Things have settled down a bit since last September, when the New York Times awarded Razza Pizza Artiginale three stars, a rating shared with beacons of Manhattan fine dining such as Blue Hill and Le Coucou. The teasing headline (“Is New York’s Best Pizza in New Jersey?”), answered in the affirmative by restaurant critic Pete Wells, sent lines spilling down the block.
With only 44 seats, chef/owner Dan Richer had to turn away more people than usual. Lines are nothing new. Razza’s excellence, after all, is no secret on this side of the Hudson. NJM has made it a Critics’ Pick every year since it opened in late 2012.
Richer, 37, appreciates the acclaim and, even more, the devotion of his customers. But two things will never change. One is his no-reservations policy. “Pizza is the most social food out there,” he explains. “It shouldn’t be exclusive, like fine dining. It’s always first-come, first-served here, no VIP list or anything.”
The other unchangeable is Richer’s openness to change. On a trip to Italy in 2016, for example, he spent a long afternoon talking wheat with the scion of a famous milling family outside Alba. As a result, he changed the flour in his starter (flour, water and, in his case, wild yeast) from commercial to an organic flour high in micronutrients like bran and germ. “The day we switched, we noticed significantly better flavor,” he says.
Significant to him. “The average person,” he says, “may not notice, because our pizza has been great from day one. But it’s constantly evolving. The flavor I’m talking about arises from fermentation and is floral, almost a fragrance, and is elusive but wonderful.”
Richer has created a series of multipoint checklists he calls evaluation rubrics. They reside in a looseleaf notebook. There’s a rubric for dough, one for olive oil, and another for canned plum tomatoes, which are chosen annually in a double-blind tasting. The same brand (from California) has won the tomato tasting the last four years. Richer declines to name it, because “I don’t want people to rotely trust that what’s best for us is best for them.”
The rubric for the finished product, actual pizza, has 51 checkpoints. Then there’s the domed oven: “Type of wood, size of the pieces, when to add more, placement in the oven….”
Fortunately for the rest of us, there is only the ecstasy of eating. Razza’s pizza is airy, plush, yet crisp. The tomato sauce, not pasty, glistens with moisture and has a lovely balance of sweetness and acidity. Toppings are divine. The hazelnut pie is crunchy and unique, topped with mozzarella, ricotta, Rutgers hazelnuts and dabs of honey.
“There are so many variables in play,” Richer says, “that the pizza will never be finished until the day—decades from now, I hope—when I finally close the restaurant. Until then, it’s a journey.”
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