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Fortina Pizzeria Rocks Harbor Point

Fortina had a reputation before it arrived in Stamford. The youthful, hip Italian-American pizzeria blasts loud music and blisters pizzas in a wood-fired oven. The Stamford site in Harbor View is the third in the group that had been drawing Fairfield County pizza lovers across the New York border to Armonk and Rye Brook.

Thin crusts are speckled with char. Toppings pay tribute to Italian-American classics — San Gennaro with sausage and peppers; ‘the original’ famous Rays; and spicy meatballs with pickled cherry peppers.

But Fortina’s most famous pizza is the Luigi Bianco ($21) with black truffle oil smeared over two creamy cheeses, slightly tangy robiola and mild burrata, and a sprinkling of “parm,” as the menu calls it. It’s a rich pie, that pairs well with Fortina’s Bibb salad with apple and radish.

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Fungi pizza ($19) was laden with mushrooms roasted in the wood-burning oven. Their smoky earthiness stood up to melted Talleggio, with its slight tang of washed rind. Roasted bone marrow melted into the whole. Fresh parsley, in a rough, country chop, was the final blessing for this great pie.

The classic margherita ($14) was simple perfection, the crust excellent by every measure: flavor and texture, char against crust, and elasticity within. Whole basil leaves, a bold and generous handful, rested against pools of melted mozzarella over bright, rich tomato sauce. It was a harmony of crust, sauce, cheese and pungent fresh basil.

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Fortina also fires vegetables in the wood oven, and pairs them with condiments — delicata squash with hazelnuts and gremolata, carrots with walnut crema and pecorino, cauliflower with romanesco. The piatto di verdura, a plate of mixed vegetables for two ($21), leaves the decision to the chef (and you get to try several sauces).

Pasta is fired in the oven too. Paccheri ($15), large tubes in “béchamel a la vodka,” a sweet, thick tomato sauce dusted with parm, revealed coveted charred edges that our server said he loves. We didn’t love the pasta as much as he, but the tender baby veal meatballs nestled beneath the pasta were the prize.

Fortina’s staff was super friendly, personable, and enthusiastic about the food. The tall-ceilinged, concrete-floored industrial-looking space, has several levels, and a long L-shaped bar made of polished concrete. A wall of shelves holds a playful assortment of books and colorful porcelain roosters.

Fortina is not the place for a quiet dinner. It’s a scene. Loud music – hip hop, rock, funk and ironic 70s — were blasting when we were there. Add the sounds of voices, laughter, plates and silverware , and don’t expect to hear what anyone at your table’s saying. Just enjoy your pizza.

Fortina

A version of this article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.

Pepe’s Pizza’s History in the Pies

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Photos by Tom McGovern, courtesy of Pepe’s Pizza

Fresh-clam pizza defines Pepe’s for me. I can’t order anything else. Recently,  Gary Biamonte, grandson of Frank Pepe, who opened the original Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven , came to the Fairfield Pepe’s and got me to try a few others. He showed the history of Pepe’s through its pies.

The story starts with the crust. That hand-formed, thin, charred crust is the foundation of the pizza and the business. Frank Pepe started as a baker. He arrived in New Haven in 1909, an illiterate boy from Maiori on the Italian Amalfi Coast . After working in a factory and returning to Italy to fight in World War I, he came back to New Haven and opened a bread bakery in what is now Frank Pepe’s The Spot, next door on Wooster Street. Distribution, the bane of many a small business, was a stumbling block. But if he started making “apizza” (pronounced “ah-beets” in his Neopolitan dialect)… the customer would come to him. The New Haven apizza legend was born.

Today, Pepe’s crust combines crisp, charred, chewy texture, and pleasing saltiness. Biamonte is secretive about how how they make it. He mentions “we get our own blend of flour.” He mentions fermentation, and the dough being a very wet. That’s all I could get out of him.

Many of us grew up thinking mozzarella is an integral part of pizza. But the first pizzas Pepe and his wife Filomena started making in 1925 didn’t have mozzarella on them. It was just tomato and grated parmesan. That pizza, known as The Original Tomato Pie is still on Pepe’s menu, and it’s eye-opening in its simplicity and balance of bright tomato sauce, flavored with garlic and oregano, and grated cheese and crust.

Pepe’s offers The Original with mozzarella, too. My dining companions said they just love mozzarella, and they dug into that. I found The Original in its original state to be utterly fresh and satisfying. I wasn’t tempted by the cheese.

