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The Grand Pizzexperiment Part 2: The Results

Back in the fall I wrote about the experiment Kate and I took on to sample a cheese pizza at every eatery in Middletown, CT where you could get one. You can read all about it by clicking here, including our pre-experiment expectations, rules and grading scale.

Well the ballots are in and you can see the results below. 19 pizzas, though one place appears to have subsequently gone defunct. I thought about splitting up the results in different entries, but those of you who want to cut to the chase and/or only interested in a particular tier of the list can pick and choose accordingly. Before getting to the rankings, here are a few general observations.

* Pizza is addictive. I assumed that I would become progressively sicker and sicker of pizza as we went through this process, but I actually found the opposite to be true – the more we ate the more I craved it. Then about a month and a half later (we completed this in late January, but I wanted some time to reflect before posting the results) I went, unrelatedly, on a 12 day “whole foods” diet, eating mostly fresh produce, legumes and whole grains with minimal salt and oil and no refined grains (flour, sugar) or animal products. Likewise, I thought that by the end of that I’d have a major Jones for things like pizza, but as my body got acclimated to the whole foods, I craved pizza less and less.

* It makes you feel so good. This is related to the point above. It’s no secret in the year 2012 that fat, salt and refined carbohydrates provide a quick fix that’s a) hard to match and b) at the root of many public health problems.

*. . . and then it makes you feel so bad. After a few pizza jaunts in a short stretch of time, I literally noticed that I felt tired, headachy and dehydrated in a way that was out of proportion to anything else related to my sleep or overall health.

* There is a lot of pizza in Middletown! I don’t know what the national statistics are, but 19 places to get a plain cheese pizza seems like a lot for a city with (according to the census) a population of under 50,000.

* There is a lot of variety to the style of pizza in Middletown. We expected it to all be the same, but there was thin-crust, Sicilian, Greek and subtle variations. There were relatively few pies that were tough to distinguish from specific others we’d had.

* There is a lot of B and B-plus pizza. As such you are statistically likely, upon walking into any pizza place in Middletown (and armed with no other information), to get a pizza that is respectably decent, though not great. I could lament the absence of truly excellent pizza in Middletown (and at times I do, though the fact that you can’t get an even acceptable bagel is even worse), but I was pleasantly surprised that the place that came in smack in the middle of the rankings was still within the B-plus range and that only 3 out of 19 ranked B-minus or worse.

* I have pretty much no use for B pizza and the more distance I have from this experiment (e.g. the more I detox) the more I feel the same way about B-plus pizza. As far as my body is concerned pizza is a treat. Under the right circumstances it’s a great treat, but it’s not a healthy staple food, at least not for me. As such, if I’m going to splurge on fat, salt and white flour, it should be pretty darned good to be worth it. So while, as stated above, I’m pleasantly surprised by (and take a little civic pride in) how much decent pizza there is here, that doesn’t mean I’m going to eat it again.

* We tried, at the end, making a homemade pie using the same rules – all-white crust, tomato sauce and shredded (not fresh) mozzarella. What we came up with was a low-A-minus pie that would’ve probably ranked 3rd or 4th on the list. Certainly not bad, but I at least was a bit surprised it wasn’t higher. It was instructive for us to see a) how much of a difference the right oven (which we do not possess) makes, b) how much our homemade pizzas rely on gourmet accoutrements (whole wheat dough, fresh toppings) and c) how without those accoutrements, using less than a truckload of salt makes the pie taste bland compared to any pizzeria.

* In the end, although we found a couple “destination-worthy” places in Middletown (and 3 total that were in the A-minus range), the gap between the best pizza in Middletown and New Haven is large. So given the relatively short (40 minute) drive to Wooster St., our glimmer of hope that the quality of pizza here would render that trip unnecessary was predictably extinguished. And that’s okay.

Without any further ado:

THE A-MINUS CLUB (a.k.a. the best, if graded on a curve)

1 ) Mondo: Save for the “big 4” in New Haven (Pepe’s, Sally’s, the Spot, Modern), comparable with any pie we’ve had in CT. Sauce is very fresh-tasting (though a little skimpy relative to the cheese). The crust is tasty and thin and its texture is about as good as one could expect without a brick oven. Though this doesn’t factor into the rankings, we’re extra fond of Mondo due to a) other menu items (Great calzone! Good salads) and b) the capacity to get a high-quality whole wheat crust.

Crust: A-
Sauce: A
Cheese: A-
Overall Impression: A-

2 ) Jerry’s: Neapolitan pie, very high quality. The sauce and cheese are very tasty (if a bit salty and greasy). The crust is quite tasty as well, though docked a notch for having a chewy texture that borders on tough. This reminds me very much of the “notch-down” pizza I grew up with in suburban New Haven – that is, not Wooster St., but the style and quality that a good place in the ‘burbs might offer – which by Middletown standards is quite good! Their current location is pleasant but very small (catering mostly to take-out).

