Friday, May 26, 2017

Brier Hill Pizza - Youngstown, OH

The Hackknife clan recently traveled back to my dad's hometown near Youngstown, OH for yet another cousin wedding (this one likely to be the last for quite some time - they're all hitched now).  I always enjoy having the opportunity to visit with my extended Italian family and, of course, sample Italian-American goodies I don't always encounter elsewhere.  On this trip, much to my astonishment, I came across a pizza style I hadn't seen explicitly defined before (that's not entirely true - First We Feast mentions it in an August 2016 article on American pizza taxonomy, but the picture associated with it isn't correct) called Brier Hill, named after an historic enclave of Youngstown where many Italian families settled to work in the now-shuttered coal mines and steel mills.  According to my sources, this pizza style has roots in the Basilicata region of southern Italy and includes a thick layer of tomato sauce (similar, if not identical to, the sauce or "gravy" used on pasta) atop an olive oil pan crust, along with green peppers and grated romano cheese (usually Pecorino romano) in place of shredded mozzarella.  The concept appears to have been born from the ingenuity of thrifty immigrants, who had ready access to tomatoes and peppers from their backyard gardens and, needing a break from frequent spaghetti dinners, leftover pasta sauce.

Conveniently enough for me, one of the prominent local purveyors of this pizza style (Wedgewood Pizza) happened to have a location just down the street from our hotel in Howland, so I was able to pop in to grab a 12" Brier Hill for lunch before the wedding.

My first impression of this dish is that it's not all that dissimilar from some of the pizzas that my grandmother and great-grandmother used to make for us when we were visiting from Chicago.  Although the ancestors on my dad's side came from a different region of Italy and (likely as a result) settled in another Italian neighborhood of Youngstown apart from Brier Hill, they no doubt had similar customs and sensibilities when it came to food (and probably interacted with a lot of Basilicatans as well), so it's no surprise that all of the Mahoning Valley Italian nanas made pizza pie like this.  The Wedgewood version doesn't skimp on the sauce (it's pretty robust with oregano and other spices), which is applied in a thick layer, sprinkled with chopped green peppers and grated cheese, and then baked in a large gas oven (they had 6 ovens at the Howland location - apparently, the locals love pizza).  I can't say that Brier Hill style is my favorite (I missed my mozzarella), but the nostalgia value alone is enough to bring me back someday.

If you've been to Youngstown lately, you'll note that much of it (including Brier Hill - we inadvertently passed through while driving around town) is significantly diminished from its heyday in the early/mid-20th Century, but one of the local Catholic parishes (St. Anthony) still churns out Brier Hill pizzas every Friday to help raise funds for the church.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Philadelphia Eats (Royal Farms/John's Roast Pork/Donkey's Place)

Between now living in an area where a significant chunk of American colonial history went down and my time volunteering at the nearby Jay Heritage Center, I am officially a history junkie (and also leaning towards archaeology as a hobby - anyone have a spare metal detector to lend?). So when I first got wind that a new museum (the Museum of the American Revolution) was opening in Philadelphia (a mere 2 hour and 15 minute drive from the Chuck Wagon), I had to check it out on behalf of the Jay Center. Sadly, our famous local Founding Father John Jay receives merely a scant mention in one museum exhibit that details the Federalist Papers, but I managed to console myself by sampling some of the more well-known local Philly grub (namely cheesesteaks).

Up first, though, was an appetizer of Southern fried chicken. What?!?, you say, Philadelphia is most definitely not part of the South, and you'd be 100% correct on that. If you'll indulge me momentarily, I'll explain. Back in March, Garden and Gun Magazine came out with its state-by-state list to bucket list fried chicken in the South, and I was so enthralled, I made a pledge to proceed directly to my nearest former Confederacy state (in this case, Maryland, which technically was a border state not affiliated with either side in the Civil War) as expeditiously as possible to get some G&G highlighted chicken. As it turns out, the convenience store franchise that is one representative of Maryland on the list (Royal Farms) has its northernmost location near Philadelphia just south of the airport among some industrial parks along the Delaware. The beautiful thing is that you can pull into this Royal Farms at nearly any time of day (10 am, for example) and obtain some bangin'-good fried chicken, the likes of which have no business coming from what's essentially a large gas station.

This gigantic breast (and I don't even normally gravitate towards white meat) was juicy, hot, perfectly breaded, and not a greasy mess - if you go, skip the potato wedges and roll (which were mediocre at best) that come with the combo meal and stick with the bird.

One can't come to Philadelphia and not get a cheesesteak, but my sources tell me that the famous local purveyors Pat's and Geno's (which are catty-corner from each other) are mainly for the tourists and there are other cheesesteak slingers worth seeking out instead; for example, John's Roast Pork in South Philly.

The good folks at John's have been in business since 1930 and, although they're most known for their roast pork sandwich (hence the name), they offer one of the better cheesesteaks in town.  The line moves fast and you'd be well advised to know what you want before getting up front (there's a touch of Soup Nazi going on here); however, you'll have a plus-size hoagie filled with beefy goodness in your paws in no time (what you see below is only half).

