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Takeout Tuesday: Killer take-and-bake pizzas from Liberty Food & Wine Exchange

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A take-and-bake pepperoni pizza from Liberty Food & Wine Exchange is sizzles in the oven

One bite, everybody knows the rules. The art of reviewing pizza has been forever changed due to Dave Portnoy, or El Presidente, the head honcho of Barstool Sports. For those unfamiliar, Portnoy visits a new pizza place almost daily, and sometimes multiple places in a day, giving a score of 1-10. (If you are keeping score at home, please make sure the score has decimal next to it. No round numbers. That’s a rookie move).

His reviews draw millions of page views across his social media channels. Scores in the 7 range are a good solid, neighborhood pizza. An 8 score is worth driving for. And a score in the 9s is Hall of Fame. Only a handful of pizza joints have achieved this coveted status. A score in the mid-to-high 8s can change a restaurant forever. 10 is impossible.

During this pandemic, El Pres has had to pivot from reviewing pizza in person to taste testing his way through almost every frozen pizza known to man. It started as your regular grocery store frozen pizzas like Digiorno or Tombstone, to the gourmet pizzas like Amy’s that you would find at Whole Foods. Recently, pizza restaurants around the country, like the famed Lou Malnati’s in Chicago, have jumped into the frenzy, sending their pies to Manhattan hoping for a big score.

At the time of this publishing, only seven pizzas out of more than 50 reviewed have garnered a score above an 8.

But I’m going to call my shot right now. The take-and-bake pies that have emerged from the ovens at Liberty Food & Wine Exchange are elite enough to join that list. In fact, we may soon find out if their pizzas will be honored like I think they deserve to be.

“I’m going to send them into Davey Pageviews,” said chef Mark Estee, CEO of Reno Local Food Group, which runs five restaurants in Northern Nevada, including Liberty.

If his pizza cracks into the that top tier of reviews, he better be ready for a flood of orders. And if my taste test is any indication, it is only a matter of time.

A game-changing pizza

I had no intention of doing a review on this pizza. I had already reviewed the delicious artisan pies at the newly opened “food + drink” in Midtown. I felt like I couldn’t go back to pizza this soon. But Estee forced my hand.

As the days began getting warmer and warmer, like most red-blooded American male I was ready for barbecuing season. But there’s an addition to my backyard cooking game, a pizza oven. It’s called an Ooni. I got this oven last year, but barely used it. It required the use of wood pellets like you would put into a Traeger, and was complicated to work properly and ended up being very messy. As if making pizzas at home isn’t already messy enough.

But Ooni recently came out with an attachment for my pizza oven that allows for propane. Now, I can turn on my oven and have a pair of flame-throwers warming the oven up to 900 degrees within 10 minutes. After a successful run with some homemade pies a few weeks ago, I had a brilliant idea. Let’s take this portable pizza oven camping. But there was no way I was going to make my own pizzas from scratch outside. Then something magical happened. I came across a social media post that Liberty was selling their pizzas as a take-and-bake.

Estee’s restaurants have always made a good scratch-made pie. Whether it was at his previously owned restaurant Campo, or with his new spots like Liberty or The Union in Carson City, I figured I couldn’t go wrong. Plus, they were only $8. What could go wrong? I placed an order online for six pizzas, four pepperoni and two cheese, and I whisked off to my camping adventure knowing this had the potential to be a major hit.

A hit would be an understatement. This was a game-changer. My home pizza game will never be the same.

Not soon after arriving at our afternoon campsite (overnights are not allowed right now, so we could only stay for the day), I had my pizza oven set up and ready for battle.

I cranked on the propane, and within minutes my pizza stone was ready to receive a tester. I started off with the pepperoni. In 60 seconds, my pizza was already crisp. I gave it a few rotations to avoid too much charring on the edges, and let the flames sizzle up the beautiful little baby pepperonis.

By now, I had drawn a crowd. “Did this dude really bring a pizza oven to a campground?”

Oh, hell yea I did.

And the result was perfection. I was blown away at the quality of this frozen pizza. The crust was thin and crispy but also wasn’t like a cracker. It still had substance. The cheese had a nice bite to it. The sauce was flavorful and tangy. And the crispy baby pepperonis were the perfect salty and greasy complement. The pizza was great edge to edge. The crust stayed thin to the edge, no dry charred bites at the end you eat but don’t really love. This pizza was great from the first bite to the last.

The reaction from the crowd was just what I expected. People were floored this was a frozen pizza that I just happen to pop out while hanging out in the woods.

No time to savor the excellence at what just happened, I had to see how good the cheese pizza was. This ultimately would be the style that is going to be graded by El Pres. He only reviews cheese pizza.

And this was an outstanding cheese. The flavor of the cheese itself stood out in the absence of the pepperoni, while shreds of basil added a nice smell and earthy balance.

Now to my score. I don’t throw this out lightly, especially for a frozen $8 pizza.

It was a 9.1.

Maybe it was the majestic setting among the trees. Maybe it was the 900-degree oven. But this pizza tasted good, and marked only the second time I’ve given a pizza a score that high in Northern Nevada (Smiling With Hope is hands down the best NY-style pizza I've had outside of New York and also deserves a low 9).

But Liberty’s take-and-bake might be the best thing that came out of this quarantine.