On that much debated topic of cheese and fish, Pepe’s is on the cheese side. When Frank and Filomena started making pizzas, they offered just one variation. The Original with anchovies. These days, we recognize the umami properties of cheese and anchovies. The pizza, featuring Italian anchovies, remains on the menu.

Grated cheese is a base for the fresh clam pizza, and it plays its part without drawing attention to itself. I’ve always marveled at how plump, juicy and tender the clams have been every time I’ve eaten at Pepe’s in Fairfield and New Haven. Biamonte, who grew up shucking clams in Pepe’s kitchen, says “The key is, they’re really fresh.” Pepe’s, especially their pizzerias near the shore, move a lot of clams.

So, where did the fresh clam pizza come from? Back in the 40s and 50s, there was a guy with a cart selling clams near Pepe’s, so they put half shells on the menu. One day, someone got the idea to put them on the pizza. Since the mid-sixties, fresh clam pizzas have become more and more popular. I usually order the fresh clam pie with bacon, but, now that Biamonte has shown me how good it is without bacon, it will be easier to pass on that indulgence.

 

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Fairfield was the first Pepe’s outside New Haven, and it was controversial when it opened 7 years ago. In New Haven, picketers carried signs, “Don’t Leave New Haven!” Meanwhile, in Fairfield, people lined up just like they did on Wooster Street. But the first reviews were bad. People said the pizza didn’t taste the same. They were right. The custom-built, 50-ton oven was new. “The bricks and mortar needed to dry out,” Biamonte said. It needed to cure. The family learned from the experience. As they opened new places, they applied the lesson. “Now, we fire the oven up four months ahead,” Biamonte said. In Fairfield, the oven’s firing up pizzas for a steady line of customers.

Frank Pepe’s two daughters Elizabeth and Serafina inherited and “continued to run it like Pop did.” Today, their children run the business, and despite expanding to Danbury, Manchester, West Hartford, Mohegan Sun, and in Yonkers, N.J., their business has remained focused. Pizza, salad, soda, beer and wine. (We always get a pitcher of Peroni, served with which the tall, chilled Peroni glasses that fit so well in the hand.)

While sticking with the classics, Pepe’s has adapted to contemporary tastes. A white pie of spinach, mushroom and gorgonzola is a loaded, cheesy pie. The vegetables are fresh. Back in the day, “Pop” used fresh mushrooms. Then there were decades of canned. Today, Pepe’s uses fresh mushrooms. In summer (July 1-Labor Day), the fresh-tomato pie with basil is “off-the-charts” popular.

Next time, I’m still ordering the fresh clam pie. But that’s not all. Let’s make some room here. Move the pitcher of beer. Here comes The Original Tomato Pie and the Margherita with fresh mozzarella and basil.

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.)

Tips for Making Great Pizza at Home

Start with good dough. We use a slow fermented flaxseed-wheat-white dough. If it’s frozen, defrost over night in the fridge. Then let the dough sit covered with a towel until it is room temperature. Knead until it acquires a soft, smooth elasticity, like the picture on the right.

On the left, dough before kneading. On the right, dough after kneading.

Next, flatten into a disk, and press and pull the dough into a thinner round. Keep the work table lightly floured.  If the dough fights you, put a towel on it and let it rest a bit.

Place the dough on a floured pizza peel before doing the toppings. The key to toppings is not to add too much. Especially the tomato sauce. Too much wetness won’t let the pizza rise up as it cooks, and can produce a soggy center crust.

To transfer the uncooked pizza from peel to the stone in the oven, make sure your peel is floured enough to let the pizza slide. Put the peel to the stone, tilt, and jerk your arm back to pull the peel from under the pizza, sliding it onto the stone.

We don’t use a store-bought pizza stone. We used to, but we went through a number of them. They cracked and broke. So one day we went out to the yard, picked up a big heavy flagstone and scrubbed it. We’ve been using this stone for 10 years now. It retains the heat and the dough gets that essential “oven spring” that creates the crust’s elastic, holy texture.

Broccoli rabe is our favorite topping, with sausage, meatballs or ham. Boil the broccoli rabe in salted water till tender, strain, and squeeze the excess water from the broccoli. Remember, you don’t want you toppings to be too wet.

This isn’t one of those super thin pizza, but a hearty, crisp, flavorful crust topped with enough cheese and veggies to make it a meal.