The cooks at John's chop up the beef slices and grilled onions into a pile of small bits before placing on the Italian roll with cheese - I went with the sharp provolone, which I found to be a tad skunky.  Still, this was a fine snack after a mid-morning breakfast of fried chicken and I'm intrigued enough to return sometime for the famous roast pork.

After a few hours at the museum, I had one more stop before heading back to New York.  Anthony Bourdain swears by the cheesesteaks coming out of a dive bar called Donkey's Place in the down-on-its-luck metropolis of Camden, New Jersey (across the river from Philly); in fact, M. Bourdain liked Donkey's so much that he featured them in a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown, giving the depressed neighborhood a much needed infusion of business and positive attention.

I can now tell you from my own experience that if you look up the definition of "dive bar" in a dictionary, you should see a picture of Donkey's on the page.  Packed with day drinkers at 3 pm on a Thursday, Donkey's (named after the original owner Leon Lucas and his boxing moniker) has been around since the 1940s and is a mecca for cheesesteak, eschewing the chopped beef and onion format like that at John's in lieu of grilled piles of sliced beef topped with white cheddar and a mound of caramelized onions cooked off somewhere in the back kitchen (I watched a server dump out a large white bucket of them on the grill).  They use a poppyseed-studded kaiser roll (baked at Del Buono's Bakery in Haddon Heights, NJ) here that I decided I much prefer to the usual hoagie roll.

Donkey's cheesesteak pretty much put to shame just about every other version I'd ever had (granted, I've not had many), with the mythical whole being clearly greater than the sum of its parts. There are little bottles and pots of homemade pepper oil at every table to drizzle on your sandwich for some added kick and the fries aren't bad, either (were they dusted with Old Bay seasoning?), but you need to get your ass (er, donkey) over here pronto for the cheesesteak and a cold draft...

Monday, May 8, 2017

United Nations of Grub - Algeria (Bar Omar)

I recently reached the last of the initial 3 "relatively easy" countries on my United Nations of Grub list; that is, Algeria (the next group of 3 - Andorra, Angola, and Antigua and Barbuda - will be somewhat challenging). Although there are not a ton of straight-up Algerian restaurants in the metro area (many places categorized as "Moroccan" or "Mediterranean" offer cuisine that shares a lot in common with that of Algeria), there is an offshoot of a famous French-Algerian eatery in Paris called Chez Omar that opened in Brooklyn last year. Bar Omar (188 Grand Street) offers nearly everything that the 40-odd year old Parisian original does (minus perhaps the haughty server attitude), including the renowned couscous recipe that Chef Eric tells me is very labor-intensive and likely found nowhere else in the five boroughs. According to the chef, Omar Guerda (Chez Omar's founder) himself traveled to America to teach him his techniques and dishes before he opened this sister location.

What you see above is one possible way to enjoy that terrific couscous - a silver platter of the light, fluffy stuff arrives at the table with a large bowl of 7-vegetable bouillon (including potatoes, onions, celery, and carrots) and the protein of your choice (in this case, housemade merguez lamb and beef sausages), along with some potent harissa paste for spice and a bowl so you can create your own blend of the various ingredients. On a cool and cloudy April day, this hearty stew is sheer bliss.

Desserts are nothing to sneeze at, either. Chef Eric and his crew turn out a sublime date and rosewater tartine, dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with honey.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Sea View Snack Bar/Oyster Club - Mystic, CT

If you live in the Northeast and you're seeking a family-friendly venue for a long weekend, we recently discovered that Mystic, Connecticut is not a bad place to visit. Mystic is an old whaling town that has become a popular haven for summer vacationers; however, show up in April right before the tourist season begins and you'll find it to be refreshingly crowd-free for the most part. The town's main attraction is the historic seaport, a collection of old ships and buildings that were assembled in one location to simulate a 19th-Century New England port village - on paper, the concept sounds a bit hokey, but it's actually very impressive if you happen to have any interest in old American maritime culture (for example, the world's last wooden whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, has been fully restored and docked at the seaport for exploring).

Of course, fans of 1980s pop culture are also familiar with a certain pizza parlor that provided the name to a romcom flick featuring Julia Roberts (we tried the pizza and, by the way, it's better than you might expect for a tourist trap).

When traveling to the Long Island Sound shore, one is never far from a stellar seafood shack - Mystic's crown jewel of this category is the Sea View Snack Bar, serving up the ocean's bounty next to the Mystic River (conveniently located within a short walk of the seaport) since 1976.

Although there are better places to get a lobster roll (it was mediocre), the whole clam (or clam belly) roll on a toasted bun is an item you can't miss.  The fried clam strips and cole slaw were also quite tasty.

For an upscale meal, Oyster Club (just off the main drag near downtown Mystic) is a great farm-to-table (or, as they call it, farm/sea-to-table) restaurant that I'd heard of even before we booked our trip.

In addition to a bevy of local oysters on offer, brunch patrons can order inventive dishes such as "farrancini" (Sicilian rice balls made with farro in place of risotto) with white anchovies/pesto and a killer marzipan brioche french toast.  OC has been heralded as one of the best restaurants in New England and I have no qualms with that lofty distinction - if we drive fast enough, Mrs. Hackknife and I might even be able to pull off an evening meal here from the Chuck Wagon and back...