Can't Hold a Candle to It
A few nights ago, I sat down and feasted on a sausage pie at Candelari's Pizzeria at Washington Avenue and Westcott. It made my eyes widen and my heart race. The dough was swollen here and there along its perimeter, with yeasty bubbles that had been baked crisp in a very hot oven. The crust was slightly charred and very thin and crunchy on the bottom. But the outer edges were thick and bready with airy bubbles, all of which made for a wonderful variety of textures.
We ordered our pizza with one topping -- Italian sausage -- and I suggest you do the same. Too many toppings is the ruination of good pizza crust. Which is why you have to avoid such abominations as the "gunslinger," with sausage, bacon and ground beef, and the "T-Rex," with six kinds of meat.
Too much grease from meats and melting cheeses will make the crust soggy. And if you pick one topping here, it has to be Italian sausage. After all, "The King of Sausages" is Candelari's trademark. The company started out as an Italian sausage-maker and got into the pizza business later on. It still makes the best Italian sausage in the city.
Seasoned with garlic, red peppers, fennel seeds and a touch of orange liqueur, the sausage is slightly sweet, very spicy and wildly aromatic. The fennel gives it an aroma I associate with great Italian sausage, though the heady perfume reminds my dining companion of licorice.
The sausage isn't sliced from links, but rather crumbled across the top of the pizza in its loose form. My tablemate thought the abundant sausage made the topping a tad greasy. In my view, pork fat is always a welcome flavoring.
Candelari's makes a variety of sausages, so out of fairness, I also tried a pie topped with half chicken-and-sun-dried-tomato sausage and half turkey-jalapeño sausage. It was a bust. These are low-fat sausages that were originally intended to appeal to dieters. If you're looking for a low-fat pizza, these might come in handy. But who eats low-fat pizza?
If you aren't in the mood for a pizza at all, you can also get Candelari's inimitable Italian sausage sautéed with onions and peppers in the "sausage appetizer"; topped with peppers, onions and cheese in the "sausage grinder" (an East Coast name for a sub sandwich); layered with spinach, cheeses and red sauce in the baked lasagna; tossed with linguine in a marinara sauce; or crumbled over penne in a tomato-cream sauce.
Before my sausage pizza, I had a house salad, which included Italian pickled peppers, artichoke hearts and kalamata olives, along with lots of iceberg. The choice of dressings was ranch, blue cheese and a thick, emulsified vinaigrette, which I judged to be the most appropriate to the salad ingredients. If only they would get rid of the cheap balsamic and use a nice Italian white wine vinegar, they might have a decent dressing. My dining companion got the Greek salad, which was more or less the same thing with some feta added.
In a touching tribute to Domino's Pizza, Candelari's appetizer menu also includes buffalo wings. Domino's started this chicken wing/pizza connection in 1994 when it rolled out a national advertising campaign encouraging NFL viewers to get some wings delivered with their pizza. Up until that time, only pizzerias in Buffalo, New York, served chicken wings. After the promotion, one fifth of all delivery orders included wings, according to Domino's. Since then, wings have become mandatory on pizzeria menus nationwide.
Candelari's delivers pizza and wings (as well as beer, wine and ice cream) to the neighborhoods along the Washington Avenue corridor. But if you have a large order, you may be able to talk them into straying a little farther afield.
Unlike the original Candelari's Pizzeria on Bissonnet in Bellaire, which is mainly a take-out operation with a couple of tables, the new Washington Avenue location is a full-on restaurant, and an attractive one at that. The decor is dominated by the warm wood and terra-cotta tones of the floors and the wide brick archways that separate the kitchen from the dining room and the dining room from the bar.
The beer and wine selections are adequate, though not extensive. There is also an espresso machine behind the bar. But the most impressive piece of equipment on the premises is the big black old-fashioned Blodgett stone-deck pizza oven. It takes a real pizza-maker to use a deck oven. The pizza has to be rotated, and the oven's hot and cold spots have to be sussed out. That's why most Houston pizzerias go with the conveyor-belt oven, which cooks crappy pizzas extremely fast and requires no kitchen skills to operate.
My second visit to Candelari's new location was at lunchtime. The buffet deal sounded pretty exciting: You get a salad and all the pizza you care to eat. I sat in a booth close to the bar where the pizzas are set out. As I finished my salad and a slice of zucchini, onion and garlic pizza, I noticed five men hovering nearby. They were waiting for another pizza to come out of the kitchen, my dining companion told me. But why were they ignoring the four pizzas that were already sitting there under the warming lights?
"They're waiting for some meat," he said. "Same as me." I got up and took a look at the pizzas they weren't interested in. All four of them were some combination of mushroom, onion, peppers and cheese. The hungry boys (including my tablemate) jumped when a pepperoni pizza and a ham-and-pineapple pizza came out of the kitchen. The meat-topped pies were gone in seconds. My buddy and I each got a ham-and-pineapple slice. It was just as awful a combo as I remember. In the hour I sat there eating and chatting, not one sausage pizza hit the buffet line.
As I looked around the dining room, I noticed that lots of tables held whole pizzas on stands. These lunch patrons must have ordered pizzas from the menu instead of the buffet, I deduced. A quick bout with the math convinced me that this was the smart play. A 12-inch New York-style pizza with Italian sausage goes for nine and a quarter, about a buck twenty-five more than the pizza buffet. So two people can split a premium pie and a salad for less than the cost of two buffets. And since the buffet doesn't include any Italian sausage pie, it isn't very attractive anyway -- except to vegetarians.
The pizza at Candelari's Washington Avenue location is superior to the pizza at the original Candelari's, I told my editors.
"Have you tried the original Candelari's since your last review?" the board shrewdly quizzed me. I had to confess I hadn't been back since I reviewed the place in July 2003.
"Maybe the pizza has improved there, too," I said, agreeing to set up a taste test.
On a recent evening around five, I stopped by the Washington Avenue location and picked up a pie to go while a dining companion did the same thing at the Bissonnet location. We met back at my house and laid the two boxes side by side.
The pizza from the original Bellaire location had a thicker crust, especially around the edges, and while there were nice yeast bubbles, those air pockets were undercooked instead of crusty. The texture of the crust was soft and doughy, and the pie was heaped with too much mozzarella -- all of which combined to make a pie that tasted gooey, just like two years ago. The pie from the Washington Avenue Candelari's was much better. It was thinner, more thoroughly cooked and much crispier.
I wrote a gushing review of Candelari's original location two summers ago, despite the fact that the pizza crust wasn't all that great. The Italian sausage was so good, I would recommend it if they served it on Wonder Bread, I remarked.
Well, now I really have something to rave about, because Candelari's has finally put it all together. At the new Washington Avenue location, you can get the company's phenomenal Italian sausage crumbled over a world-class pizza crust.
Skip the stupid lunch buffet and get a sausage pizza off the menu. Get one for dinner with a salad and a cold beer. Get it to go, get it delivered, but however you do it, get a Candelari's Italian sausage pizza into your mouth as soon as possible.
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