Crust: B+
Sauce: A-
Cheese: A-
Overall Impression: A-

3 ) Aldo’s: Sauce is very tasty (Kate says her favorite of them all, and it reminds her of her Sicilian great-grandmother’s sauce). The crust is fresh and somewhere between thick and thin – its texture is kind of flaky, and the flavor is not unpleasant though a little bland. The ingredients are very high-quality overall, though the large amounts of sauce and cheese make the overall results a bit soggy and difficult to eat.

Crust: B+
Sauce: Kate A, Noah A-
Cheese: A-
Overall Impression: B+

B-PLUS AIN’T SO BAD

(tie) 4 ) Tommy’s: This thick-crust pie makes a strong showing. The sauce is tasty and the crust is very fresh. The cheese is particularly tasty, though it’s so thick that it presents a choking hazard if not chewed thoroughly enough.

Crust: Kate A-, Noah B+
Sauce: Kate B+, Noah A-
Cheese: B+
Overall Impression: B+

(tie) 4 ) Alpha Pizza House: Good thick-crust pie (surprisingly so considering we’ve literally never heard anyone talk about the place in spite of its fairly central location). The crust is fresh (though could be a little sturdier in my opinion) and the pie has good cheese. The sauce is decent (not overly sweet or tangy, tastes pretty fresh), though overly salty for the level of actual flavor.

Crust: Kate A-, Noah B+
Sauce: Kate B, Noah B+
Cheese: A-
Overall Impression: B+

(tie) 6 ) First and Last Tavern: Very solid Neapolitan pie. The cheese is good, and the sauce is tasty (though Kate finds it a bit tangy for her taste). For the overall quality of the restaurant, the crust is surprisingly disappointing – the flavor is bland and the texture is spongy and floppy, with an added layer of grease around its edge. But for that, this would likely be a solid A-minus pie.

Crust: B
Sauce: Kate B+, Noah A-
Cheese: A-
Overall Impression: B+

(tie) 6 ) Illiano’s: Strong overall showing for this Middletown favorite. The sauce is strong (one of Kate’s favorites), and the cheese is good (though docked a notch by Noah for unnecessary level of greasiness). The (thin) crust is disappointing – it’s not bad, but in addition to being fairly bland, it is kind of limp without being moist (though being crispy would be the best for this sort of thin-crust pie, and it’s definitely not that).

Crust: B
Sauce: A-
Cheese: Kate A-, Noah B+
Overall Impression: B+

(tie) 8 ) Roberto’s: Extremely respectable Neapolitan-style pie. Everything is fresh and of above-average quality (though the freshness of the sauce is offset a bit by its skimpiness and saltiness) and none of it is outstanding. In style and quality this is the epitome of a “B-plus pizza.” Like Alpha Pizza House, this was a pleasant surprise, as we’ve driven by Roberto’s hundreds of times without ever having heard anyone talk about their pizza.

Crust: B+
Sauce: B+
Cheese: B+
Overall Impression: B+

(tie) 8 ) Pizza Palace: High-quality Greek pie, something we feared was oxymoronic in Middletown. We agreed that the cheese is really tasty. Kate was a bit fonder of the crust (bland but fresh and appealingly crispy) and I was a bit fonder of the sauce (clearly fresh, though Kate found the flavor a bit nondescript).

Crust: Kate B+, Noah B
Sauce: Kate B, Noah B+
Cheese: A-
Overall Impression: B+

10 ) Sammy’s: Generally nondescript thin-crust pie, for better (not overly greasy or salty) and for worse (not noteworthy in any way). Crust has a pretty nice texture, though not much flavor; sauce has decent flavor, though is used so sparingly that it’s hard to detect.

Crust: B+
Sauce: Kate B, Noah B+
Cheese: Kate B+, Noah B
Overall Impression: B+

NOT BAD BUT DON’T BOTHER UNLESS YOU HAVE OTHER REASONS

11 ) Newfield Pizza: Like Sammy’s (though a small notch below), this is a perfectly respectable and fairly non-descript thin-crust pie – essentially a slightly above-average version of what we would expect a generic Middletown pizza to be. Not bad, though perhaps not “destination-worthy” either (save, perhaps, for the very low prices and quirky ambiance). Sauce is tasty but very sparse. Cheese is crisp, nearly burnt, which is a good thing if you prefer that to the often gooey alternative (as Kate does).

