Friday, February 14, 2014

Pizza Friday - Melting Pot, Front Royal, VA

--> With the sheer amount I'm on the road I've taken to a rule of "No chains" for food.  The only exception is Starbucks or local and regional chains that aren’t available in the DC Metro.  I did not start with this rule, but I noticed that I quickly got bored of places like Ruby Tuesday and…well McDonalds when I was out on the road.
Hildy the Adventure Dog
Quite frankly, there are only so many times you can have a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and after a stop in a locally owned greasy spoon, or even a dedicated burger joint.  The same runs true with Pizza.  There are very few local shops that are so bad I’d take a Papa Johns or Pizza Hut over them, but it’s good to not get bored of the standards just in case there is nothing else around, because I can tell you with almost certainty that one day you will be somewhere in middle America, and there won’t be anything but a Papa John’s that delivers to your hotel. 

My parents and myself have taken to sharing a dog.  They love dogs, as do I, but with my travel schedule, and their approaching-retirement activity schedule, as a group we can really only have one dog.  Hildy is a sweet little dachshund, and my ever-present travel companion, but she still isn’t always welcome in the hotels I travel to.  So, when I go to a hotel that won’t let the dog stay, she goes for a visit to my parents. 

Because of my parent’s geographic location, we generally pass off my dog in the small town of Front Royal, Virginia, which is effectively the outermost western border of the area largely considered the “DC Metro Area”.  While I understand the charm of living in small-town America, the nearly 100-mile one-way commute  would be enough that I’d probably decide to drive off the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge.

In a surprise twist, during one of our exchanges we discovered a small local Pizza place in Front Royal. The most surprising thing, arguably, is that Melting Pot, the Fondue restaurant, hasn’t filed a cease and desist order against it.

The décor and the atmosphere were fairly standard small-town restaurant.  No unified theme, no two tables matched, some were simply folding chairs and tables, for the most part it looked like the owners went to a yard sale that a closing restaurant was having and picked out a hodge-podge of things that served a very utilitarian and functional purpose. 

I can see the conversation now…
“I need chairs.”
“What Style?”
“It doesn’t matter, just give me 100 of your cheapest ones”

In fact, after three visits, I’m almost certain that’s exactly how the conversation went.

The downside of Melting Pot is arguably that it’s so inconsistent I can’t really give it an accurate review.  Nor can I in any way guarantee that your experience there will in any way mirror my experience there.  The quality of the pizza really seems to depend on exactly who is manning the ovens, who is making the dough in the morning, or who is placing the toppings.  

The first time I went it was nearly as good as some of the better pies I’ve had in and around the New Jersey/New York region.  The second time, having thought I’d struck small-town culinary gold on the first visit, I got what more closely resembled a Tombstone brand frozen pizza, cooked at too low of a temperature.  It was so bad I almost vowed never to return.  The third time was somewhere in the middle.  

Effectively, the restaurant has someone with the know-how to produce a near-perfect pizza.  The big question, however, is whether or not they’ll utilize that individual’s knowledge and make a consistently good product regardless of who is on staff that evening.  

Judging by the décor, I’d say that consistency is not something the owners value.  Because of that I’m not sure I’ll stop in again on my next trip through.

This post was updated on June 15, 2014 to fix minor grammatical and spelling errors.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Pizza Friday - Pete's Apizza, Clarendon, VA

I love pizza.  I love pizza in all shapes, sizes, colors, with most toppings and crusts.  Deep dish, thin crust, new york style, new haven style, Chicago style…it really doesn’t matter, I’ll take all of them any day of the week, and some days multiple days of the week. 

Many times though, a pizza joint will think they’ve labeled something in descriptive manner, but in reality, while their product is good it muddies what that style actually is, and what makes it distinct and unique.  

A few weeks ago I went on a Starbucks mug run to find the new Virginia mug.  While the ultimate goal was to find the mug, I was hoping to kill two birds with one stone, and stop by Pete's which I'd heard about and very much wanted to try. 

While Pete’s Apizza labels themselves as New Haven style, they’re certainly not.  They are a classic hand-tossed American style pizza joint…think stylistically similar to your standard Pizza Hut, Papa Johns, or Dominos pizza.

I’m not saying that’s good, nor am I saying it’s bad.  It’s just how it is. 

Pepperoni, Garlic and Spinach...oh my!
When you compare Pete’s to other stylistically similar pizzas, it’s far and away the best American style Pizza I’ve had in quite awhile, possibly forever. 

