Places to eat in Florence

First of all, I’m going to put this out there and say there probably isn’t a bad place to eat in Florence.  My best guess is even the worst place to dine in Florence is probably still better than going to Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill or Carrabba’s.  So that being said, here’s a quick list of some good spots to check out:

All’Antico Vinaio da Tommaso/Osteria all’ Antico Vinaio
Via De’Neri 65/74 Firenze 50122

This suggestion came from several different friends, and it’s hard to argue with them that this place has the best cheap eats in the city (or actually in the world in general).   Split into two locations, there’s a sit down restaurant and a take-out storefront across the street from one another.  My buddy and I opted for the take-out, which around lunch time had a line that was about a 10-15 minute wait.  It was worth it despite having to avoid all the pigeons hanging out above shitting on everyone.  For 5 euros, you can get an incredibly good sandwich.  The great ciabatta bread, delicious meats, and really fresh tasting vegetables and cheese practically had my eyes popping out of my head on the first bite.  You can order the sandwich however you want, but for the sake of not being that annoying customer, I opted for one of the Top 5 sandwiches they have on the chalkboard.  Stop in here for lunch.

Gusta Pizza
Via Maggio, 46R, 50125 Firenze

Obviously you have to stop into a place for pizza when in Italy, and again, you probably can’t go wrong with most places.  We came here at the suggestion of a friend (this will be a common theme), and it was perfectly good.  Would I say walk out of your way to find it?  I wouldn’t go across the city to do it, but if you’re in the vicinity you should stop in.  The pizza was as solid a pie as I’ve gotten anywhere, but didn’t go beyond.  The menu is simple, there’s not a whole lot of fancy pizzas to order, but the price is nice and it will definitely hit that pizza craving spot.

Ristorante Mastro Ciliegia
Piazza di San Pier Maggiore, 4R, 50122 Firenze

Another good pizza stop, one that was not suggested by anyone but rather we just stumbled upon because we were hungry (and hungover).  Its rather pleasant setting in Piazza di San Pier Maggiore actually made it one of the more relaxing parts of the trip; we got to people watch in a piazza that wasn’t huge so the low noise level was enjoyably peaceful.  Try the truffle and prosciutto pizza — it’s excellent there.

Osteria Vini e Vecchi
Via dei Magazzini, 3, Firenze

From the outside you might mistake this place for a tourist trap, especially since it’s super close to the Uffizi.  Don’t be fooled.  This great mom and pop restaurant had one of THE best Osso Buco’s I’ve ever had.  Add a Pappardelle with duck and you’ve got yourself one helluva meal.  It’s a perfect spot for a low-key meal after the museums.  And if you’re so inclined, we got a tip from a friend to ask the waiter for some of their homemade limoncello that wasn’t on the menu.  When we did that, the waiter gave us a little grin, a wink, and brought out a bottle with two shot glasses and a pat on the back that felt like he was saying, “If you know this exists, then you’re in the club”.

Ristorante Osteria Zio Gigi
Via Folco Portinari, 7-r, 50122 Firenze

Here’s another place we just stumbled into, and again it was a big score on our parts.  This restaurant had a great local vibe, and boisterous atmosphere.  The staff really makes you feel like you’re part of an Italian family, like you’re their kids.  The chef, who by my best guess was maybe the father, came out of the kitchen frequently to loudly serenade us with Italian opera, much to the embarrassment of his female wait staff who had the faces of “Dad, stop it!” written all over them.  As for the food, it was excellent (like everything on this list), but we did a number on ourselves in this place.  Since this was our last dinner of the trip, we decided to go all out, and all out we did.  We each ordered a 500 gram florentine steak, which was already more than enough.  But on top of that we each had a plate of tortellini.  The food was amazing, but you know what they say, “Too much of a good thing…”  Even our waitress acknowledged the fat shits we were and gave us complimentary digestifs at the end of the meal with a hearty laugh telling us “This will help with your” while rubbing her belly.

Gelato

Just eat it.  Everywhere.  It doesn’t matter what place you go to.  We went to everyone’s suggestions and they were all amazing.  But if you HAVE to be directed somewhere, Gelateria Dei Neri is as famous and popular as gelato places get.

