Week 18: Brown Bag Lunch – Homemade Lunchables Pizza

This week’s Brown Bag Lunch challenge dangled the opportunity to poke at my nostalgia buttons and I took a swing at my very own set of homemade Lunchables pizza. Overall, this was a very smart decision.

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To begin, mini crust discs are made to fit the lunching tupperware I use on the daily for packing snacks for work. Puffing up in oven may be an issue, which can be remedied by a few stabs from a fork beforehand or a bit of pressure from above afterwards.

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Next the tomato sauce is made by gently cooking garlic in olive oil and then dousing crushed San Marzano tomatoes into the pot for a quick simmer. Fresh basil and dried oregano make up the whole of the spices used.

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Raw ingredients may vary based on personal preference but fresh tomatoes and pepperoni are great toppings of choice.

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A quick mix of cheddar and mozzarella made for a wonderfully complex assortment of cheese aromatics. For further instruction on preparing a two cheese blend, this brief video guide can provide the necessary guidance for mastery.

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Staging is key in creating a bag meal experience. For the majority of my packed food needs, I turn to a set of Rubbermaid kits I found at Costco once long ago. They just happen to fit the REI lunchbag I bought just as long ago.

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Being the responsible worldly thinker that I am, I chose to feature my handy-dandy reusable lunchbox as my “brown bag” for this project. Stocked with plastic utensils and an icepack, all this lunch needs is a nice view and a cool breeze.

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The build is simple. A microwave or toaster oven can zap this mini pizza into a blissful dance through a flavor meadow, but the extra effort can be easily overlooked when hungry.

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If wine is an option, rosé or lambrusco can make a daytime meal sing. If a lunch is forgotten until the later hours, a Louis Latour red burgundy can transform a Lunchables adventure into an epic midnight snack.

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Buona Forchetta & Falanghina

Buona Forchetta is a quietly trendy South Park restaurant priding itself in traditional Italian fare and a pretty dope ambiance. An incredible amount of hype built up by local pizza fanatics sets expectations high, especially when personal experience with a range of dishes has placed overall consistency into question. Even still, ravings over Buona Forchetta pizza persists, making their cuisine an on-going, sometimes obsessive study. Curiosity strikes with every recommendation for the place and I find myself perusing the menu again and again, tempting my hunger with the array of options.

buona forchetta pizzas

Close proximity to Hamilton’s, South Park’s keeper of great beers, usually green lights the decision to make the trek for pizza. With sours kept well stocked, Hammy’s is my first stop regardless of whether I’m waiting for a table or saying ambiance schmambiance and ordering a pizza to-go. Although much of Buona Forchetta’s overall experience can be extracted from the quaint atmosphere reminiscent of the chef’s homeland, isolation from the romantic distractions of strung up lights and Italian accents can be quite revealing and just as satisfying. Carry-out means no corkage fee, but it’s worth mentioning that the corkage fee here is extremely reasonable at ten dollars per bottle.

buona forchetta ambiance

Buona Forchetta (left) credit: San Diego Magazine

From the belly of the kitchen’s shiny centerpiece oven, Sofia, built by third generation oven-maker Stefano Ferrara, comes an order of the Sergio pizza. The pie is one of the more popular choices featuring prosciutto di parma, arugula, parmesan and buffalo mozzarella. The pizza is a winner from the very first bite with flavors singing harmoniously together as bright parmesan and milky fresh mozzarella balance with a base of light and acidic tomato sauce. Meanwhile, the prosciutto and arugula not only contributed with bursts of flavor, their layers also enhance the texture of the chewy dense crust, making each bite immensely satisfying.

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With buoyant pizza flavors presented in a classic Neapolitan style, the streak of lesser known Italian wines continues on with Falanghina (2010 Feudi Di San Gregorio, Falanghina del Sannio DOC), a fragrant white wine hailing from Campania in Southern Italy. As the grassy arugula cuts through powerful cheesy core with refreshing bitterness, the cheese in turn bridges the lean vegetal notes of the arugula with the bright acidity in the wine. In general, lively wines with plenty of acidity can gracefully manage cheesy situations while also playing the same role as a squeeze of lemon with bitter greens. The meaty, salty prosciutto enhances stone fruit flavors of peach and apricot in the wine while red apple and tangerine aromas contribute to its juicy, refreshing style. With delicious flavors in full balance, this pizza and wine pairing requires no more than sweatpants and a couch to appreciate this winning combo.

