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Top Three Pizza Places in Fairfield County

Connecticut’s reputation as a pizza state rests firmly in New Haven, where Pepe’s, Sally’s and Modern play out a long rivalry. New Haven pizza’s roots are Italian immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s. Today, New Haven-style thin-crust pizzas are being blistered in ovens ovens all over Fairfield County.

Pepe’s opened its first outpost in Fairfield more than 10 years ago, and it still can’t shake mutterings “It’s not as good as New Haven,” because how can an old seasoned oven compete with one that’s been firing only a dozen years?  (Take that, futurists and technocrats!)

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Photo courtesy of Tom McGovern

I have enjoyed pizzas at Pepe’s in Fairfield. We met friends who were driving back to New Jersey from a Connecticut casino. They didn’t know that pizza was a Connecticut Thing. The long  lines at Pepe’s, the anticipation, seemed to be a sign it was worth waiting for. Getting a table felt like an honor, followed by the rush of ordering. Our friends loved the pizzas, and packed up half to take home to their kids. When the check came, we were glad they’d done so well at the casino.

 

I wrote about the history of Pepe’s and my love of their fresh clam pie for the Hartford Courant, and here’s a report with more photos from my blog Pepe’s Pizza’s History in the Pies

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Photos by Tom McGovern

I love the pizza at Amore Cucina & Bar in the Springdale section of Stamford. Bruno DiFabio’s mastery of Neapolitan and Roman crusts, and classic and contemporary toppings blends tradition with exploration. I wrote about Amore for the Hartford Courant, and here’s a blog post with more photos Amore Cucina: Great Pizza in Stamford

 

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Fortina is a loud, youthful place in Harbor View, which makes a terrific pizza Margherita.

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You can read more about it here: Fortina Pizzeria Rocks Harbor Point

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But my favorite place of all to have pizza is at home, Tips for Making Great Pizza at Home

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Where’s your favorite place to have pizza?

 

Amore Cucina: Great Pizza in Stamford

Photos by Tom McGovern, Courtesy of Amore Cucina

Bruno DiFabio’s love of pizza came full circle when he opened Amore Cucina & Bar. It’s where he made his first pizza when he was ten. Today, the six-time World Pizza Champion and restaurateur owns the 40-year-old joint in Springdale, Stamford, where he updates  Italian-American classics, and continues his exploration into the artisan pizza he started at RéNapoli (King of Naples) in Old Greenwich.

The original 1975 red neon sign is retro hip. Inside, exposed brick and worn wood, a long bar that seats 30. There’s a dining room too. But if you’re a pizza geek, you’ll want to sit at the end of the bar and watch the pizza guy.

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After making New York-style pizza professionally for 20 years, DiFabio went to Italy to study under a grand master pizzaiolo. He studied the science of pizza making, traveled the world to see where the ingredients are grown and processed. He collected dew in the Dolomite Mountains to get yeast for a starter dough he’s kept going for years. He filmed a pilot. He judged pizza on the Food Network show “Chopped.”

At Amore Cucina & Bar, there are two kinds of pies, the round Neapolitan and square Roman, each made with a different type of dough. The Neapolitan uses the traditional 8-hour process, and bakes in a wood-fired oven, creating a thin, charred, chewy, well-flavored crust. The Roman pizza dough ferments for 72 hours, creating an airy, bubble-filled crust with a crisp, brown exterior.

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The Neapolitan Margherita was glorious, baked quickly in a 900-degree wood-fired oven, to get the distinctive char known as “leoparding,” and topped with a bright, garlic-infused San Marzano tomato puree, pools of creamy fresh mozzarella and torn basil leaves.

The Roman Juliet is sweet with gorgonzola dolce, fig jam, balanced with ham glazed with balsamic. DiFabio’s award-winning pizzas are on the menu, the Roman-style Ferentini, topped with spicy salami, green olives, San Marzano puree and mozzarella.

Shaved fennel salad with avocado, dressed in lemon, olive oil and sea salt, is a refreshing complement.  Pork belly and polenta is an irresistible cicchetti or snack.

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And praise be for short ribs cooked on the bone as they should be (where and why did a trend for boneless short ribs, if that’s even what they are, sweep the restaurant scene?) Same with the Italian-American classic chicken scarpariello, served on the bone, surrounded by a deeply flavored, spicy wine sauce  seasoned with sausage and pickled hot red peppers. Fingerling potatoes cooked in duck fat add a note of luxury.

Duck fat fried potatoes are on the brunch  menu, and while I haven’t had a chance to get there, the savory waffle, with sausage, black pepper gravy and maple syrup, sounds tempting.

But no matter how I’m temped, I can’t help it, I always have Amore’s pizza Margherita

Amore Cucina & Bar is at 921 Hope St., Stamford, CT. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 11:30 to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., and Sunday 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. For more information (203) 357-1066 or http://amorecucinastamford.com

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

 

 

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.

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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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