All the gelati
All the gelati

Quick Hits – Don’t eat at Lazzara’s Pizza Cafe, NYC

Since I’m on a “Quick Hits” roll, here’s another from NYC.  Don’t eat at Lazzara’s Pizza Cafe in Manhattan.  Based on looking at Yelp reviews, this place had above average reviews mainly saying that the pizza was good, but the service in some cases was so-so.  We never even made it far enough to try the food.

My friends and I stopped there for a late-ish lunch and wanted to take a load off after walking around Times Square for a while (which is down the street).  It was around 2, maybe 3 in the afternoon.  The group of us sat down and because it was a later in the afternoon, some of us had already eaten, while the others just wanted a couple of slices (this was New York City after all).  Keep in mind, this place was absolutely empty — we were the only ones in there other than another couple.

The waitress first took a while to come over to us, which in itself wasn’t that big a deal.  But then she proceeded to tell us that we had to order whole pies if we wanted to sit at the table.  We explained to her some of us only really wanted to have a few slices, and the others were just looking to have a couple beers.  Nope, she said we’d have to order at least a pizza per 2 people if we wanted to stay otherwise it had to be takeout.  She didn’t even seem that apologetic or willing to compromise for some business!  It seemed more like we were bothering her afternoon session of General Hospital.

Needless to say, we didn’t want to order that much pizza and we left.  But on the way out, we said it loudly and clearly, “You just lost your empty restaurant some easy business for no real good reason.”  If there was a line out the door for people who wanted to sit, then I might understand that policy.  But the place was empty!

So, while the food might have been good, we never found out because it looks like those other reviewers who said the service was poor were spot on.

Sydney – Part 1

You may or may not be aware, but Australia is in the middle of its summer around December, so when we arrive the country is in its nice and warm climate.  However, the same months that it’s in summer also happens to be the same months as its rainy season.  Sadly, during our time in Sydney it rained quite a bit.  This did not dampen the time there however; we just ended up spending a little less time at the beach.

Luckily Sydney offers plenty to do other than the beach (which we did visit at one point as you’ll read about later on), but the first day was spent getting our bearings and recovering from the jet lag a bit.  Before I get into our zombie day of walking around, I just wanted to point out one thing about the Sydney airport.  If you’re flying into the international terminal and want to get to the domestic terminal, you have to take a shuttle bus that costs $5.50.  We weren’t alone in our flabbergast as most of the other travelers commented with astonishment and a fair amount of cursing for the fee just to go from one terminal to another (and if you’re thinking about walking, it’s not possible).  So just a heads up.

So back to the summary.  We ended up wandering around to get a lay of the land.  My initial reaction to Sydney was this – it’s very similar to southern California.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re looking for something exotic when you’re traveling, don’t expect to get it from Sydney.  Like most metropolitan cities, Sydney has commercial buildings, shops, restaurants, museums, busy city streets, and some parks.  The best way I can put it is it felt a lot like San Diego.

Our hotel was located in a very good spot (see details below), and gave us easy walking access to most of the parts of Sydney that you’d want to see in a few days.  We also took the Sydney ferry from Circular Quay (pronounced “key” apparently) to Darling Harbor for only $6 — which, considering you pay $5 for a big bottle of water and $5.50 to go from a terminal to a terminal at the airport, is a pretty good deal.  The ferry ride offers stops along different points on the harbor and provides fantastic photo opportunities of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Other ferries take you to places such as Manly Beach and other spots near the city.

Like I said, our first day was just random wandering so I’ll just give you details of where we ate and where we stayed, and get into the more specific sights later on.  It’s a miracle I’m even able to read my notes that I wrote on that day with my jet lag — they look like they were written by a gorilla on a trampoline.