Berkeley Pizza & the Rhône Valley

In a Chicago pizza joint last year, I joined four hungry locals in ordering a pizza from Lou Malnati’s, a classic Chicago chain. A deep-dish novice, I sat quietly outraged at what I thought was a rather prudish order of a single pie. At most, we could evenly divide the pizza into a slice and a fraction of another. It was only until halfway into my first slice that I had finally realized what everyone else at the table had grown up knowing: Chicago pizza is a beast.

A lifetime of thin-crust preferences has led me to demolish slice after slice without thought, taking down minimally half a pizza order, depending on size. To have a starvation-level hunger smacked down by a single slice felt like an embarrassment. A couple of us made idealistic moves towards a second slice but despite our efforts we still walked away with leftovers.

Deep-dish pie looks more like actual pie than the flatbread pizza of the rest of the world. Toppings are layered upside-down with a chunky tomato sauce keeping quiet the secrets of what lies below. Chicago-style pizza is all but overlooked in San Diego, but the spirit lives on strong in the few places that do champion the style.

Berkeley Pizza is an oasis from the soulless clumping of restaurants and bars tourists so lovingly refer to as the Gaslamp District. They bait the hot mess of drunk fools and hoards of clubbers roaming the streets with a chill vibe, respectable lineup of beers, late hours, and pizza by the slice. Berkeley Pizza has recently cast a net in North Park, a fresh pond of drunk fools, with a new location posted up between Coin-Op Game Room and The Office. It was from here I ordered a couple slices, a classic pepperoni and their signature combo of spinach & mushroom, to be whisked home between two paper plates for a pairing.

berkeley pizza slices

Such a rich and robust pizza requires a rich and robust wine to match. Acidity is also important so to the Old World we go, specifically the Rhône Valley in southern France. Once a papal summer palace, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a Southern Rhône region that produces red wines made from a blend of up to 13 different varietals, with Grenache at its core.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of Robert Parker’s favorite styles of wine, which he prizes for its immediate parade of “intellectual and hedonistic elements” that generally takes great age-worthy wines decades to develop. Robert Parker reflects this same attitude in many of the wines chosen for high scores on his 100-point scale, providing consumers looking for those ripe and approachable styles a shortcut in research. While I dabble in the other end of the stylistic spectrum these days, I began my love of wine with juicy, sun-humped wines of the New World and moved away only to explore other styles for education purposes. Though I never returned, I can always enjoy a plumped up red, hedonistic and generous with fruit.

Hedonistic is right. The 2012 Domaine de Saint Siffrein (Châteauneuf-du-Pape) opens up hot and lush with stewed berry aromas of raspberry and blackberry pie on a backdrop of matted earth and dried leather. With just enough acidity to balance the wine’s weighty presence, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape is bold enough to handle the monster punch of flavor divvied out in each bite. Meanwhile, the tomato sauce is alive, racy with acidity, fighting an internal battle with globs of cheese and thick, buttery crust threatening to overwhelm the senses. Shockingly, the crust is sturdy enough handle the lasagna of weight above and all can be managed without a fork and knife. And thank the pizza gods for that, lest we disappoint Jon Stewart.
forkgateWith all toppings drenched beyond recognition with pizza sauce and cheese, there is almost no perceptible difference between the two different slices except for the intense animal charisma and lingering spice brought on by the pepperoni. The spiciness, while subtle, doesn’t bode well for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape as perception of alcohol, considerably elevated for an Old World wine, is exacerbated by spiciness in food. In the wake of this realization, I reach for a different bottle of the same region in France to play nice with the pepperoni slice.

St. Joseph

In the neighboring Northern Rhône, red wines showcase Syrah almost exclusively, where the varietal displays aromas of cured meats, olives and leather with black pepper and a medley of dark berries. The comparatively cooler climate of these northern vineyards offers up a bit more acidity to their fruit, and allows for leaner alcohol levels in wine while keeping a firm and powerful frame. Some of the most classic representations of Syrah come from small regions such as Cornas and Hermitage. Though variable in quality as the largest appellation of Northern Rhône, St. Joseph is stylistically similar at a fraction of the cost. The nose on the 2012 Domaine Vincent Paris (St. Joseph, les Côtes) is rich with a sense of copper and rust with raspberries on the palate. The leaner alcohol and higher acidity allow the meat and pepper aromas to play amongst its flavor companions in each bite.

The story ends happily, with the signature pie finding a dance partner with the Châteauneuf-du-Pape while the pepperoni slice took the spotlight with St. Joseph pulling off coordinated dance moves too good not to have been choreographed ahead of time.

