After my recent meal at the Sunrise Inn in Warren, Ohio, I discovered that the Brier Hill style pizza actually originated in the Youngstown area. Conflicted about the sauce that topped my pizza at the Sunrise, I decided that further investigation was needed to fully flesh out the answers to my questions. Since I happened to be visiting friends in the Deerfield, Ohio area over the Memorial Day weekend, I decided that an excursion seemed only natural. I decided on a restaurant that was identified in the Wikipedia page for Brier Hill that also served Brier Hill style pizza, Avalon Gardens. They are located at 1719 Belmont Avenue, Youngstown, Ohio 44504 and they can be reached at 330-747-7800. There is currently no website. If you know your Youngstown geography well enough, Avalon Gardens is just up from St. Elizabeth's Hospital.
As you approached the restaurant, this was what you saw from the street:
Parking was to the left of the building. Streetside parking was available if you parked on one of the side streets.
Once inside, I realized that I was glad to have brought my regular camera because it was DARK. This was actually a bar up front with tables in the back of the building. Once my eyes adjusted to the new level of light, I was able to make out a seating area of about 40 chairs. I don't know if they fill up on Friday or Saturday nights, but my guess would be that if they do, you'll be waiting a while for your seat.
My server did bring me over a menu, but unfortunately, I had forgotten to set my camera to the "close-up" setting, so all the shots were blurry. Fortunately, I figured the problem out before the food started arriving and the rest were decent.
Make no mistake about it, I was definitely here for the Brier Hill pizza. However as I looked over the menu, other items started jumping out at me. The potato gnocchi for one. The fact that you could get the gnocchi with their homemade sausage was another. When my server finally returned to take my order, I decided that I would be leaving with lots of to-go containers with my leftovers. After a couple of questions about items I was interested in, my server more or less convinced me that nearly everything on the menu is homemade. The exception to this was the bread they bring you at the start of your meal. But a nod went in their favor because they got the bread from a local bakery.
Warning my server that I was going to be ordering more than what one person would normally eat at one sitting, I went for the potato gnocchi with their house red sauce and homemade sausage and a large Brier Hill pizza with pepperoni. The gnocchi also came with a side salad. It turned out that they made their own blue cheese dressing and after my last bad experience with this dressing at the Chicken Manor Family Restaurant, I was excited to try something that sounded like it might live up to the hype.
First up, a shot of the bread basket and bread:
This was nice bread. Even though it wasn't made in-house, it had a nice crust and a soft, chewy crumb. Actually, this bread was far better than most I've had at local mom and pop places. And in an eerie sort of throwback to my Parasson's garlic bread and California French dressing obsession, the leftover blue cheese dressing was a much better spread than the whipped butter provided in the basket.
The bread was quickly followed by my salad:
The composition was a typical garden salad and was neither inspirational nor discouraging. But the dressing; oh, the dressing! This was what homemade blue cheese dressing is all about. Rich, creamy, and thick with sizable blue cheese chunks. Absolutely divine. Everything about this homemade version demonstrates why bottled can never beat fresh.
My potato gnocchi came out first:
These gnocchi were cooked to a perfect al dente. They were light and airy but at the same time had a nice chew to them. They were tossed with the house tomato sauce and the homemade sausage that had been advertised on the menu. The sausage had the wonderful taste of fennel seed in it, but at first seemed to lack any heat. It was only after I chewed and swallowed the sausage that a gentle and subtle wave of heat emanated from the back of my throat and moved forward into my mouth. The combination of the heat, the sweet, and the acid from the tomatoes was amazingly tasty. In addition, I could tell that some of the sausage had a nice crusty exterior to it. I surmised that the sausage must have been cooked separately to get it nice and crispy and then combined with the house red sauce and finally tossed with the gnocchi. When my server stopped by my table to check on me, she confirmed my hunch. In the end, I was very glad I decided to add this dish to my tasting menu.
After eating about only one quarter of my gnocchi, I stopped and set it aside because the main event had arrived, my Brier Hill pizza with pepperoni:
All the pizzas served at Avalon Gardens come in two sizes, 8" and 12". This was the 12" and was cut into eight slices; definitely enough to feed at least three people. While there were a lot of similarities to the pie I had at the Sunrise Inn, there were also a number of differences. The construction of the pie was identical. Thicker, crispy crust on the bottom with softer dough on the top side, topped with sauce, toppings of choice (again with the obligatory green peppers) and sprinkled with grated Romano cheese. One of the first things I noticed about Avalon Gardens's version was much less sauce than the version served at the Sunrise Inn. I tasted the sauce by itself (as this was ultimately the question I had with the other version) and it did have the same sort of tart and tangy undercurrent as part of its flavor. However, it was nowhere near as pronounced.
Finding myself staring at the green peppers that dotted the surface of my pie, the epiphany I was looking for finally surfaced and the pieces of the puzzle started falling into place. What I was perceiving as acid in the sauce at the Sunrise Inn was actually the bitterness of green peppers. The traditional green peppers that topped every Brier Hill style pizza weren't there as some random topping. The original creators of this style of pizza were employing an age-old tradition that cooks everywhere use. They were advertising what was in the sauce, but was no longer visible to the naked eye because the cooked sauce had been pureed. Honestly, I think a large part of the problem with the Sunrise Inn's version of this pie was due to the fact that they use SOOO much more sauce on their pizza. The inherent bitterness of the green pepper was subsequently amplified and that was what I was picking up on when I ate there. Since Avalon Gardens's version had the same green pepper bitter undercurrent, it was clear to me that this particular sauce is definitely as much a part of the Brier Hill experience as the construction of the actual pizza itself.
And how was Avalon Gardens's version of this Brier Hill classic? Simply put, it was delicious. It was the perfect blend between crust, sauce, toppings, and cheese. This is the version that I recommend people seek out. Not only is it something unique that only exists in this part of Ohio, but the result also tasted great, too. To that point, I brought back about 3/4 of my uneaten pie to my friends' house and invited them to try a slice. A few people balked because it didn't look like what they normally got from Dominoes or Pizza Hut. To which I said, "Um, that's the point!" While I think there were a few people who probably wouldn't order this if they had to pay for it, I also had a number of initial nay-sayers who were pleasantly surprised with the flavor and said that they really liked it.
Here are a couple of more shots of the pizza. First, a shot of the side of the pie, similar to the one I took at the Sunrise Inn:
And finally, a shot of a slice on my plate:
I find it to be a real treat when I can tell others about a restaurant that has the perfect mix of desirable qualities; a local mom and pop establishment that serves something unique and homemade and has that most important quality of all, it tastes great. From the fresh pastas and pizzas to the sauces and salad dressings, I thought Avalon Gardens was a true winner. I urge you to stop by and check them out if you are ever going to be in the Youngstown area. Heck, even if you aren't going to be in the Youngstown area, I think this restaurant qualifies as a wonderful one-tank trip and destination food stop.