TOP 2011: Round 1: Saratoga

TOP2011 RD1 Saratoga

That most august tradition -- the Tournament of Pizza, sponsored by Sunmark Federal Credit Union -- opens in Saratoga. And, as you well know, Round 1 is a contest of cheese pizzas. Simple? Perhaps -- but simple things are often the hardest to do well.

The pizzerias in the opening round pool here:

Crowd pick: Marino's - Saratoga
Renee's pick: Mama Mia's - Saratoga
Committee pick: Amore - Saratoga
Committee pick: Clifton Park Pizza - Clifton Park

There is no returning champ because Nunzio's is no longer in business. That leaves a wide open bracket. Who will step up?

The judges -- plus our guest judge -- gathered at the Case Center on the campus of Skidmore College for the tasting...

sunmark pizza banner

A quick note about how all this works: Pizzas are ordered anonymously (that is, we just call up and order a pizza like anyone else). The four judges -- Albany Jane, Daniel B, Jerry, and our guest judge -- taste the pizza blind, they don't know which pizza they're tasting during judging. The judges taste the competitors side by side. The scoring is on a 100 point scale -- each judge represents a quarter of those possible points.

Guest judge

Our guest judge for the Saratoga bracket is Lucas Frank, editor of Skidmore Unofficial. Pop quiz: Who eats more pizza than college students? Answer: We don't know, but it can't be that many people. Lucas put his extensive recent pizza experience to good use -- he was a discerning, and tough, judge of quality.

TOP2011 RD1 Saratoga judging

Round 1 pool

Marino's Mama Mia's Amore Clifton Park
Crust 10 17 10 8
Sauce 11 14 9 9
Toppings 9 13 10 10
Overall taste 19 31 24 18
Totals 49 75 53 45

Post game:

Longtime Saratoga favorite Marino's didn't have the best day. The judges knocked it for its "fluffy, but kind of tough" crust that was "bland." Its sauce also didn't register all that well, with one judge commenting that it lacked tomato flavor. And an overall greasiness seems to have sealed Marino's fate. But as one judge noted, it wasn't bad -- just not great.

Mama Mia's
A big number from Mama Mia's in its first tournament appearance. Judges praised its "wonderfully thin" crust and light touch on the sauce, which one judge called "refreshing and delicious" and another said tasted of basil. The judges also enjoyed Mama Mia's cheese, which had "great browning" and was "salted just the right amount." Judges praised the balance of crust, sauce, and cheese. One said gave high marks for Mama's "full flavor," and another called the slice "excellent."

Amore is in Nunzio's old space, but couldn't quite follow the old shop's performance. Still, there were positives here. Judges praised Amore's "simple" sauce that had a sweet, "almost dried fruit" quality to it (though one judge thought the sweetness was too much). Judges were left wanting a little bit more from Amore's slice -- especially on the doneness of the crust, which one judge called "gummy."

Clifton Park
Not the best day for the small shop. One judge described Clifton Park's thicker crust as "poofy" and another said it was "sponge-like." Another judge commented that, with its thick layer of sauce, CP's slice was "all sauce and chewy bread." But this comment from one judge might sum up why Clifton Park didn't score well: "Reminds me of Domino's/Pizza Hut."

Up next

So, a strong showing from Mama Mia's propels it to the second round. Amore also gets its ticket punched, but it will have to bring more to the table to get past Mama in the pepperoni round.

Tomorrow: the Tournament of Pizza heads to Schenectady.

TOP2011 RD1 Saratoga skidmore case center

Thank you, thank you

Many thanks to Skidmore College, especially Bob Carlton, for providing us with space to taste pizza. And also thanks to Lucas Frank of Skidmore Unofficial -- you'll be happy to know the future leaders of America are also discerning eaters of pizza.

The 2011 Tournament of Pizza is sponsored by Sunmark Federal Credit Union.


What night did they eat the pies?

When was the last time you ordered a plain cheese pizza if it wasn't for kids? This judging has almost nothing that I think is valuable in judging where to order pizza.

My "standard" pizza to judge shops by is sausage and mushroom, probably with extra cheese. Not too fancy, but not easy to do really well.

@Mike: September 14.

@chezjake: The judges probably have more thoughts on this, but the reasoning behind opening with the cheese pizza is that because it's so basic it's a baseline for the quality from each shop.

It'd be interesting to find out about the popularity of various pizza toppings.

@chezjake: You're way off. There is nothing better than good, plain pizza. I love toppings as mucha s teh next guy, but plain cheese is where it's at. If you can't do that right, no amount of toppings will help.

I absolutely agree with the TOP starting with the cheese pizza. When done right, the balance of crust, sauce, and cheese creates one of the all-time classic dishes. When ordering slices, I'll order two; one with toppings, and one cheese only. I save the cheese slice, the best, for last. Toppings on pizza is like frosting on brownies; an unnecessary, but decadent, addition.

If at all possible, it would be nice if we could get a larger view of each pie. The four-pie composite photo just doesn't give me a good view of what we're dealing with, unless it can be viewed at a considerably larger size. Thanks.

OMG! Is that the Virgin Mary I see in the Clifton Park Pizza?

Looks more like Elvis to me, Tim.

Chezjake - Some others touched upon it, but I think the concept of judging a place on the quality of its plain pizza offers the most basic way to narrow it down. Even with just three ingredients, dough, sauce, cheese, variability between products is high enough. When you can narrow down and say, "ok, X has the best crust; Y has the best cheese; Z is the best overall; etc" it creates a good basis to further evaluate other factors as you mentioned.

Also, while your pick was sausage and mushroom, someone down the road might say "why didn't they judge anchovy first?" or "why not pancetta?" For someone randomly walking in off the street, a slice of cheese pizza is something that all pizzerias should have.

...or is it Jesus in the cheeses?

Results are finally pouring in three weeks after the fact?

How the holy heck did Marino's even make it to the first round?

Mama Mia's and Caputo's are the only notable pizza places in Saratoga Springs. And yes I do think I know it all. ;)

Clifton Park Pizza is a weird, random little place. I don't know who picked it. There are lots of other pizza places in the area: Upper Crust, Tufano's, Mama's.

I'm going to have to agree with Jennifer on this one. Mama Mia's and Caputo's (with both a Wilton and Clifton Park location) are neck and neck for best Saratoga pies. Even though neither deliver to my house (Boo!), I will always get off my lazy rear end to pick up any of their offerings.

Meanwhile, I'll gladly sit at the kiddie table if plain cheese is the only thing they're offering (cc: chezjake)!

@Mike: The TOP is a logistical and scheduling challenge, so we have to work/taste ahead in the beginning. Things are more or less in real time by the end.

@Jennifer, Tim: Caputo's appeared in Tournament of Pizza 2009 -- and did pretty well. They made it to the second round, where they lost to D'Andrea's. It's been a few years now, so maybe they'll be back in the mix for TOP 2012.

(Gulp... the thought of another TOP right now caught me for a second.)

@Greg: Hearing that Caputo's lost to D'Andrea's in the 2009 TOP is much like the time that my 5th grade teacher dropped the "Santa isn't real" bomb on our entire class right before Christmas break. Horrifying!

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