Updated: Friday, December 9, 2016, 3:01 AM
The best part of our pizza revolution has, of course, been the sudden riches of more great pizza than any one person really needs. No matter where you live, close proximity to a heat-blistered pie pulled fresh from a wood-fired oven is now your right as a Philadelphian, not a privilege.
But the pizza movement, which has found its way to the suburbs, too, is really about more than just pizza. It's about redefining the possibilities of the casual neighborhood restaurant. Very few concepts these days allow a restaurant to cook something fresh to order that expresses culinary creativity, artisan craft, and high-quality ingredients for around $15 an entrée.
And Biga in Bryn Mawr is just the latest to get it right, with the added bonus of a menu that has more options than just pizza, and, especially, a retail fridge stocked with 80-plus beers to make sure no one trying to tame the chili-and-soppresatta-topped zing of "Da Bomb" should have to do it without a proper hops chaser.
A punchy Troegs's Perpetual IPA perhaps? Or maybe a draft of the Hell That Is My Life saison from Enola's Pizza Boy Brewing to match that pizza's spice? What about a Founder's Breakfast Stout to echo the earthy richness of roasted maitakes, fontina, and béchamel on the "Daytripper" pie? One of the sour ales - a rotating tap from Tired Hands or maybe California gose - is a perfect quencher for the garlic and bitter greens of the "Homeslice," with broccoli rabe and sausage. For the clam-topped homage to New Haven's Pepe's, which brings the added pique of chilies and pancetta, a crisp PC Pils was my choice. (It's quite a different style from the original, but delicious nonetheless.)
The fact is that Biga - part pizzeria, part beer store - is very much a result of a rising brew-culture trend, too. Pennsylvania's bizarre liquor-sales regulations have given birth to a unique hybrid niche of retail shops with extensive bottle selections that are attached to myriad forms of food operations. A decade ago, the typical bottle shop attached to a deli was neither a restaurant nor a bar. Now, they've morphed into a mixed case of eat-in destinations that fill both roles in various ways - a gourmet sandwich haunt (the Foodery near Rittenhouse), a brunch haven (Hawthornes), a Vietnamese sandwich shop (like Banh Mi & Bottles, just opened at 712 South St).
Biga, which refers to a slow-fermented dough starter, is hardly the first to pair an extensive retail beer selection with pizza. Pinocchio's has a tremendous beer garden attached to its 1950s-era institution in downtown Media. But the pizza, well, let's just say those are "prerevolution"-style floppy pies.
Biga is very much a product of the Neapolitan school of live fires, thin crusts, and delicately topped personal-size pies. Owner Sean Weinberg cites pioneers like Osteria as an early influence, plus places like Roberta's in Brooklyn and 2 Amies in D.C. as inspirations for the restaurant's funky, casual spirit. Communal trestle tables fill the angled corner space - actually three storefronts combined - whose exposed brick walls are brightened by an abstract mural painted by the street artist NTEL.
Those who've been to Weinberg's fine Restaurant Alba in Malvern are well aware that the chef, who spent three years cooking in northern Italy, is well-versed in Italian cuisine. And he and chef de cuisine Steve Fulmer have certainly put a lot of energy into refining their dough (a 48-hour process that fosters complexity of flavor), a bright raw tomato sauce just touched with basil, and a series of toppings that range from traditional ("Margherita") to unconventional, like the "Big A," topped with leeks, Gorgonzola, and butternut-squash cubes that were still too crunchy - one of my few disappointments.
Viewed through the wider lens of our regional pizza hierarchy, Biga's pies are very good but not yet quite elite. The dough has a higher moisture content than some and was inconsistent - a little too dense on my first visit (with thin heat bubbles that too easily flaked into char). But it was almost perfect on my revisit, with more even leopard spotting and better structure. My favorite topping was that intensely earthy Daytripper laden with better mushrooms than you usually see (frilly, meaty maitakes that char in the heat); but the minimalist Marinara red pie topped with dusky oregano was close behind.
One of Biga's best assets, though, is the fact that, unlike many more-minimalist Neapolitan concepts, this menu does much more than just pizza.
The "Garden" section of the menu puts the focus on seasonal vegetables in rustic but satisfying combinations. Skillet-charred carrots are served still warm over dilled cucumber yogurt, fresh avocado, and pickled red onions. Earthy farro salad threaded with ribbons of raw kale spark against roasted apples and walnuts. Fried cauliflower gets a crackly buttermilk crust over an almond-thickened smear of red pepper romesco. And peppery escarole salad channels a Sicilian vibe with crumbled tuna, warm coins of fingerling potato, and sweet and tangy Peppadew chilies to cut the greens' bitterness.
A handful of hot plates listed under the "Kitchen" header are really just nibbles, like the arancini balls whose rice and mozzarella cores are turned vivid green with basil pesto; or the bruschetta of house-baked bread topped with smashed avocado. But several of them are fairly substantial, considering they top out at $15. A classic Milanese of chicken cutlets is a remarkable value at just $9. The hunks of meltingly tender Berkshire pork loin over squash puree reminded me of the roast pork dish I ate recently at Alba.
Biga's rotating pastas are also worth ordering. The rigatoni is tossed with a rosemary-infused chicken ragu. We had that same ragu at an earlier meal with the excellent potato gnocchi, which now are served, with cold weather in mind, baked in Gorgonzola cream with pine nuts and raisins. My favorite, though, were the fresh, square-cut threads of pasta alla chitarra that came with roasted mushrooms in a rich mascarpone sauce studded with bacony nuggets of rendered pancetta.
For dessert, there are assorted gelati from Capogiro, which are hard to beat. But Biga's own desserts also answer the call - a simple crostata folded around roasted apples, a chocolate pot de crème flickering with the surprise of chili heat, and an oversize chocolate chip cookie that emerged from the wood-fired oven warm, fluffy, and oozing when we cracked it open.
I'll drink a bottle of Duck Rabbit Milk Stout to that cookie, these pizzas, and this list of beers. Bryn Mawr has staked its rightful claim to a good pizzeria and now has the kind of neighborhood restaurant I wish I had in my own.
Read full story: Biga brings pizza, beer, and more to Bryn Mawr