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Tavern Pie

January 7, 2015

The Capital Region’s taverns are one of the area’s crowning glories. As we’re getting into the heart of winter, this fact is now more apparent than ever.

When it’s cold outside, people tend to stay indoors. But should one venture out, the soul craves warmth and comfort. It wants fried foods and foods dripping in cheese. It wants hot sauce and cold beer. It wants a cozy atmosphere, where you can come as you are and feel like you’re at home.

Like it or not, this is the food culture of the area. And if you want a good meal that delivers on expectations, you’re most likely to find it in one of these neighborhood joints.

I totally get them. I’ve learned to embrace them. And when I left the region for a spell, I have to say, I kind of missed them. But there is one part of the tavern experience that still continues to elude me, and today I’m turning to you for some guidance.

It’s the tavern pie.

There are some people who reject all styles of pizza that diverge from the classic NY thin crust. That’s not me. I have room in my heart for pizza of all stripes. And I’m happy to call all of it pizza. From the Chicago deep dish, to the Trenton tomato pie, to the New Haven coal fired, to the Providence grilled, to the Old Forge white etc. etc.

But the Capital Region bar pizza has eluded me. Perhaps that’s because there are so many sub-styles of pizza that are wrapped up in it. The Orchard has its rectangular baked in the pan pizza, The Fountain has its oily crust, Smith’s (once beloved by Metroland) seems to be driven by toppings, and I’ve just been having a hard time wrapping my head around it all.

So here are my questions.

1) How would you describe a tavern pie?
2) Which place makes your favorite one these days?
3) Which other places would you say are similar, but not quite as good?
4) More importantly, what makes your favorite so good?
5) Are their toppings involved? And if so, which ones?

I’m hoping to get a lot of responses. It would also be a tremendous help if you could circulate this around. My hypothesis is that by using your answers I can come up with a list of must try places–with must try pizzas–that are a good representation of the form. Then I’ll go out and eat from the short list.

Trying all the tavern pies is too daunting a task since they extend to the four corners of the Capital Region.

Thanks in advance for your help. I really do want to like these pizzas. I’m convinced some of them must be great, even if that just means great for what they are. But I can love something on its own terms. That kind of love though, requires a bit more familiarity. And that’s what I’m lacking. It’s one of the struggles of being an outlander.

Until then, there is always beer and chicken wings (ordered medium and crispy).

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Klab permalink
    January 7, 2015 11:03 am

    1- Ralph’s pizza! It is unique to that establishment and cant be compared to any standard or NYC style pizza.
    2-Ralphs on Central Ave makes a decent tavern pie. Pair it with their saucy wings ad you’re good to go.
    3-It compares to the Orchard’s pillowey pie yet the crust and sauce has better flavor.
    4-it’s just super tasty from the flavorful sauce to the gooey cheese.
    5-for some reason, peperoni and mushrooms are the norm here although I never order peperoni on pizza anywhere else.

    The pizza is made on and served on a sheet pan. It’s as far from NY style pizza as it gets. But this pizza and an order of wings and some steamed clams are mandatory at Ralphs. Locals get it.

    • January 16, 2015 8:52 pm

      I haven’t had Ralph’s in years, but I would agree that their pie is one that I would equate to the style.

      The Talk of the Town in Glens Falls has my grandfather’s all-time favorite pizza (and he was from Brooklyn … he preferred the tavern style, as it is), so I compare all tavern pizza to that. And Ralph’s definitely comes close.

  2. January 7, 2015 11:12 am

    Secretly good pizza at the New Madison Grille on Madison & Swan. You’d never know it by walking into the place, but it’s cheap & delicious NY style. They also serve tater tots and will even put them on the pizza if that’s your jam.

    At the Orchard, I would order a cheese pie and whatever specialty one they’re doing that day. I’ve heard the Clams Casino is great. They also have a really great beer selection with some top-notch NY craft brews.

    • January 7, 2015 11:17 am

      Thanks for this. I probably should have been a bit more clear on my stance about the Orchard. I really do enjoy their individual rectangular pies (when ordered well-done) along with their history and tradition. However, these are stylistically different from the tavern pies of the region.

