I've lived in Houston for 23 years. It took me 16 of those to visit the Rothko Chapel for the first time. I didn't eat at Ninfa's on Navigation until I'd counted myself a Houstonian for nearly a decade. I still haven't eaten at Frenchy's. The list of glaring omissions goes on and on. Before you boot me from the city for civic negligence, or at least refuse to continue allowing me to write about Houston food, let me assure you that 2014 2015 2016 is the year I start fixing this problem. I'm making a list of places. Places I should have been by now. Places even I can't believe I haven't visited. This is the year I get (re)acquainted with my city. Maybe you'll find a few from your own list in these posts. I encourage you to follow suit.
Heat ripples and shimmers from the deck of the oven. To one side, the wood fire flares through incandescent shades seeming to approach the infrared. A digital thermometer clocks the heat at a few ticks over 900 degrees. A flat 90 seconds and a dusting of Parmesan later, and three gorgeous pies hit the table. That 90 seconds saw the pies move at least once or twice on the deck of the oven, shuffled forward and back, or pirouetting on the end of the pizzaiolo's peel, optimizing charring and singeing and crust-bubbles. It's a beautiful ballet.
In this week's restaurant review, I tackle Bollo Woodfired Pizza. After hearing from a couple of trusted individuals that the quiet little neighborhood spot was turning out consistently excellent pies (one friend going so far as to suggest that they were among the best, if not the best, pies in the city), it seemed like a good idea to put that notion to the test, at least for the purposes of framing my eventual review. That meant drawing at least some comparison between the pies I ate at Bollo and others generally regarded as the best in the city. As a public servant of sorts, I take my work and its demands seriously. It's called "service journalism."
Between review visits to Bollo, I made a pilgrimage out west to the original, understated strip-mall location of Pizaro's. It seemed as good an opportunity as any to finally visit what many hail as Houston's first truly great pizzeria, and a better opportunity than most. I'd been to the Montrose outpost, and very much enjoyed the pies there, but had it on good information that the original continues to serve the better pie.
In hindsight, I wish I'd ordered a bit differently, as I wound up with what were essentially two versions of the margherita, along with a pie featuring one of my favorite undersung pizza toppings, as well as one of my least favorite things in the entire world of food. Don't let that fool you, though. I was not disappointed.
The polpette essentially added dollops of creamy ricotta and crusty-edged chunks of meatball to a margherita pie. The base was excellent. Gorgeous, speckled crown. Not quite as tall and puffy as I'd been expecting, but with lovely bits of crackly, bubbly crust, charred patches, and plenty of variety. Contrast is king.
Under a gentle crunch and snap, the bones offered a delightful tug and chew, with just a hint of fermented tang. It was light, delicate and aromatic. I lifted a slice to check out the undercarriage. Leopard-spotted and lovely. It sagged gently, its thin floor exactly as it should be. I was tempted to eat it from the inside out with a knife and fork, but my wife was giving me funny looks.
On top, the pie was brushed with a thin layer of simple, clean, super-bright tomato sauce. If that sauce contains much more than crushed tomatoes and salt, I'd be very surprised. Sometimes, simplicity is exactly what you want, and that's exactly the case with this style of pizza. On top of that, an almost austere paving of clean, milky-sweet mozzarella. Those crusty meatballs were tender inside, meaty and well seasoned. A nice savory punch against the bright sauce and creamy-sweet cheese. Swathes of ricotta mostly added texture, but the creaminess was a nice touch.
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That's essentially the description I'd offer you for the cornicione di ricotta e spinaci pizza, essentially a margherita hiding a trim stuffing of spinach and ricotta in its crown. This one took me by surprise. I don't like stuffed-crust pizza. The rubbery chew of mass-market mozzarella always seems to rob the crust of any resiliency, any delicacy, any character at all. Here, the stuffing rendered the crown much chewier than in its counterparts, but the filling was lush and creamy, yielding under the teeth instead of resisting. It was oddly alluring. Even the aromatic lilt of the basil took on a different tone against the backdrop of earthy spinach and sweet, creamy ricotta. I didn't expect to like it, really, an order my wife insisted on, but I really, really did.
You could say the same for the patate pizza, though I ordered that one myself. I love potato on pizzas. The clean, earthy notes. The texture. Especially in high-heat baking, potato is transformative on pizza. Along with thinly sliced red onions and a toss of capers, it makes one of my favorite combinations for home pizza making. Here, though, the potatoes were offset against truffle oil. I don't have a good relationship with truffle oil. I don't need a full extremity to count the times I've encountered it used well. I may need to add a finger to that hand after this pie, though.
As I lifted a slice — its crown and crust offering the same thrilling interplay of crunchy and soft, charred and gently aromatic — I smelled the truffle oil. It was intense. Not quite overpowering, but not far off. Somehow, that heady aroma turned graceful on the palate. It was a harmonic played alongside dense, meaty mushrooms and tender, earthy-sweet potato. The resinous punch of rosemary both cut through and highlighted the earthy funk of the truffle oil, and still I didn't hate it. That's almost miraculous. We all agreed, in fact, that the patate was the standout among the three.
Is this Houston's best pizza? Having not tried every pizza in Houston, how can I say? Really, that just means I have more work to do. Service journalism. I can tell you, though, that it's my current front-runner. Sorry, Bollo.