Bread, Butter and Jam Breakfast

There’s something about waiting to open homemade jams and jellies until it’s starkest winter. Last weekend, with friends visiting, I opened a jar of peach jam I made in summer. The scent of peaches released from the jar.

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Breakfast was simple. Assorted bread from Fairfield Bread Co., Raisin Rye, Pretzel Rolls, Bridgeport Sour, Flaxette, warmed in the oven. Butter, jams and jelly. A frittata made with potatoes but no cheese since one of our guests is allergic to dairy. And homemade tomatillo salsa. (Leftover from last night’s dinner of tacos.)

When I opened a jar of wine berry jelly, it turned out to be syrup. No worries, we mopped it up from our plates with warm bread.  Next time I’ll serve it with pancakes.

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Wineberries grow like weeds where I live in Connecticut. I make jelly with them.

The peach jam was the biggest hit. Our 18 year old friend loved the big pieces of peach, and ate it with a fork.

Good homemade food and artisan bread makes the simplest meal a feast.

 

 

 

Pozole at Home, Sort of

Cooking at home is a continuous process.

We bought pork hocks from Patti Popp at Sport Hill Farm in Easton. The pigs were raised by Patti and her husband Al. We rubbed the hocks with salt and pepper, and roasted them on a bed of onions, carrots and celery, and added water before covering the pan with foil to create moist heat.

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That night we ate the hocks with mashed potatoes, gravy and honey-parsley carrots. I sliced some tender meat off the bones. Men like putting the whole hock on their plate.

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The next day, we had leftover meat. Hocks are the perfect consistency for making a quick homemade pozole.

What is pozole? It’s a Mexican stew made of hominy and pork. It’s served on weekends at restaurants such as Los Poblanos in Norwalk and El Paraiso in Bridgeport. The fun part is it’s served with a whole bunch of condiments — green and red sauce, limes, avocado, raw onions, dried oregano, fried tortillas or tostados smeared with beans and topped with shredded lettuce and avocado.

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I love the whole enterprise of having pozole in one of my favorite restaurants in Norwalk or Bridgeport. (Click to read about my favorite ethnic restaurants in Bridgeport.)

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But last night was a Monday and I wanted to cook up a quick pork stew using the meat from the left-over hocks. This isn’t a traditional pozole with all the fixings, but it’s a warm, comforting and filling Monday night dinner.

I cut the meat off the bones, into chunks, and used some of the fat to saute chopped onion and carrot, gave it a stir, added homemade stock, and brought it up to a simmer. Added the meat and a can of cooked hominy. Sprinkled some oregano in there.

Meanwhile, my husband cleaned some dried peppers, guadillo and ancho, and roasted them in a cast-iron pan. Then he chopped them, and using a immersion blender, made a paste of the peppers and a fresh onion.   I didn’t use all of the red chile paste (which freezes well). To cook out the raw taste, I put a little oil in a cast iron pan and let the sauce bubble a bit.

Then I added it to the stew. I wasn’t following a recipe, so tasting was important. More salt. And then, what the hell because they were there on the counter, I threw in some chopped almonds and dried cranberries. And a tablespoon of homemade peach jam, to round out the flavors. It bubbled gently.

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Brazilian BBQ, Buffet & Bar in Bridgeport

Yes! We’ve found a new place for Brazilian churrascaria in Bridgeport, Rancho Pantanal Restaurant and Bar.  Fitting for a place that specializes in grilled meat, it has a ranch theme, with dark brown tables and banquets with fence-like backs. Rancho Pantanal Restaurant and Bar is almost on the Stratford line. It’s nicer than the other Pantanal in Bridgeport, which I wrote about for CTBites here.  Parking’s easier at Rancho Pantanal.

Rancho Pantanal’s salad buffet is filled with enough fresh and healthy foods to counteract the splurge of grilled steak. I chose mango salad, pico de gallo, fresh melon, pineapple, and cucumber. At the warm buffet, I showed restraint: yellow rice, black beans and fried sweet plantains.

(The warm buffet serves daily specials, stews of beef, chicken or fish, pork belly, vegetables, okra, yucca, plantain, rice, beans, pastas and lasagna. )

At the meat station, I asked for rare steak, and guy removed a skewer from the brazier, pulled off a steak pierced through its thick cap of fat to form a self-basting bundle. He sliced the meat quickly with super sharp knives and lifted it to my plate. I returned to the buffet and spooned fresh green chimichurri sauce over the meat.  Next stop, the weighing station. My plate cost about $8 dollars.  That’s a lot of food, I must admit, and I enjoyed every forkful. No dinner needed that night.