Where we stayed

Travelodge Hotel Sydney
27 Wentworth Ave
Sydney New South Wales 2010
Australia

Not a bad place to stay, it was clean and relatively new.  It’s got a good location right near Hyde Park, close enough to all the sights, but not right on top of them so it’s nice and quiet at night.  One not so good thing (and this applies to pretty much all the hotels in Australia I think) — no free wifi; it costs $10 a day.  You do get 15 minutes free in the lobby every 24 hours though…

Where we ate

Din Tai Fung
Multiple Locations

Before we left for Sydney, we heard from lots of people that there is a really good Asian cuisine scene.  So, naturally for our first meal we wanted to try out some Asian food and we looked to our Lonely Planet guide for a lead.  It pointed us to Din Tai Fung, which they said was a great, affordable place for good dumplings that locals love.  Now in general, Lonely Planet usually suggests local places, backpackers venues, things of that nature when they give a one “$” rating.  So when we showed up at an outdoor mall housing Din Tai Fung, we were pretty surprised at how “chainy” it felt.  It wasn’t until later in the trip when I had wifi access that I was able to discover that, well, it was in fact a chain.  Regardless, the food there wasn’t bad, just not great.  The best offerings that they had were the soup dumplings, so I would stick to those, but even those weren’t the best I had ever eaten (that’s reserved for a few places in New York City’s chinatown).  They did have a quote from Anthony Bourdain up that said, “I’d travel halfway around the world for Din Tai Fung’s soup dumplings.”  Personally Anthony, I wouldn’t.

Macchiato
338 Pitt St.
Sydney NSW 2000, Australia

Here’s a place I’ll say to just do take out.  Don’t go there for table service.  The service there was horribly slow.  Yes, the waiter was friendly, but the service was so slow that whatever kindness the waiter had was kinda nulled out.  Yes, it was Christmas Eve, but the place wasn’t that busy (no busier than any typical weekend night), so I can’t really give that as an excuse either.  Our food, which was just a pizza, took an hour and a half to get to our table.  They had lost our order so had to put it back in once we reminded them, but to add insult to injury, the people who sat next to us, who showed up far after we were seated, still got their pizzas before us.   So why do I say just do take out?  Because the pizza I had once we did get it and ate at the hotel (we had them box it to go and to give a tiny bit of credit they gave us a 20% discount for the wait) was really, really good.  I had the Shanghai Pizza which consisted of roast duck, mushroom, snow peas, cashews, plumb sauce, and mozzarella.  It was delicious — I really can’t find anything bad to say about it.

So as you can see, there wasn’t a whole lot from Day 1, but Day 2 was much more productive.  And that’s coming up.

I have several friends who had visited or lived in Australia who provided advice on where to go, and what to do.  My one friend, Beth, who lived in Australia for a year, had her own experiences which she emailed to all her friends and gave me permission to add to my blog posts.  You can never have too many opinions when it comes to travel, and like I’ve said many times, this blog is meant to be as much for you as it is for me.  So at the end of my Australia posts, I’ll be adding Beth’s tidbits in “Australia from Beth”.

“Australia from Beth”

http://surfcamp.com.au/ (creatively named Surf Camp Australia). I did the five day “Ultimate Experience”. I would absolutely recommend it! I stayed at Wake Up hostel in Sydney and the bus for surf camps leaves straight from the hostel. The camp itself is situated in a trailer park oddly enough, but it has it’s own vibe with cabins of I believe 8-10 people and a separate bathroom block with showers/toilets. The common area is all outside; basically just rows of picnic tables and a TV that is constantly streaming cool surf videos. This is where the groups meet to talk/learn about surfing, eat, socialize, etc. It’s a very bare bones place, but you don’t need much because you’re spending most of the time at the beach or eating/drinking/playing games in the common area. Curfew is a strict 10pm because the camp is in a residential area, but everyone leaves to drink at the beach beyond that time. On a clear night you will see more stars than you can in the wilderness in Wyoming, they are absolutely stunning. I made a lot of friends here that I still keep in touch with (I was the only American strangely enough out of close to 100 people).  $100 and everything is included (food, lodging, beach, etc.)

Note: Unfortunately, it was cloudy our first day.  Better pics and weather for the next galleries.

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Labor Day weekend in New York City

For the Labor Day weekend, a couple friends from D.C. and I decided to take a long overdue trip up to New York City.  Being from the east coast and having several friends and relatives living in the city over the course of my lifetime, I’m very familiar with the place (and their horrible professional sports teams).  However, the thing that I love about New York is that every time you go, there’s always something new to discover.

For this post, I’m not going to go over the typical New York places to see that we did (a not so full effort to find the bridge from Home Alone 2 in Central Park, the Flatiron building, Time’s Square, etc.), but I’ll give you a rundown of a few places that we went to that were recommended by the locals.