Crust: B
Sauce: Kate B, Noah B+
Cheese: B+
Overall Impression: B

(tie) 12 ) The Nest: A very thin-crust pie, with a layer of cheese that is actually thicker than the crust. The sauce is tasty and pretty mild, which is not unpleasant but makes it get buried amidst the sea of cheese, which in turn is fine but not good enough to justify its prevalence. The crust is fresh but bland and pretty floppy. This is located near campus at the former site of Giuseppe’s, once one of Middletown’s most beloved pizza joints back in my early days here.

Crust: Kate B
Sauce: Kate B, Noah B+
Cheese: Kate B+, Noah B
Overall Impression: B

(tie) 12 ) Tuscany Grill: Pizza is only on the “bar menu,” which might explain why the crust is low-quality (we suspect pre-fab) even at a restaurant that has good bread. Likewise the sauce is reasonably fresh and tasty on its own terms (as Kate says, it’d be fine for dunking fried mozzarella sticks into), but is tangy and heavily spiced on a level that is unpleasantly distracting on a pizza, especially in the abundance presented here.

Crust: B-
Sauce: Kate B, Noah B+
Cheese: Kate A-, Noah B+
Overall Impression: B

14 ) Big Cheese: Deep-dish pie, not bad at all. Respectable on all counts, not particularly good in any. Kate found it virtually indistinguishable from Price Chopper, while I found it to be saltier and greasier, but with a better presentation and distribution of ingredients. I can’t imagine ever eating there again, but am nonetheless rather impressed to get solid B-level pizza from a hole in the wall whose self-proclaimed claim to fame is having the “best prices in town” (which is actually not true).

Crust: B
Sauce: B
Cheese: B
Overall Impression: B

15 ) Price Chopper (“Bella Roma”): Rectangular, thick-crust pizza. While the sauce is clearly from a jar, it’s at least not the lowest-quality jar available. The crust has a weird, almost rubbery texture. The overall presentation is mixed – on the plus side, it is neither excessively greasy nor salty, but on the other hand the assembly is a bit slipshod, with big globs of cheese and sauce in some places and very thin layers elsewhere. I’d call this the very definition of a “harmless” pizza – not very good, but it won’t mess up your gut if you’re at a party and this is what there is to eat.

Crust: B-
Sauce: B
Cheese: Kate B+, Noah B
Overall Impression: B

16 ) Famous Pizza: Greek-style pizza. Kate was struck that the crust tasted and functioned like store-brand Italian bread (pleasant enough when hot, becoming stale quickly, in this case by the third slice). I was a puzzled that the whole was less than the sum of the parts – the sauce and cheese tasted fine alone, but the pizza as a whole tasted very “industrial,” indistinguishable from frozen.

Crust: B-
Sauce: Kate B-, Noah B
Cheese: Kate B+, Noah B
Overall Impression: B-

DON’T DO IT, REALLY

17 ) Pizza King: (note: appears to have closed down since the experiment began – we sure wish we had saved it for last and been let off the hook!)
Greek pizza with a thick layer of cheese accompanied by an additional layer of grease. Sauce is very canned-tasting; it’s ironic in that many places have stingy amounts of tasty sauce, while here there is a generous amount of low-quality sauce. Crust has a distinctly yeasty flavor. It seems that Pizza King (under new management for approximately the 27th time since I moved to Middletown) is now more of a drinking than eating establishment and this pizza probably would have been a satisfying pile of starch and grease with which to absorb a pitcher of cheap beer.

Crust: B-
Sauce: B-
Cheese: B
Overall Impression: B-

18 ) Domino’s: Thick and uber-cheesy. Kate was struck by its resemblance to low-quality frozen pizza, whereas I had a slightly more charitable response, in part due to the recipe changes that made it significantly better than what I recall from my last Domino’s pizza 20+ years ago. The cheese bears a striking resemblance to non-dairy cheese, which is odd, but so it goes with highly processed things. Full disclosure – we were led to believe there were tables there, but this was not true, so we brought it home (about a mile) instead of sitting in the 2 hard, table-less chairs in the corner of the register area (still plenty hot by the time we opened it, though). We also got around having to decide among the numerous crust options by simply walking in and saying “small cheese.”

Crust: B-
Sauce: Kate B, Noah B-
Cheese: Kate C+, Noah B-
Overall Impression: B-

19 ) Empire Pizza: Crust and sauce both simultaneously sweet and salty, neither in a good way. Kate initially referred to the crust as “cardboard,” later amending that to observe that it tasted like a Saltine. I agree, except that I’ve never had a greasy Saltine. They get points for a) being the location of our youngest daughter’s first date with her longtime boyfriend, b) having hosted a fun post-performance dinner with our oldest daughter (under previous ownership) and c) the incredible distinction of being worse than Domino’s. But yuck.

Crust: Kate C-, Noah C
Sauce: Kate B-, Noah C+
Cheese: B-
Overall Impression: C+

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