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Old Pizza

May 13, 2016

Is it any surprise Albany’s oldest pizzeria makes a takeaway version of something closely resembling a tavern pie?

When you stop and think about it, that makes perfect sense. But it was unexpected.

Many thanks to Steve N. who set up this Unofficial Yelp Event, which brought out several members of the local food loving community to Swinburne Park late on a spring evening to eat a remarkable quantity of pizza from TJ’s PJ’s.

Because of this event, I finally got to meet Melinda from Crumbs Around the Capital, and that was exciting too. I love getting to spend time with those who busy themselves thinking about how to improve the food scene in the Capital Region. It was also a good reminder that I had been delinquent about keeping up with her blog. Her latest post about food trucks is a great thought starter.

But back to pizza.

Last night was another fantastic learning experience. Not only did I get to try five different pies and experience this beloved neighborhood institution. But I also learned something about myself and feel like I’ve somehow switched roles over the years. I’ll explain.

Before the pizza even came, we had to decide which pies to order. Making these calls with a group can be challenging since everyone has their own preferences.

For starters I love the classics, but I hate pepperoni. Ground beef on pizza is totally unappealing. And pizzeria olives are almost universally terrible. I always want to do something with sausage. I often want to include onions and peppers on a pie. And I can easily be talked into a buffalo chicken pizza. It can also be interesting to check out a place’s special pies and see if any sound truly special.

After the last Third Thursday Tavern Time at Kay’s Pizza, I’m now also a fan of the unusual combination of bacon, ham, and jalapeno peppers.

What never crossed my mind was getting a plain cheese pie.

I mention that because in the early days of my food writing life, I always had a desire to try the basics. Not just at pizza places, but also at burger joints. I wanted food stripped down to its core components, unsullied by distractions, so I could better assess how a place did with the basic building blocks of its cuisine.

At the time, my new friend Celina Ottaway gently suggested that I was setting myself up for disappointment. It’s a much harder task for a kitchen to knock your socks off with the basics. But at the time I held firm.

These days, I’m much more flexible.

But it was Melinda who pushed for a plain cheese pie precisely for the reasons above. I absolutely respect where she is coming from. It’s a position I know quite well, since it’s one I argued for years. And indeed there are some markets where pizza makers can produce a wow worthy plain cheese pizza.

Sure, adding toppings will obscure the fact that the bones of a pie may not be the strongest. However, it’s more likely to result in a delicious experience. Perhaps an experience so good, you’ll have to repeat it elsewhere. Like that crazy combination of salty, smoky, and fiery Steve N. shared with us at Kay’s Pizza with the canadian bacon, bacon, and jalapeno pie.

Except last night PJ’s was out of ham, so we replaced the canadian bacon with sausage.

We also got a cheese pie for Melinda and the one non-adventurous eater who decided to join us for this pizza gathering regardless of the fact that he wouldn’t be eating most of what we ordered.

The remaining pies were a buffalo chicken, a classic veggie blend of onions, peppers, and mushrooms, and a specialty white pizza called the Mutch (garlic powder, broccoli, onions, sausage, and cheese).

As suspected, the toppings made these pies. Well, toppings made them good. The crust made them unique. Much like the end crust at Purple Pub, this one comes to a thin seam all around the outer edge, offering several crisp and well-toasted bites at the end of each slice.

But there is no yeasty complexity in the end crust. The bottom crust, while relatively thin underneath, resembles the oily focaccia textured doughs that are often pressed into pie plates at our local taverns.

This crust is a tricky beast, and the white pizza really could have used something else going on. Maybe more sausage? The crust also seems to degrade pretty quickly, getting tougher and losing its crispness the longer the pie sits. However, the crust was also part of this pie’s highlight reel. That crisp edge is a treat, but even more so is how this pie is able to see some heat in the oven and come out with some actual color.

The sauce didn’t offer the brightness of tomatoes, the sweetness of stewed fruit, or the complexity of herbs. But it was rich and salty, and did well to moisten the drier crust.

But once again, the highlight was the smoky spicy pie that I may start calling the Steve N. special.

Well, that was the highlight in the food department. Gathering with a bunch of eaters was a personal highlight for me. Plus the realization that I’ve somehow switched roles and am now behaving more like Celina did several years ago was fascinating.

Life is one helluva journey. It can move awfully fast. Don’t forget to stop and eat the pizza.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. RogerK permalink
    May 13, 2016 11:57 am

    Agreed, a big thank you to Steve N. both for organizing this UYE and for introducing us to what I’ll probably be calling a Steve-a-reño in the future when I order that combination!

  2. May 13, 2016 1:24 pm

    The “Steve N. Special”. That has a nice ring to it.

    I forgot to share this with everyone last night…

    I watched them make the pizzas while we were waiting for our’s to come out of the oven. They do something I’ve not seen before. The dough rounds are kept on standard pizza pans. The dough is stretched to the edges of the pan and then put into the oven. After a few minutes when the crust has firmed up, they remove the pan and let the pizza finish cooking directly on the oven floor.

    • May 13, 2016 9:16 pm

      By ‘standard pizza pans’ I mean the shiny tin looking things many pizza places use as serving trays.

  3. buffsoulja permalink
    May 15, 2016 9:05 pm

    I was impressed. It wasn’t anything fancy, but there special stuff going on there. I am a fan and wish I knew about the place earlier. Better late than never though.

  4. May 18, 2016 3:25 pm

    Daniel B.-
    I must have led you to reminiscing about Celina when we met at SJCC for the Iron Kef. How do I find out about your foodie meet-ups? Are there Albanians willing to give a blind guy a ride?

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