Chef Dan Richer has developed a column for pizza perfection
Chef Dan Richer de Razza | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Chef Dan Richer de Razza | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
For Dan Richer, the best pizza isn’t in New Jersey, or New York, or even Italy, but wherever you are. As long as you get your hands on the best local ingredients and master the art of dough making, you can make a truly exceptional pie from just about anywhere. The Razza the chef / owner explains this, along with everything he has learned in his 20 years of pizza making, by The joy of pizza, released on November 9.
Richer and I sit on the patio of his famous Jersey City pizzeria, tasting an array of his homemade wood-fired pies. A compatriot from New Jersey, I find it hard to come to terms with the idea that the location has nothing to do with good pizza – I’ve always been told ours is the best. So I start by asking Richer about the myth that has been ingrained in every New Jersey’s head since birth.
“Let me guess. It’s water. He says. That is the belief that bagels and pizza in the greater New York area are superior because of our very specific water supply.” Apparently there are low levels of calcium and magnesium in our tap which has a softening effect on the gluten in the dough.
“At one point in mankind, the world was flat, wasn’t it? Richer jokes. “We’ve come a long way with science, to understand what’s really going on. If you understand what makes an ingredient great, and if you know how to put it together correctly, you can make a great product.
Example: the two margheritas arranged on the table, which differ in a playful way. “This is our standard margherita,” said Richer, pointing to one of the pies. “Tomatoes are the winners of the tomato tasting we do every year. The cheese we make here every morning. And the basil continues after cooking.
Tasting tomatoes is one of the many ingredient sections Richer includes in his book. Each year, he and his team perform a raw taste test of many brands of canned tomatoes, comparing their moisture level, acidity, sweetness and flavor. “Tomatoes are an agricultural product. There should be variations from year to year and certainly from place to place, ”he explains. “So, in order for us to know that we are serving the best tomato possible, we always have to taste. “
And he encourages home pizza makers to replicate that same process, to develop a vocabulary for what they like and don’t like. “The more we taste, the more we talk about it, the more refined our palates will be. And then we can detect subtle differences, ”he says.
Richer then presented me with the second tart: the Jersey Margherita. “It’s a very localized version with a sense of belonging,” he explains. “You can see that the cheese is yellowish compared to the other because it’s made from grass-fed cows in New Jersey. The grass contains chlorophyll, and it shows in the cheese with a different color.
The sauce for this variation uses field-grown tomatoes, taking advantage of the end of the tomato season in New Jersey. And the basil here is cooked, just because Richer likes it both ways, and that’s the beauty of a margherita: change just one ingredient, and the whole pie is processed.
The two pizzas meet the criteria set out by Richer in his book. When you pull apart a slice, there is no sagging at the tip. Each slice retains its structural integrity, yet it is as light as a feather. The sourdough crust is airy, with a crispy edge and perfectly caramelized. And each garnish plays its own distinct role.
When Razza first opened, Richer did not find immediate success, struggling to get enough people to the door. “I had the restaurant on the market. I was going to sell it at some point during those first four years, ”says Richer. “And then when I was four, I made the commitment. I said, ‘I’m going to make it work. I believe in Jersey City. I believe in what we do.
Then The New York Times review came out, stating that New York’s best pizza was in New Jersey. “Fortunately, that was a good review, because we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if we didn’t,” he adds. And since then Richer’s life has become much busier. Endless pre-pandemic lines would form outside the gates of Razza, made up of people coming from far and wide to try the delicacy of Jersey.
“When I land in Newark, I immediately go to Razza and have pizza that transcends the locations,” says Katie Parla, from Italy via FaceTime. “It’s not Jersey pizza, and it’s not Neapolitan pizza. Dan Richer’s pizza is very unique, an expression of the textures and flavors he loves.
“It’s not Jersey pizza, and it’s not Neapolitan pizza. Dan Richer’s pizza is very unique, an expression of the textures and flavors he loves.
Parla is a Rome-based food and drink author, culinary guide and cookbook author who has collaborated with Richer on The joy of pizza. Although she moved to Rome in 2003, she is also from New Jersey and, like the rest of us, has spent a good chunk of her time defending the Garden State.
