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February 02, 2006

Pizza Metro ... or ... I Miss Rome

Pizza Metro - 1707 W. Division, Chicago
Slumming over at LTHForum is definitely paying dividends. Today, it led me to a Roman-style pizza joint just around the corner that I'd never gotten around to checking out. While I'm not going to put it up against its actual Roman counterparts, Pizza Metro makes a damn tasty pizza that satisfies the craving and makes me happy.

But first, a discussion of Roman pizza.

Though there are, of course, many variants, there are two types of pizza that comprise most of what you'll find in Rome. First off, you have the trattoria-style pizza. This is what most folks are probably familiar with. The dough is rolled (and sometimes tossed) in a circular(ish) shape, and generally cooked in a brick wood-fired oven, which makes for a very thin, dry, crispy crust. The toppings are what Americans would think of as traditional... tomatoes, sausage, cheese, artichokes, mushrooms, prosciutto, olives... that kind of thing. Though, my personal favorite trattoria-style pizza is tuna and onions, especially with an egg in the middle and a healthy dose of chile oil. Trattoria-style pizza is fairly easy to come by in the states, though it's tough to find a place that does it well. But this is not the topic of today's discussion.

The kitchen. A small oven, but it's a small place.
Today, we're talking about pizza a taglio (by the slice), aka pizza rustica, aka Roman pan-style pizza. While you can sit yourself down in a nice Roman restaurant and have yourself a tasty trattoria-style pizza, if you're on the run or popping into a tavola calda, it's more than likely that you're going to get pizza a taglio. It's a completely different beast altogether. For starters, the dough is spread into rectangular pans generously slathered with olive oil, and the pizzas are cooked in a conventional oven. What's more, the dough is considerably thicker -- almost what Americans think of as focaccia. Because of all of these factors, the resulting crust is fairly thick, lightly crisp on the bottom and edges, but still a little doughy in the middle. It's also usually oily, and I absolutely mean that in a good way. The toppings also tend to cover a little more ground. You'll usually find some kind of potato pizza, maybe something with pesto, or even covered with a salad of marinated seafood, including octopus and squid.

In the back of the kitchen, a moist dough is spread into oiled, rectangular pans.
In Rome, pizza a taglio is a very, very casual thing. Any establishment that sells it usually puts the pans of pizza right up front, often in the window and sells the bulk of their wares to passers-by. You cruise by, pick whatever looks tasty, and they cut you a slice or two. If it's been sitting for a little while, they'll pop it back in the oven for just a minute to refresh it, but rest assured, this is no heat lamp manuever. I'm firmly of the believe that pizza a taglio reheated in such a manner is no worse for the wear, and maybe even a little better. The pizza is usually sold by weight, and then halfway wrapped in a piece of paper for eating on the road. The oil will start to soak through the paper in a few minutes, but if it's good pizza, it won't last that long anyway. And though there are some who would disagree, I'm of the opinion that not only does it make a good lunch or dinner, but that it's fair game for breakfast as well. It's a great way to feed yourself cheaply while in Rome.

Pizza Metro's par-baked crust. Suboptimal, I think, but unfortunately necessary.
But we're not in Rome. We're here in Chicago, where foot traffic in February isn't quite what it is in Rome at... well... any time of year. In America, we don't stroll. We order in. As such, it's tough to find a location that can support a selling-out-the-front-window format. Pizza Metro isn't in such a location. A few blocks to the west and maybe they could get away with it, but as they are, they're a destination. To be clear, they're a charming destination. It's a gritty little joint, festooned with a myriad of football banners from all over Europe. This afternoon, Marco, the owner, was sitting at the counter shouting excitedly into a cordless phone. My Italian comprehension what it is, he could have been discussing sports, threatening an enemy or telling his mama he loves her. In terms of tone and delivery, the distinctions are very fine. What's more, at least half of the folks present were speaking Italian, which I consider a good sign. But unfortunately, owing to the lack of foot traffic, I imagine that laying out pizzas isn't practical. So instead, Pizza Metro par-bakes their crusts. It definitely distinguishes them slightly from what I'd consider a traditional Roman pizza a taglio, but this isn't all bad, and I'll explain why shortly.

