There are some things I’m good at and from what I’ve been told organizing eating agendas, making reservations, and choosing great restaurants are a few of them. Having completed a five stop tour of some of Brooklyn’s best Pizzerias during a visit in March and fully admitting that I’ve long neglected the local dining scene here in Columbus a plan was hatched to do the same right here in Cowtown in late July. Oft disappointed with the local dining scene and local tastes in both general dining and pizza leaning towards the college friendly, trendy, and cheap I did a lot of research in assembling the cast to feature only locally born businesses with an eye on quality ingredients more-so than a specific “style” and with a full ten joints on the radar I eventually whittled the list to six in order to match the number in our group…or perhaps just to push the boundary established in New York.
With a long day planned and travelers arriving from Walbridge, Oregon, Bowling Green, and Oxford alike our paths would first converge at The North Market – new home to the second location of a pizzeria made famous by “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain – Clever Crow.
Admittedly having never seen Bourdain’s show but knowing some to call it the best pizza in the city while others noted it to be merely “interesting” (and perhaps a formula knockoff with regard to the much applauded sourdough cornbread crusts and corn pizza) Clever Crow represents the first venture into Ohio Pizza by OSU graduate Gary Robinette and although it had long been on my radar the original location inside a “Club” called Circus and the inherent odd operating hours had always dissuaded my business. With the opening of a second location inside the Market and opening hours much more befitting a pizza tour (and my life) plus a convenient meeting place for all our arrival would be at 11:00pm sharp and without a line our order was placed and we were told it would take “about 15 minutes” (actually 23) before the pre-made and chilled concoction would arrive from the oven.
Sold as slices, whole, or half pies featuring local ingredients and house cured meats and pickled vegetables our party’s first taste of Clever Crow would be the “Peperone” featuring house cured Pepperoni, Mozzarella, Fontinella, and Parmesan with Tomato Sauce and Oregano – the most “typical” choice on the menu and largely meant to serve as a baseline comparison. Beginning with the crust – I will admit it is quite remarkable in both the sweet/savory balance and in the crunchy caramelized exterior juxtaposing the soft and chewy interior – think pan pizza, but with a deep dish Chicago style edge. Moving on to the ingredients - all were fresh and flavorful with a bit of spice in the Pepperoni and a smooth creamy consistency to the cheese. Unfortunately lacking, however, was the sauce - a slightly acidic tomato puree with a hint of spice but not much flavor, nuance, or texture.
Moving next to perhaps the most famous Clever Crow option, the other half of our pizza featured was the “Corn” featuring Sweet Corn, Mozzarella, House Smoked Provolone, Smoked Tomatoes, Purple Potatoes, Thyme and without overstating I can say it was one of the three best pizzas we had all day. Ditching the boring sauce this time in favor of smoked tomatoes that married flawlessly with the provolone while finding balance in the buttery sweet corn and mozzarella it was actually the potatoes that left us all most impressed as their earthy taste and fibrous texture simply added another level of complexity to the already memorable crust.
With prices ranging from $3-4 a slice, $7-9 a half, and $15-17 a whole this is clearly a spot where slices should not be ordered, though I must note that given their choice of “eco-friendly” forks and knives if you want to cut a slice have them do it for you as I snapped two knives trying to get through that crust. Overall I really enjoyed aspects of Clever Crow and see them as a place with room to grow – I can only imagine that if they made every pizza fresh the quality would be even better (though the wait time probably substantially longer.)
For our second stop of the Columbus tour we headed towards Fabian’s but as they did not open until noon a GPS re-route landed us in the German Village at the newcomer of the group – Harvest – and incidentally the spot I was looking forward to most on the trek. Owned and operated by Chris Crader and reportedly combining local farm-to-table ethics with “rustic” Italian techniques plus the concept of unique small plates and upscale desserts with pizza from a wood burning oven I have to admit that walking in the door I was already convinced there was nothing like Harvest in Columbus and with a hostess greeting us at the door with a smile even as we walked across the outdoor patio I felt a pleasant sense of welcome the moment we walked in the door.