230 Fifth (the name of the place is the address)
Located down the street from the Flatiron Building, this rooftop bar has the best view of the NYC skyline that I’ve ever seen.  Bring your camera, you’ll have some great shots of the Empire State Building, Hudson River and in the distance the Freedom Tower. There’s plenty of space on the rooftop, as well as a large, indoor lounge on the top floor of the building, but regardless it does get busy around happy hour.  There’s no cover charge, but the drinks will cost you a pretty penny.  Because we went during Labor Day the temperature was nice, but the bar does offer red robes for everyone in the winter months.

View from the rooftop at 230 Fifth
View from the rooftop at 230 Fifth

Absolute Bagels and Sal & Carmine’s Pizza
We stayed at my buddy’s place on the Upper West Side and these are a few of the quick, and very New York eateries we tried.  Realistically, I wouldn’t say to make a dedicated trip up to the Upper West Side to try these places, but if you’re in that area, they are very good options.  Absolute Bagels had exactly what you’d expect from a NYC bagel – perfectly warm, soft, but not too chewy bagels with a large variety of cream cheeses and lox.  I had a sesame bagel with walnut & raisin cream cheese and it easily trumped any Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Bruggers bagels I’ve ever had.   Keep in mind, there will be a line of Columbia University kids (especially on the weekends) and it is CASH ONLY.  And of course, only in New York, you have to pay an extra 10 cents to have your bagel toasted.

Delicious breakfast
Delicious breakfast

For a quick lunch, down the street from Absolute Bagels is Sal & Carmine’s Pizza.  Like Absolute Bagels, you will walk right by this place if you’re not looking for it – it’s pretty boring looking.  But you’re there for the pizza, not the ambiance.  And the pizza does not disappoint.  Your order will be taken by this really crusty, curmudgeonly old guy (my guess is he was either Sal or Carmine…) but he’s harmless.  The cheese slices are $3 and the ones with toppings are $4.  As far as slices go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place with a better New York slice.  The slice was very large, and the crust was perfectly thin and crispy.  The pizza had the right amount of cheese and was greasy enough without dripping all over the place.  It really hits the spot if you have that pizza craving.

Sal & Carmine's Pizza slices
Sal & Carmine’s Pizza slices

Rue B
We actually found this place on accident and I’m glad we did.  Located on the Lower East Side, Rue B harkens back to the jazz clubs of the past.  Dimly lit and intimate, the bar isn’t huge, but has a lot of character.  The atmosphere is very chill with vintage black and white photos all along the walls and there’s live blues/jazz music performing.  Good place to go if you’re looking for a place to have a relaxing drink or taking a date.

Blind Barber
Pretty much the opposite of Rue B, the Blind Barber is like a speakeasy/dance club that literally has a rundown looking barbershop as its front.  There wasn’t really anything special about the place (expensive drinks, dance music, people having fun) other than that random ass barber shop that you need to walk through to get inside.  If you do get inside, you’ll probably have a good time if you’re with a group of friends and if you can get the bartender’s attention at the packed bar.  And you get to say that you walked through a random ass barbershop to get into a club.

The Manhattan Beer Garden at the Standard
Located in the newly created Chelsea High Line (also definitely worth checking out is the new Chelsea Market as well.  We only were able to walk through it though because we were on a mission to drink), this beer garden is a great place to visit if you’re looking for a fun, outdoor (and covered) venue with German big beers and a healthy array of pretzels and sausages.  The process for getting draft beers is unique in that you have to buy a ticket for a beer at a separate booth first, then go to the bar and order.  Each ticket is $8 (which gets you one beer).   If you see a long line, don’t let that dissuade you.  It moves quick and will have moments where there’s practically no line if you wait a few minutes.  If you’re in that area, but want a more rooftopy bar experience with a more standard drink selection, the Brass Monkey next to the beer garden has a nice rooftop where you can catch some sun and a drink list with more typical libations.

