Howie's Artisan Pizza, Palo Alto (Town & Country Village) report w/ pics
I've been looking forward to trying the food here after reading a blogger post on Howie's. It's in the Town & Country shopping center, facing El Camino Real, next to Sur La Table & Paper Source.
We got there around 5pm on Tues 12/8/09 and it wasn't busy. Only a few tables eating. I love eating early!
FREE Filtered Water: brought in glass bottle.
We ordered lots:
eggplant pillows $7 - 3 pcs of eggplant sliced & stuffed w/ house made ricotta & salsa verde served cold. Tasted fine.
Caesar salad $8 - romaine, garlic crouton, parmesan, caesar dressing. Enough for 2 to share.
Pizza only ONE size. You can get 1/2 of one, 1/2 of another. You pay the higher cost.
Wild Mushrooms $18 - extra garlic, pecorino, fontina cheese, shallots & fresh thyme + 1/2 The Works $17 - Hobbs pepperoni, fennel sausage, mushrooms, hot peppers, olives, hot chili, mozzarella, tomato sauce.
Pizza was served hot. I took a bite and all the toppings dropped into my mouth or fell off. Pizza started to droop. I wanted a crispy thin pizza, but it just was mush in the middle. Crust was fine. Overall, pizza was just ok.
Straus organic soft serve ice cream $4 + $1 if you want topping. I got olive oil & fleur de sel. I'm not really into olive oil on my ice cream, but I had to try it at least once. It seems so trendy now. Not my favorite, the ice cream by itself is good.
B. got a glass of Howie wine (Merlot) $5 - he finished it.
They make sandwiches $7-8 too.
They have Sparky's Root Beer $3.75 (Pacific Grove).
Separate bathrooms in the back.
There's 1 step if you're on the higher level dining area. I missed it and felt my head snap back!! Very dangerous & they know there's a problem. Maybe they should block it off so people don't break their necks!
Our total was $46.18 before tip. Credit cards taken.
Open Daily: 11:30a-9:30p
Howie's really helps bridge the quality gap in pizza between Silicon Valley and San Francisco. It reminds me most of Gialina in terms of finding its own style to great pizza, though the sensibilities of the two pizza makers are very different.
We had the Hobbs' pepperoni pizza and the flavor stars were crust, toppings, cheese, and sauce, in that order. The crust was the prime attraction with a nice complex flavor and no droopiness issues. The pepperoni was excellent, reminiscent of what we got on some diavola pizzas in southern Italy. The cheese got a nice toasted effect, and the sauce was good but quite lightly applied.
There's an excellent wine list (everything available by glass and bottle), a nice draft beer selection, and a wonderful house-made lemonade. We tried the soft-serve Strauss vanilla ice cream dessert but will skip that in the future and try the salads and appetizers instead. I love Strauss milk, yogurt, and butter, but their ice cream available in stores is too simple and sweetly cloying, and the soft-serve has strengths and weaknesses. If it were me I'd try to get Rick's or another top-line artisan *ice cream* maker in there - a great dairy does not necessarily translate into great ice cream.
I've been hoping for years that we would get a pizza place in Silicon Valley that combined excellent pizza with a few good accompaniments along with fine wine and beer. Pizza Antica in Santana Row started in this direction, and Howie's takes another big step forward. It will be fun to explore more of this menu!
We ate there today - not too impressed...place was a bit stark and cold this sunday at lunch time...we didn't realize that you could order slices - and the waiter didn't tell us - I was there with my two kids...a friend came with her kids and overheard her ordering slices...that is how I found out that they were available..of course those were out in 5 minutes..
We ordered a pizza with their fennel sausage for $15 - it took over 20 minutes...and there were only two other tables - one already had their pizza.
We wanted to get mushroom but when i asked what kind - the server didn't know and went to check - no wild mushrooms here - just the white domestic ones so we passed.
The crust was ok - not really crispy after all that waiting...the sausage was good for the meager amount they put on it - maybe two small rounds per slice and I am not exaggerating.
No one came to see if we needed anything or to ask if everything was ok.
Got most of it to take home for later...we thought Paxti's was much better....hubby has some cold for a late lunch - nothing special he reported.
Won't bother to return.