Frozen pizza a shift in philosophy

If you would have asked Estee if making frozen pizza was a high priority before the shutdown, the answer would have been a resounding no.

“The last thing we do is freeze things in our restaurant,” Estee said. “As a group, we're known for not even having freezers in some of our restaurants. Just for ice cream.”

But a day after shutting their doors in March, an idea was hatched by Estee’s partner and “resident pizza master” Tommy Lanette.

“He said said, ‘Mark, I have this idea. We should start making some frozen pizzas,’” Estee said. “The day after we had closed here we are making pizzas freezing them batch wise and figuring out the right hydration of the dough. It’s a little bit of science, a little bit of touch and feel."

After figuring out the freezing and cryovacing aspect, the two started experimenting from home.

“We might have had a few cocktails, a couple of beers, couple of Negronis,” Estee said. “And we're pizza reviewing each other back and forth tasting the crunch, the flop, how’s the smell, enough sauce, enough cheese and the exact heat we were looking for.”

That experimentation paid off. I plan on having one of these pizzas on standby in my freezer at all times moving forward. Fortunately for me and anyone else who wants to try these pizzas, they aren’t going anywhere post-shutdown.

“We are going to continue doing these,” Estee said. “I think they are going to get even better because we are going to start cooking them in the wood-burning oven upstairs to have some leoparding (little spots of char that appear on a pizza’s crust) on there. I could see us adding more flavors because we have the ingredients back. They’ll be in our store, they’ll be available to order online for curbside pickup or you can just walk in and grab them.”

A frozen version of the "Bee Sting" pizza coming soon? Sounds closer to realty than a dream at this point.

Surviving an unprecedented time

One of the hardest hit sectors of the economy has been the restaurant business. Many will never reopen. For Estee and Reno Food Group, they took some extra time to reopen their doors after the state allowed restaurants to open to 50 percent capacity as part of Phase 1 of reopening Nevada’s economy.

As of Monday, Reno Food Group has reopened four of its restaurants: Liberty in downtown Reno, Cucina Lupo and The Union in Carson City and The Overland in Gardnerville. Chez Louie, a French restaurant inside The Nevada Museum of Art, will remain closed until the museum reopens.

As a veteran of the industry for 30 years, Estee has see his fair share of ups and downs. But what he faced two months ago was about as tough as it gets.

“There’s a range of emotions as a leader of a company that has five restaurants, over 200 employees with 10 million dollars of revenue across the board and then you turn that spigot off one day 10 weeks ago and you have to slowly, maturely try to navigate it,” Estee said.

Estee gathered with his partners and formulated a game plan.

The first and most important thing was safety for their employees and guests. Then it was to be fiscally responsible to reopen their restaurants. The last thing they wanted was to rehire a bunch of employees only to have to let them go 8 or 10 weeks later. But Estee went above and beyond to take care of his people.

“We also really got into the weeds and helped them get on unemployment and then checked on them," he said.

He would reach out to make sure they could afford to eat.

“If they needed something, they knew they could come to us,” he said. “And as we brought them back, we already have that relationship built. They felt grateful and we were grateful for them and we continue to build that kind of culture.”

While his own businesses, like many other bars and restaurants were suffering, Estee found encouragement from others in the community.

“My friends own grocery stores and they slayed it during this time, so there was still commerce which made me feel good," Estee said. "It made me feel like, ‘Cool, we can get through this.'"

Now as his businesses reopen, they are faced with many challenges, starting with occupancy.

“I choose to take the opportunity to say, 'Well, 50 percent capacity doesn’t mean 50 percent revenue',” Estee said. “When are our restaurants ever 100 percent full? Maybe Friday or Saturday nights usually. 50 percent capacity still can mean the same revenue. That’s what really drives our business is how much revenue.

“We’re choosing to stay on top of that, keep a positive outlook, be kind to our guests and be kind to ourselves as we bring people back.”

Estee said his restaurants have been extensively sanitized. At Liberty, he had a company called Bio Seal come in and medically spray the entire restaurant with an FDA-approved mist that 99.99 percent sterilizes the facility. Additional measures include a hand-washing station before you enter the restaurant, one-time use menus and staff wearing masks and gloves at all times.

Most of all, he is looking forward to seeing smiles again.

“Serving great food, great drinks and making people feel as normal as possible,” Estee said. “Our goal is for those that are hyper sensitive to what is going on out there, we want them to feel safe. We also want people that feel like they are not in a pandemic, that we respect their perspective and want them to feel safe, too.

“I think people will vote with their dollars."

Giving back to the community

In addition to trying to help his employees, Estee has been doing what he can to give back to the community during this challenging time.

Estee's restaurants have donated meals to healthcare workers and first responders, as well as helping all hospitality workers who have been laid off through the Nevada Hospitality Industry Partnerships, founded in part by Reno Local Food Group.

They will be delivering fresh meals five days a week to those who are homebound through a new initiative "Delivering with Dignity Reno-Sparks," which includes 11 non-profits. Despite all the craziness going on, Estee said he is maintaining his glass half-full approach.

"We will get through this," he said.

Yes, we will. One take-and-bake pizza at a time.

Nevada Sports Net's executive producer Alex Margulies will feature a local restaurant once a week in his "Takeout Tuesday" feature. You can contact him at amargulies@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter at @marguliespxp.

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