Tuesday night, hours before Wednesday’s print edition of the New York Times hit newsstands and doorsteps, Instagram and other sites lit up with the news that Pete Wells, the paper’s restaurant critic, had given three stars to Razza Pizza Artiginale, a 40-seat pizzeria in downtown Jersey City.
It is only the second time** in his six years as critic that Wells has reviewed a New Jersey restaurant, and the headline was arresting: “Is New York’s Best Pizza in New Jersey?”
Wells answered that question in the affirmative, ending with an unequivocal “Yes.”
Furthermore, he wrote, “Razza, which burns wood, is one of the few [pizzerias] that excel at both dough and toppings…Razza dresses its pies with local ingredients so distinctive that every time I’ve eaten there, I’ve learned something about New Jersey farms.”
Dan Richer’s cell phone started buzzing in the wee hours. The phone at the restaurant hasn’t stopped ringing.
“We don’t even check the messages,” admits Richer, chef/owner of the five-year-old restaurant. “We don’t have the revenue to have someone on staff just to answer the phone. We don’t have a reservation team, don’t have a PR or marketing team. I’m answering emails as fast as I possibly can. It’s a small operation. We just try to focus on the important things, which are the hospitality, the service and the product.”
When Razza opened at 5:30 yesterday—it doesn’t serve lunch and it doesn’t take reservations—there were enough people waiting to fill all 11 tables plus the several on the sidewalk.
“It’s been crazy,” Richer says. “It’s such a blessing, but it also ups the ante for the restaurant. We’re just a pizzeria, and trying to remain a pizzeria. What pizzeria takes reservations?”
A lot of out-of-towners and New Yorkers showed up Wednesday.
“One guest told me that he read the review online at 3 a.m. Wednesday at his home in Atlanta and immediately booked a flight to Newark to come here and have pizza,” Richer says. “He said he was flying back to Atlanta as soon as he finished. That was the most amazing thing ever.”
In the Times’s four-star system, a three-star rating puts Razza in pretty exalted company, including bastions of Manhattan fine dining such as Le Coucou, Bouley, Betony and The NoMad.
That makes Richer’s head spin.
“I don’t do this for accolades,” he says. “I do it because I genuinely care about New Jersey and New Jersey agriculture and pizza as a whole. I try to push pizza forward and make it the best I can. I’m more like a cabinetmaker than a chef. It’s just about getting better at my craft.
“I try to go to Italy at least once a year. And I do a lot of traveling within the U.S.,” he adds. “I was just out in Portland, Oregon, and the pizza I had there was amazing, much better than anything I’ve had in New York City.
“Great pizza is not about location,” he notes. “It’s about high-level technique combined with the best ingredients you can find and treating both with care and respect. That’s why you see great pizza at places like Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix or Lovely’s Fifty Fifty in Portland.”
Razza occupies what was once the entrance lobby of the 1907 Beaux Arts-style Majestic Theater, across the street from City Hall. The space was restored in 2005 by developers Paul and Eric Silverman. The theater was turned into condos and the lobby into Razza.
The Silvermans stripped the lobby to its bare walls, uncovering layers of different colored paint in ragged patterns that any abstract expressionist artist would proudly slap his or her name on.
That minimalism suits Richer perfectly.
“It’s the same attitude I take toward vegetables and toppings,” he says. “Sometimes the less you do to an ingredient or a space, the more you can appreciate its natural beauty. You can feel the age of this space and all that went on in this building before us. We’re just a blip in time.”
Right now, Razza’s blip is enjoying a bulge, but Richer says he expects things to return to normal within a month or so.
**In 2013, Wells gave two stars to Thirty Acres, also in downtown Jersey City. The restaurant closed in 2015Click here to leave a comment