Jersey City, NJ

‘You can make restaurant-quality pizza in your home oven’: Razza chef Dan Richer

Asha Sridhar

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — In their new book, ‘Joy of Pizza’, Dan Richer, chef and owner, Razza Pizza Artigianale and Katie Parla, food journalist, cookbook author and television host, dive deep into the art and science of making pizza.

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Dan Richer (Left) and Katie Parla (right).(Photo/Eric Wolfinger)

And, not just any pizza — This is the pizza that Richer has been “obsessed” with over the past two decades, the pizza that makes it notoriously difficult to bag a table at his Jersey City restaurant, the pizza that the New York Times famously contemplated could be the best in New York. Bite into their margherita, and you’ll know why.

Richer distills his knowledge into a new book geared towards both home bakers and professionals. Complete with instructional videos accessed through QR codes in the book, this is the closest you can get to learning from the chef himself.

Will you be able to make the acclaimed Razza Pizza pizza? Now, that’s a tough one. Richer, however, hands out the rigorously crafted 56-step rubric that they use to evaluate each pie at the restaurant. As he says, then it’s in your hands.

Here, they talk about how the pandemic gave Richer a chance to step into the shoes of a home baker, how pizza is a living breathing thing and how the joy of making it really lies in sourcing the best ingredients and building a relationship with the people who cultivate it…

Q. How do you both know each other and how did you decide to collaborate on this book?

Dan: I met Katie in Rome. I was consulting on a restaurant opening in Manhattan, and the chefs at this new restaurant, flew me over to Italy to eat pizza with them. When chefs go to Italy, they hang out with Katie Parla because she is so knowledgeable and fun to be around. She has such a command of all things food, but certainly Italian food and culture.

Katie: Then Dan got in his mind to write a book and I said, don't do that. It's really hard work. (laughs)

Dan: She said, it's a two-year process and editing will ruin your life. Accurate. (laughs) But yeah, I wanted to write a book and share all of the information and experience that I have surrounding pizza. I wanted to share that with the home cook and professionals also.

My first phone call was to Katie, because she's just so brilliant. I trust her opinion on literally everything.

Q. When did this happen?

Katie: That must be nine years ago… And then, two years ago, we were negotiating the contracts…So it was September 2019 when we started writing… When the book comes out, that'll be a solid two years plus after we started. But Dan has been making pizza and thinking about pizza for 20 years.

Dan: I feel like it's the beginning.

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The 'Joy of Pizza' book releases on November 9, 2021.(Photo/Eric Wolfinger)

Q. What was the idea behind the book?

Dan: I wanted to share the information and the experience that I have surrounding pizza with the home cook. I feel, especially with the pandemic, but certainly for the past eight to 10 years, sourdough bread baking has entered the home kitchen and a lot of people are engaged with the process, and not so much with pizza.

When you think about it, pizza is a bread product, right? Pizza is a flatbread with condiments baked onto it.

We don't really see that many people making pizza at home, and certainly not at the professional level, the way we are [seeing] with sourdough bread. People can make professional level sourdough bread in their home oven with a little bit of practice. I'm betting on the fact that people can actually do that with pizza also.

You can make restaurant-quality pizza in your home oven, with very little other equipment besides, maybe, a pizza stone, or a pizza steel. A bowl and a spoon, a little bit of flour, water, salt and yeast — You can make better pizza than your average pizzeria in your home oven.

Katie: One of the features of the book was to remind people that you don't just make pizza once and nail it. It's part of [the] practice. If you've never made it before, or even if you have some experience, the recipes in the book, there are six or seven dough recipes, and each of them is listed in order of ascending difficulty.

We start with a really simple yeasted one and then we go all the way up to a more advanced sourdough freestyle, choose your own adventure, heirloom wheat.

It's a journey that Dan holds your hand through with the text in the book, and then also supporting videos that are cross referenced with QR codes.

One of the features of the book was to remind people that you don't just make pizza once and nail it.

Q. Do we get to learn how to make the Razza pizza?

Dan: It’s specifically geared towards the home cook. The average person doesn't have a giant wood-fired oven in their kitchen, right? Even if I gave out the exact Razza recipe, pizza is a living breathing thing. It changes day to day. Unless you're in our space, with our hands and the wood that we use, you can never…even us…We make pizza every day and every day it's slightly different.

But we do give our pizza evaluation system for how we evaluate our pizza at the restaurant. It's the blueprints for our pizza. Then it's up to you to get the pizza to that place.

Unless you're in our space, with our hands and the wood that we use, you can never…even us…We make pizza every day and every day it's slightly different.

Q. Is that the 56-step rubric mentioned on the book’s website?

Dan: Yes.

