If they have specials or sales, it will periodically slide into the number 1 position.  Thortons Locator

Thortons Gas Pizza Review

Thorntons Pizza Review

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Original Naan Pizza Review

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Original Naan Pizza ReviewDeep Foods, a New Jersey company founded in 1977, markets prepared, frozen and boxed foods of India and Southeast Asia.  At my local Indian grocery, Patel Brothers, I picked up their Tandoor Baked Cheese Naan Pizza.  Naan is an oven-baked leavened flatbread product, native to SE Asia and the Middle East, kinda similar to pita.  (Sidebar – I lived on a small island in the South China sea for a number of years. There was a small Indian restaurant there, about six seats, and they made naan in all sorts of interest ‘flavors.’ My favorite was blue cheese).

Oven baked for 15+ minutes at 425, the “pizza” was obviously pre-cooked in a tandoor, as evidenced by the char marks.

The naan is a nice quality for a pizza crust, crispy at the distant edge, chewy towards the middle, about the same thickness as chain “hand-tossed” pizzas.

As this is traditional Indian cuisine, there are no meat options for the pies, and this cheese one was just fine, reminiscent of value-priced frozen pizza brands.

Kinda curious about why the cheese melted differently at different spots on the bread, but in the end, didn’t matter. Few to none preservatives in the ingredient list.  I’d buy it again.

Original Naan Pizza Review

 

Deep Foods TV Commercial Further Explains “Naan”
Naan Pizza Review

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Knollas Pizza Review – Wichita, KS

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Here’s one of those “best places in town” as touted by local media. I guess when you live in the town that Pizza Hut started, it doesn’t take too much of an effort for people to think you have a “good” pizza.

I had been itching to get here, because I had heard about the “coney island pizza,” thinking, wow, two of my favorite things, coney island hot dogs, and pizza, combined! This will be GREAT!

I ordered two small pies to go, the coney island, and the all meat, because I was hungry for pizza, and got the meat one as a back-up in case I didn’t like the coney pie.

The coney is topped with hot dogs, hot dog chili sauce, diced dill pickles and onion, and a swirl of yellow mustard.

Conceptually? Interesting. Reality? YUCK!

I tried one bite. Ewww. Tried rolling the slice, and pretending the crust was a hot dog bun. Ewwww. Offered the remaining pie to two homeless guys, they passed.

So I opened the meat box, and one couldn’t complain about the quantity of toppings. One could complain about the quality, however.

Nothing disturbs me more than picking up a slice, and having the entire top, cheese and toppings, slide off the crust into the box. OK, there’s one thing that disturbs me equally, as much, picking up a slice, and having all the toppings roll off into the box. Such was the case here. The sausage was akin to “Sysco Meat Crumbles #2” or some such. Lifeless, tasteless, and looking suspiciously, all by their lonesome in the box, like something a furry big eared animal might leave behind.

I’ll post a video later. For now, these pics, the coney and the meat pie. I always try to find the good in a place, and I thought a hand-tossed crust might be Knolla’s redemption, but even that fell flat. Lifeless was a word I used above, and I’d say it again about the crust. It just didn’t have any pizazz at all. A floury taste. Maybe they didn’t proof it.

The location I was at, pure carry-out, except one table in front, for two. They were very busy. Somebody obviously likes these pies; just not me.

I’m not posting a map, even.  They have four or more locations.  You can avoid all of them of your own volition.


Knolla's Pizza Cafe on Urbanspoon

Knollas Pizza Review

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Halftime Pizza Review

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Yet another Upper Midwest  frozen “tavern pizza,” Halftime was launched out of a popular rural bar an hour NW of Chicago.  If you’re a regular reader here, you know how much I admire small business owners, and guys like this, trying to enter a very crowded field, with (presumably) a marketing budget that can’t possibly compete in the space, well you have to give them an “E” for effort, and wish them the best of luck.

The package boasts include “made by hand” and “The Official Pizza of Brookfield Zoo.”  (If you’ve never been to Brookfield, it’s worth a trip). Ingredients are pretty straightforward, except there’s that dreaded corn syrup derivative, which I hate seeing in any product.

Instructions call for middle shelf, 450, 12-15 minutes.  On a cookie sheet if you prefer a softer crust.

I checked at the 12 minute mark, and opted for another minute.  On the plus side, I liked the larger chunks of hand-pulled Italian sausage, and the very thin crust is cracker crunchy.  The sausage could use more flavor (for my taste, only), and the sauce is very strongly flavored.  Cheese is adequate, but more would be nice.

The pies sell for $12 + at the bar, have a suggested retail price of $10 at the grocer, I paid $7.99 on sale.  At a $10 price point, these guys are competing in the upper range of frozen pizzas, and they are in for a tough fight.  As a smaller manufacturer, lacking the economies of scale, purchasing, and automation, their price probably reflects the minimum number to make a profit.

But for me, the taste, texture and ingredients are more reminiscent of a pie in the ‘value range’ of frozen pizzas, competing with brands like Tony’s, Tombstone and the like, but of course, those brands pricing is considerably less.

The pies are made in McHenry, IL at USDA est 51161, located at 4025 W. Main Street, and pictured below, if Google maps is accurate.  Locator.

Halftime Pizza Review

Packaging

Halftime Pizza Review

Frozen, from packaging

Halftime Pizza Review

McHenry, Illinois Factory

 

Halftime Frozen Pizza Review

13 minutes, at 450

 

Halftime Pizza Review

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