Once smitten, twice shuddering

A rule for judging eating establishments: try them more than once before gushing to your friends. I learned this the hard and embarrassing way today. My new policy will be to make two visits to a place to be responsible about my reviews.

For months, I’ve raved about this pizza place in Dupont Circle, having been smitten by a generous (and, to my recollection, very good) slice I had once. It’s a bare bones Chicago-style pizza joint called Alberto’s.

You have to walk down a flight of stairs to reach it, and it’s really just a display case with a narrow counter. The counter is classy (white ceramic tiles with the usual condiments housed in sturdy glass containers) but sans chairs for a casual feel. The display case always entices with gourmet pies so that, within 30 seconds of trundling down the steps, you can have a slice that you have to carry in both hands covered in artichoke, fresh tomato, and shredded Parmesan—and the Parm is the freshly shredded and not grated sawdust kind. The cost of the average slice with several toppings is $3.75. So far so good. As you may guess from the evidence presented so far, when I tried Alberto’s that first time, the atmosphere and the taste added up to delish. So I raved to my friends about this little out-of-the-way place in the shadow of the more touted and expensive Pizzeria Paradiso. It was quaint, adventurous, high quality, and tasty. I thought I had really hit on something. I now worry that I’ve sent hopeful food adventurers into certain destruction.

Maybe destruction is too strong of a word. However, today I decided Alberto’s really is not that great. I stopped in hungry and quivering for some good pizza. Ever since Passover, I’ve been really into this stuff.

Now, I’m not obsessed with evaluating service, which is to say I pay more attention to the food and the context won’t make or break an eatery for me. Still, I noticed that they did well in that area. When I asked for a slice of the artichokey pizza, the guy at the counter said I could have the one displayed there, but if I wanted to wait just four minutes, he could have a fresh pie for me. I went with the fresh, looking oh so forward to the straight-from-the-oven gooey cheese and crispy, thin crust.

Then I asked for a tap water and the guy informed me that they were out of cups. He said it with deep regret in his voice, as if to say my misfortune was also his, so I didn’t really mind. Then I waited almost 10 minutes to be called over for my paid-for prize, only to realize that they’d slipped the fresh one into the display case with no intention of telling me it was ready. I was a little annoyed at this, yet forged on, looking forward to the first taste. After all, the tomatoes looked tender and the slice was huge enough that I had to ask for it to be cut in half.

Then I took a few bites and a bad review was clinched. I was terribly and tragically disappointed. The crust was… conditioned. Or something. It had that industrial taste to it, like low-quality fat and chemicals had been added to boost the other low-quality ingredients. What’s wrong with flour, water, and yeast? And maybe a little sugar to feed the yeasties, a little salt to slow them down and add flavor? The crust just really grossed me out. And the mozzarella cheese, underneath that promising sprinkling of shredded Parmesan, was so-so. The slices of fresh tomato were the only redeeming part.

The memory of that crust actually makes me shudder. So I won’t be going back any time soon. Well, maybe once more just in case three is the magic number.

* * * * *

If you want to make good pizza at home, where you know there won’t be any funny business like chemical additives, here are some recipes. Make your own dough from scratch (it’s pretty simple), or buy pre-made dough that only has the basic ingredients I mentioned above. With a good crust, quality ingredients, and a little love, you should have some very yummy pizza on your hands. But be warned—I’ve only tried making each of these once!

Rhea’s Barbecued Tofu Pizza

“I’m from the old school, my household smell like soul food, bro
curried falafel, barbecued tofu…” – Dead Prez, “Be Healthy”

(Note on the ingredient quantities: I made these up. When I actually made this, I didn’t measure anything, so be sure to treat the quantities with suspicion and adjust as necessary as you cook)

¼ cup canola oil
½ block extra firm tofu, cut in 1/2” cubes and patted dry
1 medium red onion, sliced thinly
1 cup vegetarian barbecue sauce
½ ball frozen or fresh pizza dough (about 8 oz.)
Corn meal
¾ cup pizza sauce, homemade tomato sauce, or a thin, not-too-chunky spaghetti sauce
8 oz. part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded

If frozen, allow the pizza dough to thaw for a few hours until completely soft.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. If using a pizza stone, place stone in oven to heat.

