The seething maw of a formidable mosaic-skinned wood oven presides over the dining room at Ancora, seeming at times that it should let out an Audrey II groan and demand to be fed pizza dough. "It's like a person," Adolfo Garcia, whose restaurant empire has become a local marvel of late. "You kind of have to ask it, 'Okay, what are you going to do today, baby?'" Tapping into the perfectionist streak running through Chef Jeff Talbot, Garcia has brought old world, Neapolitan pizza to Freret Street, an enterprise that endured a few rocky patches in the early going before Talbot became an expert oven-whisperer. After a year in business, however, Talbot has managed (as far as New Orleans' humidity will permit him) to tame the dough and speak the pizza oven's peculiar language.
How's business going at one year in?
AG: The street has definitely afforded us a lot of extra customers that we wouldn't have gotten if we weren't caught up in the energy of Freret. It's a great place to be and we feel lucky that we were able to get in on this street. We were actually looking for another location from when I was building next door [at High Hat], so it kind of happened backwards. Chip [Apperson] and I already knew we were doing High Hat, and we bought the building and had a tenant for this spot...
JT: I think you guys had already, basically had this building before we even started talking about Ancora.
AG: Right, so we started looking for another location. We had a tenant here, but the tenant backed out on us. We were already looking for a location [for Ancora], and I was like, "You know what? I already have a location right next to High Hat." At that point, Freret wasn't a gimme. The area hadn't been developed yet...
JT: I'm not from here, and when I came by this place, I thought, "You're crazy!"
I remember me and Chip were sitting at a table?the whole building hadn't been renovated yet?and we look over at the front of the building, and not only was there a bullet hole, but it was fresh bullet hole. We hadn't noticed it before and we were just like, "Oh my God..."
Has foot traffic picked up in the area or are people just driving in?
JT: Most of them are driving in. We do get foot traffic with the [Freret Street] market on Saturdays, but other than that, not so much.
During Eater's Pizza Week, it became pretty clear that people in New Orleans were trying a lot of innovative things with pizza. How do you guys fit in with the burgeoning pizza culture?
JT: I don't think we really fit in. I think that's why we sort of touched on new ground with something that hadn't been done in this city. That, for me anyway, was the reason I wanted to do this here, because no one else was doing anything like it.
AG: A lot of pizza places are exploring, but I don't think we were exploring?we were going back to the basics. We were just doing it the way they do it in Naples. We're not trying to figure anything new out?we're just trying to figure out how [Neapolitans] do it, but we're not reinventing the wheel. It's like we're going back to basic math and they [other pizza makers in NOLA] are doing calculus. We're saying, "Two plus two equals four," that's all we want to do. We're not starting with, "Oh, well, what does everyone want?" We don't care what they want. What we want to do is what's done traditionally, and then the food will stand on its own.
JT: I think that's the idea. There's not a new pizza that we've created here that's different from anything that anyone's ever done before. I think that is what's so respectable about this endeavor. Anyone with any sort of creativity and any sort of skill set can sit down and think of things like, "Oh, that goes great with this, blah blah." I remember reading a Marco Pierre White book and he wrote that the way you can tell a great chef from a mediocre chef is that the great chef takes something that's been done over and over again, and he does it just as well if not better than everyone else. I think that should be a mantra for a cook. Anyone can go out there and take foie gras, put some truffles and salt on it and it's great, but to do something that's been done so many times before, and to go back to the original way of doing something, I think that's respectable.
Before trumpeting the fact that you had finally perfected your pizza crust, Ian McNulty wrote, "We know pizza and we love it. We have particular expectations and opinions about it and in some obsessive cases we might even harbor strong convictions." Do you think that this is true, that people who come here bring their own prejudices about what pizza should or shouldn't be?
JT: We talked about that during the first couple of weeks we were open, and I think that we're a niche within a niche. We do pizza in a way that I think the vast majority of people are going to look at and say, "This isn't pizza." For a lot of people, pizza looks more like Domino's or Papa John's, and I think you almost box yourself by refusing to see pizza that way, but that's the box I want to be in. A large number of people who come in the restaurant might not understand what we do. I think that people grow into it.
Was there any pressure from initial reactions to change the plan?
AG: I would never second guess four or five hundred years of tradition. If I'm going to put my money on anything, it'll be on that. We're not on the fringe?we're at the epicenter. We are the traditional pizza. The hardest challenge wasn't figuring out if people were liking the pizza, it was figuring out if we were doing justice to the tradition. Honestly, who gives a shit about what everyone thinks? It was more, us over here, are we doing things right? I'll tell you, it was a learning curve. Our pizza today is exponentially better than the first day we opened.
JT: Absolutely, and there are a lot of reasons for that, too. The hardest thing to do is fight this climate. It's everything, really, about this area that makes what we do difficult, so there is a learning curve. You do have to watch the dough and adjust. This is probably one of the only places in the country where, consistently, the temperature, the humidity?everything changes, and not just in the summer, but year-round. It's crazy.
AG: The dough in this humidity is a challenge, but, the real challenge was more, "Are we doing this correctly?" and not "Are people going to like it?" There's going to be enough people who understand it. I've never had any doubt about that. We don't let it come from the outside. We have it come from the inside. We challenge ourselves. We're pursuing that perfection, which we'll never achieve, of course. No matter how much you try, you'll never get there, but you still have to try.
JT: Week by week, month by month we do better. One of the biggest things is that the bread we're doing here came from somewhere else, and it has to make it's little home here. I've never opened a Neapolitan pizza restaurant before, either, so to work with this crazy oven...
It seems almost like a living creature...
AG: Yeah, you have to accomodate your expectations to the oven because the oven can change. It's like a person. You kind of have to ask, "Where are you at today, baby?"
JT: It's just another thing that makes what we do difficult. We're on our fifth supplier of wood because we can't get what we want all the time.
AG: Wood's a natural product. It's the same thing when we go get tomatoes because it's like, "Who has the best tomatoes this week? That's who we're buying from." The wood is a very...it's not a standard product. It doesn't come out of a box. The temperature affects the dough, the wood affects how the pizza oven cooks, and what was going on earlier in the oven affects what will happen later.
JT: One of the things is...if I were to step away from this place for two or three weeks, when I got back, I'd be making awful pizzas because the wood would be different. Every single batch of flour that we get is different. Flour's nothing but a giant sponge. Every time you make dough, you have to look at it. Before you pull it out of the mixer, you have to touch it and make sure that it's right.
Through my whole career, I've always been obsessive about being the best and put myself in a position to control everything, but here, I can't control everything. I buy wood and flour and I try to make the best product I can. The biggest difference with what we do from the rest of the pizza world is that I don't think of what we do as cooking. It's a craft. It's not the same everyday. It's like making cheese or making beer...
AG: Or like being a carpenter, like grabbing a raw piece of wood. You grab a raw ingredient and enhance it, and to do that you have to go with the grains.
JT: It's much more challenging than anything I've ever done before.
Moving forward, what's the vision for the upcoming year?
JT: I'd like to get rich [laughs]. No, someone asked me that the other day -- "What's new and exciting at Ancora?" and I was like, "Pizza." That's what we do and, to a certain extent, I don't want to change anything we do. I like we do what we do because that's what makes me happy. As far as I'm concerned, moving forward, I'd like to control as much as I can. I'd like to grow the produce that we use, I'd like to raise the pigs that we use. And again, it's not necessarily that I want to do it cheaply?it's that I want to be able to do it as close to the way it's done in Italy (like feeding the pigs acorns), and make sure that the finished product is the way it should be.
· Ancora [Official Site]