Bart Bell, chef and co-owner of Crescent Pie & Sausage Company, will talk to anyone. As we wait for his partner to show up at the restaurant, he produces a picture on his phone of a scraggly older man grinning wildly under a salt and pepper mat of facial hair. "That's after Jazz Fest," Bell says, as if this explained everything. "I met this homeless guy at a bar and decided to just treat him to all the beer and food he wanted." Bell smiles, crinkling his mustache. "Hey, what's that?" He's pointing at photographer Amy Jett's flash cover. She tells him, joking that it makes everyone look pretty. Bell smiles, the expanse of strawberry hair on his upper lip curling mischievously upward as if to emphasize his good humor. The front door opens behind us and Bell leans back a little, pointing over my shoulder and saying, "Well, you'll definitely need it to make this guy look pretty." The guy he's referring to is Jeff Baron, co-owner of the restaurant within spitting distance of Banks Street Bar, as well as owner of the Dough Bowl near Tulane's campus and Pizzicare on Tulane Avenue.
Baron's sea-blue eyes almost glaze over when he's describing his affinity for the perfect New York-style slice of pizza, a taste he says he developed after his time at Tulane among new friends from the Northeast. It's his goal to bring that style pizza?ubiquitous and foldable?to New Orleans, the recent battleground for the playful "Pizza Wars" Baron declared on friends and competitors at Theo's, Reginelli's, Midway, Ancora, Pizza Delicious and Louisiana Pizza Kitchen. He senses that there's a hunger for good pizza in the city and is on a mission to see that everyone in New Orleans can experience the perfect slice.
The Dough Bowl, Pizzicare, and Crescent Pie and Sausage each epitomizes a different kind of pizza?the late night slice, New York-style, and artisanal. Which of these 'types' do you think works best for pizza eaters in New Orleans?
I think traditionally in New Orleans the late night pizza place would've encompassed all that the city had to offer. However I don't think that's the case anymore. I think there are other varieties that have helped pizza expand in New Orleans. We have Chicago deep dish, at That's Amore in Metairie and also at Midway on Freret. And you also have Ancora, which has introduced Neapolitan style pizza as well as Domenica, and that's a different style of pizza from a totally different part of Italy. They like to use a sourdough crust that's more puffy and pillowy on the edges and really thin in the middle?it's more of a gourmet, artisinal type of pizza. But, yeah, pizza's definitely taken a step forward here.
What places have really established themselves as reliable pizza slingers?
I think the places that have solidified themselves in town are Slice, Theo's, and Reginelli's. Those places have really asserted themselves with the traditional Roman pizza. When you think of pizza in New Orleans, that's really what you're thinking of now, at least over the last decade or two. It's definitely something that I think New Orleans was lacking for a long time, and recently it's kind of exploded. We just had a competition?Pizza Wars?which was actually inspired by a movie, a documentary set in New Jersey I think about two family operated pizza places that were suffering and needed to do something to drum up business. So they staged a war?a turf war?over pizza. It started out as just a publicity stunt, but it actually turned into something like a gang war. People were really serious about it, and ultimately both pizza places benefited. They were packed every night and there were all these interviews of people saying, "No, this is the best pizza," back and forth. We kind of took that idea and were trying to see how we would make this happen in New Orleans for us.
How did that play out here?
Well, I talked to some of the other pizza owners, but we couldn't really figure out how to have a competition. I talked to the Pizza Delicious guys [Michael Friedman and Greg Augarten], and I told them, "I'm gonna talk some trash about you, test the waters, see what happens." I told Jay [ from Slice the same thing. But it was hard?it wasn't the same dynamic they [the pizza places in the documentary] had, so one of my staff members over at Pizzicare and I were talking and we developed this idea of a scavenger hunt that would incorporate several of the major pizza places in New Orleans, bring pizza to the forefront, and also offer some really cool prizes to entice people to take part in it, and it worked. We gave away brass passes to the winners and also lots of pizza prizes. We wound up having over two hundred people complete the scavenger hunt, which involved going to ten different pizza places. That's a lot or pizza over the course of about three months, especially with Mardi Gras, French Quarter Fest, and some other goings-on during that stretch. We were dumbfounded by how many people actually finished it. There's a lot of people who started it and we didn't get their cards until the very end.
How does the New Orleans pizza scene stack up against some of those Northeastern places, like New York?
I graduated Tulane back in 1999, 2000, but I'm from here and I was always involved in the restaurant business. I waited tables at Feelings Café and I worked at Commander's. I'm just as proud of our culinary heritage as any other New Orleanian. We always think we do things better, and I had eaten at some of the local places that had been a little more popular, like Mama Rosas and Tower of Pizza, and some of the places that were a little better, like Louisiana Pizza Kitchen. But when I went to Tulane I met a lot of people from the Northeast, specifically New York City, and gradually I started going up there and visiting and my friends would take me to their favorite pizza places. Of course I would argue that New Orleans was better, that we have better pizza. I had worked at Papa Johns in New Orleans, and I didn't even know that that wasn't good pizza. I got educated?I got taken to some of the best places in New York, in Little Italy, Coney Island, and Brooklyn, and taken to these places where pizza was really, really good, and I was blown away by it. I couldn't believe that New Orleans, as good a culinary city as we are, was that far behind in pizza. We weren't anywhere close?we didn't have anything as good as that.
