This N.J. pizza spot was declared ‘best in NYC.’ Does it still deliver on the hype?

By Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Originally published Oct. 5

It was a little more than a year ago that the New York Times wrote the article heard ’round the pizza world, determining the best pizza in New York wasn’t in any of the five pizza-rich boroughs, but instead resided across the Hudson River at Razza in Jersey City.
Pretentious New Yorkers may have scoffed at this bold acclamation, but anyone that knows Jersey City cuisine wasn’t terribly surprised. Even in a food scene as diverse and robust as Jersey City’s, Razza stands above not just every other pizza place but pretty much every other restaurant — and it’s no secret.
The wait-time for a seat in the 1,200 square foot, 10-table dining area was notoriously long well before the Times’ rave review, and the delays have unsurprisingly only gotten worse in the year since. It’s not uncommon to see hopeful diners lining up before the restaurant opens at 5:30 p.m., and a two-hour wait is par for the course on weekends.
“It gave me a heightened sense of responsibility to live up to that,” Razza’s owner and chef Dan Richer, a Matawan native and Rutgers grad, told NJ Advance Media in a phone interview Tuesday. “It kind of put things into laser focus like, ‘Okay, now we have a responsibility and obligation to uphold the words that were written.'”

Joe Epstein | For The Star-Ledger

Razza was one of the first restaurants I tried when I moved to Jersey City in 2014, and it always lived up to the hype. The delicious wood-fired pizza, the quaint ambiance and location in the heart of downtown made it the perfect spot for a special occasion.
I had not paid Razza a visit since the Times article, in part because the lengthy waits and the crowded front room can be intimidating. Oh, and there are no reservations at Razza, just waiting (takeout is available, no delivery). But I wanted to see first-hand how the vaunted pizza restaurant was handling the fame and acclaim one year later. So a few weeks ago, I decided to wait and see if my favorite restaurant in Jersey City was still deserving of such lofty praise.
“It’s been quite a ride to be honest, that article significantly changed the overall business of Razza,” Richer said. “We haven’t changed the product in any way to force out more food, the demand for tables is higher now so we could force more food out of our oven, but that would diminish the overall quality of everything that we do and that’s something that we’re not willing to waver on.”
Richer is true to his word — Razza isn’t just as good as I remember, it’s even better.

Loren Hoyt | For NJ Advance Media

A friend and I headed to Razza on a recent Thursday at about 7:30, and were promptly told it would be an hour wait for two. Not surprised and in it for the long haul, I gave the hostess my number and was told I would get a text message when my table was ready. You can have a drink at Razza’s bar while you wait, but there are also dozens of bars within walking distance of the restaurant, so we hit a few and before we knew it my phone was buzzing and it was time to eat.
We started with bread and butter, which is not complimentary but an appetizer that you have to order at Razza. But I remembered it being one of the best parts of the meal every time I’d dined there. We also got meatballs, per a coworker’s recommendation.
It takes a certain chutzpah to make people pay for bread and butter, but one bite of Razza’s rendition of the classic will make you happy you forked over the five bucks for what Richer says is his favorite food the restaurant serves. Handmade bread with the same smokiness of their pizza, crackling and crunchy on the outside while soft and springy on the inside, with handmade butter from grass-feed Pennsylvania cow’s cream. It doesn’t taste like butter. It tastes like smooth, creamy, buttery perfection. You can actually taste what the cows have been eating. It’s served on a slab, and you’ll be scrapping for every last bit of it. Richer says that this has started a trend of other high-end restaurants making their own bread and butter as well.
“It’s the most simple thing that we could ever, ever do,” Richer said. “But the results are drastically different than any other bread and butter that you’ve ever eaten.”
Pro tip: Take a piece of bread, butter it and top it with a fire-roasted meatball and some of the sauce. The meatballs are tender and flavorful on their own, but are taken to a new level when combined with the bread and butter. Two of the simplest appetizers you can imagine, but the best food is simple ingredients done perfectly and that’s exactly what you get with these dishes.

Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media For NJ.com

We had barely finished our appetizers when the pizzas came out — a burrata pie with tomato sauce, burrata, garlic and basil, and a Bosco pie with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, cremini mushrooms and fontina cheese. Our waitress, who was friendly and attentive, assured us that we had made wise choices with these pies, and they certainly passed the eye test.
And the smell test.
And ultimately, the taste test.

Loren Hoyt | For NJ Advance Media

The burrata pie is essentially a margherita pizza turned up a few notches. If you haven’t had burrata before, it’s basically like the cheese gods took the perfection of fresh mozzarella cheese and made it even creamier and tastier. If you see it on a menu, order it. If you see it on a pizza, order it and save me a slice, I’ll be right over. While the center of the pizza was a tad less crisp than I would have liked, there were no other discernible flaws. The creaminess of the cheese cuts the acidity of the tomatoes just right, and that’s all on top of a 24-hour fermented dough pocked with bubbles and crisp darkened spots that capture the smokiness of the wood-fired oven.

Loren Hoyt | For NJ Advance Media

But the mushroom pie may have been even better; a bit more crisp and with subtle sweetness of the creminis complimenting the mozzarella. Our waitress asked if we’d like a side of marinara sauce for the pizza, which was a welcome accompaniment for both pies (a bit more red on the pies next time, please).

Loren Hoyt | For NJ Advance Media

A extra note on pizza toppings: executing them can be tricky, even with the best intentions. One thing Razza does better than nearly any other pizza place I’ve ever encountered is the deft balance those toppings. Too often pizza is overwhelmed by the stuff, with the flavor profile ruined or the pizza itself falling apart. That’s never happened in my trips to Razza before, and it didn’t this time either. The dough, cheese, sauce and toppings all compliment each other wonderfully.
Richer’s menu changes seasonally and is locally sourced with inspired ingredient combinations. Fig jam and prosciutto. Pine nuts, raisins, and olives. Hazelnuts from Rutgers University and local honey. Bacon and New York maple syrup. But even if you get the La Rossa pie with crushed tomatoes, heirloom garlic and basil with no cheese, you’re still going to have a damn good pizza.

Loren Hoyt | For NJ Advance Media

Despite our bellies ballooning with pizza, when our waitress offered us dessert we did our best to find room. The panna cotta with sea salt and caramel was a rich and decadent finisher for the meal. Two nice employees then rolled us both home to Journal Square.

Loren Hoyt | For NJ Advance Media

The food wasn’t just as good as I remembered, it was even better. And even on an absolutely packed night, the service was prompt and incredibly pleasant. Our waitress offered recommendations and took the time to talk to us about the restaurant’s success since the Times article, which she said has led to an uptick in diners at an already popular restaurant.
While Richer is happy for the business, he takes no pride in the long waits his patrons endure. One of the few changes in the last year for the restaurant was an electronic wait list, allowing people to leave a number and get a text when their table is ready like we did.

Richer says he is looking for more space, and even looked at some spots in Manhattan before deciding he wanted to stay in his home state.
“I realized I don’t ever want to open in Manhattan, I realized that I am New Jersey. I live here. I was raised in New Jersey, I’m all in on New Jersey. It’s my place. Time will tell what the future holds, I am interested in putting out some more products,” Richer said. “I would love to get some bread ovens and do a small little bakery, there’s a bunch of ideas on the table. But right now I’m really focused on making Razza the best that it absolutely can be.”

So, is Razza still the best pizza in New York? It’s difficult to answer, considering how bold and ridiculous a bestowment it was in the first place. And while The Times may call it the best in the Empire State, some would argue it isn’t even the best in the Garden State.
This debate can and will rage on much longer than the wait for a table at Razza. But what seems to be settled is that even with a much brighter spotlight cast upon this small spot on Grove Street, Razza is still cooking up seriously good pizza that is worth the serious wait.
“Now that this article is written, that doesn’t mean that we’re forever solidified as the best pizza in the area,” Richer said. “Pizza is one of those funny things, it’s a constantly evolving product and it’s constantly changing. Just because you make great pizza today doesn’t mean you’re going to make great pizza tomorrow. It’s a living, breathing thing.”

Jeremy Schneider may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @J_Schneider. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

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