Whitehouse Station, NJ: Fried Calamari and Crispy Crusts at La Casa Bianca
La Casa Bianca
144 Main St., Whitehouse Station NJ 08889 (map); 908-534-8384; lacasabianca.net
Oven type: Wood-fired brick oven
The skinny: Tender crust with a hint of char steals the show from ambitious, but not always successful, toppings
Price: $7-$17.95 for a 12-inch pie
Traveling west on I-78 or south on 287, where the hunched-together towns of New Jersey spread out and give way to rural lakes and woods, it's easy to miss much of the local flavor—especially if you're zooming by on your way to Pennsylvania or the shore. But there's almost always a good pizzeria stashed away on the quaint Main Streets and thoroughfares of these small Jersey towns. La Casa Bianca, just down the road from the train station in Whitehouse Station, is one such hidden gem. A Friday night favorite in the area, the restaurant is flush with hand-painted murals and oversized landscape paintings. The brick oven, stoked with wood, brings warmth to the rear bar counter on these cold winter days.
La Casa Bianca's menu boasts a slew of beguiling topping options—broccoli rabe and hot sausage; Gorgonzola and Fontina; shiitake and porcini mushrooms with rosemary—but my dining companion and I had a rare opportunity on our hands. We were eating sans husbands on this frigid Friday afternoon. Taking full advantage of the brief respite from our picky-eating other halves, we decided to go for the big guns: seafood all around.
Since clams are the number one bivalve on my list, I had high hopes for the clams casino pizza ($12.95), topped, as the menu stated, "with whole baby clams, bacon, onions, sweet red and yellow peppers, and blended cheeses." Alas, the clams weren't whole as promised, but instead came chopped like the contents of white clam sauce, with the smoky, salty bacon overwhelming the delicately briny bits. Once in a while, I'd hit a big piece of clam and savor the full flavor, but those moments were few and far between.
This isn't to say that the combination wasn't satisfying (I know it's a cliché, but bacon's always satisfying)—just that I never would have ordered a bacon-and-peppers pizza with a splash of clam sauce. More clams, less casino next time, please!
The surprise hit of the day was instead the calamari fritto pizza ($15.95). Instead of evenly distributing calamari rings across the pie as I'd expected, the kitchen pulled a cheese pizza from the oven and immediately formed a mound of homemade tomato sauce, rings of pepperoncini, and handfuls of fresh-fried calamari directly in its center. Each slice proved a little unwieldy, destroying the Jenga-like balance of the pile as we pulled the pieces onto our plates, but sometimes a knife and fork are necessary in an unusual toppings situation.
I must give credit for the ultimate success of both of these pies to the crust, which was so tender inside and crispy at the edges that it probably could have sustained the saddest of toppings. Even after soaking up the clam juice and extra tomato sauce on each respective pizza, it maintained its taste and texture—heck, I could have happily gnawed all the bones off of my pie, leaving the interior unmolested. If La Casa Bianca ever wants to branch out and start baking up its own brick oven breadsticks, I would gladly convince my friend to start a Friday lunch ritual. We might even let our husbands tag along.
About the author: Casey Barber is the editor of Good. Food. Stories. and the author of Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats. Find her on Twitter: @GoodFoodStories