Pizza lovers have been flocking to the Heights, a neighborhood perched up in the north end of Jersey City. They’re not there for the impressive views of Manhattan, though. They’ve come for the laden slices and simple, elegant sides at Bread and Salt, the latest venture from renowned baker and pizzamaker Rick Easton. Spurred on by a flurry of media attention, crowds have lined up nightly since Bread and Salt opened in June to taste a slice (or four).
The buzz surrounding Easton isn’t new: His baking earned him a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination, while his square, Roman-style pizza was the glowing subject of Mark Bittman’s final New York Times food column. He gained recognition for both at a restaurant of the same name in Pittsburgh, but after that iteration of Bread and Salt closed in 2016, Easton moved to New York. Bouncing around from pop-up markets to foccacia-making lessons in friends’ restaurants, fans of Easton’s crispy crusts waited to see where he would fire up his pizza oven more permanently.
Few thought that would be in New Jersey (though fellow James Beard nominee and pizzamaker Dan Richer’s super successful Razza Pizza Artigianale has drawn crowds from near and far to downtown Jersey City for years). But a shared obsession over quality ingredients with restaurateur Marc Magliozzi got him to consider Hudson County. Magliozzi, who owns the wood-fired pizza spot Dozzino in Hoboken and Corto, a seasonal Italian BYO on the same stretch of Palisades Avenue as Bread and Salt, was introduced to Easton by their shared cheese curd supplier. The two bonded over mortadella, and kept in touch, recalls Magliozzi. He urged Easton to consider the Heights for his next restaurant, offering his support.
Magliozzi, a Heights native and partner of Bread and Salt, is passionate about bringing more great restaurants to the community. “People are like, ‘We should’ve tried to get him to come into the city harder,’” but “being somewhere like here in the Heights, you’re so much more appreciated.”
A restaurant in the Heights, versus New York City or even downtown Jersey City, Easton agrees, “gives me the opportunity to run a neighborhood place” that suits everyone from out-of-towners who want to order one of everything on the ever-changing menu to locals stopping by for a slice or two to go. “Everyone can eat. That’s something that’s important to me. It’s one of the points of the place. It’s very easy for high quality food to become something that becomes way too expensive, something not accessible to a wide range of people,” says Easton, who early on in his career grew tired of working in restaurants he couldn’t afford to eat in himself. “The people coming through our door are incredibly diverse.” He also now lives a few blocks from the restaurant.
Not that he gets to explore the area much beyond the doorstep of the 25-seat BYO. Those long lines have meant long hours: Easton heads into the bakery at 7:30am and leaves at midnight. But no matter. “I love it. This is what I do.”
Indeed, it’s Easton himself doing all the baking and all the pizza currently, though he’s looking to hire kitchen help to keep up with demand (when I spoke to Magliozzi on a Friday afternoon, he was on his way in to Bread and Salt to lend a hand for the evening). Easton’s “right-hand guy” Paul Cavalcante oversees all other food, though there’s no guarantee what either the pizza or “not pizza specials,” as a handwritten sign dubs them, will be: There’s no menu, and offerings also change throughout the night as things sell out. You head to the counter, point to whatever’s in the pizza case, order your not-pizza dishes, find a seat in the fairly bare bones dining room and, if you’ve BYO-ed, crack open your wine. This lack of a formal menu, Easton says, is a “funny thing to watch people try to navigate,” in the era of meal planning and scoping out restaurants’ social media profiles, but he hopes diners will “come in and be open to new experiences.”
That could be a slice of pizza rossa, adorned with just tomato sauce, a margherita slice with drippy strings of house-pulled mozzarella or, as on my first visit, a slice piled with thin ribbons of zucchini and squash blossoms, another with delicate mushrooms and even a roughly cut piece studded with concord grapes. As my group ate, we watched pies disappear from the case and new toppings combinations appear, discussing our favorites with diners at neighboring tables.
“I like the idea of slices, of trying a little of this and that. It becomes a very convivial form of pizza eating,” Easton muses. “It’s less formal, it forces people to share a pizza with someone they don’t even know.” His favorite variety? “Always the rossa,” he says without pause—and the pizza bianca, crust just with olive oil and salt. “I’m more and more and more impressed when people are able to pull off simplicity, because it’s really hard,” he says. “There’s nothing to hide behind with pizza bianca. It’s great or it isn’t.”
The bespectacled, beanie-wearing Easton is quick to point out that even his simplest slices are not totally Roman-style, though. In that city’s al taglio pizza joints, he explains, you select the size of the pizza hunk you want and pay based on its weight. This isn’t the case at Bread and Salt, where slices start at $2 and go up from there based on whatever adorns Easton’s signature crust, brought to life through a multi-flour blend and days-long fermentation process. Plus, he doesn’t bake his pies in a pan, as the Romans do. The dough goes right into the oven.
In fact, most everything does—Bread and Salt doesn’t have a stove. As Easton puts it, “We don’t have a kitchen, we have an oven,” plus a few induction burners, and “everything we’re doing happens out of that.” The not-pizza dishes, such as meatballs, sausage, fava beans and salads generally range from $5 to $15, with outliers such as $3 marinated olives or $15 pork ribs, served on paper plates. Much of the produce is sourced locally from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. What unites the not-menu is this: “I don’t put out stuff I don’t want to eat,” says Easton, before waxing poetic about giving a recent shipment of Pennsylvania peppers the “respect” and “dignity” they deserve by serving them with high quality olive oil, salt and, of course, bread.
A baker at his core, Easton is also selling breads sporadically at Bread and Salt, from sesame semolina to Neapolitan-style loaves, though “there’s dozens of types I’d like to make,” he says wistfully. His goal is to bake and sell much more of it, but with the demand, right now, “pizza always wins.” Plus, he needs the bread for serving, from a slab to cushion fresh ricotta and a drizzle of honey to brioche buns for sandwiching scoops of gelato.
Opening times, like the availability of bread, have been a bit inconsistent, with the large garage-style door sometimes getting raised past the hours listed. But, as always, Easton’s focus is on the food. “We’re just trying to make sure we’re set up to serve more people better.”
Plus, most diners have taken the lines and opening kinks in stride. “People in the Heights just want to hang, eat and talk,” says Magliozzi. “It’s a party.”
Bread and Salt, 435 Palisade Avenue, Jersey City; Open Wed-Fri 5-10pm; Sat and Sun. 1-10pmClick here to leave a comment