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Pie Wars 2019: Good dough for your dough

Mystery Diner • May 21, 2019 at 5:53 PM

On May 9, the Young Professionals of the Tri-Cities held its annual charity pizza, beer and wine party at Johnson City’s Carnegie Hotel. Dubbed “Pie Wars 2019: Return of the Dough,” the event featured costumed “Star Wars” characters, along with beer and wine from several local purveyors of strong waters.

Of course, there was pizza, as created by six of the area’s pizzerias and restaurants. My dining partner and I had the good fortune to obtain tickets for the event and were on the scene for an evening’s frolic of pizza, fun and a gentle education for yours truly.

Participants in Pie Wars 2019 were vying for top honors in each of four categories: Best Overall Pizza, Best Pepperoni Pizza, Best Cheese Pizza and Best Pizza Crust. At the event’s check-in table, each ticketholder received a paper tray for pizza and a ballot for voting. Just outside the door to the Carnegie Hotel’s Grand Soldiers Ballroom, of-age ticketholders could get a wristband that entitled them to free beer or wine to go with their pizza. There was also ice water available as a non-alcoholic substitute.

Once inside, you could take your paper tray and visit each of the six pizza vendors that had set up shop around the perimeter of the ballroom. At each location you could sample some of the vendor’s pepperoni pizza, cheese pizza and a specialty pizza showcasing the vendor’s pizza-building and baking skill set. I was forewarned that this would be solely a New York-style pizza event.

I sent my dining partner on a clockwise room recon while I took the counterclockwise route.

The Contestants

The Mellow Mushroom Johnson City’s trend-setter in all things pizza was back once again, dazzling the Pie Wars attendees and reaching a usually-ignored portion of the pizza-loving public by showcasing a gluten-free vegan pizza. Vegan-friendly from toppings to the sauce to the crust, this gluten-free pizza had a smoothness of crust texture and a mellow taste, truly epitomizing the Mellow Mushroom name. While scoring points with their vegan pie, Mellow Mushroom’s cheese pizza was not as well-received, having an under-baked crust that drooped when you picked it up. Its cheese topping (mozzarella?) was melted unevenly and the red sauce had a slight metallic aftertaste to it. However, Mellow Mushroom recovered nicely with a pepperoni pizza that had some nicely-crisped pepperoni and bubbly cheese on a crust that was properly baked and delightfully crunchy around the edge. All in all, Mellow Mushroom made a good showing for Pie Wars 2019 and is still one of my favorite pizza places.

Marco’s Pizza A veteran of the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) competition in takeout pizza, the Marco’s Pizza folks had their game face on for Pie Wars 2019, bringing three of their best take-out New York-style pizzas. The pepperoni pizza was baked properly, though was just a smidge too salty for my dining partner’s taste. Marco’s may have erred in providing their Meat Lover’s pizza in place of the requested cheese variety, but I wasn’t complaining, and my dining partner went back for seconds. Marco’s showstopper pizza had just three toppings: sliced red onions, coarsely-diced Roma tomatoes and creamy-smooth feta cheese on one of the best New York-style pizza crusts in the business: absolutely mouth-watering. Take notice, please. There is classic pizzeria-style taste, texture and quality in all three of Marco’s Pie Wars entries. This is definitely not your typical take-out pizza chain store fare.

Bella Vita Restaurant  As proprietor of one of the best locations in Johnson City for Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, Amel Rugovac was ready for this year’s Pie Wars, trotting out three examples of what New York-style pizza looks, smells and tastes like. Having experienced erratic performance when using either bleached or unbleached flour, Rugovac chose to make his pizza dough from a high-gluten content brominated flour to improve his dough’s rise, elasticity and taste. After mixing, the dough is cooled to slow the yeast’s fermentation process resulting in a slower rise and concentrating its flavor. After hand tossing, the pizza is spread onto a baking stone in Rugovac’s 600-degree oven and allowed to bake until the pizza crust begins to turn up at the perimeter. At that point, olive oil is brushed on the dough, aged Parmesan cheese is grated onto the surface, and the dough is returned for an additional bake. Toppings are added prior to the last three minutes of baking, after which the pizza is served in its traditional triangular slices. Bella Vita’s offerings included a cheese pizza made the correct way and topped with a robust and nutty blending of mozzarella, Romano and Parmesan cheeses. The pepperoni pizza featured artisan-quality pepperoni along with the cheese and sauce. Bella Vita’s s overall pizza entry was very simple: sliced pepperoncini and prosciutto, an air-cured Italian ham and topped with shaved, (not grated) aged Parmesan cheese, with Rugovac’s pizza crust providing a nut-like undertone to the pizza’s overall flavor medley. Delicious.