Q. What exactly is part of the rubric? Could you give us a glimpse without giving too much away?

Dan: It was a way for me to develop our pizza at Razza. The structural integrity of the pizza — We should be able to pick up the pizza with our hands without it being floppy or droopy or soggy. It should be deeply caramelized. The tomatoes should be bright red, with sweetness, a certain acidity. The cheese should melt such a way. That's really outlining what I love about pizza. I wanted to name it so that we could recreate it on a daily basis.

Q. You’ve spoken a lot about ingredients and how you source them locally. When a home cook is using your recipe, what is your advice to them, in terms of getting the kind of ingredients to achieve what you achieve at the restaurant or something close, at least?

Dan: We have talked a lot about ingredients and sourcing. Sourcing is one of my primary jobs at the restaurant — finding that new tomato, a delicious olive oil, or meeting and developing a relationship with an artisanal cheese maker. That informs what we put on the pizza.

If you're in Georgia, and it's onion season, you get those onions from your local farmer's market or farm stand or go directly to the source. It's those relationships that is part of the joy of it, getting to meet new people and really celebrating what they do for a living.

Katie: I'll add that there are rubrics for selecting the ideal tomato, mozzarella, and olive oil. With the lessons that you learn by analyzing the flavors and aromas, you can extrapolate that to any ingredient and really think about ingredients as more than being stuff you put on pizza. The value is just as important as the dough-making process itself. All of these features, each and every step along the way, has equal importance.

With the lessons that you learn by analyzing the flavors and aromas, you can extrapolate that to any ingredient and really think about ingredients as more than being stuff you put on pizza.

Q. The description of the book says it caters to home cooks as well as professionals. How did you achieve that balance when you were writing the book?

Dan: I tried to really give all of the information that I had. A lot of it is geared towards the professional, but it's also for the home cook. A lot of the pizza books on the market don't have enough trust in the home cook. I really believe that people are ready for it, for that next step, that next level of managing dough temperatures and the ways to get that professional-level quality.

Katie: The structure of the dough recipes also reinforces the levels of difficulty from the super simple yeast at-home cooked dough to that advanced, very high level home baker or professional.

What's amazing about seeing Dan's colleagues enjoying his pizza is that they're always learning from each other. He's learning from them, they're learning from him. It's this ongoing process of sharing information. It's so cool to be able to bring that to a home cook.

And, Dan's right. A lot of people think that you have to dumb down baking recipes for home cooks, and that's a huge disservice. By not providing information about how dough should look — basing things on timing, rather than feel and look, you're really not informing.

I'm not saying anything bad about our colleagues. We love the other pizza books out on the market. But especially in the 21st year of the 21st century, there's so much information that people have access to and have passively absorbed. Giving them these other tools about how to actually think about the dough, rather than just make it — you are thinking about it. You are nurturing it. It brings a level of flavor and joy to the final product. I'm thrilled about that.

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Richer believes in the home cook.(Photo/Eric Wolfinger)

A lot of the pizza books on the market don't have enough trust in the home cook. I really believe that people are ready for it, for that next step, that next level of managing dough temperatures and the ways to get that professional-level quality.

Q. Did the pandemic get in the way of your book in any way?

Dan: It actually enhanced my ability to focus on the book, personally. We closed the restaurant for about a month at the very beginning of the pandemic. That's when I really dug into using my home oven and really put myself in the home cook's position.

At the restaurant, we make it seem easy, because we have a team of 18 cooks that all know how to feed the starter. They all know how to mix dough and stretch dough and bake dough. Having to do every step of the process in the eyes of the home cook was really special for me, because I don't usually get that time. It really forced us to slow down and gave us the ability to focus on the book.

Q. I was reading the description of the book on the website, and it says: “Dan Richer has devoted his entire professional life to discovering the holy grail of pizza—the keys to making a truly transcendent pie”. It sounds almost spiritual in the way that you describe it. Is that how it is for you when you are making pizza or developing new recipes?

Dan: I think there's a repetitiousness to it that I really enjoy, doing the same thing over and over and over and really paying attention and dialing in to the minute differences and the details that I think is really good for me as a human. Because I’m, kind of, all over the place and having to nurture a living thing — our starter — and having to nurture our dough, and cheese and all the ingredients really gives me a lot of happiness.

Q. What's the latest at Razza and what are the plans for the future?

Dan: We’re still under construction for our expansion. We’re still a few months away from reopening our dining room, at which time, we’ll also begin to slowly expand our menu. We’re very excited. In the meantime, we have some new pizzas on our menu such as our eggplant supersalt pizza with roasted eggplant, ricotta salata, and basil.

The book is scheduled to release on November 9 and is available for preorder now.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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I am a Jersey City-based writer and editor interested in books, culture, lifestyle and stories that are off the beaten path.

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