Heat oil in a non-stick skillet. When it’s hot enough for a tofu cube dropped in it to sizzle, add all the tofu. Fry until at least one side of each cube is golden brown. Remove to a plate covered in paper towels to drain, leaving the oil in the pan. In a mixing bowl or other container, combine the tofu cubes and the barbecue sauce. Set aside to marinate.

Heat the oil again, and when hot, add the onions. Reduce heat to med-low and sauté the onions for about 15 minutes, or until soft and browned.

Roll out the dough until it’s at your desired thickness. I suggest very thin. If using a pizza stone, take it out of the oven, dust with cornmeal, and place the dough on it. If using a cookie sheet or baking pan, dust that with cornmeal and put the crust on it. Spread the dough with a thin layer of tomato sauce, leaving a 3/4” crust around the edge. Sprinkle with cheese. Remove the tofu from the sauce with a slotted spoon, scattering it evenly around the pizza. Sprinkle onions on there, too.

Bake the pizza for 10 minutes and check to see if the cheese is melted and the crust is cooked through (lift with a spatula. If it feels hard, it’s ready). If not done, bake for another 5-10 minutes.

Rhea’s Mediterranean Pizza

(Note on the ingredient quantities: I made these up. When I actually made this, I didn’t measure anything, so be sure to treat the quantities with suspicion and adjust as necessary as you cook)

½ ball frozen pizza dough (about 8 oz.)
Corn meal
8 oz. part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded
¾ cup pizza sauce, homemade tomato sauce, or a thin, not-too-chunky spaghetti sauce
1 small jar artichoke hearts
½ cup calamata olives, pitted
½ cup roasted red pepper, diced

If frozen, allow the pizza dough to thaw for a few hours until completely soft.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. If using a pizza stone, place stone in oven to heat. Roll out the dough until it’s at your desired thickness. I suggest very thin. If using a pizza stone, take it out of the oven, dust with cornmeal, and place the dough on it. If using a cookie sheet or baking pan, dust that with cornmeal and put the crust on it. Spread with a thin layer of tomato sauce, leaving a 3/4” crust around the edge. Sprinkle with cheese. Scatter the artichokes, olives, and roasted red pepper evenly over the pizza.

Bake for 10 minutes and check to see if the cheese is melted and the crust is cooked through (lift with a spatula. If it feels hard, it’s ready). If not done, bake for another 5-10 minutes.

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8 thoughts on “Once smitten, twice shuddering

  1. rhea, you make me scorn my lactose intolerance!! beautiful post though. any recommendations on a good lactose free cheese substitute that doesn’t taste or look like plastic when you cook with it?

  2. I don’t cook very often, but I do make pizza. Heck, if you buy pre-made dough, it’s kind-of like making a hot sandwich; just throw what you want on there.

    However, maybe I will get more sophisticated and use a recipe. The ones you provided sure do sound delicious.

  3. I hope you guys do try these recipes. They’re also very tasty without cheese. If you’re not into cheese substitutes, I think that’s nature’s way of saying not to bother with them. Instead, I say use lots of high-quality toppings and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

  4. Yes! I have lactose-intolerant ideas for you!

    1. Lots of veggies. Most places make cheese-free pizza just like the cheesey variety but without the cheese – gross. But if you put lots of toppings on, you won’t miss the cheese. Christian’s in Charlottesville is the only place I’ve ever been that did this but you can do it at home.

    2. Tofu. Mash it up with a little olive oil, a little brewer’s yeast, a little lemon juice, and some salt and spices. I think it’s easiest to put the tofu stuff on first, then veggies and sauce, and it tastes kind of like ricotta.

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