Adventures in pizza-making and more at Privateers Pizza & Provisions
The town of Essex has quite a dramatic history. It gained fame as a shipbuilding community and port bolstered by a healthy fleet of privateers during the War of 1812 years. Those years weren't kind to the small town or the privateers, but a few centuries later, it's (mostly) water under the bridge.
Nowadays, the local Privateers sling pizza pies, with little to fear from any remaining Brits in Connecticut. Situated in the space where Olive Oyls operated for years (before it moved to bigger digs up Main Street), those who need to batten down the dinnertime hatches have an ideal spot to get provisioned -- notably, with fresh, brick-oven pizza.
You won't find garlic knots, mozzarella sticks, or curly fries commonly available at other local pizza shops at Privateers. The focus here is on stellar pies, quality toppings, and creative combinations thereof. Pizza is always a draw for me, but I found the list of yummy-sounding soups on the takeout menu quite intriguing. As it turns out, the soup is more of a DIY offering -- with my takeout pizzas was a packed with a container of the Roasted Red Pepper Chickpea soup I ordered ($8.50). It was crafted by a company called Siempre Soups, and we certainly enjoyed this vegan concoction that made excellent use of the chickpeas. Who knew they add smoothness and structure when handled by the pros? You'll still be able to enjoy the roasty flavor of the red peppers within, and we found the soup to be satisfying and filling.
We quickly forgot this unexpected turn as soon as we dug into pizza #1, the Breakfast Pizza ($13.50 for a small; $21/large), which is a white pie topped with an egg, mozzarella, and salt and pepper. It is now considered the true Breakfast of Champions in my house. If you're of the mind that mozzarella cheese makes everything better, you can be sure that applies to fried eggs atop an excellent thin crust, loaded with olive oil tasty with wheat flavor. For a bonus round, try it with a few sprinkles of hot sauce.
We logged another winner with a basic cheese pizza ($11.50 for a small) with pepperoni (an additional $2). There is something wonderful about good quality pepperoni atop gooey cheese and expertly prepared crust. Ideally, the pepperoni's edges get a little crispy, the flavor melds with the cheese, and its texture complements the crunch of the crust. Privateers checked all those boxes, and our small pizza disappeared in record time.
Third place went to the Buffalo Chicken pizza ($15.50/small; $24/large), which offered a great kick of heat courtesy of the Buffalo sauce marinade on the tender, generously applied chunks of chicken. Once again, we encountered a perfect, flavorful thin crust that served admirably as the tasty base for the savories on top. Our small pizza went a long way, with enough for leftovers that were even better the next day.
Pizza number four was the Pesto Pizza ($13.50/small; $21/large), and if you're a huge fan of the popular basil-based spread, you'll be in pesto paradise. The pesto pizza is another white pie that makes up for tomato sauce with quite a bit of pesto spread on top of the entire pie. It's a milder pesto that's heavier on bright green flavor than on savory garlic, and for me, that was just fine. A dusting of mozzarella and romano add some smoothness that tones down the pesto's punch, but may we suggest adding fresh tomatoes on top for a little more flavor nuance?
Calzones start at $13.50 and you most certainly get your money's worth in terms of portion size. We added green peppers and tomatoes to ours (an additional $2 each) and determined it a good choice in more ways than one. First, the flavors of each veggie added much-needed variety to the rest of the ricotta-heavy filling. I like a bit more mozzarella in a calzone, because after awhile the texture of ricotta can be a bit of a bore. Still, the veggies gave an assist in the texture department, too, and we had at least a third of the calzone left over for lunch the next day. We appreciated the crispy exterior (nobody likes a mushy calzone, right?), and thanks to that, we didn't end up using most of the accompanying sauce. (Which was, at best, just OK.)
The Privateers’ menu says salads are available, and when I inquired about ordering one, the gent behind the counter said the shop was between produce providers and hoped to have the salad operation up and running again soon. I'll be curious to see how a Privateer treats a salad, but for now, we can likely find another side dish among the grocery aisles and refrigerated cases (including desserts; next time we're trying the gelato sundaes we spotted in the freezer case).
I would not have dubbed Essex a pizza town before this latest tasting adventure, but this wee village is still full of surprises, and very good pizza is one of them. Suggestion two: Order a pizza ahead, pick it up, and enjoy it by the oh-so-close Connecticut River.
IF YOU GO
Privateers Pizza & Provisions
55 Main St., Essex
Cuisine: Brick-oven pizza, calzones, soups, and salads
Atmosphere: Casual with a few tables situated next to the grocery store portion of the shop and a few outdoors in front, but Privateers is most conducive to takeout.
Service: Very friendly and welcoming; online ordering available and reliable
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, noon-9 a.m.; Monday, noon-7 p.m.; closed Tuesday
Prices: Comparable to some of its peers in the area, which doesn't mean super cheap. A small Traditional Pizza (sauce, romano, and garlic, no mozz) is $9 for a small and $15 for a large. Specialty pizzas are pricier, with smalls ranging from $13.50 to $19.50 and larges starting at $21
Credit cards: Accepted
Handicapped access: Small step to enter, fairly spacious interior. Plenty of off-street parking in the adjoining lot (a rarity in downtown Essex).