Monday, June 25, 2007

Sal and Mookie’s

JACKSON — In the world of independent pizza joints one has three primary choices outside of the chain-pizza realm: California pizza, Chicago pizza, and New York pizza.

The California pizza movement originated in the early 1980s with Wolfgang Puck who brought the simple art of pizza making into fine-dining restaurants using upscale ingredients and simple, tried and true brick-oven cooking methods.

In Chicago, deep-dish pizza has ruled the roost since the early 1940s— not chain-restaurant style deep-dish pizza, but true, deep-dish pizza, the kind that originated at Chicago’s Pizzeria Uno. It can be up to two-inches thick, big, messy, and almost impossible— even for me— to eat more than a couple of slices.

New York-style pizza is the granddaddy of all American pizzas. It began at Lombardi’s in Little Italy over 100 years ago. New York pizza is not too thin and not too thick. The crust is crisp, but flexible, New Yorkers typically fold their pizza slices in half and eat them as they would a sandwich.

The crisp-crusted California pizza is good for an every-once-in-a-while treat. I might eat a deep-dish pizza slice during my annual trek to Chicago. But for day-in day-out everyday pizza eating, give me New York-style pizza every time, and if I’m eating New York-style pizza outside of New York, I want it to come from Sal and Mookie’s in the resurgent Fondren neighborhood of Jackson, Miss.

I have seen the face of pizza excellence, and its name is Sal and Mookie’s.

The restaurant team of Chef Dan Blumenthal and Jeff Good, owners of Bravo!, and Broad Street Baking Company, have done it again, this time with a pizzeria/ice cream parlor.

Individually, Blumenthal, one of the premiere chefs in the state, and Good, the energetic, ever-engaged, and consummate hospitalitarian, are two of the more self-motivated forces at work in the restaurant trade. Combine their talents and they become one of the most inspired and dynamic restaurateur teams in the South.

The duo’s ubiquitous attention to detail and menu research has been taken to a new level with their new concept— Sal and Mookie’s. Blumenthal and Chef Jon Pixler spent months working on crust and sauce recipes. A weekend pizza binge in New York back in January solidified the research portion of the restaurant’s opening.

The menu is huge and includes sandwiches, salads, and pasta— all of which I am sure are excellent, but when in Rome, eat the pizza.

Sal and Mookie’s boasts 23 original pizzas, all named after specific New York locales and personalities. The practice of naming dishes after famous of people and places can sometimes become too “cutesy.” Typically, I am not a fan of the practice. However, Sal and Mookie’s seems to pull it off. I would enthusiastically recommend the Andy Warhol pizza (ricotta, wild mushroom ragout, Fontina, and Provolone), the Gambino pizza (ricotta, mozzarella, Fontina, Italian sausage, caramelized onions, and sautéed spinach) and the Empire State pizza (Italian plum tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil pesto, caramelized onions, and sun-dried tomatoes) no matter what they were called.

The menu also has a “Design-Your-Own Pizza” section, with several options of sauce (four choices), cheese (11 choices), meats (14 choices), vegetables (26 choices), and seafood (six choices). This is where the customer can tap into his or her culinary creativity to design their own pizza with upscale and atypical ingredients.

The attention to detail and commitment to quality are ever-present at Sal and Mookie’s. While most pizza joints are content to slice a flat of button mushrooms and throw them onto a pizza, Blumenthal has drawn inspiration from his classical culinary training and offered mushroom ragout as a topping option.

In ingredient after ingredient, the menu options go beyond the archetypal pizza-joint selections. The pizza-parlor staples are there, but so are basil pesto/lemon ricotta spread, Grande fior di lattee mozzarella, goat cheese, proscuitto, chorizo, pancetta, smoked salmon and crabmeat.

Sure it would suffice to top a pizza with sliced Bermuda onions, but why not add another flavor dimension to the base ingredient by caramelizing the onions. Sounds simple, yet hardly anyone does it.

Raw spinach on pizza is nothing revolutionary, but sautéing the spinach adds an extra flavor dimension. Time and time again, throughout the Sal and Mookie’s menu, it is choices such as these that make the restaurant stand high above others in the category.

Good pizza starts with good crust, but it also takes a good sauce to compliment the crust. Sal and Mookie’s knows what many of the top pizza joints know, there is no substitute for San Marzano tomatoes. They have lower acidity, the taste is pure and clean, and they have no equal.

It is evident that a lot of thought, time, and recipe development have gone into the pre-opening of Sal and Mookie’s. The service standards upheld at Blumenthal and Good’s previous eateries are once again in full display.

Luckily I live 90 miles outside of Jackson and only visit the city a few times each month. If I lived there, I would most certainly eat at Sal and Mookie’s four to five times a week, and have to spend the remainder of my day in Weight Watcher’s meetings.

Crawfish Pizza

1 Tbl olive oil
1/2 cup green bell peppers, chopped fine
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped fine
1/2 cup green onion, chopped fine
1 Tbl garlic, minced
2 tsp Creole Seasoning
3/4 pound crawfish tail meat, cooked and in whole pieces
1 1/2 cup Basil Tapenade
1 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
1 cup Jalapeño Jack Cheese, shredded
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
6 Homemade Pizza Crusts

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Sauté peppers, onion, and garlic until slightly tender. Add Creole Seasoning and crawfish. Remove from heat and let cool slightly (may be prepared a day in advance).

Spread the basil tapenade evenly on top of each prepared pizza crust. Distribute the crawfish mixture over the tapenade. Combine the cheese together. Top each pizza with the cheese mixture.

Prepare the grill. Cook the pizzas over indirect medium heat, covered, until the topping is hot and the cheeses have melted.

Allow the pizzas to cool slightly before cutting.

6-10 servings

Basil Tapenade

1 cup black olives
1 1/2 ounces anchovies, drained and patted dry
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbl capers
2 Tbl freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbl brandy
3 Tbl olive oil
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 cup Pesto
1/2 of 10-ounce can Rotel tomatoes, drained

Blend the first olives, anchovies, mustard, capers, lemon juice, and brandy in a food processor until the mixture gets smooth. Slowly add olive oil and garlic and blend. Add pesto and tomatoes, and pulse until ingredients are incorporated into a smooth, spreadable sauce.

Can be stored in refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Yield: 3 cups

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