Crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge, three Starr Restaurant vets, now on their own, offer real Neapolitan pizza and Italo-tapas of note.
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As it happens, a big, blue, illuminated capital D hangs right above chef Brian Baglin’s head as he works the pizza station at District 611. As I watch him expertly shape and dress the pies and slide them into District 611’s domed, wood-burning oven, I can’t help but imagine that glowing D turned on its side, crowning him like a halo. Which would be appropriate, because Baglin, 48, really is an angel of pizza. His exquisitely puffy, chewy, Neapolitan-style pizzas rank among the best in South Jersey.
Every day Baglin makes District 611’s soft, creamy, cow’s-milk mozzarella from scratch. (The restaurant also imports buffalo mozzarella from Italy.) He uses only imported San Marzano tomatoes, famed for their balance of sweetness and acidity, and fashions his uncommonly silky dough from Caputo, the gold standard of Italian pizza flours. But the angel does not work alone on his cloud. He and his partners—Catherine Piotrowski, 33, chef David Perini, 36, and landlord Jim Brandenburger, 46—made a point of fitting District 611 with a temperature- and humidity-controlled proofing room. There the dough, as Piotrowski told me in a phone interview, “can live its natural life course. If it’s put in an environment that is too cold, like a refrigerator, the rise cycle retards.” Two batches are made daily—in the morning for dinner, and at night for lunch the next day.
Equally key is the imported Italian Forno Bravo oven, a 3,000-pound brick beast that had to be forklifted through the front window. It burns oak and birch at 900 degrees, producing pies with singed, smoky, leopard-spotted bottoms and bubbly rims.
“We wanted to go back to the roots of pizza and make something very traditional,” Piotrowski said.
Ironically, pizza was an afterthought. Brandenburger, a local developer, got to know Piotrowski and Perini at Stephen Starr’s Continental in Philadelphia, where she was general manager and he was executive chef.
They and their friend Baglin, who was general manager of Pod, another Starr restaurant in Philadelphia, wanted to go into business for themselves. Brandenburger owned a strip mall in Riverton, and an existing restaurant space there was about to become available. They struck a deal, and last July, the conversion to District 611 began. (The name refers to Broad Street, Philadelphia’s main drag, a.k.a. state Route 611.) They envisioned a trattoria-like menu similar to what they have now, but no pizza.
The storefront next door turned out to be vacant as well. Taking down the connecting wall, they discovered, was a fairly simple matter, and it would double the size of the restaurant to 4,000 square feet. At that point, Baglin related, “it made sense to add pizza.” Off he went to Marina del Rey, California, for a one-week pizzaiolo class at the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.
District 611, which opened in November, offers two types of pizza: traditional Neapolitan and the more freewheeling D611 Neapolitan. Traditional comes in three varieties. Don’t miss the D.O.P. Margherita, a glorious meeting of imported buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomato sauce, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh basil plucked from the vertical herb garden on one wall. Traditional pies, being a bit runny, arrive unsliced. Have at them with knife and fork, the best way to deal with the luscious confluence of cheese, sauce and oil at the center.
The six types of D611 pizza come sliced. I particularly liked the Al Vodka—blush-pink vodka sauce, fresh ricotta and a smattering of micro-crunchy sesame seeds.
You don’t need to order pizza to eat well at 611. Perini makes sure of that. “I wanted to break people out of their comfort zones,” he told me. “This is not the kind of pizza place where you can expect chicken Francese and veal parm.”
Do expect Vietnamese banh mi steamed buns stuffed with braised Berkshire pork, lemongrass, shredded Napa cabbage and pickled daikon and carrot. Or crispy polenta cakes over peppery soffrito with basil-flecked ricotta. Meaty chicken wings shed their usual Buffalo coat for a bold burgundy glaze made with lime, jalapeños, chili powder, sugar, cumin and coriander. Butternut squash risotto aptly escorts perfectly pan-seared scallops topped with julienned raw apple. Blue-cheese breadcrumbs and subtly sweet celery-root purée teased a filet mignon toward the fountain of youth.
But serving that $25 steak sliced did nothing but dry it out. Maybe the intent was to make it look bigger than its modest 6 ounces. A roasted-pear salad craved salt, but drenched in a harsh white-wine vinaigrette, it hardly mattered. The pretzel appetizer, from a local bakery and served with Tillamook Cheddar brown ale sauce, would have been more appealing cut into neat nuggets than torn up as if attacked by hungry seagulls. An odd, clotted consistency to the mint chiffon marred a slice of grasshopper pie, also outsourced.
Fortunately, the desserts Danielle Amabile makes in-house are outstanding, especially the scones filled with crumbled toffee, served with whipped cream cheese and apple butter. Her graham-cracker blondies would sell out in seconds at a school bake sale, especially as done here, topped with chocolate crème and soft vanilla marshmallow that actually tastes of real vanilla. Citrus-scented pound cake gained a distinctive fruitiness from being made with olive oil. I could have eaten an entire bowl of the bright, tangy lemon curd that came with it. In fact, it would be outrageous on pizza with fresh strawberries. It’ll be on District 611’s dessert menu soon, if the angel of pizza hears my prayers.