Notes from Cary, NC

• Baker’s Dozen Donut shop (at South Hills mall) – This place has no website or facebook page, and the sign out front simply reads “Donuts”.  They had a pretty big selection, and prices were cheap if I recall correctly – only 8 or 9 bucks for a dozen, and huge apple fritters for a lot less than $2.  Donuts are pretty run-of the mill from my very limited sampling.  Very sweet, no surprises.    It looks like they stay open until 7 or 8 some evenings.
• La Casa De Las Enchiladas – Kind of a house-like ambience.  Very good salsa to start off with, along with freshly fried chips.  The quesadilla huitlacoche (corn fungus – apparently a Mexican delicacy but a rarity around here) was good enough, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.  The mole poblano was fine, other enchiladas were good and decidedly more spicy than most places (a plus for me).  The torta cubana was massive and contains seemingly every single meat/ingredient they have.  It’s a huge round sandwich that overflows with fillings.  It’s good, and could easily feed two.  There’s also a nice salsa/condiments bar.  I’d definitely go back.
• Lucky 32– We went back again but I have to say I’m consistently underwhelmed.  The menu always sounds great though.  I Finally tried the voodoo pig bread – pulled pork, red onion, chevre, cilantro, voodoo sauce on ciabatta (+ some melted mozzarellla I think).  It was fine but not worth going out of your way for.  The service at this place has always been excellent though.
•  Bella Mia – We finally went back after a long hiatus (and after their change in ownership a while back).  We went with the calzone with ricotta and sausage, which had so wowed us previously.  It was very similar, but somehow not quite as amazingly delicious.  Still really good.  The roasted chicken wings to start were the exact same – very nice!

Pizzeria Toro (Durham, NC)

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Recently I wrote about Durham’s Mateo and how it made that city feel ever more cosmopolitan.  While Mateo brings Spanish flair to the Bull City, just down the block Pizzeria Toro bolsters the European vibe with Italian charm and elegance.  It’s not an upscale restaurant, per se, but Toro offers a beautifully simple style, and, more importantly, excellent food.  I’d say it rivals Bella Mia as the best pizza in the Triangle, in a much more attractive setting (for me).  It fits perfectly in Durham, whose restaurant scene continues to evolve with more and more high quality, big-city caliber joints.

Toro occupies a small space that is dominated by a circular wood-fired oven towards the rear of the restaurant.  Actually, the restaurant is shaped like an “L”, with entrances on two adjoining streets: one door to the narrow bar, another (main) door to the dining room.  The space achieves an effortless chic with minimalist decor, but they have clearly put plenty of thought into details like the lighting (spotlights on the wood logs that fuel the oven), flatware, and “hand-towel” napkins.  There’s a communal table in the middle, and high tables along the sides, along with a few window counter seats.  Although the high tables and stools are not really ideal for small kids, the restaurant appears to be adaptable: witness the very small child I saw recently suspended in a basket-like contraption clamped to the side of the table – I’d never seen anything like it.   This place gets crowded, so come early.

The menu is limited in the best way.  A few apps, a few salads, a selection of fine hams (similar to Mateo) and more than enough pizzas to choose from.  The problem is choosing one.  Divided into “red” and “white” categories, they all sound fabulous, many with exotic toppings like spicy lamb meatballs, brussel sprouts, or clams.  Note that the menu changes frequently to feature local seasonal ingredients.  My wife assured me that one pie was enough for both of us, so we chose the onion/taleggio/pistachio (white) pie ($13).  It arrived looking great, with a slightly charred, lightly oiled crust sprinkled with sea salt, hunks of melty tallegio, and plenty of onions.  Indeed, this pie was loaded with raw red and white onions, which was fine by me.  The crust was mildly sweet, and not really as ethereal as that at Bella Mia, but almost as good in its own way.  The toppings were more substantial than I’ve had at Bella Mia.  Overall, the pie tasted great, with perfect seasoning, but I’d be eager to try out a different one next time.  Really minor quibbles would be uneven distribution of toppings and fairly un-crunchy pistachios.  My wife, as usual, was right – the one pie was plenty to fill us both up.

As Durham’s restaurant scene continues to expand in exciting ways, Mateo and Pizzeria Toro are helping to fill some of the Triangle’s bigger culinary voids (excellent tapas and gourmet pizza, respectively).  Judging by the meals I’ve had at each and their initial popularity, here’s hoping these restaurants are mainstays for years to come.  And though I probably won’t mistake myself for being in Barcelona or Florence, I’m thankful that the comparison is even possible.

Salvio’s Pizzeria (Cary, NC)

Salvio’s in Cary appears, in nearly all respects, to be a prototypical (e.g. boring) strip-mall pizza joint.  It’s all there – the nondescript signage, the incongruous burger+fries or wings specials, the bare bones interior.  But it just takes one taste of the pies and to know this is someplace special.

The inside features a number of large booths, a few tables, and a couple of large TVs tuned to ESPN.  A recent remodeling has added a tasteful air to the simple accommodations: fresh black paint and new marble table tops are a step up from the old plain wooden booths.  It’s still a counter service restaurant where you get your own drink, so it’s best for take-out or a quick lunch.

The menu covers all of the standards – pizzas, subs, wings, Italian classics.  Since it’s pretty close to where I work, I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Salvio’s numerous times, but I’ve only tried the pies.  For a quick meal, you can order pre-made “gourmet” slices from the counter window display, of which there are generally a half-dozen or so choices.  On a recent visit I chose a slice of mozzarella/feta/spinach/tomatoes and a slice of ricotta/parsley, which, with a soda, came to just $5.75.   The slices are enormous – I can’t imagine eating more than two.  The friendly staff pops them back into the oven, and, a few minutes later, you’ve got piping hot pizza delivered to you (on paper plates).

Salvio’s crust is exceptional – thin and super crisp, you can just about pick up a whole piece without it collapsing.  The crust gives a satisfyingly shatter-like crack, and the crumb still has a nice chew to it.  Toppings are generous but don’t stand out for exceptional quality, the way they do at, say, Bella Mia.  Both pieces were very good, but the winner was the one with soft mounds of delicious ricotta.  It was a fantastic lunch.

Among NY style pizza in the area, Salvio’s stands head and shoulders above a place like Fuhgeddaboutit.  In fact, Salvio’s comes in behind only the aforementioned Bella Mia in my Triangle pizza hierarchy.  And compared to your average strip-mall pizza place, it is awesome.

Bella Mia Pizza (Cary, NC) – revisited

Our second visit to Bella Mia Pizza in Cary confirmed what we experienced the first time around: if you haven’t been yet, you need to go. Their pizza blows other Triangle pizzas right out of the water (or oven). The crust, charred from the coal-fired oven, is incredible. We ordered a “Houston St.” pie ($12) and a “Canal St.” calzone ($11). The pie had smoked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and basil. It tasted excellent, but suffered a little on the following two counts. First, the crust, though crispy on the edges, was super thin and soggy in the center of the pie. This made it very difficult to eat, because I couldn’t even quite pick it up without the toppings sliding off. Second, there’s a lot of extra crust space where it’s just bread. On the other hand, the calzone might be my choice from now on.  As I noted after our first trip to Bella Mia several months ago, it is amazing – one of the finest things I’ve eaten in the Triangle – and for only $11!  Stuffed simply but amply with sausage and ricotta, you just can’t stop eating it. We also tried the lemon-rosemary roasted chicken wings ($8 for a small order of about 6-8 wings). These were also delicious, served with some very sweet caramelized onions.

To summarize, you can get other good pizzas in the Triangle, but this is the only great pizza I’ve had in the area.  I look forward to many future visits.