Chef/owner Dan Richer opened Razza in Jersey City in 2012, and the restaurant quickly garnered acclaim for its sublime pizzas. Since then, Razza has been highlighted by New York Times dining critic Pete Wells and appeared in our Best Pizzas in New Jersey list, among other accolades.
Now, Richer has a pizza cookbook in the works and, as he tells us here, there were even plans for a slightly different concept next door. But Covid-19 changed that. One interesting silver lining: it gave Richer the opportunity to work with Goldbelly, the regional culinary delivery service, where you can now order Razza’s DIY Margherita Pizza Kits. That’s right, New Jersey’s own master of pizza is sending you some flour, salt, and yeast (and hot honey, for garnish) and asking you to get in touch with the intuitive baker inside.
Despite being endlessly busy—and finally on vacation with his family at LBI—Richer took some time to catch us up on how Razza has fared during the coronavirus pandemic and what we can expect ahead.
Table Hopping: How have things been these past few months?
Dan Richer: I feel like it’s been years since it began! We had to pivot fast, yeah. We closed for about a month during the peak because it felt unsafe for my team. People still weren’t taking the mask thing seriously. And we reopened the safest way we could. We did everything to keep our team as safe as humanly possible. Once things started to ease up a bit, we started window service.
[Now] we have outdoor seating. The Mayor of Jersey City [Steven Fulop] is fantastic, closing down streets all over the city, just select streets. We’re grateful—we’re on one of those. We’ve expanded the area so we’re able to get more seats than we had before. We’re now able to get almost 40 seats with appropriate distancing.
TH: I saw on Instagram that you added a second oven recently. Is Razza is expanding?
DR: We actually signed a lease on another storefront in December. We were mid-demo of the space when this all went down.
TH: What was (or is) the concept of the second space?
DR: It’s right next door to the current restaurant. We were going to do something different—a soup, salad, sandwich, pasta kind of thing, all the things you’d want to order alongside pizza. But that obviously had to pivot. We decided to just expand the current restaurant. We’re in the process of putting in a second oven and our next door space will eventually, once we’re indoors again, there will be additional seating.
TH: Was working with Goldbelly a choice related to Covid?
DR: They actually reached out to us, probably a year ago. They wanted to ship our pizza across the country.
TH: Were you hesitant to ship such a delicate hot-and-fresh product?
DR: We did some tests with our product. We talked to [Goldbelly] for a while. But between the whole wasteful packaging it requires and our lack of kitchen space, I decided against it. At the end of the day, you’re just getting two- or three-day-old pizza. That wasn’t how I wanted to rep our product.
TH: How did you get back in touch with them this time around?
DR: I’m in the process of writing a pizza cookbook. During the month we were closed, I was actually working hard at recipes and testing doughs, making like four pizzas a day! Testing different formulas, I came up with a beginner recipe that uses ingredients you can buy in a supermarket. It’s a very easy recipe, it just takes a lot of patience.
TH: Does this recipe mimic what you guys do at Razza?
DR: No, no, this isn’t a sourdough. There’s no wild yeast, which is what we do in the restaurant. There’s not even a starter. It’s called a “straight dough.” You mix and let it ferment at room temperature for a few hours, then refrigerate it for the next two days. You get a lot of flavors built in. It’s not the type [of flavor] you get from using wild yeast, but there are different flavors. And it’s delicious! Sourdough is a lot more complicated and temperature-sensitive. There’s a lot more room for failure.
TH: So working with Goldbelly was good timing then?
DR: Exactly. We had these recipes and I’d really wanted to develop an easy at-home recipe for the patient beginner. Of course we ended up releasing the recipe back when nobody could get flour or yeast. But that’s changed, now.
TH: During the early pandemic baking and sourdough craze, did friends hound you for advice?
DR: It’s awesome! I think it’s great. And hell yeah, they called. And pictures! Everyone sends me pictures of like, what went wrong. I can usually diagnose quickly, as in “It’s probably A, B, or C; try this and this next time.” But even for me, it’s a lifelong pursuit. Every day you make sourdough, the factors that influence it are different. You really do have to understand every variable that changes on a daily basis, isolate it, and make it a non-factor.
TH: How do you translate skills or instincts like that to a recipe card?
DR: It’s not exactly what we do at the restaurant, but that’s because our pizza recipe is not a static thing. We’re always trying new things, new ingredients. It’s in constant motion. What we do have is our static evaluation. We have a list of 40 or 50 characteristics we’re trying to recreate each time—the color of the crust, oven spring, the way the cheese melts, the way it browns, the way the sauce reduces, the color of sauce, the acidity of the sauce, the structural integrity of the crust. This is one of the main things that’s gonna be in the cookbook—we have these characteristics, this road map we’re shooting for. In the restaurant, we can change the formula based on the ingredient, based on the weather, based on the temperature, based on the humidity.
But this will be better than any pizza you can get in your town. And you’ll hit most of our points in our checklist. Of course not everyone is the same “patient beginner.” I’ve gotten a little bit of feedback from friends who have done it. It’s not the easiest dough to handle. It’s a very wet dough. If you don’t watch our Instagram videos on how to handle it, it can be difficult.
TH: Goldbelly kits recommend a pizza stone or steel. Is that a must?
DR: You really do a need a steel or a stone to get a good product. There are ways to rig your oven, like you can wrap bricks in tin foil and bake directly on that. Basically you really need a massive amount of stored heat so when the raw dough hits the cooking surface you get good oven spring, which refers to the rapid activity of the yeast that yields a super-light and tender crust. You want that yeast to produce as much gas as possible, as fast as possible.
TH: Covid-19 put some things on the back burner, but do you have any plans in the coming months?
DR: The second space is definitely on the back burner. It’ll be the next six to nine months… We have tons of new stuff on the horizon. We just finished developing our meatball sandwich, our meatball parm. We’ve been working on it for the past couple of years, believe it or not, but only during quarantine could I really refine and work with my team on creating the bread that we wanted to serve [the sandwich] on.
TH: You and your team conduct blind canned tomato tastings. Do you still do that?
DR: Hell yeah. We do a double-blind taste test from eight major producers. Part of our pizza evaluation is the tomato evaluation. Here we’re looking for characteristics like positive flavor attributes, negative flavor attributes, color, sweetness, texture, seeds and skins, and acidity… The winner for the past five of six years has been the same, a producer in California.
TH: What about Jersey tomatoes? Surely they get some play on the menu.
DR: Absolutely. We get awesome tomatoes in New Jersey from July through early October so we’ll have multiple different tomato sauces at any point. Our secondary sauce is a raw fresh tomato sauce with beautiful Jersey- and Pennsylvania-grown heirlooms that we just run through a food mill. We also have two different Margherita pizzas, the standard with our canned California tomatoes and a Jersey Margherita with mozzarella from a really small farm in Sussex County and a Jersey tomato sauce with field-grown heirlooms run through a food mill. So you get basically the same pizza concept in both Margheritas, but it’s an extraordinarily different experience from start to finish.
TH: And that seems like the idea with the Goldbelly kits—teaching you the ways you can control, and create, the experience of pizza, in your kitchen.
DR: Exactly. It’s literally in your hands.
Dan Richer’s pizza cookbook is in-progress, done in collaboration with Rome-based writer Katie Parla. Razza is open for reservations only (no walk-ins) for its outdoor dining space from 3–8pm, Tuesday through Sunday. They’re also doing takeout for contactless pick-up only (no delivery). The new Meatball Parm sandwich is on that menu—but it sells out rapidly. Order here.
Razza Pizza Artigenale, 275 Grove Street, Jersey City; 201-356-9348