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the Haven’s Popeye pie & Provençal rosé

Within a quiet stretch of blocks on the Kensington side of Adams Avenue sits an airy neighborhood pizza joint called The Haven. Of the selection of specialty pies featured, a small circular feast named Popeye catches my eye and the recommendation of the employee that day. The white pizza boasts an irresistible lineup of roasted garlic topped with chicken, mushrooms, fresh spinach, mozzarella and goat cheese. Squiggly lines of sweet aromas radiate from the pizza box as a combination of baking spices and roasted garlic creep into the nostalgic territories of my senses and stir up some hunger.

The swaths of garlic, caramelized into a candied sweetness, is a welcomed fiesta instead of an intrusion on my palate. With a salty, almost briny quality to the pie, there is no want for extra cheese. Overlaying the medium-thin chewy crust, chunks of chicken and fleshy mushrooms make up the bulk of textural layout.

Chicken may at first seem to play an integral role in any dish when in actuality the protein generally bows to any sauce or strong flavor present, the same way a neutral grape varietal such as Chardonnay can showcase terroir or a winemaker’s influence with clarity. The mix of aromatic and vegetal pizza aromas allows for a dry rosé to swoop in and play hero. Our hero today is a Provence rosé, 2013 Commanderie de la Bargemone of the appellation Coteaux d’Aix en Provence.

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Provence is a region in southern France dedicated to dry styles of rosé that will quickly win over any drinker’s taste buds when paired with light cuisine or a sunny day. Don’t let those pretty hues fool you: not all rosés are sweet. Not even slightly sweet. Most styles of rosé found in the wild are dry, especially when taking on a global perspective beyond the grocery aisle. Fruity aromas in wine tend to distract from sweetness level, making it easy to confuse the ripeness of fruit detected on the palate for the sugar level of the actual juice in the glass. Similar they may seem, only the latter is referring to actual sweetness as opposed to the perception of sweeter flavors.

This particular rosé is pretty close to bone dry, keeping fairly intense notes of tart strawberries and floral rosy aromas. Provençal rosé is especially refreshing when chilled down to refrigerator temperature, a low preferable for simple and crisp beverages. The rosé beside the pizza’s earthy aromas and boisterous, tangy flavors make for an uncomplicated yet all-encompassing pairing. Come salad or ham sandwich, carpaccio or root vegetable, rosé is generally well equipped to wrangle a range of flavors into a composed pairing. It is best to keep it stocked at all times. Always.

Pizzeria Luigi & Temecula Zinfandel

Let’s begin the great 2015 San Diego pizza adventure with the basics: pepperoni pizza from Pizzeria Luigi, a no-fuss pizzeria often listed by locals as a favorite, paired with 2009 Reserve Primitivo from Wiens Cellars of nearby Temecula Valley. The bottle was a gift from a fellow sommelier with the sole stipulation that it could only be opened with pizza by its side. So be it.

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Though its origins have been genetically tracked back to Croatia, Primitivo is the Italian name for the varietal we know better as Zinfandel. With this nominal borrowing, it’s not surprising to find some stylistic leanings towards the more acid-driven wines of Italy. Acid in wine is a great accompaniment to most food, especially foods high in acid themselves like tomato-based cuisine. The acidity in this Primitivo is balanced enough to stand up to hearty pizza sauce while the tannins, textured and dusty, are a perfect complement to rich cheese. Though somewhat leaner than the ass-kicking abv levels of 16% found elsewhere in California, this Zinfandel is thoroughly New World in style, driven by ripe fruit aromas and a full body. The generous heaps of dark raspberry and blackberry fruit provide a lovely, uncomplicated counterpart to every saucy bite of pizza.

It’s easy to get smitten over an abundance of sauce on a pizza, especially thin-crust, since it’s so rare to find naturally in the wild. The chewy crust holds up well under the weight of the bright, herbaceous tomato sauce so generously spread on while the pepperoni slices supply a faint but distinct spiciness. Any lengthy focus on minute details beyond this would only take away from the experience. Like the wine, this pie isn’t built for complexity. Pizzeria Luigi supplies straightforward New York style pizza relying on classic flavors without being overly complicated, which is perfect for an indulgent night of Parks & Rec in sweatpants.

the perks of dating within the pizza world.

