Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pricy Pepperoni

Eighteenth Stop: Raniero’s
Date: June 13, 2012
Location: 28 Martha Layne Collins Boulevard, Cold Spring, KY
Ranking: 48

We had kind of been avoiding Raniero’s for awhile, and for various reasons.  The day that we finally planned to cross it off of the list, it looked like our dinner may not come to fruition.  Courtney was stuck in horrible traffic from Mason to Raniero’s Cold Spring location, not far past NKU.  Of course, she had also left her cell phone at home that day, so therefore could not communicate this delay to Robyn.  She ended up being almost a full half hour late.  Being the awesome, patient friend that she is, Robyn waited.  By the time we were both there, our stomachs were growling.  This day surely warranted an appetizer.

We walked right in and were given our choice of seats.  We selected a high top table, ordered our drinks, and promptly perused the starter selections.  When we looked at the menu, it stated that they served Pepsi products.  We wanted Cokes, but both ordered Mountain Dew instead.  When we told our server this, she surprised us by saying that even though the menu says otherwise, they only serve Coke products.  Score!

There were a few things that stood out:  the standard yet typically delicious Garlic Knots, the Bosco Sticks (cheese-filled breadsticks), and the Luigi Snackers (kind of like a pizza hot pocket).  However, what really caught our eye were the Queso Cheez Stix, which promised to give us crunchy tortilla snackers filled with warm queso.  Our waitress fully endorsed this selection, so we decided to give it a go, turning a blind eye to its ridiculous spelling.  Pizza-wise, we decided to go simple this round, and selected Zia’s Pepperoni Pie.  This pizza promised to bring us pepperoni “stacked high and side-to-side”.  Sometimes, that is all a pair of girls need. 
Apparently we ate three of these before remembering to take a picture. 
 Honest reaction:  the Queso Cheez Stix (ok, that is impossible to write without cringing) were good enough for a seemingly frozen appetizer.  We were hungry, so not all that picky, and we had no problem splitting these up and finishing them off.  However, we realize that it was not the most delicious of appetizers.  These surely are not fresh; we both believe that they originally hailed from the freezer section.  Accompanying six of these deep-fried treats was a little cup of salsa, likely of the Pace or Kroger brand variety.  We’re really not complaining about these – they were completely edible, and we were so hungry that we did not care.  However, it is something to note if you are in the market for a unique, homemade appetizer.  In that case, this is not the appetizer for you.  It’s also not for you if you hate purposeful misspellings (Cheez.  Stix.  Ugh). 

They might as well call them Kaysoh Cheez Stix.

Then came our pizza.  And folks, this is really the first time that we disagreed on a pizza.  Courtney liked it fine.  It was just a good, standard pepperoni pizza.  It had a good, greasy flavor that you expect from this classic pie.  The pepperoni itself was zesty, just as the menu promised.  Robyn, on the other hand, did not care for this pizza at all.  She ate it – just as with the Queso Stix, it was edible – but she really didn’t enjoy it.  Nothing about the pizza stood out or even hit the spot, and she was disappointed in pretty much every aspect of the pizza, which bummed her out.  While Robyn is the deeply in love with some greasy kinds of pizza (see: Jet’s), she did not like the amount or flavor of grease that seemed to be pooling all over the plate and seeping through the crust alarmingly.      

The whole shabang.

After Robyn sopped up excess grease with a napkin.

Now, back to agreeing.  We both agree that this pizza was a rip-off.  As aforementioned, this pizza description promised this specialty option to be “stacked high and side-to-side with zesty pepperoni”.  Only the zesty part of this description is correct; the pepperoni was not that prevalent.  There was really just a normal amount on it, which kind of pisses us off.  Our 12-inch pizza was $13.95.  Before seeing this pizza, Courtney had placed a to-go order for a large, 16-inch of the same variety.  This one was $19.95.  Twenty dollars for a pepperoni pizza?  It just seems like a bit much.  In drafting this post, Courtney checked out their menu again and saw that you can order a 16” “Pizza by the Pie” with one topping (example: pepperoni) for $16.50.  We are willing to bet that the difference in the amount of pepperoni between that and the Zia’s specialty kind is minimal.  Keep this in mind and save yourself some money if you’re ever in the mood for a simple pepperoni pizza from Raniero’s. The Zia is not worth it!  It is worth noting, however, that they seem to have good combo deals (under $5) if you’re looking for just a plain slice or two and a drink.   
Does ANYONE think this pepperoni is stacked "high and side-to-side"?

I suppose Raniero’s could have been a better experience; perhaps we just didn’t order the right things.  We’ve both heard good things from many different people (we actually ran into two different couples that we know just in our quick visit), so the place must be doing something right.  We understand that other appetizers choices are decent.  In fact, when we ran into our friend Jeff there that evening, he provided us with this quote:  “Who needs Mario when you’ve got Luigi Snackers?” The service was quality, and the atmosphere (an old Blockbuster) is nice for a pizza parlor/bar.  It is also worth noting that Raniero’s offers a 24” Pizza Challenge in which two collaborating contestants struggle to consume a 24” cheese pizza in less than 10 minutes.  If they finish within the allotted time, their pizza is on the house; if not, they must fork up the dough.  From the looks of their site, it looks like they are trying to petition this contest for Man v. Food.  Courtney’s brother has actually championed this feat, and has his picture framed on the Raniero’s wall.  Her family is very proud.

