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The 30 Pizzas of 2012

October 29, 2012

Last week All Over Albany announced the winner of the 2012 Tournament of Pizza. Congratulations to Marisa’s Place in Guilderland who brought the prize back to the Albany bracket. The last Albany shop to hold the award was Pasquale’s. I still miss their killer combination of thin, crisp, cornmeal dusted crust and fresh, bright sauce. But now it’s Marisa’s turn for the spotlight

Pulling off this tournament is a herculean effort orchestrated by the AOA editors, their friends, and the judges. Thanks also has to go to Sunmark Federal Credit Union for their continued sponsorship of the event.

You can read about every face-off here and see the scores for each round along with some notable quotes by the judges. But that only tells part of the story. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to judge the TOP for the past four years (only Albany Jane outranks me in seniority having participated in the tournament since its inception in 2008).

There is drama in every round, and I could easily fill a week’s worth of posts on the TOP. But I’m going to try and wrap up everything today, so you will know why this was my favorite tournament to date, which pizza place got really lucky, why one place was eliminated too early, and how you aren’t the only one who is frustrated that DeFazio’s keeps on losing in the finals.

This year’s tournament was like a rundown of my favorite pies. Well, until the finals that is.

Last year we had to judge pepperoni pies, but this year we were back to sausage. Sure, there can be some nasty and disgusting sausage. We had more than our fair share of it this year. However when it’s good it can be amazing. Plus I feel it’s a much better topping for gauging the quality of a pizza place.

Round two was onions, peppers, mushrooms and olives. Not only do I love onions and peppers on pizza, but I never get to have them at home. Mrs. Fussy hates onions and the kids would be nonplussed with all the vegetables. Yes, I had to deal with some amount of squishy canned mushrooms and tasteless canned olives. But that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

In the semi-finals we were treated to Buffalo chicken pizza. Pretty much I love Buffalo anything. Give me a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot and a pound of butter and I’m a happy man. Apparently I’m not the only one since this round produced the highest score ever for a pie in the TOP.

Sure, the judges were thrown a curve ball this year and in the sausage round, one of the four pizzas came from a big national chain. They were Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s and CiCi’s. The only one I could blindly identify from taste alone was Pizza Hut. And I was surprise at how much I liked their crust. Domino’s revamped spicy sauce was the only redeeming quality of that pizza. But still, all four of these places scored the lowest in their respective brackets.

But the most disappointing moment in the tournament for me came when Nico’s was eliminated in the vegetable round in favor of Mario’s in Schenectady. What’s funny is that I was the only judge among the five who actually enjoys this combination of flavors. So take it from me, Nico’s was robbed. You can see the pizzas side by side here. And I can’t even believe I’m siding behind the one that used canned mushrooms, but good is good. Does it have a dominant green pepper flavor? You betcha. But if you order it as a topping on a vegetable pizza, that’s what you want dammit.

Like anything else, this had reverberations down the road. So instead of going up against Nico’s (which has now been elevated to one of my top Schenectady slice shops), Marisa’s Buffalo chicken pie went head to head against Mario’s. And Mario’s Buffalo chicken pie was just awful. Awful. So even though Marisa’s wasn’t great it moved straight into the finals. Marisa’s got really lucky there. Although to be fair I’ve never had the Buffalo chicken pizza from Nico’s. But I promise you, that’s on my shortlist.

The finals were a little bit surprising. The day before DeFazio’s was taking a poll on their Facebook page about which pizza they should enter. I had hoped that after two failed attempts, they would have triangulated their way to a winning pie in year three. And I wasn’t the only one. The judges are huge fans of their pizza, especially after that killer Buffalo chicken pie.

In anticipation of the finals we judges found ourselves speculating what each shop would enter. My hope had been that Marisa’s would submit their meatball pie and DeFazio’s their Fra Diavolo. That would have been a mighty and epic contest. But the four cheese pizza we got from DeFazio’s didn’t highlight their amazing high-quality toppings that make them great. Gorgonzola cheese was totally overpowering, the fontinella just kind of sat there adding fat and weight but not a lot of flavor, and those pale sad tomatoes on top didn’t have enough life in them to help cut through all that cheese. It was tasty, just way out of balance.

Marisa’s surprised the hell out of me. It’s not a place I generally associate with delicacy and grace, but that’s what their Rusticana pizza delivered. Tender crisp baby asparagus were lovingly fanned around the pie. And they paired brilliantly with the funk of fresh mushrooms, and sweetness of red peppers. The pie was perfumed with the aromatics of garlic and fresh basil. And the salt from the prosciutto was able to season the sometimes flavor sucking use of fresh mozzarella. The cheese was cooked perfectly, and that’s not easy to do with fresh mozzarella. It can really dry out and get tough, which is one reason I generally avoid it on pizza. Although it seemed to come at a cost, because the bottom crust tasted a little bit underdone. Still, it was a good call to remove the pie from the oven when they did because killing the cheese for the sake of the crust would have been worse.

Congratulations again to Marisa’s. They nailed the final, and that’s no small feat. Congratulations to DeFazio’s for making an incredible Buffalo chicken pie. And Congratulations to Nico’s for proving to me you’ve got more than just a convenient location, but also tournament worthy pizza.

Maybe one day the other judges will come to appreciate you too.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 29, 2012 5:55 pm

    I haven’t tried all the pizzerias that were in the tournament. That being said, the place that surprised me was this year’s champion, Marisa’s. The few times I had their pizza-to-go left me unimpressed. Unimpressed enough to lose me as a customer. Although, the one time I was in the store and got a reheated slice it was better. The reheating improved the crust. There are a handful of local places the serve a better re-heated slice than whole pizza.

    In looking at the scores made available at the AOA site, there have now been 120 pizzas in the “100 point” era of the tournament. About 30 of them have had a score of 70 or higher. DeFazio’s submitted 10 of them. Out of 12 submissions. One of the two sub-70 pies was a 68 in the 2010 finals, (the other was a 62 – vegetable pie also from 2010). With their winning pie, Marisa’s joined Marino’s (Schdy) and 5th & 50 with 3 high rated pies each. Combined, they are only one less than Defazio’s. So while the judges may not have given DeFazio’s the title, they seem to agree that’s where to get consistently good pizza.

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