In planning out my selections for Gross Week, I initially thought it would be overkill to include a restaurant in an undoubtedly negatively centered theme. However, after trying the pizza at The Hungry Ghost Bakery in Northampton, Massachusetts, all bets are off. To some Northamptonites, this review will strike the wrong chord. They will place it in the same shock category as a "Nobama" bumper sticker. The Hungry Ghost, a two-time James Beard semifinalist, is a small town staple atop a small hill in the center of town, flanked by office buildings and groceries just off the main drag. When I first came here for school, it was all everyone spoke about.
"Oh, you must try the Ghost- they only bake one kind of specialty bread a day and don't bake any more when they run out! The owner wrote a ballad about the bakery! They have a schedule for their bread." Handwritten menus and a shabby workspace pass for status indicators in this area, I noticed. In fact, I entered the bakery twice prior to their late 2011 renovation and left before ordering as I was appalled with the putrid state of conditions there. Formerly a dusty, dank bakery, albeit one with lovely smells, the reviews of The Hungry Ghost's bread range from passionate to pallid. But it was their recent renovation and switch to pizza that piqued my curiosity one evening, prompted by an October 2011 review by Serious Eats writer Liz Bomze, when the bakery had first branched out to pizza. I'm not one to place SE on a pedestal, but I respect their input and recognize their experience in eating many different types of pizza, so their range of comparison would be vast and hopefully serve as a good benchmark for my own experience.
What Liz described as "some of the best pizza in New England" was something I wouldn't have the heart to feed my dog. (Who, for the record, was raised on New Haven apizza crusts slipped under the table.) Perhaps this would pass for good pizza to someone who was heretofore fed exclusively Domino's and Digiorno, but for a Connecticut resident, this barely has the life and character of a freezer-burnt Ellio's. Entering the bakery, we were the only patrons yet stood for a few minutes as the cashier finished a lengthy conversation about boys with a friend of hers. When we made a motion to order and ask for a recommendation, as it was our first time checking the place out, it was made painfully clear that the delicate rhythm of the discourse was disrupted by our presence. This was reflected in the service. Hideously annoyed that her soliloquy about menfolk was stopped in its tracks, the cashier was surly, exhibiting a vapid passivity nearing autistic levels, thrusting a paper menu toward us and all but telling us to go screw ourselves. Any further requests for recommendations yielded blank stares and eye rolls.
We finally agreed to try their margherita pizza, a basic set of flavors that, when done well, transport the eater back to summertime. A simple choice for a first time. Informed that the pizza would take twenty minutes to cook, a strangely long time in a brand new Llopis wood-fire oven, we were told to come back. We perused a local deli and returned only to be informed that the bakery was cash-only. No signage alerted us to this fact, nor did our server choose to capitalize on our twenty minute wait by offering up this fact. Thus, our pizza was delayed another ten minutes as we found an ATM per her vague directions and went on our way.
That ten minutes made no difference at all. In fact, I doubt ten seconds would have made a difference, because this pizza was abhorrent both hot and cold. For starters, the composition. A margherita pizza is retardedly simple: tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and a little extra virgin olive oil. Our pizza had rivulets of grease pocking its surface and running down the sides and into the crust and was sparse in the basil department. Apparently there's a shortage of skimpy, free-range basil leaves in the region. Fresh tomatoes were replaced with what tasted like canned tomato sauce, and the cheese was barely browned. Checking out the upskirt, we were once again dismayed by the shoddy performance of this seemingly new oven. I'm not sure if the owners got an upcycled oven or if it was left on the curb and posted on freecycle, but it yielded a flaccid, soggy crust with a gummy interior, each piece collapsing on itself, saturated and glistening with more oil than a male model and shedding dandruffy flakes of cornmeal and flour when moved from box to plate.
The first few bites of each slice were wet, thick, and slimy, the result of the copious amounts oil migrating to the center of the pie. With each bite, I was waiting for International Bird Rescue to come clean my mouth in the same way oiled seagulls are cleaned after a disaster. $13 bought an extremely bland, oversweetened twelve inch pizza that left a sheen on our lips and carried a pervasively annoying sourdough tang, more tangy and sour than their bread. I've suffered from heartburn with a more nuanced flavor than this.
Unfortunately, Jesus did not grace our grease-stained napkin with His presence. He must have seen our pitiful meal and appeared in the craggy crust of a McNugget across the street instead.
An undistinguished and frugally filled alfajore did not make for a delightful end to the meal.
We had structured our day around getting this pizza tonight. I'm just pleased that we didn't go "full pizza" and snag more than one pie or even upgrade to a larger size. This was so unappetizing that we didn't even bother to sit down at the table with it, much less open the bottle of Mondavi we'd left chilling for the occasion. From the many Bret Easton Ellis novels and old issues of the New Yorker I've perused, I gather that high-end restaurants of the 80's were proud of being stingy and standoffish, cultivating the type of clientele who would know better than to question the difference between ceviche and cilantro. I don't, however, understand why this snobby "value" is superimposed onto the more mediocre examples of fine dining I've seen in small towns. It seems like a certain strain of naive people equate this attitude with quality dining, and it unfortunately causes restaurants like this to thrive where they can be king of the college pizza scene. Hungry Ghost comes across as a ludicrously arrogant big fish in a small pond. The hype is not deserved.
Labels: 2, dinner, gross week, pizza, restaurant