I went back today for lunch thanks to the mention of slices here. It turns out the slice pizza is totally different from the whole pizza. The whole pizza is thin crust while the slice pizza is quite thick. It comes just in cheese and pepperoni. The pepperoni was as good as on the slice pizza, but in this pizza the excellent tomato sauce was much more prominent. Certainly the thick crust can handle the extra sauce!
Once again, the crust is the star. This thick crust is some of the best I've had outside of Detroit.
Today they were offering a single slice and a soda for $5, tax included. Given how good the slice is, that's one of the best deals in Palo Alto!
My husband and son ate at Howie's last week and enjoyed it. He was expecting something a bit different with the sausage and raab pizza, in that it wasn't slices of sausage, but crumbles and the raab was very strong. Son took the raab off, but enjoyed the rest. Baby loved the raab. My husband enjoyed the crust quite a bit and will be returning. He has recommended it to a few friends too.
There seems to be too little quality control - if you come at a busy time fine, but inbetween times dough is overproofed leading to crust that is far inferior. At these prices they shouldn't send out a product they know is inferior.
Flavor is good but too much cheese for my taste and too little taste of sauce on cheese pizza. Perhaps at off times a slice would be a better option.
I went for a slice last weekend, and they have changed the crust to be thinner, a lot closer to their whole pie style. Apparently this was related to some changes they made in their proof box to get better consistency. (I'm not a baker or pizza-maker, so maybe I got the terminology wrong - my error if that's the case.) It's still very good, but I really liked having the two very different styles done so well at one place.
Like mdg's comment in December, I've found Howie's Artisan Pizza very capable and filling a niche. In Mountain View our reference standard is Amici's, the Bay Area chain, which has turned out some superb crusts and specialty toppings. It's also the most expensive around. Howie's is actually cheaper than Amici's, and in my first experience of Howie's it surpassed Amici's and almost anything else hereabouts. In past years I'd enjoyed several meals under Howard Bulka as the original chef at Menlo Park's high-end restaurant Marché, where his style favored high-end "comfort" foods in my experience. With Marché's original manager Lisa Robins, he opened Howie's.
Been there several times, mostly times not too busy. (Only tried regular pizzas, not the "slices.") BTW I love pizza, and have made it at home for decades.
First pizza tried, earlier this year, was the popular specialty (acc. to server) with pancetta, red peppers, and something else I've forgotten at the moment (ripe tomatoes?). This was one of the best pizzas I could remember tasting, comparable to good ones I've had over the years at Chez Panisse Café or A16. Crust was particularly well textured and flavored. The pancetta was cut differently at the time (thinner?) from the form it took later, which is little chunks as used at Amici's and elsewhere. I asked Bulka about that; he said something about customers put off by the earlier unconventional cut of this bacon, which is unfortunate -- to my taste it worked better in this pizza's overall chemistry than the salty little chunks do. Also tried aforementioned sausage and raab pizza. Again excellent: some of Howie's toppings show a satisfying balance, a sense of thoughtful flavor esthetics, which hit home. This pizza, with its crumbled fresh sausage meat, was unique: savory, lightly cheesed, very different from the routine US mass-produced sausage-slice pizzas. Others tried were a couple of daily specials incl. one with prosciutto and salad. Howie's also uses different, or multiple, mozzarella-type cheeses in some toppings.
Though I preferred the earlier, perfect-pitch version of the pancetta on the pepper-pancetta pizza, four or five visits have produced such satisfying, filling, moderately-priced experiences as to amaze me to read a few dismissive comments on various CH threads that mention Howie's. Those people either have very different taste in pizzas, or they happened to visit at atypical, unlucky times. Howie's is unique and an asset, IMO, and I'll be returning frequently, with enthusiasm.
Howie's Artisan Pizza
855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94301
I'd also put in a plug for the hummus appetizer. Not because the hummus is particularly special, but because the "bread" it comes with is excellent -- as best I can tell, it's just a whole pizza dough, baked with salt and olive oil, cut into chunks. Delicious, and worthy of just snarfing down all by itself while it's hot.
