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Pizza gains sophistication in Baltimore

When Edward Bosco and Marianne Kresevich decided to open a pizza restaurant, they didn't choose his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y. And they didn't pick Chicago, where they were living at the time. Instead, the husband and wife moved to Baltimore and opened Verde in Canton.

"We felt differentiating ourselves would be easier in Baltimore," says Bosco. Their rustic-chic restaurant, which opened in 2012, is among a handful of places that are bringing higher-quality pizza to the region. Without a pizza shop on every corner, entrepreneurs in Baltimore see room to carve out their own slice of the action, offering pies that meet a growing pizza sophistication.

Nationwide, pizza is big business, with one in eight Americans noshing on a pie on any given day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Chains like Pizza Hut and Papa John's still dominate, but independents command nearly 40 percent of pizza sales, according to trade publication PMQ Pizza Magazine, which predicts a continued push toward higher-quality pizzas.

"We had a better-burger movement, a better-beer movement with craft beer, and we are definitely seeing a better-pizza trend as well," says Rick Hynum, editor in chief of PMQ Pizza Magazine. "A lot of customers are willing to pay for gourmet toppings, and they want them locally grown whenever possible. They want it a little more upscale."

The best pizza-makers in Baltimore and beyond know how to create charred and chewy crusts in super-hot ovens, which are fueled by wood, coal or gas. They use fresh, flavorful and inventive toppings, often skipping the traditional red sauce or mozzarella. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free pizzas are also in demand, with some Baltimore pizza-makers gamely taking up the challenge while others refuse to dabble in soy cheeses or gluten-free crusts.

"People are not just looking for pizzas as an alternative to McDonald's," says Bosco. "They're looking for a pizza experience as an alternative to some of the better dining experiences in Baltimore."

There's no pepperoni at Verde. Instead they use toppings like prosciutto, pistachio pesto, broccoli rabe and sausage that's made in-house from freshly ground pork, red wine and herbs. The mozzarella is made in-house, and other cheeses are imported from Italy.

Verde creates traditional Neapolitan pizzas using a wood-burning oven and dough made with high-gluten, low-sugar flour imported from Naples. The oven reaches 850 degrees, cooking the pies in a mere 90 seconds. The tomato sauce is nothing but San Marzano tomatoes, ground by hand at Verde, with sea salt.

Back in 1984, Mike Beckner was a pizza pioneer when he opened Brick Oven Pizza (BOP) in Fells Point, one of the first local pizza parlors to use a wood-fired oven, which gives his pies a pleasantly smoky flavor. In three decades, he hasn't changed his marinara or dough recipes, but he's added a gluten-free crust (not made in-house) and now sells 52 toppings instead of the original 15, including pesto, capers, and crab meat. About eight to 10 times a year, somebody will spring for the $175 pizza with all 52 toppings, which "actually comes out pretty good," he says.

Then in 2005, both Joe Squared and Iggies opened in Baltimore, setting a high standard for the restaurants that would follow. The city is now home to a healthy number of high-end pizza places, including Hersh's, Chazz: A Bronx Original and Bagby Pizza Co.

"We never really made an attempt to mimic anyone else, we've always done our own thing," says Joe Edwardsen, owner of Joe Squared, which uses a coal-burning oven that heats to about 900 degrees, and a low-sugar sourdough crust that blackens around the edges while retaining moisture for a chewy interior.

With three specialty pies a month (one vegetarian, one meat and a third with proceeds that benefit different charities) Joe Squared customers can always find something new, like the meat pizza sold in May, with pimento cheese sauce, watercress, bacon and a fig glaze. The Irish pizza, a top seller around St. Patrick's Day, is topped with corned beef, potatoes, roasted garlic, Jarlsberg cheese and caramelized onions.

Though he gets frequent requests for gluten-free pizzas, Edwardsen doesn't sell them because the gluten-free crusts don't meet his standards. Instead, he added risotto to the menu to provide a naturally gluten-free alternative to pizza.

Peter Wood, who until recently ran Iggies with wife Lisa Heckman, says the restaurant's emphasis on seasonal, high-quality ingredients seems trendy but is actually traditional. (The couple sold the restaurant in late July. The new owner said he plans to keep things as they are.)

"Our point of view is not that we're doing anything new," Wood says. "We're doing things old."

Iggies, with long, communal tables and a tightly edited menu of pizzas and salads with seasonal ingredients, uses a gas-fired oven that heats to about 700 degrees. Much of the menu is vegetarian, and vegans can opt for one of the cheese-free pizzas, or request a pizza without cheese. Wood won't use soy cheese, but he has begun making gluten-free pies, estimating he sells about 25 a week.

One of the most popular pies at Iggies is a pizza made with mozzarella, toasted pistachios, roasted red onions and rosemary oil, but the best-seller since opening day has been the Alice, with basil pesto, garlic, spinach, house-made mozzarella, goat cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano. "People respond to the freshness of it," Wood says.

River House Pizza, the region's first wood-burning pizza oven on wheels, was launched in 2012 by Nathan Sowers, who recently acquired a second mobile pizza oven. "Nobody else is doing it," Sowers says of his roving business, which travels to farmers' markets, M&T Bank Stadium, and events throughout the region.

The wood-burning oven heats to 900 degrees, he says, and his dough ferments for two days to build flavor. He often uses fresh produce, particularly when he can buy it at the farmers' market where he makes pizzas while people line up outside his booth.

Johnny Rad's in Upper Fells Point, which opened in 2010, has won the affection of vegans by using a cheese substitute called Teese, which "people actually love," says chef Grayson Reeder. Toppings also include vegan substitutes for sausage, steak and chicken, and local produce is used when possible.

The pies are topped with a simple sauce of tomatoes, lemon juice, salt and pepper, then cooked in a gas-heated brick oven for a thin crust with "a crisp outside and a nice doughy center."

Though Johnny Rad's is just a few blocks from Verde, Bosco says there's still plenty of room for growth in Baltimore, as demand continues to grow for higher-end pizzas.

"We're trying," he says, "to influence the pizza culture in Baltimore one pie at a time."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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