Having heard that the restaurant has been busy in the weeks since its opening we were happy to find the place buzzing but not full and seated at a 6-8 person table near the window we were soon greeted by a pleasant young lady who presented the menus and filled our water glasses before inquiring as to whether we’d like other beverages and leaving us to weigh our options. With an open kitchen and the oven largely displaced from the main dining room the feel of the room is still a bit barren and in need of some color, but at the same time the handmade ash tables and light tones provided a comfortable “not trying too hard” feel to the room while the large windows looking out on 4th Street provided plenty of natural light.
With our waitress returning and orders placed we sat and listened to My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse, and Radiohead playing softly overhead while trying to ignore a bratty child at the 12-seater behind us until my (and I stress my as only one other person would taste it) appetizer arrived while our pizzas were being loaded into the oven. Titled “Hudson Valley Foie Gras Torchon w/ Malvasia grape must, crostini” and served with drunken black cherries, this small torchon actually represents the first time I’ve seen Foie Gras as a regular menu item in Columbus since L’Antibes and all things being equal it is also the best I’ve ever had in the Capital City and essentially equal in portion yet half the price of that at L’Antibes or The Refectory. Tasty and clean with a smooth gossamer finish, the torchon was a good example that although imperfectly cleaned (two veins, and the yellow grease/”foie gras butter” a bit too hard and separated from the torchon) had a great taste and when paired with the clever eyedropper of rich vinegar and drunken cherries worked marvelously. Served with warm crostini I had no trouble finishing the portion myself and when I was nearly through with my crostini the waitress appeared immediately asking if I’d like more…a detail that cannot go unmentioned because this has only happened thrice before – at The French Laundry, Per Se, and Le Pre Catelan…all three Michelin Starred Establishments.
With the appetizer gone it was next time for the pizza and given the breadth of options being forced to select only two was so tricky that we opted for one house made and one of our own fixings. With an eclectic cheese selection mostly from local farmers our first selection of the day would be the “Mushroom” featuring Canal Junction Lock 21, Tomato Sauce, Mixed Mushrooms, and Truffle Salt. Beginning first with the crust – in a word, it was “perfect” with a buttery golden exterior flecked with parmesan and wood tones and a center just seconds from being set. Shattering with initial bite and giving way to a supple yet un-yeasty interior crumb the crust and wood tones were only enhanced by the toppings on this particular pizza, beginning first with the milky earth tones of the cheese and progressing through a slightly sweet basil and rosemary tinged sauce to more earthy accents provided by the mushrooms and top notes of truffle that registered faintly on the palate. It was my favorite pie of the day by some degree.
For the second pizza we opted to “Get Creative” with Tomato Sauce, Fresh Mozzerella, Ohio Bacon, and Cherry Tomatoes – a brilliant selection swinging opposite the Mushroom with its focus on a more savory tones as the charred tomatoes popped on mastication providing a sweet foil to the smoky cured pork (honestly quite on par with top quality charcuterie.) Again with a fantastic crust, this time slightly more darkened on the edges I particularly enjoyed the fresh mozzarella (a $1 supplement in place of the Mozz/Prov blend) and it’s slightly funky taste – not quite mozzarella di bufala but very close.
Knowing that we still had four more stops to go on the tour we decided against dessert, though the Butterscotch Budino (a dead ringer for the version at Pizzeria Mozza – one of my top 10 desserts of 2010) and Affogato both looked good, and settled the bill that even with tax and tip seemed like a bargain compared to other Pizzerias of this quality (none of which have Foie Gras on the menu) before making our way to the street. Though we still had a long day ahead it was here that I knew in my mind that Columbus is capable of producing great pizza and all I can say is I hope Harvest can keep its following because they are the sort of place this city NEEDS.
Pulling away from Harvest we debated our next stop but ended up looping back to check out Fabian’s, now open despite their lack of operating hours on the window, and perhaps downtown’s only locally owned purveyor of Chicago-Style pies – a shame considering Columbus’ close proximity to the windy city and the number of local transplants who most certainly wouldn’t suffice for the poorly operated and franchised Uno Grill. With the streets of the Short North largely empty parking was a breeze in the lot next door and within moments we found ourselves inside the surprisingly spacious confines where heavy wood tones dominated both floors and furniture while movie photos ranging from James Dean to Pulp fiction decorated the walls.
