Sausage Delivery Systems
The pizza crust was crispy with big yeast bubbles. The tomato sauce was spicy. And the loose Italian sausage spread over the top was kicking up some serious garlic and fennel fumes. It was some of the best Italian sausage I've ever had on a pizza. The only thing wrong with the first pie I sampled at Candelari's Pizzeria on Bissonnet was the mozzarella -- they put too damn much cheese on it.
Cheese sheds oil as it melts, and the oil soaks into the crust. Sure enough, that's what happened here. By the time the first half of the pizza was eaten, the middle part of the other half was already gloppy. Still, I have high hopes for this place.
Candelari's opened this spring. There are five tables inside facing a television set and a couple out front on the shopping center's sidewalk next to the dry cleaners. But the primary focus is takeout and delivery. The delivery area includes most of Bellaire, Meyerland and West U. If the order is over $50, they will venture downtown or almost anywhere else, a guy on the telephone tells me.
Candelari's is owned by Michael Mays, "The King of Sausages." That's what he calls himself, anyway. He even has the slogan curving across the top of the pizzeria's logo. As soon as I heard Mays had opened a pizzeria, I started fantasizing about his sausage pizza. I wasn't all that worried about the quality of the crust. Mays could put his Italian sausage on Wonder bread and still draw raves.
The last time I saw Mays was at Buon Appetito, the homey Sicilian restaurant on Holcombe. It was for an interview on the Candelari Sausage company (see "Don't Mess with the Family."
As the story goes, around ten years ago Mays was working as a chef at Tony's under Mark Cox. He decided to leave and begin his own company, and with his family's encouragement, he founded Candelari Sausage, which he named after his Grandpa Candelari. It was Grandpa's Italian sausage recipe that got the company started. If you've never tried Candelari's Italian sausage, do yourself a favor and eat some soon. It is boldly spiced, with a massive dose of garlic and fennel in the foreground and the subtle flavor of several secret ingredients (orange liqueur?) in the background.
But the business proved to be a bust. Mays thought he could sell the stuff to Italian restaurants all over town. He discovered they all had their own grandpas and their own Italian sausage recipes. But at about that same time, Bruce Aidells out in San Francisco started making a name for himself with his designer sausages. Smoked chicken and apple became a low-fat sausage sensation, and Mays decided to jump on the best-selling bandwagon. Soon he was selling more chicken sausage, turkey sausage and duck sausage than the Italian stuff.
Now, nearly a decade later, Central Market, Whole Foods and even Randalls have their own cheap brands of chicken sausage, and I imagine they're giving Candelari Sausage some stiff competition. Maybe that's why Mays has decided to get back into the restaurant business.
Whatever his logic, he has given pizza- and Italian sausage-loving Houstonians reason to rejoice. At Candelari's Pizzeria you can now get Grandpa Candelari's outrageous Italian sausage on pizzas, on sausage-and-pepper subs and in several pasta dishes.
Yes, Candelari's menu includes items made without Italian sausage. There are a couple of salads, which I haven't tried. And there are the usual silly pizza combinations: the Surfer, with Canadian bacon and pineapple; the Gunslinger, with turkey jalapeño sausage, and more jalapeños; and the Veggie, with squash, asparagus, etc. They also have a meaty overstuffed muffuletta with excellent olive salad, an average turkey club and something called a "meatball wedge." But you probably don't want to order any of these.
Just as cigarettes, cigars and snuff are all referred to in the tobacco industry as nicotine delivery systems, so Candelari's pizzas, sandwiches and pastas are best thought of as Italian sausage delivery systems. Take my advice: Whatever you get at Candelari's, make sure it has Italian sausage on it.
The penne is a good bet. It's a large plate of al dente quill pasta tossed with crumbled Candelari's Italian sausage in a spicy, rich tomato cream sauce. I imagine the spaghetti marinara, which features a combination of Italian sausage and the aforementioned red sauce, is damn fine too, but unfortunately, the plastic to-go container slipped out of my grasp on the way into the house, dumping the whole order on the driveway. It looked delicious, even lying on the pavement.
I thought the Italian sausage grinder would be the star of the menu. A grinder is what they call an oversized sandwich in Connecticut, where I went to high school, so I assumed Candelari's would resemble the authentic East Coast version. I also figured the sandwich would be the standout since it would have a higher sausage-to-starch ratio than the pizza or the pasta. But the grinder was ruined by bad bread.
Candelari's uses a spongy Italian bread without a crunchy crust. It works fine for the cold sandwiches, but it can't stand up to the hot stuff. The meatballs are delicious and, as I already mentioned, the red sauce is excellent. But Candelari's meatball wedge sandwich falls apart on the way to your mouth. The sausage sandwich is even worse. If you get it to go, as I did, you end up with some excellent sausage chunks and beautifully cooked peppers nestled in a pile of gooey, inedible dough.
Until Candelari's gets some crusty Italian rolls, I have a suggestion. Pick up some Candelari's Italian sausage at the pizzeria's checkout counter when you go get your pie. You can even have them send it along with the pizza if you're getting it delivered. Then, the next time you're at Central Market or Whole Foods, buy some crunchy Italian bread and green peppers and make your own sandwich.
As for the pizza, I solved the cheese problem the second time I ordered one. "Create your own," said the menu. So I did just that, specifying a 16-inch with Italian sausage, green peppers and half the usual amount of mozzarella. The resulting pie was very crispy, and it stayed that way.
It was without a doubt the best sausage pizza I've had in Houston. Just what you'd expect from a pizza stand run by his royal highness, The King of Sausages.
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