And you went from loving to eat pizza to making it?
Part of the fabric of life in New York is you grab a slice on the way. No matter where you're going, no matter what time of day, you grab a slice. I just thought that was the best thing in the world because pizza is really an American food. It's the great American food. It encompasses all five food groups in one bite, and it defines a good portion of our culture. I couldn't believe how awesome it was to do that, and I thought how cool would if be if you could do that anywhere. And right around that time was when the dot-coms busted and Wall street filled with analysts that had 10 years of experience and were willing to work for nothing, so I lost my job and wound up coming back down to New Orleans. I used to bartend at the Boot and the owners were looking to make a change, so I ended up opening the Dough Bowl back in 2002, and that was an immediate success. It took me a while to actually to get the dough right, to get the sauce, to get everything to work as well as it did after I'd learned how in New York. This guy Maury?I can't remember his last name?on the Upper East Side taught me and that's how I'd learned how to make pizza dough. It didn't work the same way here as it did up there for some reason. The combination of dough, flour and water just didn't work, so it took a while playing with it to get down.
Is good dough the secret to a good pizza?
When I was first starting out, there was Café Nino. I went in and I talked to Nino because I knew he was from Brooklyn and I knew that it was good because I'd eaten at his place. It was solid pizza. It was one of the few places in New Orleans that actually had New York-style pizza. His dough is really, really good. He makes probably the best pizza dough in the city, and I asked him what he thought and he told me that pizza is a marriage between dough, sauce, and cheese, and if any one of those three tries to assert itself over the other two, then the harmony is broken, just like in a marriage. So the ingredients are all equally important. For a long time I considered toppings to be far less important than the dough, cheese, or sauce, and then I started working with Bart four years ago. I started working with him and cooking with him. He's a really good chef and has been working 20 years in the kitchen. I had only had limited kitchen experience?grill, pizza, and home cooking. I basically worked as Bart's apprentice for four years and he imparted some real cooking knowledge. Well, most pizza people don't have that knowledge, so when you start understanding food and you combine it with a pizza background, you start understanding that toppings are as important as the cheese, sauce, and dough. That kind of made it more complex, and that's how this place [Crescent Pie and Sausage] and Pizzicare kind of evolved. There's a general understanding of the evolution of pizza and where pizza's going because you have a market of people that watch the Food Network all day long and understand food better. They want a better product than Domino's or Papa John's, but they also don't want to have to go to Domenica, because if they go to Domenica, they're spending 50 bucks a person.
Wit's makes a great barbecue shrimp pizza. Have you noticed any places incorporating local flavor into their pies?
Brett Anderson came and reviewed us and he ripped us to shreds because on our pizza menu at the time we were doing everything off the wall, nothing traditional except for the margerita. There was BLT pizza. We had arugula, peppadews, and blue cheese and stuff like that. Taking a New Orleans dish like barbecue shrimp and putting it on a pizza means that you're changing what a pizza is?you're making it a medium for an entree as opposed to just a pizza, and now I understand where Brett was coming from, because a lot of the time when you want a pizza you just want pizza. There are purists who just don't want barbecue shrimp on my pizza, and say, "When I want pizza, I want pizza." I'm kind of split on it because a lot of times I think it's fun to experiment and have different concepts, to use pizza as the medium because it's a fun medium to use. Some things don't work though. You have to be careful. I think the Pizza Delicious guys do a good job thinking of different concepts and putting it on pizza. I know Theo's is using stuff from The Joint and incorporating it into the pizza, so I think a lot of pizza places are starting to go that route.
Other than you, of course, who's really nailed their pizza formula?
Domenica has figured it out. They're also using the sourdough recipe for their dough and they have the sour taste and the consistency is right. Their pizzas are prepped really well and they are using top-notch ingredients including their sauces and cheese, so in terms of a high-end artisanal product, they're doing a fantastic job. Chef Alon [Shaya] worked in Italy and learned from some of the best.
Reginelli's, too. I don't know where I would place them quality-wise, but you can't doubt what they've done. They've opened up so many locations, and they're all beautiful. It's a really cool vibe that they're putting out, a little franchise-y for New Orleans, but they're making it work. They just partnered up with Commander's Palace over there and they're going to go national with it. There's a franchise out of New Orleans that's going to make it. Is their pizza as good as what we do? That's arguable, but their product?their overall restaurant product?is doing fantastic.
What about when you want pizza? How do you take it?
[Laughs] I'll be honest?I've gotten to the point in my life where I want just plain. Not just plain, but room temperature. It's got to cool to the point where it's just a little bit above room temperature and that's exactly how I like my pizza now. It's weird. I think it's just come from working in a pizza place for so long, where that's normally how I'd eat it. I don't want to eat when it's hot and fresh because that's for customers, but then I get hungry and I have to eat something. That's how I conditioned myself to enjoy room-temperature pizza. It's just the most basic and sometimes I think the most basic is the best.