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And yes, Rancho Pantanal does rodizio, the all-you-can eat parade of skewer-bearing waiters offering grilled steaks, pork, chicken (and  hearts), sausages and more. It’s $25 per person.

I’d like to go back for happy hour, for caipirinhas, those evocative and transporting sugar cane rum and lime drinks. With it, small plates of garlic shrimp, fried chicken and grilled picanha. And mango salsa, tomato salsa, and tropical fruits.

Who wants to come along?

2025 Boston Avenue, Bridgeport CT (right on the border of Bridgeport)

Bistro Cooking at Home

Moules Frites at Home

Mussels are one of the easiest, healthiest, sustainable and economical ways of enjoying a bistro dinner at home. To tell the truth, I’m often disappointed by the mussels in  restaurants. So often the essential bath of broth seems separate from the mussels. Too often, cooks add too much butter, taking away from the refreshing taste of the sea. I like classic preparations, like Rive Bistro’s moules, pictured above. You can see how parts of the sauce catch in the shells, to flavor each mussel. Here’s the piece I wrote about Rive Bistro in Westport, CT for the Hartford Courant.

As a restaurant critic I’ve had to endure abominations like mussels in gorgonzola sauce. It’s the kind of dish people say, “It was really okay,” but really it’s not.

Writing about beer for Yankee Brew Magazine brought me to Mikro, a beer bar in Hamden, CT, where I had a memorable mussels dish in a very good way. They use Belgian witbier, with its notes of coriander and orange peel, and orange juice, garlic, chili, thyme and parsley.

Mikro’s mussels were the jumping off point for the best mussels I’ve ever made at home.

They were the pinnacle of steamed mussels, tender and briny, in a sauce that balanced sweetness of orange, herbs and spices and bite and depth of good beer. Here’s how I did it:

I bought a bag of freshly harvested mussels at Food Bazaar in Bridgeport, an awesome source for international foods and whole fish. It cost $4 for the pound. Feeds two hearty appetites for dinner or four as an appetizer.

I happened to be writing an article about Belgian beer, and my husband and I were drinking a crisp, delicious dry Dupont Saison. So I used the saison in the mussels. A tart Leipziger Gose, brewed with coriander and salt, would have worked too — but in the name of research and deadlines, we’d savored the bottle the night before.

Prep the mise. Slice one large onion into strips you image catching in the mussel shells. Slice a clove of garlic, mince a tablespoon of fresh ginger. Chop about a cup of fresh cilantro (or fresh herb you love.) Squeeze two sweet, juicy Clementines, and add beer to reach half cup.

Caramelize onions over low heat, in a little olive oil, and sprinkle salt over the onions. Stir and watch over them to brown evenly (and don’t burn). When they are brown and golden, push the onions to the side of the pan. Add a some olive oil to the cleared spot, and saute cardamom pods, coriander seeds and Chinese red pepper corns in oil.  After they release their flavors, scoop out the spices.

Add the garlic, ginger and sauté with the onions. Add the orange juice and beer and let it bubble down until thick.  It should look like an onion jam. At this point, you can turn the heat off and wait until you’re ready to serve.

Turn up the heat to medium high and add the cleaned mussels, and a half cup of liquid. I added water and a dollop of Belgian beer.  Cover, and cook until the shells open. Our mussels, in the two inch range, took about four minutes. Scoop the mussels into a large bowl.  To the broth, add two heaping tablespoons of butter, stir until melted, add cilantro, and pour broth over the mussels.

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We ate with our hands, slurping the sweet tender mussels, trapped onions, bright bits of ginger and spicy-sweet broth from blue-black shells.

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Serve with oven-fries.  Here’s how to make them. Peel and slice potatoes. Place on a cookie sheet, and coat in olive oil, use your hands to toss the potatoes. Place in a preheated 400 degree oven.  Do not fuss with the potatoes until they smell good like browning potatoes, and the fries on the edges of the pan are golden brown and not sticking to the pan.  Use a spatula  to move the pale fries to the edges of the pan. When the frites are golden, remove from oven. They are softer than deep-fried fries, but they taste wonderful, a combination of crunch and softness, that is even better when dipped in the mussels broth.

(Top photo courtesy of Rive Bistro.)