Monday, March 12, 2007

SHOCK: frozen pizza can taste like pizza

I grew up in New Haven, CT, and returned to the area six years ago after a 37-year absence. New Haven and the surrounding towns have a huge number of Italian-Americans. New Haven is probably the second place in the US where pizza was served. New Haveners are fanatical about pizza, which is spelled apizza, pronounced ah-beetz and sometimes called tomato pie.

When I was in college, I sometimes arranged for friendly Allegheny Airlines stewardesses to carry fresh New Haven tomato pies on the plane and meet me at the airport in Allentown.

The geographic, historical and emotional center of New Haven pizza-making is Wooster Street, still an Italian enclave after about 100 years. On weekend evenings, there are long lines of the faithful outside the doors of the two traditional rivals, Sally's and Pepe's.

"Traditional" New Haven pizzas are baked in brick ovens with coal fires. They're thin, oddly shaped, partly charred, oily, sloppy, and delicious. No two slices are the same size, and there is minimal handle for gripping a slice. A "plain" New Haven pie is served without mozzarella ("no mootz"). They're also available with toppings like clam chunks, that you are unlikely to find at Domino's or Pizza Hut.

Cousin Dave, also a pizza maven and probably a fair representation of local attitude, says PH's food is edible, if you don't think of it as pizza. "It's not pizza," he explains, "it's pizza hut."

Although the national pizza chains have done notoriously poorly in this center of authentic Italian cuisine, new apizza joints seem to sprout up every couple of days (only a slight exaggeration). Within a few miles of where I'm typing this, there have been five recent debuts, and the sixth one to be announced is within a few blocks of four others. Some local folks make quite good pizza at home. My neighbor Connie (nee Concetta, and daughter of a professional pizza-maker), even makes great pizza on her barbecue grill.

One big problem with pizza, or apizza, is portability. My favorite local pizzeria (Papa's in Milford) has two outdoor picnic tables, but no indoor tables. I can't eat there in the winter or when it's raining; and even if I drive a fast Ferrari, the pie is cold by the time I get it home. A local caterer operates The Big Green Pizza Truck. They'll bake incredibly good wood-fired pizzas in my own driveway, but the minimum fee for even one pie is about 1000 bucks.

Another pizza problem is availability. Most pizzerias are closed for at least a few hours a day -- maybe the hours when you have the strongest urge for pizza. When I lived in Scarsdale NY, I was thrilled to learn that a nearby jazz club served pizza until 2AM. As a test, I went there at 1:45 one morning. The music was great. Alas, the pizza sucked.

Yesterday, at my local Costco, I inhaled a familiar smell. PIZZA. It was not the usual cardboard-and-grease combo served at the snack bar, but something that smelled and looked remarkably like what I might get at Wooster street or from the Big Green Truck.

A company called Aliki Foods was doing a road show -- a special event a manufacturer stages to enable Costco members to sample a new product line, and perhaps convince Costco management to stock the product.

The Aliki folks had a bunch of miniature electric ovens stacked up under an indoor tent top, and were churning out magnificent personal-size pizzas every few minutes. I stayed there, wide-eyed, wide-mouthed, in love, mesmerized, imobilized, captivated and salivating. (If I drooled on you, I hereby apologize.)

I sampled every thin-crust gem they made over a 20-minute period. I even tried toppings like sausage that I normally don't eat, and a chicken fajita variety that was decidedly un-Italian, but decidedly delicious. Every pie was spectacular. I pigged-out, but I was not the only pig. I bought a box of three Margherita pizzas (tomato, basil, garlic and three kinds of cheese) for my own freezer, for $9.99.

The package is 10 inches wide, and fits just fine in the freezer side of a side-by-side. Estimated cooking time is 8 - 11 minutes, at 425 degrees.

Strangely, pizza is not even on the Aliki website (where they have lots of other Italian foods, and even Philly cheese steaks and mac-and-cheese), so it must be really new; and you lucky folks are among the first to know about it. You owe it to your bellies to pester your nearby food sellers to stock this treasure.

Also strangely, the boss of Aliki is Michael Pappas, a Greek-American, not an Italian-American. Most Greek pizza is kind of like Pizza Hut pizza: maybe OK, if you don't think of it as pizza (the dough is too thick and fluffy, and there's not enough tomato sauce).

There's no one thing that makes Aliki pizzas so special; it's the combination of multiple good decisions, and perfect execution. The crust has the right mix of chewiness and crunchiness, and tastes like it came from an ancient brick oven on Wooster Street. Michael says "the flour we use is very high quality and the crust is hand stretched and goes through a lengthy proofing and dough retardation process for a rich flavor." The sauce is made from Michael's grandmother's recipe, which is securely locked up in a secret location, and protected by armed guards with sharp-toothed dogs. Aliki uses only fresh toppings, and highest quality cheeses that Michael can find.

The pizza varieties represent several ethnicities, including Italian, Greek, Mexican, and even WolfgangPuckian. You can get Four Cheese, Pepperoni, Margherita, Spinach & Feta Cheese, Sausage Delizioso, Chicken Fajita, or Grilled Chicken & Goat Cheese.

Aliki's pizzas are being slowly rolled out across the country, generally in warehouse clubs including Costco and BJ's, not supermarkets.

Michael Pappas credits his Greek grandparents for inspiring his great Italian foods: "I was blessed to have a grandmother who made the best food you could imagine, all from scratch. Many of the ingredients came from my grandfather’s magnificent vegetable garden. Whenever I visited them, my grandmother would always make an irresistable dish with her oven-baked bread, fresh vegetables from the garden, and spices from the old country. It always smelled so good walking into her kitchen, I can still smell all of the delightful aromas."

Michael has maintained the tradition, and yesterday, thanks to him, even Costco smelled delightful. Aliki Foods has the right recipe and terrific technique. The company is based in Old Lyme, CT -- not exactly New Haven, but close enough to have picked up the proper vibes.

Unless you live really close to a first-class pizzeria, Aliki makes the best pizza you will ever eat at home. GO GET SOME!
UPDATE: When you heat your Aliki pizza in you oven at home, just put it on the oven rack, NOT on a piece of foil on the rack. It's better to have to clean up the bottom of the oven, than to have a crust that's not fully cooked.

1 comment:

Arthur Greeenwald said...

Michael,

If you'll recall I too am a devotee of New Haven pizza. Frank Pepe's on Wooster Street is, after all, where Jan and Michael Stern of ROADFOOD fame had their first date. I make a close approximation of Pepe's famous white clam pizza on my own barbecue grill. If you're ever in LA, I'll bake some up to order for you.

While I prefer my own fresh pizza, I'll definitely check out Aliki's. Any comparison to the New Haven stuff is high praise indeed.

I'm really enjoying your gottagetit column!

Arthur