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Maybe it takes a man who was a picky eater as a child. ("I hated everything!") Maybe it takes a man who skipped his 2002 Rutgers graduation to go to Italy, and who came back telling everyone, "I need to learn how to cook." Whatever it takes, Dan Richer--owner of Razza in Jersey City and Arturo's in Maplewood--now bakes bread and churns butter that you don't blink an eye to pay $4 for. We caught up with him after a recent trip to Italy.
Every day at Razza, which is four months old, Richer bakes 18 2-kilo loaves of sourdough bread in the restaurant's wood-fired oven. Beneath its firm crust, the bread has a faint tang and a compelling chewiness and elasticity that makes you want to eat more.
Slather on the soft, room-temperature, strikingly yellow butter churned every morning at Razza, and you don't want to stop. Next thing you know, you've ordered more.
"It's the perfect combination of two so simple ingredients," Richer says. "But when it’s done really the right way, it’s magical.”
That's not too strong a word.
The butter starts with cream from pastured cows in Lancaster Valley, Pennsylvania. The cream is heated to 90 degrees and inoculated with a bacterial culture similar to strains used to make yogurt.
After 12 hours, the cream is churned in a mixer, breaking the emulsion and separating it into butter and buttermilk. The butter is allowed to sit four hours at room temperature before it is served.
"The buttermilk is an essential ingredient in our meatballs," Richer says. (Try those meatballs. They are ungodly good with bread & butter.)
Richer, 32, has no formal culinary training, but “an endless drive to make a great product.” That was enough to make him a semi-finalist last year for the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef award.
Other than bread and butter, both restaurants have limited menus. Arturo’s also serves some pasta dishes, but the focus is on turning out artisanal pizzas with a crust made from a fermented starter culture and topped with the finest ingredients on the market, like salt from Oregon, and California olive oil.
“It’s about the balance, but the dough is really the star of the show, everything else is like a condiment,” says Richer. “You wouldn’t eat amazing French fries and say, ‘Wow that was really good ketchup.’”
Richer grew up in Matawan in a Jewish family. "Food was certainly a focal point of all occasions and I definitely learned a lot from my mom," Richer says. "She was an artist. She taught me to take creative risks without fear of failure and that a work of art doesn't always turn out great, but the pursuit of excellence never stops."
He went to Italy in 2002 "because my cousin Steve was studying architecture in Rome... I love a good adventure, especially with one of my cousins.
“I traveled the entire country, top to bottom, and I came back saying, ‘I need to learn how to cook, I want to open a restaurant, and I want to make authentic, true Italian food.’”
It took him five years to realize his dream. Iin the meantime he returned to Italy several times. He is especially drawn to the little northern town of Alba.
“There is something in the air about this place that I just can’t get enough of," he says. "There is an amazing food culture. Everywhere you look there are hazelnut trees, there are grapevines. On each hill they produce something else. It is home to some of the best wines, like Barolo and Barbaresco. It is also where they make Nutella. If the wind is blowing just right, you walk down the streets and smell chocolate.”
Last week he returned from yet another visit, this time to the alpine Valle D’Aosta region to ski and, of course, explore more food.
At the top of the boot, where Italy meets both Switzerland and France, it is a multicultural region known for robust ingredients like Fontina, polenta, sausages and porcini mushrooms fresh-picked from the forest.
Slowly-braised beef is indigenous, but Richer loves uncooked ‘carne cruda.’ The raw beef, sliced by hand, is tossed in a garlic rubbed bowl with “a light squeeze of lemon, a little bit of salt, extra-virgin olive oil. It’s all about the beef,” he says. “That’s my entire philosophy on cooking, to maintain the integrity of whatever the essence is of what we’re cooking.”
Another culinary encounter came during a winery tour when the vintner showed him a giant bucket of sand in which leeks had been buried.
“They harvest them in November and let them cure in this sand, and it turns them completely white and they get really, really sweet,” Richer explains.
"They cut open a leek right there, dip it in olive oil, salt, pepper and a little vinegar. It was the most sweet onion I’ve ever had in my life. It was an incredible food experience."
If experience is the key to success, Richer and his pizza pies are well on their way.
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.