“As funny as Jersey is a punchline, it’s time to recognize that there are some really great people making food here,” she says. “Some of the best mozzarella in all of America is found in New Jersey. And Jersey tomatoes versus California tomatoes, that’s it. We’re a country of farmers and people who dedicate concentration, untold love and care for the land.
And The joy of pizza shines a spotlight on these efforts, as much a book on farming and community as it does on pizza making. In it, Richer addresses the common misconception that in order to have a good pizza, you need to import ingredients from Italy.
“When in humanity have we ever been able to transport or ship ingredients 2,000 miles from their origin? Almost never, until now, ”explains Richer. “I don’t believe the soil in southern Italy is better or worse than the soil we have here in New Jersey or California.”
What we should be doing, says Richer, is replicating the Italian ideology of sourcing ingredients. “In the Naples area, they use San Marzano tomatoes because that area is right there,” he says. “The water buffaloes that make buffalo milk mozzarella cheese are right over there. So it makes sense for them to use these products in their pizza.
The next pizza we try – and my favorite – is the Funghi, a white mushroom pie made with fresh mozzarella and scamorza. The mushrooms were brought to Richer by Dan Lipow from The feast for fodder. The two developed a long-standing friendship, embarking on a number of mushroom research trips together. This week, Lipow will be bringing some chanterelles, a selection that is likely to change soon after. But Richer celebrates this inconsistency.
This collaboration with Lipow is one of the many relationships that contributes to Razza’s position as a “community of food manufacturers”. Richer trusts domestic farmers, sourcing freshly ground flour from Clifton, New Jersey, or hand-made fresh mozzarella from Jersey Girl Cheese in Branchville.
“It gives more meaning to my work,” says Richer. “What interests me is to talk about the peculiarity of this cheese, standing on a field, surrounded by cows, then walking 20 feet and making cheese from the milk of those same cows.”
Another pizza reflecting Richer’s enduring partnerships is Project Hazelnut, a pie made with fresh mozzarella, ricotta, Rutgers University hazelnuts, and local honey. There is a global shortage of hazelnuts, but thanks to a project led by Dr Thomas Molnar at Rutgers School of Agriculture, Cook College, hazelnuts come back to life.
Richer remembers how, when he first started working with Molnar, Razza’s busy team had to go through a painstaking process of getting the nuts out of the shell, cracking them one at a time. But this year, thanks to Razza’s support, Molnar bought an electric sheller and sorter. “We just got a box of shelled hazelnuts,” says Richer enthusiastically. “I took it to my kitchen and my whole team clapped.”
Rutgers sold its first 10,000 trees this year to farmers, and Richer continues to showcase the ingredient’s potential. Parla, who grew up visiting Cook College farms, says Project Hazelnut is his favorite pie in Razza. “It’s a slice of pizza that’s so objectively delicious, but it carries all that cultural baggage with it,” she says. “And it makes you think about the way we buy food and the importance of education in reviving this tradition.”
The joy of pizza comes at a time when sourdough baking is already a familiar concept. During the pandemic, Richer really cracked the code for making restaurant-quality pizza in a home oven, finding the process meditative. “Being able to feed something like sourdough gives people hope. It gives them a purpose. You have to feed it, ”he said. “It’s really hard to worry about life when you’re engaged in a hands-on learning process. “
It includes a dough recipe for beginners, made with white flour and commercial yeast, as well as more complex variations that use whole and high extraction wheat flour, sourdough or freshly ground grains. And scattered throughout the book are QR codes leading to instructional videos, perfect for visual learners.
Parla adds, “It can ruin your local pizza when you realize, ‘Oh my god, it’s under-fermented.’ Or like, ‘The cheese broke.’ Any lessons people will learn from a basic observation of the ingredients in their raw and cooked form will be really fun.
And while the book is reminiscent of a science experiment format – with rubrics, technical illustrations, and measurement charts – the goal isn’t really perfection. Pizza making is half science, half art, and even Richer always strives for the best. I ask him how the pizzas in front of us rate, according to his pizza rating rubric.
“Pretty bad, honestly,” he jokes. “I mean, it’s quite a trip, isn’t it?” Every pizza we make we have the option of making a really good pizza or a good one. And my standards are pretty high for myself. These are great pizzas, but they could always be a little better.