It is the age of the pizza geek.
If you recently stood in line for a pizza, or used Resy Notify to get a table at which you later ate a pizza, or showed up at a certain place and time because you had learned on Instagram that it was going to be the site of a pizza drop, chances are that a pizza geek made the pizza in question.
When pizza geeks are talking, no step in the process of mixing and rising and baking of pizza is too technical, no detail is too granular. They speak to one another about the hydration of their dough, the effect of long fermentation times, the digestibility of the crust.
Which ought to mean that the time is right for a Wylie Dufresne pizzeria, such as Stretch Pizza, which he recently opened on Park Avenue South. No other chef did as much as Mr. Dufresne to make kitchen geekery cool. His restaurant wd-50 was the city’s foremost laboratory for pure and applied food science. He figured out how to use gelatin, gellan gum and an immersion blender to fry mayonnaise; how to bind ground shellfish with transglutaminase to make shrimp noodles; and how to exploit the reaction of xanthan gum and konjack flour to make a foie gras terrine that could be stretched and tied in a knot.
To the extent that it had ever caught on, the practice of following scientific principles to achieve breakthroughs in the kitchen had largely faded from restaurant cooking by the time Mr. Dufresne closed wd-50, in 2014, and his more casual restaurant, Alder, in 2015. That approach is very much alive, though, in baking circles — especially, and somewhat improbably, among the younger generation of pizza makers.
Even the mozzarella-paved road that led Mr. Dufresne to the pizza business — reading up on technique during the shelter-in-place phase of the pandemic, practicing at home, posting pictures of his pies on Instagram, and eventually selling them to takeout customers at a pop-up — is the same route taken by many of the newly minted pizza geeks.
So why doesn’t more of the bug-eyed nerd energy that’s so abundant on the pizza scene these days make its way into Stretch Pizza?
The pizzeria, which Mr. Dufresne owns in partnership with Gadi Peleg, the owner of Breads Bakery and a card-carrying dough geek himself, pays homage to the pizza Mr. Dufresne ate while growing up in Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s. This was not the coal-oven pizza that people lined up to get from John’s and Arturo’s, but the portable, foldable slices sold on paper plates by Famous Ray’s Original in the Village and available in a reasonable facsimile in every part of the city. There’s no margherita or marinara on the menu at Stretch, which leads off with a “Classic NY” pie — what a New Yorker would call a cheese, or plain, or regular pizza.
Mr. Dufresne has vastly improved the crust, bringing it into the modern era. It is much lighter and crisper and fresher-tasting than was usual in the ’80s, when pizza crust had no noticeable flavor except for an occasional sweetness from added sugar, and pizza shops never talked about their dough at all, let alone its digestibility.
The era of tight trousers and unbuttoned shirts is also the touchstone for, among many others, Scarr’s Pizza and Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop. But their pizzas ooze more streetwise charm than Stretch’s — and more orange grease, for that matter. The 12-inch pies at Stretch are prim, almost chaste.
Grease may not be everyone’s favorite pizza topping, but Stretch might be improved by using a little more of it. Most wood-fired pizzerias these days shower their pizza with extra-virgin olive oil before it goes into the oven; oil is a major component in the crackle on the crust of a Sicilian or grandma pizza. So is grated cheese, which is responsible for the Detroit-style “frico crust” that has spread far beyond Detroit in the past few years. All this has worked on New Yorkers’ palates, and now relatively low-fat pizzas like those at Stretch can strike us as lacking in flavor.
Mr. Dufresne may see all this added oil and cheese as cheating, but Stretch could stand to bend the rules. In a sense, it does. The pizzas arrive with three dipping sauces: green goddess, tomato and halal-cart white sauce. But does great pizza need sauce on the side?
Stretch makes two standard pies, plain and pepperoni. All the others are original. The most fun to eat is the Couch Potato, a reworking of a loaded baked potato. The most original may be the Nellie, a heart-on-the-sleeve love song to shallots, which appear roasted, pickled and fried into golden wisps that cling in a lacy cloud above the surface.
There is very little of the boundary-pushing that Mr. Dufresne is known for, although the puddles of horseradish cream between slices of ham on the Ploughman will not be up everyone’s alley, and topping a zucchini and smoked eggplant pizza (the Oddfather) with “tempura crumbs” may not be functionally different from pouring a box of Rice Krispies over it.
Appetizers suggest that Mr. Dufresne could run a smart, playful and truly inventive Italian restaurant in the manner of Don Angie and its imitators. Batons of chickpea fritters contain more fresh basil than you’d think was possible, and shrimp-scampi toasts seem to taste like Little Italy one minute and Chinatown the next. A tender meatball on a fluffy white bun turns out to be, essentially, a meatball parm hero that is almost ready to ascend to heaven.
But nothing is as good or mind-bending as the potato chip salad.
It sounds like a classic stoner idea, and for all I know it is one, but it takes an unusually bright stoner to think of dressing a green salad with salt-and-vinegar potato chips that work as both crouton and vinaigrette.
This dish already has a cult following. Among the faithful there was minor panic last month when Grub Street reported that Rick Bishop, the Sullivan County farmer who makes the chips, had retired.
A pizzeria is in trouble when its most talked-about item, and probably its most pleasurable, is a salad. This trouble can be eased by one of the superbly woven cocktails, like the vodka martini with tomato brandy and olive-leaf liqueur, called the Crossing Delancey. It can be soothed with banana soft serve that has been encased in a peanut butter shell and sprinkled with springy cubes of chocolate babka. But it can’t quite be erased.
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