      Because I understand what they are doing over at the Orchard, I can appreciate those pies for what they are. It’s the remainder of tavern pizza that I’m trying to figure out.

  3. January 7, 2015 11:44 am

    Madison Grille on Madison Street above Swan has been making cheap and DELICIOUS pizza for quite some time now. My go to is a round with half cheese/half salami. Picked up a large pie there the other night ans with a shot of liquor the total came to be 15$.

  4. Debra permalink
    January 7, 2015 1:15 pm

    1) How would you describe a tavern pie? A pizza made in a bar kitchen.
    2) Which place makes your favorite one these days? Hill Street Café.
    3) Which other places would you say are similar, but not quite as good? I don’t go out to bars, so I can’t answer that one. I only go to Hill Street for the food nowadays.
    4) More importantly, what makes your favorite so good? Thin crust – fresh toppings. I usually get a Margherita pizza, so fresh basil is always involved.
    5) Are their toppings involved? And if so, which ones? Answered that question in #4.

  5. Erin T permalink
    January 7, 2015 2:27 pm

    1) Tavern pie is unlike typical NY style pizza.

    2) The Orchard is my favorite.

    3) Madison Grille. I loved their pizza when I lived in the neighborhood and could walk over there. Since moving uptown, I haven’t loved it enough to drive down for it.

    4) I love the thin crust. Their broccoli topping is fantastic and all of our kids love it.

    5) See above. Broccoli at The Orchard (for the kids).

    Sidebar – Fricano’s Pizza in Grand Haven, Michigan (lake-front community in western MI) will always and forever be the high bar in tavern pizza. Super thin crust. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. I grew up eating it and haven’t been back in almost 20 years, but am going to give it a try this summer.

  6. January 7, 2015 4:05 pm

    I would say that a ‘tavern pie’ is not a slice to take out, but a small pie made to order in a sit down joint. Orchard tavern is so perfect in my book, amazing crust and cheese, piping hot, and lots of great topping choices. I love their vegetarian and their buffalo chicken pies. My boyfriend is all about their meat lovers. It also makes a great meal the next day because their pizzas are pretty large. I’ve been to Kay’s, the Fountain, and the Point, but nothing compares to the dense gooey goodness of Orchard. Great, now I need a tavern pie.

  7. Brian permalink
    January 7, 2015 8:51 pm

    Deacon Blues in Watervliet. It’s been the same small rectangular cheesy greasy mess since I went ther when I was little back in 1980.

    • llcwine permalink
      January 8, 2015 7:37 am

      yeah…their seafood scampi pie is garlicky goodness that I crave every now and then

  8. albanylandlord permalink
    January 7, 2015 11:47 pm

    Well I am not an expert on Tavern pies, because the few that I have tried I never thought were that good. My sense is you eat and grow to live or love the tavern pie at your local tavern because that is where you are as opposed to the other way around. The fact that everything goes well with a few cold beers certainly doesn’t hurt.

    Now if the pizza at the Gastropub qualified as Tavern fare I would say it is the best – but I think its perfectly charred thin crust is far from the definition of a tavern pie.

    • January 13, 2015 10:59 am

      Had a pie from them last night, they’re killing it (in a good way). It was great straight out of the oven but spectacular cold.

      • January 13, 2015 11:00 am

        Them being Capital City Gastropub

  9. -R. permalink
    January 8, 2015 11:12 am

    1. I concur, a tavern pie is one made in a barroom kitchen. It has to be somewhat unique in its construction as the pie itself needs to attract and maintain a loyal following.

    2. Since I work in Troy, I’ll nominate the unique Red Front COB (cheese on bottom). My personal preference is a small sausage pie, ordered well-done. This order nets you an 8-slice round pie – if you order the next size larger, you get a rectangular version which (IMO) isn’t as good since the crust is thicker and it cooks slightly more unevenly.

