Tuesday, January 10, 2012

So There I Was…

lounging on the sofa while flipping through the November issue of New Orleans Magazine. I turn a page and there it was. An object of such beauty that I immediately told Chuck: “I need the computer now! There is something that I need to check.”

And that brings us to Freret Street in the Uptown District one Saturday morning where we found one of those small New Orleans commercial areas that seem to erupt spontaneously in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Freret Street had fallen victim, not to Katrina, but to the city’s still too high crime rate. But today, led by a number of restaurants and clubs, Freret Street appears to be on the way back.

“While it all seemed to happen in the blink of the time it takes a Kim Kardashian romance to run its course, Freret Street’s makeover has roots that go back decades, to when the once thriving neighborhood entered a steep decline. The 1985 murder of Bill Long outside his popular Freret Street business, Bill Long’s Bakery and Delicatessen, is still regarded by many New Orleanians as a watershed event that reversed the Uptown neighborhood’s fortunes…” (Brett Anderson for The Times Picayune).

Our mission that morning only allowed for an all-too-brief exploration of the eight-block Freret Street corridor. We did have time to observe the painting of a mural on the front of a building (above), a multi-colored fence (left), and a sign for the Freret Street Gym. (In case we had last minute Christmas shopping, the Gym did have some gift suggestions.)

But what was that beautiful object that prompted this visit? If you guessed pizza you’d be right. But not just any pizza. Neapolitan-style pizza. Wood-fired brick oven Neapolitan-style pizza. Welcome to Ancora Pizzeria & Salumeria.

“From its inception, Ancora was envisioned to be a simple concept focused on authentic Neapolitan pizzas and house-made salumi. The layout of the restaurant mirrors the kitchen’s priorities with the three-ton mosaic-domed oven prominently displayed in the open kitchen. The rest of the space is utilitarian—concrete floors, track lighting fixtures created from wine bottles, and stacks of oak logs that will eventually feed the fire. Silverware and napkins are stocked in paint cans on the table…Pizzas arrive blistered but pliable out of that oven which literally crossed an ocean to get here. The wood fire gives the bottom of the pizzas a smokiness that you can taste when each slice hits your tongue. Toppings feature a variety of impeccably sourced ingredients. Think hand-pulled mozzarella, anchovies, pickled peppers, and house-cured meats, including the best tasting speck this side of the Atlantic” (Peter Thriffiley & Rene Louapre offbeat.com/2011/10/01/dining-out-ancora).

“Ancora is a partnership between (Adolfo) Garcia…chef Josh Smith and Jeff Talbot, a chef who’d left his job at the revered restaurant Cyrus, in Healdsburg, Calif., to pursue his pizza obsession in Louisiana. When Garcia met his new partner, Talbot had, according to Garcia, ‘a $10,000 pizza oven in his backyard’ in Lake Charles, LA. ‘I saw where his head was at, and I was like, this guy’s obsessed with pizza,’ Garcia said. ‘He’s crazy, and I like his kind of crazy’” (Brett Anderson, The Times-Picayune).

“Partnering chef Jeff Talbot is the creative force behind Ancora. After a stint at the Michelin-rated Cyrus in California, the unyielding pressure to help maintain their coveted stars caused him to reexamine his lifestyle. ‘I wanted a place that my family and friends could come to and not be intimidated,’ he says. ‘I decided it was time to do something that the vast majority of people could actually appreciate…’

“From start to finish, Talbot’s naturally leavened dough takes three days to prepare and uses a starter he has fed for over six years. The result is a crust that is thin and drops slightly. Toppings are minimal and of high quality. Try the Bianca, topped with Fior di Latte (a cow’s milk mozzarella), fresh basil, olive oil, chili and garlic. Minimalists might reach for the Marinara, which highlights the pizza’s deceptive simplicity with just San Marzano tomatoes, garlic and fresh oregano” (Jay Forman for New Orleans Magazine).

Open Monday – Saturday for dinner, Ancora just started serving lunch on Fridays and Saturdays and offers a minimal list of menu options. So minimal that your choices are limited to four pizzas, each which comes with a small salad. But that was fine with us. What we wanted was pizza.

From the list of four, we decided to share a Margherita (fior di latte, tomato, basil) and a Diavolo (Naples salumi, fior di latte, tomato). The small salad was composed of red leaf lettuce that was tossed with a light olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing and topped with crumbled quartirolo cheese. This is a cow’s milk cheese and has a slightly tangy flavor, but not as tangy as goat cheese. We were off to a good start.

The first pizza to arrive was the Margherita. The minute I saw the crust with its giant charred bubble I knew that Ancora was headed in the right direction. The red sauce tasted like bright fresh tomatoes and the
fresh mozzarella was the slightest bit chewy. The only complaint, and it is a minor one, is that I would have liked the fresh basil to have been put on the pizza after firing and not before.

Next up was the Diavolo. A commenter on one of the Big Three (Yelp, Urbanspoon, Trip Advisor) blogs likened the sausage to pepperoni. Wrong. This is salumi and is in a class by itself. The high heat firing (900 degrees) crisped the salumi’s edges and intensified the spicy and salty flavor of the meat.

But any pizza is only as good as its crust. And Ancora’s crust was the best we have eaten. Better even than our pizza favorite, Settebello in Salt Lake City. The crust was still thin but had substance and a wonderful chewiness. And it was appropriately charred on the bottom and edges that added a whole new flavor dimension.

Before leaving, we had the chance to speak with Jeff Talbot and tell him how much we had enjoyed his pizzas. He was good enough to give us samples of their two house made breads--an Italian and a sweet fruit bread which are baked each morning in the same oven that bakes the pizzas and gives the bread an amazing crust and an airy center.

From our vantage point, we could see the chalkboard on which the evening’s specials were listed. Not shown in the photo is the content of the Affettati Misti or salumi antipasto platter which was not available at lunch. Since Ancora has its house salumi maker, we resolved to return—this time for dinner.

Tomorrow: dinner at Ancora.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

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