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Five Totally Different Tavern Pies

February 10, 2015

Albany has taverns. Those taverns have pizza. They also have wings, but let’s put those aside for today. These neighborhood joints are where the people of the Capital Region hunker down during the winter to eat comforting food, drink plenty of beer, and fortify themselves for the remainder of a season that looks like it will never end.

So what exactly is tavern pizza, and what sets it apart from what’s made at a pizza shop? I couldn’t really say. But to understand this dish better, I went off to five of the Capital Region’s most beloved taverns with five other intrepid eaters. There were six of us in all.

We skipped the Orchard Tavern and the Fountain. Mostly because these pizzas were known entities. The Orchard’s really is its own thing. And after a recent visit to the Fountain and receiving a sausage pie that was a shadow of its former goodness, I thought it more prudent to check out places I’ve either never visited or haven’t visited in many years.

This is what we found.

Hill Street Cafe may not look like much from the outside, but its kitchen has some serious skills. It was a solid contender in the Tour de Disco Fry coming in second to The Ruck. This was also the place where I discovered the joy of garlic parm wings many years ago on an unofficial Yelp tour de wings in those early days before the FLB.

Upon hearing they did not make their own sausage in house, we opted for a plain cheese pie. Except at Hill Street Cafe, there isn’t anything plain about it. This round eight cut beauty was full of flavor. Its crust was brushed with oil and garlic, the cheese was burnished and accented with herbs, and its sauce was hearty and well seasoned. R of Chopsticks Optional loved the “awesome garlic crust” giving it her top crust score of the day.

Albany Jane and I agreed that this crust was special. This was more like a traditional pizza crust, but thick and cooked on a screen. The end crust had great lift, crispness and chew. But there was so much sauce and cheese piled onto this thing, the bottom crust couldn’t support the weight of each slice.

Did I mention it was greasy? I mean, super, super greasy. In the best possible greasy way. It’s almost as if the pizza were fried. This is comforting grease. This is the grease that you need when you’re out drinking late at night and want something to help soak up the booze.

In the end, everyone agreed that this was the best pizza of the day.

We had hoped to try the pizza at New Madison Grille, but apparently they aren’t open for lunch on Saturday. So we were off to the first of two Watervliet institutions: Deacon Blues.

llcwine did not make it on the tour, but this long time commenter who I admire and respect suggested we try the seafood scampi pie. And on the menu at this very charming old school establishment it was listed as one of two pizza specialties. Clearly they felt it was something to crow about too. So, even though it sounded a little strange, we went for it.

Had it not been for the imitation crab sticks, this might have been okay.

This tavern’s pie was rectangular and made on more of a focaccia style dough. The FLB commenter who goes by -R noted the pie was underseasoned. J of Chopsticks Optional found the seasoning to be inconsistent bite to bite. Even though this pizza’s crust was underwhelming, its crispy edges may have been the best thing going for it.

But that’s largely because the flavor of the fake crab sticks overwhelmed the experience. The bay scallops were fine, but the small shrimp actually had that good slight crunch which was unexpected and delightful. If this were a shrimp scampi pizza and the kitchen were a little more evenhanded in its seasoning, this might not have been the worst pie of the day for five of the six participants.

That said, I love the feel of this place, and plan to come back and try their sausage pie. If you’ve never been, you have to see it. This is an institution out of time, and one has to wonder if it could exist anyplace else but Watervliet.

Albany Jane was the lone dissenter who found the round pie at the Purple Pub to not live up to the hype. Her notes say “Golden Corral” “frozen flavor” “Elios”. But she always says Elio’s when there are onions in the pizza sauce.

The Purple Pub makes a round version of the focaccia style crust pie. It’s end crust is pinched into a thin crisp seam around the edge, so the sauce and cheese can cover most of the dough. R praised the crust for it’s “crispy/crunchy” texture with “decent flavor”. The crumbled sausage was unevenly distributed, and there were tons of canned mushrooms (which wasn’t great). -R liked the sausage but wasn’t crazy about the cheese.