When you compare it to other classic New Haven style pies (Frank Pepe’s, Sallys, etc…) it comes up lacking.   For the long glowing tributes to Frank Pepe that were on the Pete's website (since removed) I, quite frankly, expected a more "New Haven" style classic Neapolitan.  Instead, I feel like I got a Vocelli style faux Neapolitan.

For pizza closer to Sally's or Pepe's either The Brick in Warrenton, or Stone Hot in Fairfax provides that crispy wood and/or coal fired outside and gooey inside.  Proper "New Haven" pie should be so floppy you need a fork and knife to eat the pointy end, but slightly burnt on the crust side.  This is not that.

Overall it feels more like a  cynical "Lets tell them this is what they're experiencing because they'll never actually go to the real thing" yuppie magnet than a serious attempt at re-creating a classic.

When it comes to price, they are a touch expensive.  However, they offer great value.  When I look at what I paid, compared to what I got, I paid roughly what I would have paid for the same toppings and size from one of the major chains, and got something that was substantially higher quality with more premium ingredients.  As a rule I don't get pizza from the big national chains anymore (there are TOO MANY good local joints) and Pete's proves this whole heartedly. 

The final disappointment came from the smell.  While it smelled, it didn't smell like a New Haven pizza joint.  There's a distinct aroma that comes from the constant burning of coal and/or wood in a large open oven that Pete's is just missing. 

Even with the substantial disappointment at missing the mark stylistically there were some good points.  The best pizza comes served with a craft soda.  I couldn’t find the Foxon Park that they supposedly carry, but they do have really good craft soda on fountain.  They offer premium toppings and some that I've only seen at New Haven minced garlic and spinach. 

What it all boils down to is it's a very good pizza joint, that will disappoint you if, like me, you're looking for a New Haven style pizza.  That said, if you just want pizza, and don't mind something a bit pricey, but well worth the money, this is your place.

Note: My original review for Pete's shows on Yelp.  Certain aspects of this review were lifted verbatim from my original Yelp review.  To see the original Yelp review click here.

Monday, February 3, 2014

I'll find it one day... I promise.

So close...but not quite.

-->I’m acutely aware of the cliché that is the person hunched over a laptop whilst sitting in their otherwise hipster-magnet coffee shop.  I’m more acutely aware that my Starbucks addiction is, while not quite at the level of problematic addiction, pretty damn close to it.
That said this post is coming to you direct from my local Starbucks store, where Mike, Isaac and James are so quick with my drinks I rarely have to even order.  I just have to step up to the counter, flash my phone, and away I go!

Today, though, when I realized how far behind I am on updating this thing (Yep, I'm acutely aware that I completely missed last week's Pizza Friday), I opted for a slightly longer visit.  With the amount I’m on the road, Starbucks is the rare oasis during my travels where I can regularly get free and unlimited WiFi, an above-average cup of coffee (I’ve had better…but they’re few and far between) and a decent sandwich.  While it is unfortunate that I can’t always find one, some things never change, and it will be my preferred stop 9 out of 10 times.

Even with all of the Starbucks stores I’ve visited my challenges in finding a Virginia mug are growing.  Yesterday was spent at an adult birthday party, which while it was good to see my cousins, and aunts, it was largely what I am perpetually terrified that my parties will one day look like, but comforting to know that I don’t really have enough friends for a surprise party to ever happen.  I hate surprise parties.

My parents and I drove down together since they were at my house for the evening.  For having such a small footprint, the Jetta is remarkably comfortable for three people on a two hour round-trip.  Even my 6’0 father had enough room that he didn’t have to encroach on my mother’s back seat space.  We were running late, and as such pushed the car up to the mid-80's on the way down.  I was fortunate that WAZE kept me on my toes as far as who to expect hiding and how far up the road to expect them.

We arrived at the party after the "big intro" but just in time to have some hors d'oeuvres and cake, which in my opinion is the perfect time to arrive at a surprise party. 

After the series of mildly inappropriate jokes, and “you’re getting old” gag gifts wrapped up, I found my way to the local Starbucks store where I was hoping, once again to snag a Virginia mug.  This store is the farthest south and west I’ve gone, and while Starbucks considers it the “DC Metro Area” it is just about as far as you can get and still be considered part of it. 

I walked inside with great hope that my Virginia mug would appear on the shelves.  Alas, no such luck.  I’ve lost count of my strikes now, but I’m determined that by the end of February I’ll have some in my hands.

So that said, another two hours in the car, and another 120 miles on the odometer, and I'm still empty handed.  The possibility is rapidly growing that I'll break the 10,000 mile threshold just looking for a mug!