Publication: Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Date: Wednesday, June 2 2010
In tough times, people improvise, and over time, changes become permanent. The economy may have led us to a eureka moment, as some food purveyors are learning they no longer need to do the cooking for those willing to take-and-bake.
A vegetarian pizza under construction. It's a step above frozen pizzas for those with the patience to cook it up.
A few weeks ago, I proclaimed Bruno Iezzi a genius for developing a small pasta cafe in a space with no prep kitchen but room for an oven for heating lasagna made at his other nearby restaurant. You can dine at the premises, or take the lasagna home for reheating yourself.
Pizza in the Raw goes one step further. Billed as a take-and-bake pizzeria, it offers no cooking whatsoever to save on the owner's personnel and electricity costs. It's what I expected of the pizza, but spotting semi-sweet chocolate-and-butterscotch-chip cookies on the menu, I went ahead and ordered a half-pound for $5. I was handed a chilled brown log in plastic wrap.
I had failed to note the words, "Cookies in the Raw."Well, just goes to show you how often I bake cookies. My response was, "What's this?!"
"It's the cookies."
Ha, I'm more accustomed to cookies as objects of instant gratification, not a source of labor. But, hey, I was game.
None of this is new, I might add. Grocery stores have been offering frozen and microwave-ready foods all along. And for those who can afford it, private chefs will provide packages of a week's worth of meals to store in the fridge, ready to heat and eat on prescribed days of the week.
But Pizza in the Raw presents pizza built fresh, with dozens of ingredients at your disposal. Given that Boston's Pizza is right down the street, I tried to imagine how Pizza in the Raw could make a person's life any easier. I figured that for kitchen DIY-ers, it would take a lot of effort and cost to assemble the selection of 38 ingredients, so in that way, Pizza in the Raw offers a shortcut.
If you're hungry, though, it adds about 20 to 30 minutes to your being fed, no longer than sitting at a restaurant waiting for it to bake up, but you have to consider your commute, and during summer, how hot it will be to open your oven, heated to a toasty 425 degrees.
When I first heard about this place, I was excited by the possibility of sitting around, getting hands dirty by building a mini pizza from scratch to toss in the oven and eat on the spot. THAT would have been fun, bringing a whole new dimension to the idea of a pizza party.
But no. Here, you tell them what you want, they roll out the dough, dress it up and wrap it to go. At home, you'll preheat your oven and bake it 17 to 22 minutes. To me, it cedes a lot of control over the final product to the customer, who may or may not know what they're doing. (At least at Bruno's, you could eat on the spot for a lesson in how his lasagna should turn out.)
I, for instance, decided it might be too much of a mess to leave the pizza on the same-size parchment paper placed directly on the rack (I could imagine overflow cheese and difficulty removing it from my gas oven). So I put the whole thing on a cookie sheet. That left the crust a little underdone and chewy. To correct, I placed large pieces in a nonstick skillet, covered, to cook over very low heat for about 20 minutes, which worked perfectly.
A second time, I followed the instructions, and while the crust was crisper, it's not the crackling crisp I like from a professional pizza oven. The crust occupies a place between crisp and pan-style bready. I like crusts both ways, but the in-between seems like a weak compromise.
While I was waiting for the pizza to be made, a couple of people asked if they needed a pizza stone and were assured they did not. I'd say whatever tools you have to help the process may come in handy. Most people do not have the proper accouterments for dealing with pizza. As I was walking out the door, my first thought was, "I don't even have a pizza knife."
YOU CAN build your own pizza (from $11) or choose one of their specialty pizzas ($17). They also offer a pizza of the day for $14, usually a half-half combo of two specialty pizzas.
My favorites of the specialties are the spinach-and-garlic white pizza, which tastes a lot like Boston's, and the Greek chicken, which starts with a layer of sun-dried tomato pesto, topped with feta, banana peppers and kalamata olives.
The go-tos for traditionalists will be the Carnivore's Delight with pepperoni, sausage, ham and bacon; and the Italian Sausage Red with Italian sausage, mushrooms, sweet onion and four cheeses.
There's also a vegetarian offering, as well as pizzas that borrow from other fave foods, such as a BLT with apple-smoked bacon, and the Whole Enchilada, with taco sauce, ground beef and cheddar.
If you're building your own, start with a hand-tossed or whole-wheat crust, which can be smeared with sauces ranging from basil pesto and creamy alfredo to smoky barbecue and Louisiana hot sauce. The last of which also is the starter for a Buffalo chicken specialty pizza.
Toppings include choices of 10 meats and 16 veggies, from caramelized onions to roasted eggplant.
Round out your meal with a generous salad. The Italian chop ($12) is enough to feed two adults and two young children. In it, julienned Romaine is topped with thin-sliced salami, provolone and turkey, with a sprinkling of garbanzos and diced tomato, and balsamic vinaigrette on the side.
There also is a spinach salad ($7) with strawberries and candied almonds, and "mesclun" ($9) with mandarin oranges and candied almonds. The mesclun turns out to be, not a mix of multiple greens, but a couple types of lettuce, and the almonds are more candy than nutty, like eating rock candy.
I'm on the line about the pizza. It's fresh for sure, but most people look at pizza as a convenience, and the process isn't convenient enough for me. I'd go back for the cookies and Italian salad, though.
Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org