The second round of the "Miami Pizza Crawl" re-convened this past Sunday evening, exploring the offerings of the northerly pizzaiolos of Miami-Dade County -- Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, Pizza Fusion, and Racks Italian Bistro. Readers of Chowhound may recall that the genesis of the Pizza Crawl came about as a result of me giving Miami Danny (a/k/a Danny Brody of the Daily Cocaine blog) a small raft of shit (more like a dinghy, maybe) over him declaring Racks' pizza the best in South Florida after they had been open approximately 24 hours. While giving Danny some grief is usually its own reward, this particular instance had the added bonus of leading to the idea of a "pizza showdown" among the many new pizzamakers cropping up around Miami. We had a big turnout last night with 28 people (including all of Family Frod for the first two rounds) and it was a fun group. Many thanks to Paula of Mango & Lime for playing coordinator for this round. You can see her recap and pictures here.
Here's the menu for the evening's festivities (given the size of the group it wasn't easy to get a taste of everything, and so I'm mostly going to recite what made impressions either favorable or not rather than try to do the usual granular recap):
Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza
"Paul & Young Ron" (with meatballs, sausage, hot peppers & ricotta)
Fresh Mozzarella, Sliced Tomato & Basil
Meatball & Ricotta
Bruschetta (with fresh chopped tomatoes, red onion, basil, balsamic vinegar & roasted garlic)
Four Cheese & Sundried Tomato
Organic Eggplant & Fresh Mozzarella
Farmers Market (with roasted artichokes, red onion, zucchini & eggplant)
Founders' Pie (with chicken, kalamata olives, red onion & mozzarella)
Secchi (with sopressata, provolone, fiore di latte & goat cheese)
Sweet Sausage (with meatballs, onion, ricotta & grana padano)
Spinach (with prosciutto, smoked mozzarella & reggiano)
Portabello (with truffle oil, gorgonzola & speck)
I've had Anthony's pizza before, and am a fan of their crispy "well done" style. They use coal-burning ovens that they crank to 800 degrees, which cook the pies in 4 minutes. I know some people don't like getting their crust with black bits around the edges, but I don't mind it. I was disappointed, though, that the broccoli rabe and sausage pizza was "86'd" for the night and wasn't part of our tasting. Having said all that, I found most of the pies we got at Anthony's last night to be curiously underdone (by their typical standards, anyway). Maybe it was because some of them were too loaded down with toppings (the "Paul & Young Ron" in particular I thought was overloaded), but I found them surprisingly soggy. My favorite of the group was probably the plain jane pie with fresh tomato and mozzarella - perhaps because the topppings didn't dominate the crust which was still firm and crisp. I also enjoyed the flavor of the "Eggplant Marino" (supposedly Dan Marino's favorite) with thinly sliced rounds of eggplant sprinkled with parmesan, though again I thought there was too much topping to crust. All still good, but not as good as I've had there previously.
It was interesting to me to see that Anthony's was absolutely packed, with a full house and people waiting outside for tables, early on a Sunday evening despite continuing periodic downpours. Somehow one server tended to our entire table of 25 or so (a few stragglers got seated separately) and did so efficiently and with a smile. Bless her.
Next, Pizza Fusion. Pizza Fusion is a chain which started in Deerfield Beach, Florida and now has about 20 locations in Florida and elsewhere, with more in the pipeline. They have a strong focus on using organic ingredients - their sauce and their dough are supposedly all-organic, as are many of the toppings. Their large pies came in a 9"x18" rectangular shape - although they are offered with a regular white dough crust as well as a multigrain crust, we missed out on sampling the latter. While I appreciate the chain's dedication to organic ingredients, I was less appreciative of their pizzas. The crust was overwhelmed by the flavor and texture of the cornmeal on the bottom, and the toppings were, well - nebbish. The sauce was too sweet, the pepperoni didn't taste like much - particularly compared to the robust flavors of the Pizzavolante "Cacciatorini" - and none of the other vegetable toppings really stood out. This was not bad pizza by any means, it was perfectly fine - just not anything I'd go out of my way for, though I'd happily eat it in lieu of many other strip-mall options. Frod Jr. and Little Miss F are big fans of the organic Boylan's sodas, and I also appreciated the all-organic beer and wine list.
They were likewise very accomodating of our big, unwieldy group, and the restaurant has a nice look, going for the modern industrial loft feel with unfinished concrete walls, reclaimed wood tables and the like. I really am genuinely impressed by Pizza Fusion's commitment to environmental responsibility and there's much more info on it here, including things like countertops made from recycled detergent bottles, dual-flush toilets in the bathrooms, using recycled paper for their printed materials, and giving discounts to customers who recycle their pizza boxes.
We closed out the evening at Racks, and after suffering some attrition among the ranks, only sampled four of their pies. It was enough to make an impression, and the impression was pretty favorable. Racks also uses coal-burning ovens, cranked up hot enough to cook the dough and warm the toppings before they all turn to mush. They also go for the rectangular shape on their pies, though these were probably a bit smaller than what we got at Pizza Fusion, and probably smaller than the equivalent pie at Anthony's as well (though comparing the surface area of the rectangular Racks pie to the round Anthony's pie involves math skills I have long since forgotten; maybe Frod Jr. can help). The one pizza in particular that everyone seemed to lurch for as it came out was the one topped with spinach, prosciutto and smoked mozzarella, the smoky mozzarella making a nice complement to the thinly sliced prosciutto. But the sweet sausage pizza was also very good, incorporating several elements without completely messing up the toppings-to-crust ratio.
I somehow missed out on trying the Secchi, which sounded good. I was not as impressed by the portobello pizza as some, which I thought was too heavy on the cheese and also on the truffle oil (a note which is too easily overdone and generally overplayed, methinks). On a related note, I was somewhat baffled by a "special" pizza offering of a truffle pie for $34 (nearly 3 times as much as anything else on the menu). The baffling part is not so much the price (fresh truffles are expensive) as the calendar - it's June! Truffle season is typically October to March. I should have asked exactly what they were using, but it basically had to either be summer truffles (which are rather less fragrant, and dramatically less expensive, than winter truffles), or jarred truffles, but neither should command that kind of price tag. By comparison, Timo in Sunny Isles regularly lists a "black and white" pizza wich uses preserved black truffles for $17.
I also would have preferred a crispier crust to the more springy, doughy texture the Racks pizzas had on the outside crust. But - despite all the grief I gave Danny - this was very good pizza. Best pizza in South Florida? I'm not going there yet. But I enjoyed it.
Another nice discovery at Racks - Amarcord Birra Artigianale, an Italian craft beer that comes in four different styles which include a lager, a "double" pale ale, a "double" red ale and a "double" brown ale. I had the red ale which was smooth, intense, even chewy. I believe our waiter said that Racks is the only place in Miami that offers the beer, and if you let them know in advance you can even get a case to pick up from the Racks market.
While I'm not yet committing to any favorites overall, I will say that Racks certainly had the best showing of the evening. And once again, it was a pleasure to get together with the expanding population of pizza crawlers. I hope everyone had a good time.
Update: More on Pizza Crawl Part II here at NBCMiami.com (including video!) and Miami Dish. And if you're interested in participating in the next crawl join the Miami Chowdown Google Group.
Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza
17901 Biscayne Boulevard
Aventura, FL 33160
14815 Biscayne Boulevard
North Miami Beach, FL 33160
Racks Italian Bistro
3933 N.E. 163rd Street
North Miami Beach, FL 33160