The cheese was a smooth melting cheese. And on its own, it may not be great. But the combined effect of the melted cheese and the tender doughy bottom crust made for a very soft and comforting pizza. This is a pizza in which you could drown your feelings. If you are looking for flavor, perhaps you are better off looking elsewhere.

Ralph’s Tavern was next. I don’t know who Klab is, but this was the first comment on one of my earlier hunts for great tavern pizza. It was suggested that the thing to get at Ralph’s is pepperoni and mushroom. The only problem is that I hate pepperoni.

We’ve been burned by recommendations in the past. But in this case, the pepperoni were actually fantastic. They were the type that curl so that all the flavorful oil pools in each slice and the edges crisp to provide that great smoky, meaty crunch that pepperoni rarely offers. Each rectangular slice of the rectangular pie was graced with two slices of pepperoni and a sprinkle of canned mushrooms.

As good as the pepperoni turned out to be, it was the sauce that gave Ralph’s its highest scores. Josh K. gave this black-peppery tomato sauce his highest score of the day. -R and I agreed, but placed it on par with the assertive sauce at Hill Street.

Stylistically, this pie felt like what the pizza at Deacon Blues aspired to be. Although, oddly, at Ralph’s there was a piece of paper in between the bottom crust and the pizza pan (potentially intended to help keep the bottom from getting soggy). Regardless, this was a surprisingly tasty pizza. But without the pepperoni, it wouldn’t be as special. Next time I’ll get it without the mushrooms.

Four out of the six evaluators found Ralph’s to be their number two pick, and it’s certainly a place I would go back to for a pepperoni pie. I might even be tempted to try a pepperoni and sausage combo. Ooh. Meaty.

To round out the day, we were off to Voorheesville, where Smith’s Tavern is synonymous with pizza. There are three pies they are known for, but it was The Villager which made them famous. That’s fresh mushrooms, red and green peppers, red onions, black olives, housemade sausage and garlic.

J+R of Chopsticks Optional had Smith’s down as their number two pick. J describes the crust as “very thick [but] surprisingly light with nice crunch.” The sauce didn’t wow either of them, but R was a fan of their “tasty fresh toppings” and J gave those his highest score of the day.

This round pie had massive lift throughout the bottom crust. But it really felt more like toppings on bread. These are topping-driven pies, and you would be doing yourself a disservice by not loading up your pizza with as many things as humanly possible. On this pie it’s the toppings that bring the flavor. The cheese, crust, and sauce are merely the delivery mechanisms.

I suppose, texturally, this is comforting with its pillowy soft bottom crust. But this middle of the pack pizza won’t bring me back.

So, congratulations to Hill Street Cafe. It’s kind of amazing that some of the most flavorful pizza we had all day was the one with no toppings at all. But it is totally true.

That said, even though theirs was a pizza made and sold in a tavern, it bore little resemblance to the doughy crusts that typically represent the form. In that category, Ralph’s Tavern came out on top. But if you skip the pepperoni, you are skipping out on what made this pie so special.

It would seem that the only common thread between all of these pies is comfort. They aren’t made to be fussed over. They aren’t trying to achieve some kind of perfect pizza. It’s something to go with beer and to chase away the cold. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be delicious. Hill Street Cafe does such a bang up job, I may even have to bring Mrs. Fussy here for a date night.

Thank you again to all the evaluators who came out and lent their bodies to science. And thank you to all the commenters who made suggestions of places and toppings. Not all of them were winners, but we couldn’t have done it without you.

And if anyone wants a blank copy of the scoresheets so they can take their own self-guided Tour de Tavern Pie, just let me know.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. llcwine permalink
    February 10, 2015 10:50 am

    Sorry the seafood scampi pizza was a letdown….I haven’t had it in about a year….too bad Spiak’s closed as they made a white clam pizza that you all would have swooned over…full of clams and garlicky goodness. I will have to give Purple Pub another shot and head down to Hill St. to try their pizza

  2. Debra permalink
    February 10, 2015 10:59 am

    Happy to hear Hill Street got some good ratings. It’s right around the corner in my neighborhood and is always the go to (when I’m not getting a Café Capriccio pie) for pizza and wings. Thanks for all the info Mr. Fussy.