Greeted promptly by a young man in shorts and an loosely fitted tie over and unbuttoned collared shirt we were led promptly to our table where waters were filled, additional beverages offered, and menus presented. With 9” and 14” pizzas in either “Chicago Style” or “Thin Crust” offered we debated our choices for a few moments before deciding while musing over the not-so-clever “Ohaiku” glasses poking fun at Ohioans and Cow Tipping (wait, we’re in Ohio, right?) Opting for one of each, both small, and both “Build Your Own” our orders were placed and what followed was an expectedly long wait – though less than we’d been accustomed to at Lou Malnati’s or Uno.
With impressive service throughout the afternoon – particularly considering the fact that it appeared our server was the only person working the dining room or bar – and glasses continually filled without need for request our pies would arrive together after approximately thirty minutes and both were bubbling hot and surprisingly aromatic considering our rather tame topping selections. Beginning first with the thin crust – a “pan pizza” by definition in any city outside Chicago – we selected mushrooms as our sole topping and using Chicago tradition the buttery shell of a crust was layered with a mild red sauce prior to a hefty helping of cheese interlaced with the sliced button mushrooms. With the crust buttery but one dimensional it was additionally unfortunate that the sauce lacked any pizzaz or spice while the store-bought mushrooms were simply lost in the pool of salty but otherwise unmemorable cheese.
Moving on to the Chicago Style deep dish topped with Capicola and Artichoke the crust was unfortunately more of the same and as my sister wisely noted likely resulted from using brand-new steel pans as opposed to the well seasoned Cast-Iron versions in Chicago that allow for better heat retention and that golden caramelization. With the sauce added thicker to this pie than the thin crust I will note that the tomato tones came through more impressively thereby bolstering the character of the cheese and while the artichokes (like the mushrooms) got lost in the mix, the smoky capicola was a great addition once again leading me to believe that in most circumstances Chicago-Style deep dish is best served fully loaded – and in Chicago.
With the bill paid and some members of the group now getting full it was decided here that instead of ending the first half of the day on a low note (the worst pizza of the day as it would turn out) the better part of valor would be to walk across the street for some Ice Cream at Jeni’s – a spot that has never even borders on disappointing and a place that, for once, didn’t have a line of 10+ snaking out the door.
For past thoughts on Jeni Britton-Bauer and her ice cream see my other posts on the topic – now a bestselling author and with pints making their way as far east as Cleveland and as far west as Chicago, let’s just say the secret is out and we’re lucky to be part of the experience. With taste after taste offered and consumed including “The Buckeye State,” “Rockmill Golden Ale and Apricots,”Brambleberry Crisp,” “Bangkok Peanut,” and “The Milkiest Milk Chocolate in the World” all were good and many were ordered by myself and my comrades but in the end I opted for a cone with two flavors – the first a lovely Bourbon Buttered Pecan with silky corn mash, soft candied pecans, and boozy maple notes and the second Brown Butter Almond Brittle – an ice cream that tasted like liquefied almond brittle with more butter and touches of cinnamon – both excellent, as expected.
With a three hour break for some shopping, digesting, and a movie at the Gateway our return to the pizza crawl would mark my first visit to a place that has become a bit of a Columbus institution over the course of the last 3 years – Bono Pizza. Having admittedly ignored the word of mouth about Bono largely due to the hype and excessive commentary on local know-it-all site Columbusunderground ever since Bill Yerkes was baking pies out of the back of Eleni-Christina Bakery in 2008, recent moves in the restaurant had made me rethink my stance and with the location now (oddly) inside the “Corner Market” on Northwest Boulevard in what I believe is technically Upper Arlington and featuring a legitimate handmade (and copyrighted according to my conversation with Bill) Neapolitan brick oven I figured there was no better time than on this tour to see if maybe the rumors were true.