At this point, let it be said that while I've been to Rome a dozen or so times, my last trip was almost two years ago. As such, I was seriously missing Italy and definitely in a frame of mind to be kind. But here's how the pizza struck me.

I ordered a couple of favorites that I hoped would cover their capabilities. I got myself a slice of sausage, and a slice of potato rosemary. The first surprise was that all slices at Pizza Metro are cooked to order. They'll take slices of the par-baked crust, top them appropriately, and individually toss them in the oven for 5-10 minutes, right on the rack. And this is where I found a critical difference between Pizza Metro and what I think of as a traditional Roman pizza a taglio. The second bake seems to achieve two things. First, the crust doesn't seem as oily. I'm not sure if this is because they don't add as much oil, or because the second bake allows the dough to absorb more of the oil, leaving less on the outside. Secondly, the second bake changes the consistency of the crust. Where a traditional Roman is a little doughy on the inside and still has a little give, the Pizza Metro crust is extremely crisp on the top and the bottom, and also rather dry and crisp in the middle. As mentioned, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, just different. But even so, digging into my two slices, it was eminently clear that this was true Roman pizza a taglio in spirit, and that immediately took me to a happy place.

A little crispier than a traditional Roman, but its heart is in the right place, and it's quite good in its own right.
I ate the sausage first. It was a crumbled, sweet sausage, with a light hit of tomato sauce and not too much cheese. The sausage didn't quite hit me right on a couple of levels. For starters, I like my sausage to be a little more substantial. And secondly, the sausage itself wasn't quite doing it for me. It was extremely tart, which for some reason didn't seem quite right. That said, it was still a tasty, tasty slice of pizza, and I enjoyed it immensely, even if my socks were still firmly planted on my feet.

The potato, however, brought me back to Roma. The potatoes are sliced, seasoned and par-cooked so that they're just a little soft, but still have some body. If I wanted to be super picky, I could say that I personally like my potato pizza a little heavier on the garlic. But the truth is that it was a great slice, and fully Roman. Really, really good.

In the end, if Pizza Metro were located in Rome, there are plenty of other places I'd go first. But that said, the fact that there's a local establishment that has even bothered to recreate Roman pizza a taglio, and does it well, makes me exceedingly happy. There are some minor technical differences, but in spirit, this is Roman pizza. Plus, they deliver, they're open late, and I'm told they make a good espresso. I think I can safely say that whenever I haven't been to Italy for a while, this is one place I'll frequent to get my fix.

Dom's Omakase

Sushi chef slicing a fish, or triceratops ready to eat me?!?
After a brief Vegas and sickness-induced hiatus, I return with photos from the other end of the seafood spectrum. From a tour of hole-in-the-wall Baltimore fried fish, we move on to trendy, cutting-edge neo-Japanese. Nobu Matsuhisa, along with his Iron Chef cohort Masaharu Morimoto, was one of the pioneers of neo-Japanese cuisine, and his influence is felt in every trendy sushi bar across the country. But while most of his imitators are all about style over substance, Nobu doesn't overreach, ensuring that his creative accompaniaments never overshadow the fish itself. And it's some damn fine fish. As such, while Mix in Las Vegas was exceedingly tempting (and will assuredly be on the docket next time), my greatest hits trip to Vegas this past weekend mandated some raw fish.

It's a snazzy joint. It's a hipster joint. It's regularly packed with people who seem more concerned with the scene than the food, but that can't be held against it. Besides, seeing some well-heeled older gent dining with a slinky lady who may or may not be... *ahem*... a professional... is all part of the fun. Nobu Las Vegas is a slick room, done minimally in hardwood, bamboo and black, polished rock. And the staff is even sharper than the decor. As many times as I've been there, the service has always been impeccable... doubly impressive considering the boisterous crowd that the Hard Rock Casino, where it is located, engenders. That such meticulously and minimally prepared dishes emerge from the Vegas chaos is part of the beauty. My first experience with Nobu was at this very location. Our reservation was too late in the evening for us to try the Omakase, due to time restrictions. But what originally seemed a missed opportunity turned out to be a boon. Our waiter, god bless him, told us that he could put together a better tasting menu than the Omakase. Though it would take tasting the official Omakase on a later trip to confirm his claim, it wasn't puffery. I don't remember his name, but we put ourselves in his hands, and the dishes he brought us that night served as the baseline for what would eventually evolve into Dom's Omakase. If you drop into any Nobu, these dishes are highly, highly recommended. Dom's Omakase is broken down into three rounds. First come the sashimi appetizers. Next, the hot seafood. And finally, stomachs permitting, a round of fresh sushi to close things out. So, without further ado:

Round I - Sashimi
Fresh Kanpachi Sashimi with Jalapeño
Always on the menu with yellowtail, I usually substitute kanpachi if available. Kanpachi is very young yellowtail, and in my experience is a firmer fish with a lighter flavor. It's not a question of being better... just different. The fish is in a light ponzu, and you eat each slice with a bit of japapeño and cilantro. Very simple, with just the slightest modern twist.
Whitefish Tiradito, Nobu Style
Next up, the tiradito. As with most of the sashimi appetizers, they'll let you select your fish, but I stick with the default whitefish here. This one again brings in the cilantro and the spicy, this time as a dot of sriracha. But the difference is in the sauce, which is tart, tart, tart... heavy on yuzu, I believe.
Tuna Tataki with Ponzu
This one's fairly traditional, and as such acts as something of an anchor for round one. The tuna is very lightly seared and topped with a sweet ponzu, scallions and ginger. Where it departs a bit from tradition is in punching up the garlic, both in the sauce itself and in a thin slice of garlic on each piece of fish. When the fish is on, this dish rocks. Of course, this is Nobu, so the fish is always on.
New Style Sashimi - Salmon
My personal favorite from round one. The fish is drizzled with a heated combination of olive and sesame oil, lightly searing the fish. There's also a soy-based sauce, chives and toasted sesame seeds. I always, always go with the salmon here, as I think it stands up best to the bold oils. It's rich and delicious.

Round II - Hot Fish
Broiled Black Cod with Miso
Nobu's signature dish. The fact that he revealed the recipe to Martha Stewart, of all people, only strengthens my belief that she is a vicious demon and must hold some dark sway over his soul. Though in truth, the dish is almost worth selling your soul for. A succulent, rich, fatty cod is marinated in miso, mirin, sake and sugar, and broiled to caramelize. It is frequently imitated, but most make the mistake of going far too sweet, upsetting the sweet/salty balance. Do youself a favor. Eat the skin
Creamy, Spicy Crab
As awesome as the black cod is, I flip-flop on whether this or the cod is my favorite. This is Nobu's take on the mayo spicy phenomenon, which removes the pretense of rice. The crab is seared in a hot skillet and topped with a generous helping of a mayo based sauce that contains sriracha, citrus and an abundance of fish roe.
Arctic Char with Crispy Baby Spinach
I love char. It's almost like salmon, but not so aggressive. Here, it's simply prepared, just barely touched with a light, buttery sauce, and accompanied by deep-fried spinach. Though I have a high tolerance for it, I think this dish shines when the spinach is aggressively salted.

Rock Shrimp Tempura with Mint Sauce
I don't have a photo of the last hot dish because, sadly, it wasn't available this trip. Of course, I order it off the menu, so I consider it a great bonus when they're good enough to make it for me. I first tried Nobu's mint sauce as a special, where it topped soft-shell crabs. It was so incredibly fantastic that we tried to order more, only to discover that they were out of the crabs. When I asked the waiter if they could just put the mint sauce over some rock shrimp tempura, he seemed surprised, but couldn't think of any reason why not. We placed two orders and devoured them. If they'll make this for you, do it.

Round III - Sushi
Assorted Sushi
It was that first Nobu waiter who suggested we close with sushi, and I think it's a wonderful, simple finish. There are many who will say that you don't go to Nobu for the sushi, and I say screw them. Sure, it's mostly very traditional, and you can get great sushi in a lot of places, but it's absolutely outstanding at Nobu and I can't think of a better way to end the meal. After the first two rounds, I take inventory, surveying the table's hunger level, and then order appropriately. It's a comforting, filling finish to a great meal.

Of course, despite the numerous visits, I still haven't managed to work my way through the entire menu. I try to slip in one new dish every time, but it takes time. So if any other Nobu devotees can suggest anything I have to have, by all means, let me know. I like to think that Dom's Omakase is a living, breathing culinary roadmap, and I look forward to revising and improving it at every possible opportunity.