    • February 10, 2015 11:15 am

      It’s my pleasure. Just one thing. Mr. Fussy is this guy -> http://mrmen.wikia.com/wiki/Mr._Fussy

      You can call me Profussor, Daniel, or El Profussorino if you aren’t into the whole brevity thing. I just like to steer clear of other people’s intellectual property. Thanks.

      • Debra permalink
        March 3, 2015 12:58 pm

        Sorry Daniel. I would never compare you to Mr. Fussy. My apologies.

  3. Jack C permalink
    February 10, 2015 12:03 pm

    Haven’t been to any of these places yet. Thanks for trying them all! Hill Street and Ralph’s sound heavenly. My wife has a mild (spicy?) pepperoni obsession, so we’ll definitely visit Ralph’s. I’m a sucker for flavorful crust and quality cheese, so Hill St. is right up my alley (I also love wings).

  4. Josh K. permalink
    February 10, 2015 4:48 pm

    Great times Dan! Thanks for having us along.

    But you should definitely make a second trip to The Fountain for Meatball and Eggplant (or Meatball and Onions) – I am bummed to hear that the sausage went downhill.

    With its long history of serving classic Upstate comfort food, and that classic thicker cut crisp, garlicky crust served on an old metal tray, loaded with melted cheese and toppings, Fountain is the epitome of Capital Region Tavern Pizza.

    With that said, Hill Street served up one hell of a delicious pie that deserves more attention.

    I am still recuperating but it was sure a tasty Saturday – except for that Deacon Blues slice.

  5. Kwinn permalink
    February 10, 2015 5:58 pm

    While I applaud all taverns and their fare, not having the Mad Grill pizza tested is a miss. It’s amazing. Legend for those who know. But, if they weren’t open, they weren’t open. Thanks for the article. It must be tough eating all that great food, but someone has to do it!

    • -R. permalink
      February 11, 2015 11:45 am

      Actually, it IS tough. You walk in, have one slice and leave – all the while your stomach is just getting ready to digest food and you shut it off – I could have easily chowed down another three slices of that Hill St. pie on the spot (that of course would defeat the purpose). Metabolically it was a challenging day despite only having eaten five slices – you’re full but in a weird way. That said, I’d do it again in a heartbeat – it was a fun day and it was nice to meet everyone involved.

  6. Klab permalink
    February 10, 2015 8:17 pm

    Too bad Spiak’s closed. They had delicious pizza and the most amazing homemade Perogi sauteed in butter with onions and served in a small cast iron skillet along with a side of sour cream. The pizza was great but I’m almost drooling thinking about their Perogi

  7. albanylandlord permalink
    February 10, 2015 10:31 pm

    Thanks to everyone who went for spending the time and sharing your opinions!

  8. February 11, 2015 12:01 am

    Been a fan of Ralph’s, for pizza for a few years now. It’s consistently good, fast and relatively inexpensive. Bout once a month we grab pizza and wings from Ralph’s. Wings can be great or mediocre. It’s hit and miss – but the pizza has always been good.

  9. buffsoulja permalink
    February 11, 2015 2:18 am

    It was a 10 cut at Hill St not 8 BTW. Another win for Hill Street – and me for having more leftovers that I devoured mere hours later.

  10. David Nardolillo (DEN) permalink
    February 11, 2015 11:42 pm

    Surprised the group did not try some “under the broiler” wings at the Purple Pub to go with the pizza. Good to see Hill Street keeping the good run going in the Fussy Tours.

  11. buffsoulja permalink
    February 16, 2015 12:33 pm

    Just had Fountain last Friday – happy to say that the sausage pie was in top form again.

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