Published February 13. 2014 4:00AM
It was a combination of the seemingly endless parade of snow/ice events and a long and irritating bout of cold/flu that recently caused us to seek the comforts and convenience of delivered food.
It simply wasn't fun or advisable to get out. Pondering the possibilities, I remembered separate comments made by two different friends in the past month or so as to the greatness of Empire Pizza - a mostly take out or delivery joint with a few tables on New London's Broad Street.
Like most restaurants that rely on take out/delivery - and history seems to indicate most are based in the Chinese or pizza realm - the menu trend over time has been to expand the offerings to appease customers who are probably propped on a couch watching movies or sporting events. In other words, there aren't a lot of options like, oh, raw scallops infused with grapefruit and yuzu, or duck egg with mojamba.
Which is fine because I don't want any of those things.
Indeed, beyond pizza and grinders, Empire's menu features club sandwiches, wraps, burgers, wings, salads and all sorts of appetizer fare ranging from fried mozzarella sticks and stuffed grape leaves to clam strips.
Pizzas, naturally, are the first thing we thought about. The Empire folks craft a thin crust, New York-style pie and, yes, they're as good as my pals promised.
I tried a small hamburger and banana peppers pie ($10). The crust is indeed thin, but while there's a fun snap to it, there's also a chewy element that works well. Tart tomato sauce is certainly evident and a nice component, but it's not slathered in the fashion of some chefs who want it a dominant presence. A coating of mozzarella supplies a milky, buttery canvas on which the toppings are doled out in tasty symmetry: rings of the bold pepper with a chunk of meat centered within. It guarantees a wonderful taste-clash with each bite.
From the Empire gourmet roster, a small spinach pie ($12.40) was a white pizza with ricotta and mozzarella, palpable chunks of garlic, thin half-wheels of tomato and lots of spinach. The spinach was of the frozen variety - while you may not find that on the "gourmet" pies at designer, high-end pizza places, the presentation and taste were right up there. Very nice indeed.
On another evening, we decided to branch out, and it was another fun decision.
My wife Eileen had been meditating on Eggplant Parmigiana ($10.95) and was supremely happy with her choice. Her comment: "If you're having a high school football team over for dinner, this is it! One dish does it all!"
Yes, it's a HUGE portion of pasta (choice of ziti or spaghetti) topped with thinly sliced, tender eggplant and a gorgeous crust of cheese. There was no gloopy, gloppy sauce (as is all too often the case), just a light basting of a chunky tomato coating. The eggplant was fresh and sliced precisely, and the cheese had those delicious and crispy edges.
It came with a salad: iceberg, red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and black olives. There was no indication the veggies had been sitting around, waiting on a driver to tranport them across town. And the small container of balsamic dressing was also good - on par with the organic balsamic we get at the grocery.
All pizza spots should be equally adept at grinders, and a Buffalo chicken construct ($6.95 small, $8.95 large) was beautifully done. I love Buffalo chicken and I like spicy food, but a lot of the time the fowl in this dish can be over-breaded and the requisite heat component is searing and blister-worthy - as though prepared for use at a fraternity hazing ritual rather than as something good to eat.
Not so with Empire. A thin, crisp coating offered a nice contrast to small and tender breast meat chunks. Yes, there was some heat involved, but the seasoning was apportioned to help the overall nuances of the sandwich. I asked for Swiss cheese to go with lettuce, tomato and the requisite Bleu Cheese dressing - and it all blended in winning fashion.
An order of fries ($2 more) was the perfect accompaniment. The fries were large and thick, with that "curly fry" style brittle coating, and so seductive that Eileen managed to steal most of them.
Our two-night introduction to Empire Pizza was a convincing triumph - and there's plenty more on the menu that we're now looking forward to trying.