Manhattan Beer Garden at the Standard
Manhattan Beer Garden at the Standard

Saxon and Parole
For those of you looking for a little bit of a fancier restaurant to eat at, we stumbled upon Saxon and Parole.  Admittedly, we were trying to go to the italian restaurant around the corner, but the wait there was an hour long, so we ended up at S & P instead.   That being said, I think we were pleasantly surprised.  The hanger steak I had was excellent and came with these duck fat fingerling potatoes that were awesome.  The cheese plate we ordered as an appetizer was pretty good too, though they were,  in my opinion, a little stingy with the amount of cheese given.  The service is what takes the place down a notch – it was just a little too slow, though the waiter himself was perfectly fine when he was actually around.

Sing Sing Karaoke
It’s awesome.  We went singing there from 1 AM until 4 AM.  It’s $8 an hour per person.  That’s all that needs to be said.

Private room at Sing Sing Karaoke
Private room at Sing Sing Karaoke

A couple of Boston’s best pizza offerings from the Boston Guide

Taking a quick break from the Israel postings for a bit here, you may recall that I’m always looking for write-ups from readers such as yourself.  This blog is meant to be as comprehensive as possible and I love it when you folks are as enthusiastic as I am about traveling!

With that, one of my best friends was kind enough to share his thoughts on what are arguably the two best pizza joints in Boston.  You can call him the “Boston Guide”.  Having lived in Boston all his life, he certainly knows what he’s talking about (especially when it comes to food) and I fully support his reviews having been a patron at both pizza places myself as well.  Buon Appetito and thank you again “Boston Guide”!

Regina Pizzeria
11 1/2 Thacher Street
Boston, MA 02113

Hours of operation:

Sun-Thu
11:00am -11:30pm
Fri & Sat
11:00am -12:30am

Regina Pizza, North End

 

 

 

 

 

 

Santarpio’s Pizza
111 Chelsea Street
East Boston, MA 02128

*** CASH ONLY

Hours of operation:

Mon-Thu
11:30am – 11pm
Fri & Sat
11:30am – 11:30pm
Sun
Noon – 11:00pm

11219

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston may not have a namesake pizza “style” like New York or Chicago, but if you’re looking for a pie that defines the local style on your next visit to Boston, check out Regina’s or Santarpio’s.

Regina’s and Santarpio’s specialize the same general type of pizza.  Both serve up thin crust pies perfectly charred in wood ovens – crispy on the outside and fantastically doughy on the inside. The tomato sauce is light, tangy and sweet.   Topped off with sharp, salty cheese.

Deciding which place you like more really comes down to the details.  I’m not going to try to pick a winner here because both places are awesome.  Instead, I’ll give you the information you need to decide which works best for your next trip to Boston.  Of course, you can’t go wrong with both.

Quick Tips

1. This is a review of the Regina’s in the North End – not the Regina’s branches.  There are a bunch of Regina’s branches scattered around town (South Station, Prudential mall, etc.) that don’t hold a candle to the original.  Skip the branches.

2. Don’t try to go to Regina’s during peak hours.  Regina’s is a tourist attraction in a touristy section of the city.   Don’t let that scare you away from Regina’s or the North End – you should check out the North End when you visit Boston – just understand that if you show up at Regina’s during meal times you will be standing in line out on the street for a while.

3. Both Regina’s and Santarpio’s have bars, so you can wash down your pizza with beer or wine.

4. Go to Santarpio’s if you’re looking for: a meal on your way in or out from Logan Airport (it’s just minutes away from the airport by car), the best sausage pizza in the city, a heartier slice, or local Boston flavor.

5. Go to Regina’s if you’re looking for: a meal in the North End, the best pepperoni pizza in the city, variety on the menu.

Santarpio’s

In overly simplified terms, Santarpio’s is the heavier, heartier pizza.  The crust is heartier, more charred.  Whereas Regina’s dusts their crust with a light flour, Santarpio’s trademark is a coarse cornmeal crunch.   Check out the legendary, delicious sausages cooking over open fire by the entrance.

Similarly, the Santarpio’s experience is a bit rougher around the edges.  Whereas Regina’s is packed with tourists, Santarpio’s is all local.  Expect: servers with thick Boston accents and some Boston attitude, local youth hockey teams eating after practice, the guy in the booth next to you talking about the “top 5 coldest Pats games” he’s ever sat through.