    3. Again in Troy, The Knotty Pine does a good pie, but it’s rather pedestrian and does little to set itself apart from a typical pizza joint pie. But it is made in a pub kitchen…

    4. The Red Front pie is simply unlike any other pie in the area, and its distinctiveness is what makes it so good – the flavor delivery is kind of ass backward, but once you get used to it, it’s quite appealing. Also, they have a nice tangy, slightly sweet sauce which really compliments the entire effort.

    5. See #2 for my preferred toppings, but their pepperoni and salami are good choices too.

  10. Shawn permalink
    January 8, 2015 4:48 pm

    A tavern pie is about the place just as much as it is about the pie, if not more. My favorite is The Fountain at the moment. It is in the neighborhood, has a decent vibe, the pizza is good, the beer is adequate. Is it great? Some might say it is, but that is not why I go there.

    To me a tavern pie is about nostalgia, tradition, or location. No matter where you are in the Capital District you should be able to find yourself in close proximity to a tavern pie. I’m not going out of my way to find one, although Albany seems to be a bit lacking in this category in my opinion. I’m also not going to stop in and pick one up to go, it is meant to be eaten at the tavern.

    Of the ones that still remain, the others that have been my spots at one point or another and where I might occasionally stop in if I’m in that neighborhood are The Purple Pub, Valente’s, The Red Front, Ralph’s, and Hill Street Cafe.

  11. David Nardolillo (DEN) permalink
    January 10, 2015 8:22 pm

    I always thought of tavern pies as ones that involved parbaked dough or shells. I’ve heard stories about who uses pre-made shells, instead of hand-forming fresh dough into the pan, but maybe that’s not done as much anymore.

    Smith’s Tavern (better known as Smitty’s) in Voorheesville had a good reputation for pizza when I was a kid, but I haven’t been there in at least 15 years. Would like to hear if anyone has an update on that place.

  12. MikeH permalink
    January 11, 2015 7:51 pm

    The Fountain, Ralphs, Beff’s when they were on Watervliet Ave, Spiak’s back in the day. The first slice was so hot you had to eat with fork and knife. AntI pasto at Spiak’s on point. More of a meal than a lunch or a snack which is what I think of the thin crust nyc style pie.

    • llcwine permalink
      January 12, 2015 10:06 am

      Unfortunately, Spiaks is closed…need to find a new place to get my white clam pizza….

  13. buffsoulja permalink
    January 14, 2015 10:02 am

    Fountain’s Meatball and Eggplant and Red Front’s COB

    I travel the globe eating amazing food – but always find myself craving these hometown institutions the most. Proof that these Tavern pies are comfort food in all the right ways.

  14. January 16, 2015 9:01 pm

    I am cheating and going with Glens Falls on this, because that’s what I know. Also, bear in mind that my information is about 20 years old.

    1) How would you describe a tavern pie? – Thin (almost nonexistent) crust. It’s basically there to hold the toppings and cheese and tomato sauce.
    2) Which place makes your favorite one these days? “These days” = 20-30ish years ago, but Talk of the Town in Glens Falls.
    3) Which other places would you say are similar, but not quite as good? The Harvest, in Queensbury. See above disclaimer. We would go here in August when we were at the summer camp on Lake Sunnyside, because it was closer and *almost* as good (truth be told, I think Grandpa also preferred their Manhattans).
    4) More importantly, what makes your favorite so good? Nostalgia*
    5) Are their toppings involved? And if so, which ones? Not really? But that’s because when I was 8, all I would eat for toppings was pepperoni. It’s still my favorite, but I am not NEARLY as rigid.

    *I don’t really care for the style, to be honest. If I were to ever go to Talk of the Town again, for any reason, I would get pizza. I remember it fondly, but I also remember even as a kid it “wasn’t the same” as a NYC style pie, which is my overwhelming preference. So it could be that, for you – you just don’t care for the style.

    I have lived in Albany for almost 10 years and have not been to the Orchard. C had never even HEARD of it when he saw them in our City Dining Cards. So maybe we’ll go there and order Tavern pie for the hell of it.

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