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A Half-Baked Idea

December 1, 2017

Food bloggers typically work alone. Sure, sometimes they collaborate with others. But writing is a pretty solitary activity. Of course, some are drawn to the form because of that and have no interest in spending time with others. But I love getting together with passionate food lovers, even if I disagree with them on some fundamental points, because it can make for interesting debates and scintillating conversation.

That was just one reason why I loved being a judge for All Over Albany’s Tournament of Pizza. Beyond getting to eat all of the best loved pizzas throughout the Capital Region in multiple rounds of blind tastings, I was able to do it in the company of Albany Jane, Jon in Albany, J+R of Chopsticks Optional, Deanna Fox, and others.

Then, a couple years ago, the annual tradition came to an end. It had run its course. We found that the same two pizza shops just kept on rising to the top. Marino’s in Schenectady and DeFazio’s in Troy.

Me? I love both places, for different reasons.

But today isn’t about me. It’s about us. The old judges of the TOP. Because we’re older. And over the years there have been about as many life changes as one can imagine. I attended the wedding of J+R, went to Albany Jane’s baby shower, and got to help the Fox family celebrate Chanukah.

Last night, we tried to get as many of us together for a reunion of sorts. Naturally, there was pizza. But when left to our own devices, what would we get?

Scheduling events when you’re older is hard. Especially when there is a toddler involved. And in the end, not everyone was able to come. Work calls, unexpected events require attention, things happen that are beyond your control.

What was within the range of our control was the pizza order.

There was one thing I wanted, and that was the one pizza we never got to judge in the TOP. DeFazio’s Fra Diavolo. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s one of their most popular pies. The toppings are simply DeFazio’s homemade hot Italian sausage and chopped hot peppers, on a red pie with mozzarella cheese.

Joe, one of the TOP judges, always lamented the fact that DeFazio’s never sent in that pie in the finals. Most of the time DeFazio’s made it into the finals, when they got to choose the pie submitted for judging, they made bad decisions. And that meant it wasn’t so much that the other shop won the tournament, but DeFazio’s lost on a fumble.

One year they sent a pie with a whole wheat crust, when their success in the tournament was driven by the strength of the traditional white crust. Another year they sent one made with fresh mozzarella, which degraded badly in transit. And then there was the time they sent the cheese bomb with no sauce and some sad looking sliced tomatoes on top.

I think that last one came the year that DeFazio’s Buffalo Chicken pie took the highest score ever seen in the Tournament of Pizza in the semi-finals. All they had to do was re-submit the same pie, and it would have been an easy win.

In the finals of the last TOP, DeFazio’s finally figured it out, and submitted a stunning smoked mozzarella pizza with roasted red peppers, and red onion, on a traditional crust with tomato sauce, and took the win.

So last night we ordered that winning final pie, the Buffalo Chicken, and the Fra Diavolo.

Not only was this my first time having the Fra Diavolo, but it was also the first time that I ordered pizza to go from DeFazio’s using the semi-super-secret trick. Half-bakes.

Before people jump on me for getting pizza to go, there are two things to keep in mind. First of all, the Tournament of Pizza was a tournament of takeout. And second, Albany Jane had to put her baby to sleep. It’s hard for newish moms to get out, so she invited us to hang at her house, and we ate while the little one slept.

For those who don’t know about the half-bake, it’s exactly like it sounds. DeFazio’s starts cooking the pizza for you, and stops before it’s fully done. The dough has turned into a crust. The cheese has melted, and combined with the other toppings.

But it’s clearly not done cooking. The cheese isn’t caramelized. The crust isn’t fully browned. The pie remains uncut.

The idea is that you can bring it home, fire up the oven as hot as you can—making sure to preheat it with a pizza stone or steel inside—and finish cooking the pie. That way, at least in theory, you get a fresh from the oven pizza experience. Piping hot, perfectly cooked, with a crispy bottom crust.

Of course, you’re taking on a lot of responsibility to finish it well.

Or in our case, Jon in Albany, took that responsibility. He brought over a pizza steel. We got AJ’s oven up to 500 degrees. What we forgot to do was bring the laser thermometer to check the temperature. I managed the timer, but mostly we managed the process by the smell of cheese caramelizing and crust charring. Deep toasting and a little bit of char is good. Burning would be bad.

He did a great job.

Although at the end of the night, we were all wishing we had ordered one fully baked pre-cut pie to reheat properly, just to see how it stacked up against the half-baked one. We are after all pizza judges. Judging is what we do.

Is there some degradation from stopping the cooking process and restarting it again? We suspected there might be. But it was super fun to watch crust bubbles forming, and have a DeFazio’s pie cooking in a home oven.

Ultimately, the best way to enjoy this pizza is to eat it on site. But the half-baked is a great second choice, especially if you are like me, and just love a crispy bottom crust. And if you’ve never had the Fra Diavolo, get it. It’s my new favorite pie from this Troy institution.

Next time I go, I may have to see how it is with the addition of bacon.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2017 11:56 am

    I love the Fra Diavolo pie at DeFazio’s, and order it regularly. I love their ground sausage.

    But here’s the thing, and I’m surprised you didn’t mention it. The Fra Diavolo while delicious, is not spicy. AT. ALL.

    Make sure to douse the pie in red pepper flakes, or hot sauce, if like me, you actually like your spicy food, you know… spicy.

  2. December 2, 2017 1:25 am

    It is always nice to get together with the pizza obsessed. I had a great time.

    Steve- I agree with you that the Fra Diavolo wasn’t that hot in terms of spice, but I thought it had a nice little zip and the topping combination worked well. It made me want to try my own spin on it the next time I make pizza.

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