Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Did You Know…

that, other than Hawaii, no state has fewer pizza outlets per capita than Mississippi? So we were thrilled to find that the nearby city of Gulfport had an authentic brick oven pizzeria and one that was named Food Network Magazine’s Best Pizza in Mississippi.

Like most of the Gulf Coast, Gulfport was all but destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, but a group of businessmen and women were determined to see their city reborn. One such person is Tony Swigris, the owner of Tony’s Brick Oven Pizzeria.
“After Hurricane Katrina left our community broken and uprooted, I looked for an opportunity to start the rebuilding process for us as well as for our community. Four years of commitment, patience and hard work has made this opportunity won and turned a vision into reality. I opened Tony's Brick Oven Pizzeria in January of 2010 joining in on Gulfport Mississippi's Historic Downtown Renovation Project. The Hospitality Industry has been my life.... I enjoy what I do and I love to cook. Tony's Brick Oven Pizzeria is all about fresh, homemade ingredients from our pizza crusts and sauces to our sandwiches and pastas…” (tonysbrickovenpizzeria.com).
“Since opening in 2010, it's gotten rave reviews from bloggers, Yelpers, and local papers. EatJxn raves about the veggie pie, with fresh, locally-grown toppings. Scott Hawkins at the Sun-Herald loves the ‘Perfect Pepperoni’…. Dough and sauces—rustic tomato, pesto, or marinara—are made in-house, and Tony uses a four cheese blend of provolone, mozzarella, Romano, and Parmesan. In keeping with Tony's local-minded spirit, a frequent special features Gulf shrimp” (slice.seriouseats.com).
It’s my impression that Gulfport is taking longer to recover from Katrina than is Biloxi just to the east. I suspect that is due to the nine casinos that call Biloxi home and which attract tourists from the entire Gulf region. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the streets of downtown Gulfport were virtually empty—as was Tony’s—on the Sunday that we visited at noon.

But the lack of customers afforded us a good look at the pizzaiolo (pizza maker) and the oven that I suspect was gas rather than wood fired. What was my clue? The fact that the flame was on a low burn when we arrived but suddenly erupted into full burn just before our pies went into the oven. (Note: None of the men shown here is Tony.)
Now the pizza that Food Network Magazine anointed as the best in Mississippi is what I consider to be a “gimmick” pie—the Gumbo Pizza. “Owner Tony Swigris delivers Cajun gumbo—Gulf shrimp, crab and andouille sausage—on a sturdy crust, along with tomato, onion and okra. But the real star of this pie is the sauce: a smoky roux thickened with the secret gumbo ingredient, file powder (ground dried sassafras leaves)” (foodnetwork.com). Needless to say, we didn’t order this.

Instead, we ordered one of our “go to’s”—the classic Margherita with Tony’s Rustic Sauce, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil.
I never know how sensitive the pizzaiolo is when it comes to specific requests. Some may be fine with it and others not. But I am usually reluctant to specify that I want the basil on a Margherita added when the pie is out of the oven. And so we were a bit disappointed to see that while the pie contained an ample amount of basil, the high heat had shriveled and dried it.

The Rustic Sauce which is described as made with “whole fresh roma tomatoes roasted until bursting in olive oil, garlic, and spices” and contained small bits of tomato. I guess that’s why it is called “rustic.” It was quite good and wasn’t ladled on too thickly. And the crust, while thicker than VPN or Chicago thin crust, was thinner than most hand tossed New York style crusts. And the bottom had a nice crispness.

All of Tony’s pizzas are twelve-inch, so to go with the Margherita, we also ordered a basic cheese and sausage—this time with the Marinara Sauce made with crushed tomatoes cooked in a blend of “secret ingredients.”
Other than the lack of identifiable tomato bits, I couldn’t detect much difference between the two sauces. But that’s not a big problem. What was a problem was the “Italian sausage.” First, it was dry and overcooked. Second, it was almost flavorless. I couldn’t distinguish any taste of fennel, and to me, it’s not Italian sausage if there is no fennel.
When we left Tony’s I was ready to give our pizzas 4.0 Addies. Upon further reflection, 3.5 seems to be a better evaluation.

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