Opening at 5:00pm according to their website it was with luck that we brought a GPS given the obscure location and limited signage at Bono, but once we parked and figured out that accessing the restaurant meant actually entering through the Corner Market it was with good fortune that we found ourselves as the first patrons of the evening and after a warm greeting by Peggy (who immediately indentified us as first timers) we were seated at the restaurant’s only 4-top – a study wood table with a tablecloth I’m rather certain was actually once a bed sheet and mismatched chairs…some with wheels. With menus presented we were explained the dynamics of the oven, the sourcing of the ingredients, and finally the $10 for each 10” pizza or any three for $25 cash only policy before being left to make our decisions (and to browse the kitschy interior full of knick-knacks including a collection of porcelain fishes from a Toledo artist that ironically also decorate my downstairs restroom.)
With options weighed heavily and the three for $25 option too hard to pass up we again decided to go with the concept of making one of our own and ordering a couple of eclectic house made pies – all of which were deemed “great choices” by Peggy. With the bar and outdoor seating now filled we were next asked by Bill if we’d like to see the oven at work and while my mother went to peruse the beverage options (non-alcoholic only inside the confines of Bono) I watched Bill fire up the first of our pies in their trademarked 1800 degrees F (at the apex and just under 1000 on the floor) with a total cooking time of 145 seconds producing a hot and crispy disc that was subsequently cut and served by Peggy before I even made it back to my seat.
With pizzas being assembled in a room next door and brought out to be cooked one by one for quality control our first bites of Bono Pizza were of the #10 WAIKIKI “Jamie Style” with Fresh Italian tomato sauce, imported ham, pineapple, cinnamon, roasted almonds and coconut - a sweet meets savory amalgamation that was surprisingly restrained despite its bold ingredients. Beginning first with the crust – to be fair it (along with the temperature of the building on a 95 degree July day) would be my only criticism of Bono…it is simply boring. Nicely cooked and cracker thin to be sure, but no more nuanced than a Saltine and lacking much chew or openness to the crumb. Moving on to the sauce – marvelous – and reportedly made that very day from local tomatoes with tons of herbal notes overlying the fruity base notes and acidic bite. Similar to the tomatoes, Bono does it right when it comes to both the cheese and the toppings – all top quality, all nicely dispersed, and in this case as mentioned before all in perfect balance with notes of cinnamon punctuating both fruity and savory tones alike.
For our second pizza, apparently Bill and Peggy’s most popular, we opted for #16, The BIANCA – a sauceless pie with extra virgin olive oil, gorgonzola cheese, fresh spinach, basil, scallions, and cherry tomatoes – a veritable salad on top the crispy crust flecked with parmesan and pools of melting gorgonzola that on taste alone I’d assume to be at least 4-5 months age given the sharp aromatic notes. Another example of what top quality ingredients can do for even the simplest of dishes it strikes me as odd that this dish is their most popular given America’s general predisposition for “sauce and mozzarella,” but with that said I’d certainly recommend it for a change of pace…even if it does mean you’re missing out on the best tomato sauce in the city.
For our final pizza selection we opted for the “Design your own” with tomato sauce, locally harvested mushrooms, basil, brie, and sun dried tomatoes – and while the crust “worked” a whole lot better in texture (more air pockets, better chew) while still lacking flavor this time around, the toppings and sauce once again sprung to life on the palate – particularly the buttery brie and nearly candy-sweet tomatoes punctuated by some of the best fresh basil I’ve had since the famed “hand snipped secret basil” at DiFara’s.
With the pizzas now a happy memory Peggy stopped by to ask if we’d care for dessert and after being told “we have Belgian waffles that can be topped with hand whipped cream, chocolate, nutella, strawberries, blueberries – or all of that – for $3” we said “absolutely” and after perhaps a 5 minute wait the 5” x 5” waffle arrived stacked nearly 5 x its normal height with all but the blueberries. With forks handed out and each of us digging in I will fully admit that this was one of the least “upscale” waffles I’ve had in quite some time, but with a crispy golden exterior and buttery supple inside it was damned good while the toppings, particularly the snappy fresh local strawberries, were equally so.