Here’s our biggest takeaway from our Raniero’s experience:  it’s expensive.  We’ve not had any complaints, really, about pizza pricing until this point.  Some places are more than others, but some are also better than others, or perhaps provide more quality ingredients (some of which are very noticeable).  At Raniero’s, we went about as simple as we could, but that wasn’t reflected in the price, and unfortunately the price wasn’t balanced with the quality. If you have $20 to spend on a pepperoni pizza, you’re probably better off going somewhere that offers you either better pizza, or the ability to add side items for that amount.

Raniero's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Good Pizza, but No Cigar

Seventeenth Stop: Van Zandt Tavern
Date: June 1st, 2012
Location:  1810 W. Galbraith Rd. Cincinnati, OH 45239
Ranking: 35

If a pizza falls in the oven and no one is around to taste it, does it make a good meal?  Walking into VanZandt, we had our choice of any table or barstool that we wanted-this place was a ghost town, despite the fact that it was about 7:00 on a Friday.  There was only one couple, and later, a family who were in the restaurant along with us.  If this pizza is so good, why is no one lined up to eat it?  The décor is modern and casual, and the atmosphere is clean and clutter-free.  My guess is that, with the lack of customers that seem to be stopping by, they have some time to tidy up and stay on top of housekeeping. 

One little thorn in the side of this visit was the fact that we couldn’t order an adult beverage.  In a “Tavern!”  We rarely indulge in alcohol on our pizza adventures, because neither of us owns a money tree, and you can imagine how expensive that would become as we blaze through all 50 spots (sugar daddies, request an application within and Robyn will return your call as soon as possible).  But, if ever there was a day that we wanted some booze to go with our pizza, it was that evening, and we were denied.  “We don’t have a liquor license right now,” our server lamented, as we scanned the desolate bar area.  The handles were taken off the taps, the wine cases barren, and the glasses collecting dust on the shelves.  It was a sad, sad scene.   

While browsing the Four Square tips for VanZandt, Robyn noticed that the “mayor” of the restaurant had listed his phone number, along with an invitation to walk to his nearby home and share a cigar with him.  Ok, whacko.  We’ll just mosey on down to your front porch in a few and light up a stogie with you.  Sorry, but we’re not about to step into that custom-built crazy trap, Mr. Mayor.  Robyn will, however, make use of your phone number, which you so strangely listed on a public social media forum.  As we waited for our order, she sent a text to Mr. Mayor to inquire about the lack of a liquor license at Van Zandt.  Can you believe he didn’t even text back?!  Someone is not taking their duties as “mayor” very seriously, and the people of North College Hill should be outraged.  So, the details regarding the liquor license (or absence of) are unclear, but it appears that some Urbanspoon users who visited back in maybe April or May were also confronted with the same disappointment at that time.  Maybe they have changed that by the time this post goes up, but that’s how it was for us on June the 1st.     

Anyway, you probably want to know about the pizza.  They have 6 varieties, which can be good if you’re overwhelmed by lots of choices (like Courtney).  VanZandt isn’t specifically a pizza parlor or an Italian restaurant, but their pizzas have garnered enough attention to make an appearance on Cincinnati Magazine’s list.  Their burgers are also an award-winning item, which we noticed the couple dining near us enjoying.  Since the pizzas were small, individual-sized pies, we each chose a different pizza, with the intention of sharing.  Robyn chose the Six Cheese pizza, which had provolone, cheddar, gorgonzola, swiss, smoked gouda, and mozzarella.  Courtney chose the Cheeseburger pizza, which included ground beef, onion, cheddar, lettuce, and tomato. 

baby pizza
Behold: the Six Cheese Pizza
The Six Cheese pizza did not have sauce, which wasn’t really clear from the menu (it didn’t state that it had an olive oil base or anything like that, either).  It was also extremely thin.  See the picture above?  That is the Six Cheese pizza, thinner than my little cell phone and nearly as long.  However, the flavors of the six cheeses were buttery and excellent, and the crust was tasty as well.  In Robyn’s opinion, this was basically a “fancy” order of cheesy bread.  This isn’t a great option if you are really hungry and not sharing food with another person as we were doing.  On the other hand, it would be great with a salad if you were looking for something basic, but with rich, full flavors.    

