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Blindly Eating Pizza

October 13, 2010

Round One of the Third Annual All Over Albany Tournament of Pizza is over.  Now I feel like I can talk about it without spoiling any of the surprises.  For those who may not have been following along, or who may be new here, the Tournament of Pizza involves four judges, including myself, evaluating our local takeout pizza options to determine who makes the best pie.

What makes it interesting is that the tasting is done blindly.

That is not to say we are blindfolded, because how a pizza looks is important too.  Rather each judge receives two slices of pizza at a time, each on a paper plate identified only with a letter.  Loyalties to pizza joints run high.  Especially in this town.  This scheme is designed to try and prevent any judge from playing favorites, or to let any preconceived notions enter the evaluation process.

Last year I laid out my Pizza Philosophy and wrote about what I look for in a slice of New York Style pizza.  Having gone through the tournament as a judge last year, and just finished a grueling first round where I consumed 16 different slices of pizza in short order, I thought I would share some of my deeper gleanings into the form.

There is one other critical component to pizza beyond the crust, the sauce and the cheese.  It’s heat.  That would be the heat from the oven, both its actual temperature and its source.  Pizza ovens are magnificent, be they gas, wood or coal, and are often underappreciated.  It’s the ovens that make this a special treat that can only rarely be duplicated at home by the most obsessive fans of the form.

Not that it can’t be done.  But the people who do it are a special kind of dedicated.

Since this is a blind tasting, the judges aren’t told which pie comes from what kind of an oven.  So we are left with visual and other sensory cues.  I look closely at the color of the cheese.  I’m prone to calling underdone cheese things like “too blonde” or “flabby” and I find it to be wholly unappealing.

The bottom crust is another key indicator of how a pie has been cooked.  I loathe to see the telltale crosshatches of pizza screens, which indicate the bottom crust has never been in direct contact with the oven floor.  Getting filthy with char or getting covered with toasted cornmeal is an infinitely better fate than eating a pizza that was designed for consistency over brilliance.  Generally, I like a bit of snap to my bottom crust, but in the torturous conditions of the Tournament of Pizza no pie can retain its crisp bottom, assuming it ever had one at all.

My judging process is now well-honed.

First I visually evaluate the slice.  I take in the browning of the cheese.  I look for bubbles.  I see how the sauce and its ratio to the cheese influence the overall color.  Are herbs visually present?  How oily is the slice?  And what does the end crust look like?  Then comes the critical point of examining the bottom crust, and checking for screen lines.

Then I take a bite of the end crust.  Just crust.  Before evaluating anything else, I want to see how the least-appreciated and most-important aspect of the pizza tastes.  Is it yeasty, more bread-like, or redolent of a cracker?  Is it tasty enough that I would enjoy eating the entire thing?

Next I take a bite of the tip, to get a sense of the overall slice, before moving on to the specifics.

The easiest and second-most-critical element to evaluate is the cheese.  What kills me about far too many pizzas is how little flavor comes from the cheese.  If I’m going to take the fat and calorie hit of eating a cheese-drenched food, dammit, that cheese better be working hard.  So I pull of little bites of cheese from the slice, and try to scrape as much sauce from as possible to really get a sense of its taste and texture.  The major flaws tend to be blandness, hardness and graininess.  There were a couple of standout cheeses in Round One.

Finally it comes down to the sauce.  And honestly the sauce is really difficult for me.  There generally isn’t that much on a slice.  But I try to scoop some up on a finger and see what it’s about on its own.  The thing is that I see sauce really like the supporting player.  It is the glue that holds everything together.  It enhances the crust and balances the cheese.

When all the components are accounted for, it’s time to reassess how they all work together.

Doing this for every slice in the competition is a lot of work, but I think all of the competing shops really deserve to have their product taken seriously.  And while my fellow judges surely have their own approach to coming to their conclusions, and while I cannot say I always agree with their evaluations, I can assure you all they take this very seriously too.

For the record, I thought the slice I had from Pasquale’s was totally inferior to my slice from Lou-Bea’s in Round One.  It seemed both pies were unevenly cooked.  But that’s the breaks.  When blindly eating pizza, I can only judge the slice in front of me.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2010 12:01 am

    Very intriguing to read about what you think makes a good pizza, and although I hardly test each pizza I eat, I can agree with your thoughts on the matter. A good crust and a good cheese are musts, and a decent sauce is needed to bring them together.

    I never knew exactly what that cross-hatching was! It is often on the cheap, chain outlet pizzas around here, and I figured it was something to do with the way they were cooked, but that is an interesting new fact for me.

  2. October 14, 2010 9:34 am

    “There is one other critical component to pizza beyond the crust, the sauce and the cheese. It’s heat. That would be the heat from the oven, both its actual temperature and its source. Pizza ovens are magnificent, be they gas, wood or coal, and are often underappreciated. It’s the ovens that make this a special treat that can only rarely be duplicated at home by the most obsessive fans of the form.”

    Well said. I bet it was fun to take part in this.

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