Scratch Pizza Over the years, I have enjoyed several pizza pies from the folks at Scratch Pizza, and been pleased with what was put in front of me. On one recent occasion my dining partner ordered a Scratch “Trust” pizza (where you choose the pizza, and they choose the toppings) told me to “just try it and keep an open mind to go with your open mouth.” I did, and found that sliced red onions, green bell peppers and parmesan cheese does work when you add mandarin orange sections. So I made sure that my mind was still open as I approached Scratch Pizza’s booth at Pie Wars. I was able to sample their cheese and their pepperoni pizza entries, but missed out on trying their entry for the overall category. The cheese entry was a good if workman-like effort. Its crust needed additional baking, being somewhat soft and doughy and lacking in necessary crunch. Scratch Pizza’s pepperoni pizza effort, though a trifle overbaked, was still good with an almost cracker-crisp texture to its bottom crust that matched their flavorful pizza sauce and some truly spicy slices of pepperoni.

Scores Grille This year’s Pie Wars competition said hello to a new entry. Scores Grill is really, really new, having opened their doors to the local dining scene just six weeks ago. Score’s Grill can be found on the lower level in the Mall at Johnson City, a prime location to get a steady flow of hungry shoppers as patrons. Scores pizza entries are uniformly 12-inches in diameter and are either cheese ($13.29) or with toppings added at 99 cents per topping. You can also get a gluten-free pie crust for $2.20 extra. Their Pie Wars cheese entry was very good, properly baked with a very tasty melted mozzarella/parmesan cheese topping. The pepperoni entry was good though my pepperoni slices were curling up at the edges. All in all, Scores Grille’s performance was exemplary for a Pie Wars first timer. Best of luck to their continued success in business and I hope to see them competing in Pie Wars 2020.

Main Street Pizza Company 2018’s overall winner, Main Street Pizza Company, was back to make Pie Wars 2019’s contest a three-peat. Jamie Dove’s yellow shirt was very much in evidence once more, and did much to attract both the curious and the serious pizza lovers to sample bites of Main Street’s three pizza entries. The cheese pizza was quite good, with a tasty crunchy crust, properly spiced tomato sauce and some pungent parmesan cheese topping. The pepperoni pie sample was also good, being Main Street’s cheese pie with some artisan-quality pepperoni slices added. But the star of their show was Main Street Pizza’s Thai Pie, a luscious mixture of marinated chicken, sliced jalapeno peppers, green apple chutney, arugula and red pepper flakes on a coconut sriracha sauce base. Given the number of taste elements, the Thai Pie was a real challenge for anyone’s taste buds, but I was pleased to be able to distinguish each flavorful note one from the other. My dining partner particularly liked the way the arugula’s tart, slightly bitter taste complemented the coconut sriracha sauce, adding an additional peppery note. The crunchy crust was tasty, blending nicely with the whole bouquet of the pie’s flavors. Apparently, other Pie Wars attendees thought so as well, crowning the Thai Pie as Best Overall Pizza, and giving Main Street Pizza Company its looked-for three-peat as the Pie Wars 2019 winner.

Wrap-up: Pie Wars 2019 was quite an affair for my dining partner and I. The Young Professionals representatives were both knowledgeable and friendly, the crowd was boisterous but good-tempered, vendors pleasant, informative and patient and the Carnegie Hotel personnel were their usual unflappable and professional selves. Congratulations again to all participants and I look forward to Pie Wars 2020 with considerable anticipation.

Bella Vita Restaurant

2927 N. Roan St.

Johnson City

282-8600

Available on Facebook & at

www.bellavitajc.com

Main Street Pizza Company

300 E. Main St. Suite 101

Johnson City

631-0180

Available on Facebook & at

themainstreetpizzacompany.com

Marco’s Pizza

612 Lyle St., Suite 110

Johnson City

Available on Facebook & at

www.marcos.com

The Mellow Mushroom

2929 N. Roan St.

Johnson City

928-6356

Available on Facebook & at

mellowmushroom.com

Score’s Grille

2102 N. Roan St. (The Mall)

Johnson City

794-0197

Available on Facebook

Scratch Pizza

100 E. Unaka Ave.

Johnson City

Available on Facebook & at

scratchbrickoven.com

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