Rochester has not, we're sorry to report, ever been viewed as much of a pizza mecca. Geographically midway between the classical pizza poles of New York City and Chicago, our pizzerias have embraced neither style. Instead, the prototypical Rochester style is neither thin (as in N.Y.C.) nor deep-dish (Chicago), but thick, bready and often sloppy. In the hands of the best places (think Chester Cab), it's pretty good stuff, but not what pie cognoscenti are generally seeking.
Occasionally, though, somebody tries to bring the world to us. Jim Staffieri at the Pizza Stop (123 State St. downtown) makes what he grew up on in Queens: thin crust with crackle and flavor; fresh, quick-cooked sauce; and quality toppings. It's excellent pizza by any standard, foldable and satisfying. But Pizza Stop is open only weekdays and doesn't deliver.
Then "gourmet" pizza came to town back in the late '80s with Alexi's. These are the individual pies, ostensibly with a finer crust, perhaps wood-fired, often served with conspicuously creative toppings. After Alexi's, many versions of this type of pizza appeared: Ciao, Benucci's and later Veneto and Brio. My impression of all of these was that the quality varied between visits, though the idea was commendable.
Now comes the newest wave aimed at a slice of the gourmet market, with no detail of the pie left to chance.
Defining the crust
Along with the two most famous conversation taboos, consider pizza. Thickness of crust is just the veneer of this Pandora's box of a subject. Hot-headed disagreement can ensue from innocent-sounding questions. What type of oven and how hot should it be? How sweet a crust and how long should dough rest? What flour to use? Did you mix the dough by hand? How long to cook? How charred is burnt? But proprietors can't shy from the tough questions. When Tony DiCesare and Chris DeGrazia decided several months ago to open Tony D's at Corn Hill Landing (288 Exchange Blvd.), they knew they wanted to offer "coal-fired" pizza like they'd encountered in Florida and New York City. They liked it, and it also wasn't being done here. The oven they settled on is actually gas-assisted, which apparently makes firing up and maintaining a constant temperature much easier.
Next they brought in chef Jay Speranza (Lola, Park 54), and "The Quest for Dough" began.
"We sat for days eating pizza till we got sick," Speranza says. "A lot of family and friends got sick, too — 50, maybe 60 pies a day." They were having a problem with the dough caramelizing too quickly, so they brought in Tom Noto, brother of Gaetano's owner Phil Noto, for advice. Tom had them ditch the sugar-and-honey approach they'd been using and found a flour with a lot of malt. That, Speranza says, "got rid of the insta-char."
The result is a marvelously crisp and tasty crust. And thankfully, the focus is on the crust, with toppings mostly steering clear of the conspicuous creativity that can obscure what is best in good pizza. To get a pure demo of a Tony D's pizza, go for the Bianca with four cheeses, garlic and olive oil. Nice.
The newest addition
The Olive Tree, for nearly 30 years one of Rochester's finest restaurants, closed its doors in the fall. Fortunately, one of our best chefs, Mark Cupolo (Victor Grilling Co., Max Chophouse), has opened the very same door under his pop's name, Rocco (165 Monroe Ave.). The menu has brick-oven pizzas as its centerpiece.
Cupolo has been talking about this for years. When the Victor Grilling Co. closed in 2003, he was already suggesting he might try pizza. But Cupolo is deliberate about decisions. While running the Chophouse, he waited for the right time and space. When The Olive Tree owners were rumored to be selling, the wheels started turning.
Rocco has a Marsal gas-fired, brick-lined oven. Cupolo likes the control he has with this type. His co-chef, Jeff Traphagan, is responsible for the dough recipe. Produced at Baker Street Bakery on Park Avenue, the dough comes from a 3-month-old starter (and counting). The chefs believe that aging has a great deal to do with crust flavor.
"It's like wine," Cupolo says. "It develops character over time." So, not only do they use an aged starter for the dough, they also have the dough rest for up to two days before making pies.
"A lot of places across the country are using the term 'neo-Neapolitan,'" Cupolo explains. "We're trying to get close to Neapolitan here."
Cupolo was originally inspired by the simplicity of Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianco's menu (five starters, six pizzas). He and Traphagan have backed down from that, afraid Rochester might not support it. So there are grilled items (Cupolo's famous steaks, natch), and risotto and lobster figure prominently. It's Italian, but not in the standard, Rochester-northside sense. And it's Cupolo, so quality isn't in question.
On the go
Meanwhile, way down the Avenue in Pittsford, Cupolo's former employer, Tony Gullace, has recently opened Max Market (2949 Monroe Ave.). And wouldn't you know it, Gullace picked the same oven than Cupolo did and is offering beautiful, single-serving pizzas.
But fire isn't the key element to Gullace. "Water quality is the most important thing," he says when asked about pizza-making. "We actually have excellent water here in Rochester."
Max Market is using two pizza shells, one an imported commercial product and one made according to Gullace's instructions by Baker Street (with filtered Rochester tap water). The pizzas are simple, such as the margherita, with Roma tomatoes, mozzarella and basil (all fresh). Classic.
Max Market, of course, isn't simply a pizzeria. Not by a long shot. It's something of a New York City-style, high-end deli/grocer—like Mise en Place in the South Wedge, but on steroids.
The concept is deluxe all the way, but steadfastly local. So, yes, imported cheeses, but also Pittsford Farms Dairy milks, Hartmann's Old World sausages, Lively Run goat cheese, Hedonist Artisan Chocolates, Corn Hill Creamery ice cream, Baker Street breads and, heck, even Miss Betty's Slammin' Sauce.
It's evolving daily but already seems to be a destination for plenty of folks — including connoisseurs in search of the consummate slice.