Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
JERSEY CITY — We were on our third pie of the night at Razza, across the street from City Hall here, when Ed Levine stopped chewing long enough to ask me a question:
“Are you going to say that the best pizza in New York is in New Jersey?”
Ed Levine knows what it means to make a strong claim for a pizzeria. The founder of the website Serious Eats and the author of the book “Pizza: A Slice of Heaven,” he caused a stir in 2004 by writing in The New York Times that the pies at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix “just might be the best pizza in America.” So when it started to dawn on me, about a year after my first dinner at Razza, that no pizzeria in the five boroughs gave me as much pleasure, I thought of Ed.
New York pizzerias can be divided into those that apply the steady heat of gas (the most revered of these is Di Fara Pizza) and those that subject their pies to the blistering, scorching fires of coal or wood. The high-heat group is further subdivided into the bakers, such as Co. and Totonno’s, whose reputations rest on their dough, and the cooks. Among the cooks, there are those whose pizzaioli express themselves through combinations of toppings that have never before occurred to anybody (Roberta’s, Paulie Gee’s) or a less exhibitionistic, farm-to-table sensibility, of which the late Franny’s was the paragon.
Razza, which burns wood, is one of the few that excel at both dough and toppings. Even if Ed and I had learned, after our seven-minute PATH ride from the World Trade Center to Grove Street, that the kitchen had run out of cheese, tomatoes and the rest, I would have asked for a pizza dressed with nothing but olive oil. I’m willing to bet it would be delicious that way, with the texture and flavor of naturally leavened bread right from the oven.
I was glad it didn’t come to that, though, because Razza dresses its pies with local ingredients so distinctive that every time I’ve eaten there, I’ve learned something about New Jersey farms.
Our plan was to eat two pies and stop there. Green-edged coins of zucchini were scattered over the first, along with garlic cloves roasted to a translucent jelly, bright white ricotta and cracked pepper. In the center was a lemon wedge. There was ricotta on the other, too, and blots of house-made fig jam, and sheets of prosciutto-style Iowa ham, all covered by unwilted arugula.
Like every pie I’ve eaten at Razza, these two had been put together with exquisite sensitivity to the needs of the dough. The crust had no soggy or underbaked patches, and the bottom surface was crisp all the way from the puffy outer lip to the inner tip, which would jut straight out, or nearly straight, when I picked up a slice. When I tore open the outer rim, the crust crackled and the white interior steamed, soft, somewhat springy, with a slow-building, many-layered, lively flavor underlined by sea salt.
I could have stopped there, my point made. But as Ed noticed belatedly, we’d ordered two white pies, and he wanted to try one with tomatoes. His choice was the classic margherita. I was exceptionally curious, though, about a locavore variant called the Garden State margherita. Its sauce was made from New Jersey heirloom tomatoes and its mozzarella from the milk of Sussex County water buffaloes.
While we were trying to decide, Dan Richer, the chef and owner, came to our table. Mr. Richer, who opened Razza five years ago, may or may not have recognized us, but in any case he had a solution. When he came back, he had placed one half of each margherita variant together to make a full circle. He hadn’t invented this 50-50 format for us, he said; he’d been experimenting with it for an idea he plans to spring on the public shortly: a pizza tasting menu.
Razza’s standard margherita, as I knew from previous exposure, is a model within the prescribed parameters of the form. I particularly admire the sauce, which is less acidic and bitter than many, and about as sweet as possible without tasting sugary.
This, it turns out, was not a coincidence. Mr. Richer explained that each January, when he is fairly certain that the latest vintage of tomatoes has been canned, he and his staff conduct a double-blind tasting of eight or so brands from California, New Jersey and Italy. Using a seven-point “tomato evaluation rubric,” they assess each variety for color, viscosity, texture, skins and seeds (the fewer the better), “tomato flavor,” acidity and sweetness. The tomato with the highest score is usually the one he will buy, although he said that one year he blended three different brands, “kind of like a Bordeaux wine.”
For the Garden State pizza, he runs ripe red local tomatoes through a food mill. I do not have a seven-point rubric to describe the flavor of the sauce, but I can say that it was bright and sweet enough to remind me that ripe Jersey tomatoes are still worth hunting down. The buffalo mozzarella, meanwhile, was more buttery and flavorful than any other American mozzarella I’ve tried. It had a slight tartness and melted into soft, unrubbery, creamy-yellow circles.
“I’ve been waiting for that cheese for three years,” Mr. Richer said, explaining that he had been tracking the water buffalo herd until it was big enough to ensure a steady mozzarella supply.
It is not the first obscure homegrown ingredient he has snatched up and built a pizza around. For the past two years Mr. Richer has bought local hazelnuts, a crop that had stubbornly refused to grow in the state until the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers University developed blight-resistant trees. The nuts, fat and round, are barely chopped, and baked with ricotta, mozzarella and just enough honey to point up their natural sweetness. The pizza is called Project Hazelnut. I have never had anything like it.
Farm-consciousness informs the whole menu. New Jersey greens and fruits go into the salads, which are fresh and vivid in ways not normally seen at the corner slice joint.
New Jersey wheat berries and ambient New Jersey yeasts made up the first batch of the pizza dough starter, which has been burbling along for eight years now. New Jersey pork and Hudson Valley beef go into the tender meatballs, which are roasted in the wood oven until they carry a minor char. They are great meatballs, and suggest the kind of Italian restaurant Mr. Richer might have run had he not become transfixed by the intricacies of pizza.
Pennsylvania cream and milk go into Razza’s only dessert, a panna cotta that is more fluffy than firm and is served under a pool of dark salted caramel. Ed and I, having eaten a pizza and a half each, shared a single panna cotta. Then he asked me again: “Are you going to say that the best pizza in New York is in New Jersey?”
I am, Ed. I am.
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