Expert Order: Sausage pizza, bring cash (‘Tarp’s is cash only)

Regina’s

Regina’s plain cheese slice is just about perfect – light, crispy, salty and sweet.  The menu also includes all the standard topings, as well as a variety of specialty pizzas.  I prefer to keep it simple – I think that lots of toppings can take away from a great slice – but Regina’s provides more variety than Santarpio’s if that’s what you’re into.

As mentioned above, Regina’s is a popular tourist destination.  Don’t expect anything fancy though.  Regina’s is still a no-frills pizza joint.

Expert Order: Pepperoni pizza (well done), white pizza (this pizza doesn’t include Regina’s awesome red sauce so make sure you get the pepperoni as well).

Perfect Alternative

If the line at Regina’s is too long, or if you’re just looking for a quick slice to carry out, Ernesto’s in the North End is a perfect alternative.  Choose from a wide variety of pies and keep in mind that Ernesto’s slices are HUGE.  For the full experience, carry out and eat in nearby Christopher Columbus Park with great views of Boston Harbor.

Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co.

2121 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 248-2570

***NO RESERVATIONS
***CASH ONLY

MONDAY – THURSDAY 4PM-11PM
FRIDAY 4PM-MIDNIGHT
SATURDAY 11:30AM-MIDNIGHT
SUNDAY 11:30AM-11PM

Chicago, Illinois is considered by many to be the New York City of the Midwest.  And while there are many similarities, there are several differences that make each city unique.  One of those differences is the style of pizza.  I think unless you live on Mars or a farm in Wyoming or something, you know that Chicago has the deep-dish style pizza and New York has the thin crust.  As a native New Englander, I always prefer thin crust, but like they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

I’ve been to Chicago several times and been to many of their famous deep dish pizza joints, such as the original Pizzeria Uno.  But this last trip I took, my friends brought me to an even more unorthodox pizza venue.  As locals, they say it’s one of the best pizza places in the city.  Now, I’ll say this right off the bat – it’s a good pizza place that WILL NOT satisfy a pizza craving.

Sounds weird right?  I’ll say it again – if you’re really craving a thin slice, or personal pan deep dish, this is not the place to go.  However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. if you’re looking for a good meal.

Located non-descriptly in a block of row houses, the venue is small and doesn’t take reservations, so expect to wait.  While we waited, we split a bottle of wine out on the sidewalk, which may or may not have been legal, but it seemed to be an acceptable practice among the several others waiting.

The interior has a cool, woody, cabin feel – very much like a family summer home you might have.  The atmosphere is lively and loud, as they’ve packed as many people as they can into what is essentially an english basement.  The menu itself is simple, with their signature dish, “The Pizza Pot Pie” highlighting the options and to be honest, I don’t think many people order anything else.  You can order a half-pound or one pound “Pizza Pot Pie”.  This isn’t a deep dish.  You have to use a knife and fork.  And like the name of it says, it literally is like a pot pie made of all pizza ingredients.  If you’re hungry, a half-pound is a perfect size (I was starving and wasn’t able to finish it).

The pot pie was very good.  The ingredients inside as a mix gave it sort of a cheesey, meaty calzone consistency that made me think “this is like the ultimate poor man’s comfort food”.  You can’t help but feel very blue collar as you spoon forkful after forkful of cheese, meat, thick tomato sauce and dough into your mouth.  I could see how this place would be the spot to be in the cold winter months.  I would say that only thing I had against it was that it was too doughy for my taste and I could feel myself bloating up with each carbo-loaded bite.

I’d also recommend getting one of their salads and the surprisingly, really good Mediterranean bread.  I really like Olive Garden salads and this salad and dressing takes the Olive Garden salad to the next level (it actually blows it away).  The flatbread comes out on a plate that’s too small for it and the edges flop down on the table.  You have to tear pieces of it off like you’re at an Ethiopian restaurant.  Be sure to dip the bread in the salad dressing and make sure not to fill yourself up too much.

The simplicity of the restaurant was great – no nonsense, small menu, homestyle fare.  I throughly enjoyed the meal, but I’ll say that I probably wouldn’t find myself going their regularly ONLY because I’m not the type that would “crave” that style of pizza that often.  That being said, it was a fun place with a unique twist on a crowd pleasing food and the pot pie was delicious enough to make you forget you had any sort of thin crust or deep dish craving beforehand.    Grade: B

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