What makes a great pizza?
I swear I'm not trying to start World War III by raising the question. Sure, the subject of pizza invites conversation nationwide, but here in the Valley — where there's much to be said about Chris Bianco's famous pies, and where legions of Chicago transplants have loyalties to their hometown style of pizza — it inspires arguments that may never be resolved.
To me, the crust is key. I guess I'm more of an East Coast thin-crust girl than a deep-dish fan, but I'm open-minded. And no matter what kind of pizza I'm eating, I always have to ask myself: Would I eat the crust on its own? Would I flat-out crave the crust?
At Humble Pie, a new pizzeria that opened at Scottsdale's Hilton Village in mid-January, I answered with an enthusiastic yes.
Owner Tom Kaufman, who co-founded Rancho Pinot and the recently shuttered Union Wine Bar & Grill, told me he spent two months trying to achieve the right texture. L.A.'s Pizzeria Mozza served as the inspiration, he said.
The result, baked in a gas- and wood-burning Earthstone oven, is pizza with puffy, bubbly, lightly charred edges. Inside, the crust is moist and doughy, so as you bite through its crisp surface, the effect is gently chewy, and sweet yeasty flavors mingle with smokiness. Conversely, the crust gets extremely thin in the middle of the pie — it practically disappears under layers of toppings. You'll need to use a knife and fork for the first couple bites before you can pick up a slice.
While substitutions weren't allowed and there was no choose-your-own-toppings option on the menu, I was happy with the combos at Humble Pie. Among a dozen different pizzas, there were simple classics such as margherita, as well as more unique varieties.
Shrimp with burrata, basil, and lemon zest was one of the unusual choices. Burrata (a delicate, extremely perishable cheese that combines fresh mozzarella and cream inside a ball of more mozzarella) was melted into soft globs that enhanced the juiciness of several plump shrimp. Meanwhile, the basil, lemon zest, and a surprising dash of red chile flakes added a punch that kept it from being cloying.
The wild mushroom pizza also had a balance of flavors and textures, with salty, chewy bits of pancetta and soft, caramelized onion keeping the mushrooms' earthiness in check. Mozzarella was used sparingly, not blanketed on it. Likewise, cheese didn't overwhelm the sausage pizza, which was more about meaty chunks of local Schreiner's Sicilian sausage and a sauce that had the sunny fragrance of ripened tomatoes. Sprigs of roasted fennel added another aromatic dimension.
Seasoned with fresh rosemary and topped with fontina and Gorgonzola, the potato and roasted garlic pizza was an unexpected hit. It didn't look as flashy as some of the other pies I tried, but its high-impact flavors hooked me immediately. Another bold combination included pistachios, shaved red onion, and roasted leeks set in a thin, crispy layer of Parmesan. And the prosciutto pizza revealed crumbled Gorgonzola and tender pear underneath paper-thin slices of dry-cured ham and a pile of arugula.
Fresh produce from Bob McClendon's organic farm loomed large throughout the menu, especially in the lineup of starters and salads. In fact, I'd go back to Humble Pie even if I weren't in a pizza mood, just to get my fill of vegetables.
There was a handful of seasonal veggie side dishes on the menu, and I loved how they celebrated simplicity. A plate of butternut squash with basil may not sound like much, but it was a lovely pairing — the herb was a definite complement to the subtle sweetness of squash. Baby carrots with cilantro were unlike anything I've ever gotten at a restaurant. They were roasted to the point of caramelization, so instead of the nearly raw, neon-orange knobs that are often served as a side dish, these flavorful carrots were a deep amber color. And chilled green beans, dressed in a light whole grain mustard aioli and topped with toasted hazelnuts, tasted just-picked.
Even though the grilled steak salad catered to carnivores, it still included a fresh array of greens, with romaine, arugula, and escarole tossed with celery and tomatoes in caper-mustard vinaigrette. Veggie chopped salad was just as good, a jumble of green beans and slivers of jicama, plump little grape tomatoes, chunks of mozzarella, ripe avocado, and herb vinaigrette. And the "Humble Caprese" — a spin on tradition that used creamy, milky burrata and housemade pesto instead of mozzarella and basil leaves — came with several cherry tomatoes still attached to the vine, lightly roasted.
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As you might've guessed, fried foods didn't dominate the Humble Pie menu. Really, only a couple of items graced the fryer. Crispy shoestring French fries, seasoned with garlic, parsley, lemon zest, red chile flakes, and grated Pecorino cheese, came in a generous portion, with aioli on the side. I liked them, but if given the choice, I'd rather go for the calamari with basil chili dipping sauce. The fried coating was very light, and the squid itself was remarkably tender. Calamari may be ubiquitous, but hardly anybody cooks it to this kind of perfection.
Considering how important the oven is at Humble Pie, you'd think that anything coming out of it would be noteworthy. I made that assumption when I saw "cookie plate" on the dessert menu. But the cookies — lemon sugar, chocolate chip and pistachio, along with ginger biscotti, arranged on a plate with some grapes and sugared almonds — didn't dazzle me. Even though they were homemade, they were too tiny to have that chewiness that makes homemade cookies so good. I would've been happier with one big, fat, moist cookie.
But the Fuji apple crostada, a beautiful golden pastry baked around slices of tender fruit, was pretty good. And as strange as it sounds, so was the velvety olive oil gelato. Really, it was just a mild cream flavor — not too sugary, with barely a hint of olive oil flavor in the first spoonful.
If your dinner at Humble Pie leads to a feisty debate — whether over pizza, philosophy, or politics — a couple scoops of that should cool you right down.