With phone orders now coming in and a number of pizzas going out the back door I will note that it took a while to receive the bill – a bit of a hassle given the 90+ degree temperature of the room – but the moment Bill noticed we’d been waiting he made sure the check arrived immediately and apologized stating the room-dominating oven is a lot more forgiving in December and January. With the tab paid - $28+tip (no tax) we thanked everyone for the food and made our way to the streets with some calling the pizza the best yet and myself thinking that in all honesty if Bill and Peggy could find a way to improve their crust flavor and consistency this could not only be the best pizza in town, but the kind of oddball store/location/idea that could become a dining “destination” just like the Roberta’s, Lucali’s, and Motorino’s of Brooklyn.
With the group piled into the car once again the last two stops of the trek would be next-door neighbors in one of my favorite parts of town – Grandview. Having originally considered Dewey’s as part of the trip but later deciding otherwise because it is not truly native to Columbus the next pizzeria would be former local message-board darling and game-day carryout/delivery staple Cowtown Pizza. Located on the same block as many of Grandview’s more heralded dining establishments and on this particular night also the location of the Art Hop, the small storefront and counter owned and operated by Jason Slagle was fortunately quite vacant on this and with parking readily available we made our way in without much ado to peruse the options.
With a menu featuring a number of unique gourmet toppings and cheeses from Grande plus several pre-designed specialty pizzas with titles like “Hawaiian Heaven” and “Mediterranean” we were approached by a tall dour young woman who asked in Napoleon Dynamite monotone “do you need some help – are you looking for a special type of pizza?” and telling her we just needed a moment to decide she vacantly retreated to the back where her and the other three employees were busying themselves with odd jobs and conversation. Having read Slagle’s long-winded “The Cowtown Story” on their website I admittedly was interested in checking out something with the aged sauce but when I was told a half-sauce/half-no sauce would not be possible I opted instead to with something that would highlight the cheese, toppings, and crust to which our server suggested “It’ll be about 15 minutes” without a break in vocal pattern or blank stare.
Taking to the streets to browse the arts and local musicians filling the streets while my mother and aunt waited at one of the three two-tops adjacent to the counter it would indeed be fifteen minutes before our order was prepared, sliced into squares, and handed to us with a “have a nice night” – a statement that carried some strength simply because the temperature was finally cooling off enough to enjoy our pizza at the two outside tables while enjoying the sights, sounds, and people watching of the Art Hop.
Having mentioned the inability to go halves our selection of the “NEW” Cowtown Margherita Pizza featuring Fresh Basil, Mozzarella, Tomato, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil plus added Artichoke Hearts – seemingly a steal at $13 – was a somewhat risky one given the hype over Cowtown’s sauce and in the end it was a risk we probably shouldn’t have taken largely because approximately 1/3 of the “Fresh Tomatoes” on the Margherita simply lacked flavor and therefore the vegetal nuances of the artichokes and buttery saline notes of the cheese simply overwhelmed any semblance of balance – not that the cheese and ‘chokes were bad – as a matter of fact they were quite good – but bluntly stated a number of the tomatoes simply had no business being served on a pizza. Moving on to the oft raved crust – yeah, it lives up to the hype with a golden olive oil tinged crispiness giving way to a sweet and supple interior rivaling some of the best oven-cooked pizzas I have ever had.
In the end Cowtown was the most conflicting of all the spots we visited on the tour because deep down I think part of the problem was on our end for ordering wrong and skipping the sauce, but then again some of the problem was also on the hands of the staff and ownership first for sourcing inferior ingredients and second for allowing robotic employees to assemble the pies without a discerning eye or pleasant attitude.
Moving on to the last stop of our evening was not much of a move at all – quite literally we walked next door and within moments were in the crowded foyer of Figlio, the first of three similarly named wood-fired pizzerias in a slow-growing franchise started by Buckeye grads Peter and Laurie Danis as far back as 1991 and the only restaurant on the day’s tour with any inklings of “fine dining,” as well given their white tablecloths and a proper reservations system.
Greeted by the door first by one hostess and then by another our request for a table of five was first met with some hesitancy – “I’ll have to check with the reservationist,” then by a suggestion that perhaps they would shuffle some tables, and finally by the most logical suggestion – that they could simply seat us at the attached Vino-Vino Wine bar and serve us from the Figlio menu…a compromise that ended up working perfectly as the wine bar was less than half full and less than one fourth as loud. Seated quickly at a 6 seater booth/table and greeted by our server, a lovely young lady whose smile instantly made me forget about the lack thereof next door at Cowtown, we were presented menus and on declining wine our water glasses were filled (never to reach half empty) while my aunt opted for an iced tea as we weighed our options…and our hunger.