Cheeseburger, cheeseburger

Perhaps surprisingly, the Cheeseburger Pizza was also an overall win.  Now, this pizza was tempting on the menu.  We hadn’t yet had one of this kind and, since we both love a good cheeseburger, we figured it was a good opportunity.  When our order came, though, we grew more skeptical.  There was lettuce and tomato atop its surface, as we had expected, but they appeared to be mixed with something.  Mayonnaise.  The menu didn’t note this particular feature, and it just looked, well, bad.  Courtney was honestly a little fearful of that first bite.  But, you know what?  It works.  Everything on this pizza is a component of your typical cheeseburger, including the lettuce, tomato, pickles (diced for the pizza), and ketchup (in lieu of a marinara sauce).  The crust replaces the standard bun, but serves the purpose just the same.  This pizza was much more filling that the 6 Cheese, and really pretty delicious.  While it strays from the traditional formula for pizza, it is a welcome change from the classic combo of marinara and mozzarella.   
" My God, Sharon, where did you get that glass of wine? Everyone knows VanZandt doesn't serve alcohol!" 
In the end,  it is two thumbs up for the pizza at Van Zandt tavern.  We were happy with both choices for a variety of different reasons, and they get bonus points for the creativity displayed in their cheeseburger concoction.  That being said, the two things that stick in our memories the most is their missing liquor license (we both really needed a drink that day, people), and the unresponsive man who calls himself the VZ mayor.  We are hopeful that, if we ever make the trip to North College Hill again, we will be greeted with a cold one from the bar and a cigar from Mr. Mayor. 

Van Zandt Tavern on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Clifton Pizza Wars Part II

Date: May 21, 2012
Location: 121 West McMillan Street Cincinnati, OH
Ranking: 17

"Cincinnati's BEST Pizza":  Opened in 1984 by Sally and Tim McLane
When we walked in Pomodori’s front door, the place seemed spacious and fairly empty.  We saw a number of empty tables to the right, as we walked in and up a few steps.  But then, we were seated.  Our table was in a no-frills older dining room facing street traffic.  We were packed in, closely and awkwardly, between a family and a couple, both of which could hear every word we said, and vice versa.  There was also a lot of staring going on; it was hard not to, since everyone was packed into such a tight space.  Despite all attempts to stay engaged at your own table, it was distracting to have everyone in such close proximity.  This might not bother some people, but we found it rather uncomfortable. 

Another thing possibly worth noting about the atmosphere was the presence of flies buzzing around our table.  Judging from our view in the parking lot, they keep a door at the back of the kitchen open (maybe just during hot weather?), which likely lets in a few flies from outside (eh, it happens).  While the flies did not terribly bother us, or our food, we thought this might be something you’d like to know.   

Robyn's pizza, the "Gourmet"

The wood-fired pizzas are offered only in a smaller, individual size, so we both decided on two different options. Robyn’s pizza, overall, was a success.  She ordered the “Gourmet” wood fired pizza, which, according to the menu, included homemade pesto sauce (a blend of basil and herbs, olive oil, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese – yum!) topped with sautéed fresh mushrooms, green peppers, black and green olives, onions, capers, and artichoke hearts, sprinkled with mozzarella and provolone cheeses.   Robyn opted to leave off the capers and green olives as a matter of preference, and they did so without any objections.  The crust beneath the toppings was a thin, pliable sheet of dough that was merely a vehicle for all of the toppings on their digestive journey.  The outer edges of the crust were more pronounced since they weren’t forced to hold the weight of all those toppings, and the wood fired taste was quite good.  As far as the toppings go, they all tasted fine.  The pesto sauce had a quality flavor and, pleasantly, did not overwhelm the rest of the pizza.    

A close-up of Robyn's pizza with the yummy pesto sauce

By recommendation of a friend (blog follower Mike!), Courtney ordered the  Roasted Pepper wood-fired pizza.  This pizza is a rather simple one, involving a few variations of just a couple key ingredients.  There are both roasted red and green peppers and five different cheeses, all on a “fresh pressed garlic and olive oil crust”.  The first bite was one to remember.  The pizza tasted warm and buttery, truly of the “melt in your mouth” variety.  The core of the crust was thin and, as Robyn stated above, really just serves as a shovel for the cheese and other toppings.  The wood-fired outer crust, however, was as delicious as you’d hope it to be.  Courtney really enjoyed this one.  Though we’ve enjoyed trying new pizza styles and fancy toppings throughout this blogging expedition, sometimes sticking with simple is a good choice. 

Courtney's Roasted Pepper pizza (note: does not come with Chapstick)
If we went back, Robyn would definitely try a different pizza.  Even though she liked hers, there were so many varieties and combinations of toppings that sounded like they would be neat to try.  On this visit, other considerations included the Gorgonzola Walnut (title explains it all), and the Leeks, Pancetta, and Goat Cheese (leeks on pizza?!).  Watching the dough prep and handiwork of the pizzas being made in front of the wood-fired oven is a bonus at this place as well.  So, when you need to avoid the awkward eye contact with your neighboring table, you can avert your eyes to the pizza-making techniques on display. 
We can verify the first claim, but the rest...not so much.

Pomodori’s certainly makes some bold claims in their advertising (evidenced by the pictures above), but we are reluctant to agree with them.  We would like to amend their tagline of “best” pizza in Cincinnati to “one of the best.”  It didn’t blow either of us away, but Pomodori’s creations definitely fit the standards of well-made pizza.  The ingredients, the preparation and cooking methods, and the finished product all hold true to the creed of award winning pizzas.  However, this is war, and decisions must be made.  For Robyn, the winner was clear.  Courtney tossed and turned a little before making her decision.  In the end, this round in the Clifton Pizza Wars goes to Adriatico’s. 

Pomodori's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon