I made my first visit to Branca on a crowded preview night right before they opened to the public. We sat at the bar and were a bit underwhelmed with the pizza but there were definitely aspects to it that made me interested to see how it would progress over time. I waited about a month or so after they opened before I got antsy to come back and see where the pies were. Mostly this was to allow some time to get accustomed with the setup and get more experience making Neopolitan style pizza in their oven.
For this occasion, I dragged along the Rochester Pizza Guy along from the Rochester Pizza Blog to drive through a portion of their pizza menu. I had the pleasure of visiting Veneto with him last year and was happy to find an excuse to get him out again to hang out and go full pizza nerd. It’s not easy to find someone so committed to a topic and I have a lot of respect for his level of detail and his longevity. Thankfully we were able to work out a time to meet up and many pizzas were eaten to celebrate!
We had a total of four people and ended up with an appetizer and four Neopolitan style pizzas to split up amongst us. I’ll cover the octopus appetizer before I get into my typical pizza review style so I don’t make things too confusing. The large tentacle pieces were tender, lightly charred and just about perfectly cooked and were served on top of a pretty corn salad. Truthfully it was probably my favorite item of the night and a dish that made me excited to come back to sample more of the non-pizza items on the menu.
Before we dive in, I would like to make it clear that this is mainly a pizza review and not a reflection of the restaurant as a whole.
Branca’s crust style is definitively Neopolitan and they have gone as far as to have been VPN certified. Take a look at this breakdown on Serious Eats if you want more info on that process and what it really means. My quick synopsis is that it forces certain characteristics on the pizza involving ingredients, cooking implements and timing and a number of other factors. This still allows for plenty of wiggle room with seasoning, personal cooking style and experience behind the oven.
The first thing I’d like to cover is the flavor of the dough itself. My preference is to have a dough that has a developed and noticeably salty profile to allow it to stand on it’s own as a part of the pizza. While Branca’s dough obviously has the proper ingredients and has been fermented, when you get to the cornicione the crust lacks salt to make it interesting on its own. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work in the context of the main part of the pie with the toppings, but on its own it falls a bit flat to me.
Our experience on this occasion was mixed in regard to the consistency of the cooking of the pizzas. What was apparent to me was that the temperature on the oven varied through the four pies leading to some that were a touch more on the crunchy side versus the preferred chewy and pliable. Leopard spotting was often visible on the underside of the crust and most apparent on the Rughetta e prosciutto San Daniele shown above (arugula with prosciutto) while the others were a touch sparse (shown below).
The cornicione on the Rughetta was easily the best as well with a more pale base and more defined spotting leading me to believe that either the oven was hotter or the pizza was cooked closer to the fire. This reduces the overall cook time and typically creates a more airy cornicione and a softer texture that is closer to my preference. What I would hope to see is a more consistent cook from pie to pie and a drive toward a shorter cook time. I do realize that this is my preference and not what everyone wants, but I think there is a good base here that just needs some more refining to make it pop.
Our selections for the evening ended up being four different red sauce pies which in retrospect might not have been the best idea. We started off with a restriction from the RPG that he didn’t want to venture into the mushroom side of things, but my palate ended up getting a little overwhelmed by the repetition.
The sauce was the same for each pizza which is a San Marzano tomato base that appeared to be cooked down somewhat and relatively heavily salted. That salty bite combined with the crust brought the overall level to a place that I enjoyed although definitely on the higher side.
My favorite was the simplicity of the Margherita with the salty sauce paired with the fresh mozzarella cheese, olive oil and basil leaves. This was the best balanced of the four we had and not surprising since I usually prefer the traditional Margherita over most any other topping combination.
We also sampled the Bufala e pachini which is essentially a Margherita bumped up with Buffalo mozzarella and fresh cherry tomatoes. This adds sweetness especially with the tomatoes in season although I didn’t think the Buffalo mozz made much of a difference on the end product.
The Rughetta e prosciutto San Daniele was pleasant although I think I would have preferred it to be a non-red sauce pie to allow the subtlety of the prosciutto to stand out more other than as a salt delivery system. Arugula added some textural and bitter contrast to the deal which I appreciate. As mentioned above this was the best cooked pie of the four and a flavor combination I enjoy.
The last pizza of the evening was the Marinara con acciughe which was topped minimally with red sauce, garlic, anchovies and oregano. Since all the toppings were small in size, the sauce was more exposed and got more cooked down than the other pies building the saltiness. The anchovies did the same and definitely weren’t subtle. This was a strongly seasoned and flavored pie and one that would have been a good change in pace with more mild pizzas. I’m not a huge anchovy fan and this pushed right up to the high side of my salt tolerance.
What I sampled at Branca is a product that hasn’t been finished yet. During their first month or so in operation they have made distinct improvements over what I tried during the soft open phase, but this is definitely a work in progress. I had the chance to sit down with Chef Pasquale Sorrentino, talked through my pizza experience at Branca so far and also did some general gabbing about restaurants and the industry. Based on our conversation, I believe that he and his team will improve the product as they get more time behind the oven and develop their pizza making skills. None of them have extensive experience making Neopolitan style pizza and there is no doubt that there is a learning curve to attain the highest levels of this form of pizza making.
I’m looking forward to seeing how their pies develop over the following months and getting a chance to sample the rest of their intriguing menu. The non-pizza dishes seem to have a lot of promise including house made pastas, seasonal ingredients including fresh truffles from Italy and a bar menu that is unsurprisingly well thought out since it is related to the great program at the Revelry. Chef Sorrentino feels pretty strongly about all of the items they are making in house and the quality of their imported goods and I’m hoping that comes across in the final product.
Thanks to the Rochester Pizza Guy for coming out as well. It was a blast as usual and something I’d like to do more regularly to keep my pizza dialogue sharp!