Feeling a bit bad because we weren’t planning to drink and given the duration of the day weren’t all that hungry (thereby decreasing our total bill and tip despite the restaurant and service being so accommodating) our eventual decision was to go with two pizzas and two desserts and with orders placed the wait would be perhaps 15 minutes before our two pies would arrive simultaneously. Again going the route of one house-special and one do-it-yourself, our first selection was the “Margherita Plus Plus” with a Honey Whole Wheat with Basil, Tomatoes, Avocado, Mozzarella, and Balsamic glaze – it would be my second favorite pizza of the day and #1 for a couple of others. Beginning first with the crust, it was unlike any other on the trip and although sweeter than the standard crust at Figlio both of them performed well with regard to exterior crunch, interior pliability, and heterogeneous airy crumb while unfortunately lacking that woodsy char – it was as close as I’ve found in Columbus to a California style crust but certainly not on par with that at Harvest in terms of being a true Neapolitan style. Moving on to the ingredients – with this option again leaning towards California style (where the Danis’ duo learned much of their pizza making) it certainly was not a traditional pie, but at the same time with the creamy avocados balancing the sweet tomatoes and balsamic glaze it was quite good though all in all the cheese was mostly overwhelmed by the substantial flavor of the entirety of the rest of the pie.
Moving on to the make your own we opted for a Standard Crust with Tomato Sauce, Caramelized Bacon, Artichokes, Cherry Tomatoes, and Mozzarella. With the crust similar but less sweet than the honey whole wheat this was another excellent pie largely because of the quality of both the chokes and the tomatoes and given their restrained nature how they highlighted the more subtle buttery flavors of the cheese. While the bacon was a bit too sweet for some I personally found it to be excellent – particularly as a savory foil to the tomatoes.
With pizzas consumed our server returned with the dessert menu and although some complained that they were “too full” the options were simply too good to pass up leading us to select two options and five forks, the first of which was Figlio’s Summer Special Strawberry Shortcake with a tender buttermilk biscuit split, sliced strawberries, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, strawberry sauce – a lovely and light treat with the poignant sours of the buttermilk balancing carefully with the sweet whipped cream and perfectly ripe strawberries. While the nitpicky part of me rather wishes they would have sourced a smoother ice cream (why not Jeni’s – right down the block?) as opposed to the icy scoop served this is a small complaint as it melted nicely soaking into the otherwise sturdy biscuit.
For the second dessert – something a bit more heavy – we sslected the Double Chocolate Red Velvet Cake with three layers of housemade chocolate cake, white chocolate filling, and dark chocolate sour cream frosting – a straight up “American” style dessert – big, bold, and intensely chocolate…the sort of cake you’d get at a birthday and need a glass of milk to wash down, yet at the same time entirely satisfying with notes of dark, light, and milk chocolate all contributing to the dense and flavorful slice.
With the bill paid and ample tip left we made our way back to the car thanking our server once again for a lovely evening and as we drove back to Dublin I was surprised just how much everyone enjoyed the trip. Having long been a skeptic of the dining scene (particularly the upper end and anything deemed “authentic” or “artisan”) I admit I was pleasantly surprised by some of the gems we found and while none of the parlors visited are going to crack my top ten just yet I certainly see many as viable spots to visit in Columbus and both Harvest and Bono as the sort of places with potential to develop from good or great into the sort of place people plan a visit to wanting to experience the best this city has to offer.
Harvest > Figlio = Bono > Clever Crow > Cowtown > Fabian's (overall)
Harvest > Clever Crow > Cowtown > Figlio > Bono > Fabian's (crust)
Bono > Figlio > Harvest > Clever Crow > Cowtown > Fabian's (toppings)
Harvest > Figlio > Bono > Clever Crow > Cowtown > Fanian’s (cheese)
Bono > Harvest > Figlio > Clever Crow > Fabian's > Cowtown (sauce)