by Eleanor Shelton
PIZZA IS LIKE a favorite pair of jeans—you can dress them up and look great, but they are still jeans. Wood-fired pizza, takes the Levis and adds a glamorous top and kickass shoes to create an outfit pretty enough to attend a swanky party. It is also the gourmet’s answer to the chewy, tasteless crusts of the big chain pizzerias, adds a satisfying crunch to the dish and there is something primitive about watching the pizzas slip into the fire ovens that brings out the inner caveman, yeah, fire!
I recently ate at two of Ann Arbor’s Wood-fired pizza joints. Here’s how they sliced up:
Bigalora Cucina, 3050 Washtenaw Ave. Suite 12 is Chef Luciano Del Signore’s latest Pizzeria Biga restaurant to open in the area. He already has locations in Royal Oak and Southfield. Bigalora is located in the newly-opened Arbor Hills Crossing shopping plaza. Chef Del Luciano has been nominated by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region. Ok, so there is definitely some pedigree here. I had high expectations.
When I walked in to the restaurant I was greeted by two very nice employees as well as loud Billy Joel music. The place was sleek, modern, trendy and sterile. The open kitchen was at the back along the side so only a few patrons seated in just the right spot would be able to watch the fire action. With the smooth concrete floors and the high, corrugated metal ceilings sound bounced around the restaurant like atoms in a cyclotron. When my friend joined me, I had to ask her to repeat herself twice before I heard her. Not a place for intimate conversations. That night the clientele was mostly hipsters and 30 somethings—not surprising since there isn’t much in the way of restaurants between Paesanos and Main Street. My favorite part of the restaurant was the bar. It had cool pendant lighting and the back was row upon row of backlit bottles.
Our waiter was attentive, mostly, but much of my quick banter fell flat because we couldn’t hear each other. Bigalora Cucina has an OK wine list (half off bottles on Tuesdays), but a draft beer selection that runs the length of the bar, no kidding! The menu is impressive with 13 options for red pizza (with tomato sauce) and 12 options for white (without tomato sauce). I was impressed with the pizza options, which included familiar standbys such as Margherita and Prosciutto to the more imaginative Farm Egg, and Wood Fired Brussel Sprouts.
I ordered the chef’s special that night. It was a white pizza with four different kinds of cheese, including goat cheese, fresh basil, smoked pulled chicken, artichokes, with a balsamic vinegar reduction drizzled on top. My friend ordered the old standby, pepperoni. The menu does also include a nice selection of soups, pasta, salads, small plates, cheese and meat platters, and desserts. The pizzas range from $9.50 for a simple Marinara pizza to $16.50 for a Gulf Shrimp pizza. There are gluten free and vegan options.
My pizza looked nice: that is the only compliment I can give it. I was highly disappointed. If bland were a flavor of pizza, it would be this one. The only taste was the balsamic drizzle. I saw very little chicken on the pizza and that ended up being more of a texture. I didn’t even find the saltiness of the goat cheese. The crust was nothing special, but I have no doubt that it was cooked near flames because it was somewhat over-burnt. My friend’s pepperoni pizza was better. But really, it is hard to mess up a pepperoni pizza.
For almost three years Mani Osteria 341 E. Liberty St. has dominated the corner of Liberty and Division in downtown Ann Arbor. In Italian, mani means hands (a mano means handmade). Osteria is an Italian eatery with simple menus that focus on local specialities. At an Osteria, food is often served at shared tables. Thus, Mani Osteria is not an osteria, even if the menu focuses on antipasti, soup, salad, pizza and pasta. Rather Mani is a restaurant whose somewhat eclectic menu includes Italian food. The menu also includes chicken liver mousse (French), pork belly (Asian/French) and Caesar salads (Mexico).
Finding a place to park took almost 30 minutes and I ended up having to pay to park in a structure. It was also Friday night of Restaurant Week, an exceedingly poor choice of evenings on my part. But walking along the snowy, busy sidewalks, and seeing the white lights on the trees reinforced the fun vibe of this part of the city. The annoyance of parking was soon forgotten. I was excited to try the restaurant because the Detroit Free Press had named Mani one of the 10 Best New Restaurants in 2011.
The restaurant was packed, but I grabbed an available seat at the bar and was immediately greeted by a pleasant bartender and next to me a nice patent attorney eating dinner before heading to a concert at Hill Auditorium. The space is divided into a bar area with some high-top tables and then up a couple of stairs is the main dining area that looks directly onto an open kitchen at the back, replete with fire ovens. There was no loud music; the place was full with lots of conversations going on, but I could hear.
There are 13 different wood-fired pizza choices on the menu that range in price from $13 to $18. I ordered the wild mushroom and ham pizza and my friend chose the Burrata & Balsamic. The delicious pizzas were inventively served on round metal trays rested atop empty San Marzano tomato cans.
Mani pizza crusts have a nice, subtle flavor and are made with a recipe that includes finely-ground double-zero flour. Also called doppio zero flour, this ingredient is can be pretty tough to track down, and then hard on the wallet when you do. In the U.S., we categorize flours by how much protein they contain, which directly affects the gluten formation in whatever we’re making. They do it a little differently in Italy and other parts of Europe by categorizing flours based on how finely the flour has been ground. Coarsely-ground type “2” flour is at one end of the spectrum with powder-fine “00” flour at the other.
While the edges of the crusts made with doppio zero flour are slightly charred there is no burnt taste. My pizza had a tomato sauce that at first seemed too watery, but was flavorful with just the right amount of subtle kick. I could taste the woodsy mushrooms, the smoked Scamorza cheese and ham individually, but together they created a flavorful symphony in my mouth. My pizza was very good and came highly recommended by the bartender. However, the winner of the night was the Burrata & Balsamic pizza. Burrata has a mozzarella outer shell with a creamy, sweet inside. The pizza also had caramelized onions that gave it sweetness along with wilted spinach. This was the first pizza that I can remember taking a bite of and saying, “Wow!” To add more of a punch, try the house-made chili oil.
In the mood for a great wood-fired pizza? Meet friends at Bigalora Cucina for a drink at their cool bar and then head over to Mani Osteria for the pizza. Feel free to wear your most comfortable jeans—it’s pizza after all.