There’s nothing pizza can’t fix. Bad night? Order a pizza. Broken heart? Go eat some pizza. Broken bones? Pizza certainly can’t make it worse. Burned the roof of your mouth on lava-hot cheese? Muster up a minute’s worth of self-control, then resume eating pizza. From the first pop of the cardboard briefcase keeping warm the pizza within, all the ugliness encountered since your last slice disappears. The cure-all effect is especially potent if the pizza encounter is unexpected, which happens to me with some regularity with my SO working at URBN, a New Haven coal-fired pizza joint.

After one particularly grueling night, a surprise from the pizza gods/a dutiful boyfriend landed a few wild slices of URBN’s Gouda Garlic Alfredo on my countertop. With a fresh shipment of goodies from Hi-Time Wine Cellars, I pounced at the chance to revisit labels from the recent booze haul in order to best select a pairing.

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A boon to any wine & spirits enthusiast in Southern California, Hi-Times is an incredible resource for bottles to get excited about, both well within and way out of any normal price range. With every opportunity to do so, I gladly drain my bank account to shop their shelves and stock up on hard to find wines. San Diego can be a challenging city for us wine geeks; it’s tough enough to track down a bottle of Sherry or Barbera, but even the mildly obscure (Assyritiko, Godello or Uruguayan Tannat) are practically nonexistent. Keeping a double-entranced, multi-room cellar, Hi-Times is where to turn to satisfy wine curiosities and discover new styles yet untallied, such as the Beaujolais Blanc (Domaine Des Terres Dorées, 2011, $16) plucked for this pairing.

The southernmost region of Burgundy, Beaujolais is best known for light and fruity reds made entirely from the Gamay grape. Styles range from flirtatious, bubblegum Beaujolais Nouveau first popularized in the 1970s for its youthful attributes to more age-worthy, darker representations cultivated from the granite hillsides of Beaujolais Cru. Even those familiar with Beaujolais may not have known a white counterpart existed, and for good reason: the region is practically a monoculture of Gamay. Though a rarity, Beaujolais Blanc does exist in small quantities, requiring 100% Chardonnay.

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Owner and winemaker Jean-Paul Brun began Terres Dorées in 1979, converting his family farm into an estate. From 10 acres of vines, Brun first produced Beaujolais Blanc, eventually expanding his vinicultural repertoire as his vineyard holdings increased. The now 40-acre estate still dedicates half its plot to Chardonnay, providing a stellar representation of what the grape is capable of without the fuss of getting dolled up.

Unlike many weighty, over-oaked styles of Chardonnay especially common among cougar populations, the pristine varietal expression of this wine kept it light on its feet, dancy and alive. An attractive chalkiness on the nose was further emphasized by a wet limestone palate. Under-ripe apple and tart lemon contributed to the wine’s fresh liveliness with hints of a nutty bitterness and slight waxiness rounding out the texture.

With a name deserving to belong on an Olive Garden menu, the Gouda Garlic Alfredo is surprisingly light, with chicken, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes driving the true flavor profile. Tomato acted as the diva of the bunch, bursting with personality and juicy, concentrated musk while the gouda was shy with just a twang of nuttiness. Even the garlic was subdued by the soft vegetal tones brought on by the greens. And chicken was there being chicken, offering texture and support to all its more flavorful companions. Unfazed by any smattering of red pepper flakes or garlic undertones, the Beaujolais Blanc drove the midnight snack forward with each sip invigorating the palate for more. And so it goes, the pizza was reduced to mere crumbs and crust, concluding this pairing adventure with one momentous realization: Beaujolais Blanc is rad.

Caffè Calabria and the DOC(G)s

Caffè Calabria, a coffee shop down the street, serves what may arguably be the best brew in town. With plenty of competition nearby, we keep fairly loyal to their coffee offerings. Meanwhile, a friend shackled to an 8-year veterinary program in Sacramento has their beans shipped north to resupply her kitchen, refusing to buy from anywhere closer. Now that’s fucking loyalty.

A two-trick pony, Calabria is also locally revered for their Neapolitan-style pizza. Normally, the gravitational pull of good pizza is strong enough to overcome temporal and spatial obstacles, but the siren call of scrumptious, everyday late-night, undemanding pizza of URBN always sounds when I enter North Park (full disclosure: dating the head bartender and I swear it’s not for the pizza). It took a post-marathon splurge fest for Calabria to finally get a chance to show off its chops.

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After finishing a half-marathon, a bottle of Dom, a nap and a couple margaritas, the persisting treat-yo-self mentality drove us right through the doors of Caffè Calabria during operational oven hours (the woefully selective range of Wednesday-Sunday, 5-11pm). Unfortunately, dear reader, social gallivanting and the high of accomplishment made note-taking futile. Left blankly satisfied, I wanted for a more attentive go at their Margherita DOC (requiring actual certification for the privilege of the full title) and the Italian-focused wine list.