A further meal at Howie's revealed (as further visits often do) further information. Broccoli raab with the freshly made fennel sausage as a specialty pizza has evolved to roasted red onions with freshly made fennel sausage. (They gladly added the raab to that on request; it's an available ingredient for custom combinations. We thought the small, crunchy, slightly bitter greens deliciously complemented the sweet onion and sausage bits.) Another and lighter menu pizza tried has raab and "bagna cauda," new to me: a puree with green olives, garlic, and anchovy (a kind of tapenade). That combo was less rich than the sausage one, with an overall garlicky flavor impression so different that the presence of raab on both pizzas did not seem like overlap. We also enjoyed some good Soquel V'yds Pinot Noir (with a litle age) from the wine list which I checked for the first time on this visit, and judged extremely pizza-friendly (I assume not by acident). It's a mixture of Italian and US labels. Whites at $18-25/btl included Pinots Grigios and the local parody of their French cousin, Bonny Doon's pink "Vin Gris de Cigare" from the inimitable Randall Grahm. Reds, $18-32, included multiple Sangiovesi with one currently on special, and something of a Rhônish slant with Grenache and Zinfandel. (Zinfandel isn't a Rhône varietal, but it ought to be, it'd be in good company there.) All 16 wines were available by the glass.
Spotting the proprietor I asked a couple of questions. Will you do corkage if we bring in a special bottle? (I was thinking of certain Burgundies and other wines that would go exquisitely with these pizzas.) Yes, nominal charge $10. And I liked the earlier, thin strips of pancetta on that pancetta and (Fresno) hot chili combination pizza -- can you do that again by request? Yes, he said, in fact he preferred that cut too, but some customers did not. He couldn't do it at the time, saying this request needs a day or two of notice because the pancetta is cured in-house and when it's ready, it's cut immediately and cooked for use on the pizzas, so if they know you're coming, they can cut some differently by request. (I'm not surprised at this willingness to accommodate for gastronomic reasons -- Bulka had also displayed it in his previous career at Marché.) I plan to try this later.
"can you do that again by request? Yes, he said,..." Good to know because that sounds like an awesome combination.
Thanks for the detailed report, we love Howie's too. My initial assessment was the same as mdg's in that while pizza is tasty with nice crust, the sauce is a bit on the light side.
I'd guess, ceekskat, that what you're seeing is an inclination at Howie's to a more free-form or "Italian" pizza style. My Italian pizza cookbooks (for that matter, my experiences over the years at Chez Panisse Café) are full of savory combinations that have no tomato sauce and/or cheese. Three of Howie's eight specialty pizzas, on the current paper menu that I took, have no tomato sauce (the bagna cauda I mentioned, a roast-potato pizza tried once before, sun-dried tomatoes and scallion pesto) and some daily special pizzas also lacked tomato sauce.
The particular pizza format of tomato sauce, topping, and cheese was perfected in the eastern United States (and later introduced to Italy where, according to the food historian JF Mariani, it was popular, and perceived as an American specialty). In Howie's, I sense a wish to combine a traditional US pizza parlor (with classics like pepperoni pizza) with more free-format pizzas, run by a high-end chef who makes the pancetta and sausage in-house, exactly to his liking.
Special pancetta request tested spontaneously, successful, and worth it!
Although _without_ advance notice, being already in the neighborhood I stopped into Howie's, told server I had a special request for kitchen. She sent over a senior guy (mgr?) and I explained preferring thin-sliced pancetta IF it happened to be possible. He said he'd check supplies, returned saying I was in luck, some pancetta was ready but uncut. He also remembered the original cut used on the pizza, and he ask the kitchen to do it. This took a while (I'd arrived toward the end of a lunch rush that'd filled the place) but was well worth it. This pizza (see photo) was VERY good.
This specialty pizza has pancetta, sliced red Fresno hot chili peppers, red onion, tomato sauce, and mozzarella, lightly sprinkled with herbs and olive oil. Thin-sliced, the house-made pancetta resembles US bacon but without the smoke, and cooks to little crisps. Some are barely visible in the snapshot, with dark edges. Most of the color you see is the peppers, perfect for this pizza. They're hot enough to notice, but won't burn anyone's palate, and like other good hot peppers they have a rich complex pepper flavor too. That and red onions already makes a famous combination (not just for pizzas -- also for pastas and any number of stews, Gulasch for instance). The delicate pancetta crisps make it perfect. I've now had this style twice (first when it was the standard house version) and much prefer it to the newer standard version that concentrates the pancetta (and its flavor) into dense little chunks. This pizza had balance, flavor counterpoint, and fine skilled dark baking.
I recommend trying this approach if you're interested, but keep in mind Howie's own advice (upthread) that it's more certain with longer notice.