Calabria does what it can to keep true to the Neapolitan style of pizza-making right down to the oven, constructed by third generation oven maker Stefano Ferrara, of Naples, Italy. They have, however, mostly abandoned the fight for the classic fork-and-knife method of pizza noming, automatically slicing each pie on its way out. From the belly of the 700+ degree oven comes thin crust pizza, “wet” with a oozy center. With slicing, some vigilance is required bite to bite to maintain proper topping-support posture, a problem that could be eradicated if only we had evolved as a tool-making species.

p. stew exemplifying how to eat pizza like a badass, regardless of utensils.

The following visit was a solo venture with choice of pie inspired by a recent wine tasting class on Alto-Adige, the northernmost region of Italy. Close ties with bordering Germany have influenced the wine culture here in intriguing ways. Seemingly ubiquitous, Pinot Grigio takes up little more than 10% of vineyard space while varietals like Schiava, Gewürztraminer & Legrein also count themselves among the most important. The same phenomenon is true of the cuisine. Speck is a fantastic example of these cross-cultural influences, marrying the southern traditions of Italian cured meats, such as prosciutto, with smoked meats of Germany to the north. Piqued by this newfound knowledge, my pizza selection featured speck, complemented by caramelized onions, gorgonzola, and a smattering of basil leaves.

speck, caramelized onions, gorgonzola and basil

Toppings were scattered in such a way that, bite to bite, the chances of revisiting the same flavor profile were dim. Some bites were smoky with speck or sweet with caramelized onion, some charged with gorgonzola and others left vulnerable and dull without a sauce for cheese to cling to. My only gripe was with the mild under-salting, one of those fixable problems, and the scant amount of basil used. The latter is a common peeve of mine that has always left me raw, but I am a practicing adult and can cope.

Without an offering of Alto Adige wine by the glass, I plucked a glass of Frascati (Fontana Candida, Frascati DOC, 2011, $6 BTG), one of many DOCs from the Lazio region in central Italy (think: Rome). By itself, this dry white, consisting of minimally 70% Malvasia, balances aromas of juicy pear, lemon oils and yellow apple with a touch of slate minerality. It maintained crispness without sharp, elbowing acidity, making it pleasant even without the accompaniment of food (a quaffer, as Karen MacNeil would say). The pairing’s most surprising aspect was how the clean and fruity nature of the wine emphasized the smoky elements of the speck and brought out a nutmeg aroma in the sauce.

However successful, the in-house pairing did not made me forget about the Margharita DOC I had only become casually acquainted with before. With a twinge of hunger on a night to myself, I made the necessary phone call and took off into the night to witness its birth firsthand.

the belly of the beast

Calabria recommends eating their pie hot from the belly of the oven, but the setting, however romantic, isn’t conducive to a pretty picture (specifically with my crap camera phone). Or an off-list wine pairing sans corkage fee. Or an episode of Parks and Rec. Just trust that I drove home like a mad hatter to get this pizza party going.

double pairings for faster results!

For a double-punch pairing, two styles of Piedmonte wine sat waiting: a chardonnay from a classic Barolo producer (Ettore Germano, Langhe DOC, 2013, $21) scooped up from Village Vino and a lightly-chilled dolcetto (Pecchenino san Luigi, Dogliani DOCG, 2012, $13) from San Diego Wine Company. The chardonnay offered slight butteriness with a refreshing background of tart lemon and apple. The creamy bufala mozzarella amplified an already richly present wet stone quality. The dolcetto, despite the name (in Italian, “little sweet one”), was dry but deeply aromatic with tart fruit aromas of blackberry, plum and black cherry mixed up with a dry soil component. The plush tannins were emphasized in the presence of pizza, but the heat, ranking 13.5% abv, overwhelmed the quieter toppings. Although the two weren’t completely incompatible, they certainly didn’t make for a memorable pairing. While the chardonnay matched up well, a lighter style of dolcetto may be more suitable, such as with a DOC like d’Alba or d’Asti, where the minimum alcohol requirement is a half percent lower at 11.5%. Taken in a different direction, the charred underbelly of Neapolitan-style crust seems to want for a bolder, zestier wine to match the smokiness, such as a medium-bodied zinfandel (primitivo, even) or Northern Rhone syrah. And thus the adventure continues.

And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to go a little further.