Chef Dan Richer Has Developed a Rubric for Pizza Perfection
The Razza owner chats with us about his new cookbook over a couple of pies.
For Dan Richer, the best pizza is not in New Jersey, or New York, or even Italy—but wherever you happen to be. As long as you get your hands on the finest local ingredients and master the art of dough-making, you can produce a truly exceptional pie from just about anywhere. The Razza chef/owner explains this, along with everything else he’s learned in his 20 years of making pizza, in The Joy of Pizza, out November 9.
Richer and I are sitting on the patio of his lauded Jersey City pizzeria, enjoying an array of his wood-fired, artisanal pies. A fellow New Jersey native, I have a hard time accepting the idea that location has nothing to do with good pizza—I’ve always been told that ours is the best. So I begin by asking Richer about the myth that’s been ingrained into every New Jerseyan’s head from birth.
“Let me guess. It’s the water.” he says. That is, the belief that bagels and pizza from the greater New York City area are superior due to our very specific water supply. Allegedly, there are low concentrations of calcium and magnesium in our tap, which has a softening effect on the gluten in dough.
“At one point in humanity, the world was flat, right?” Richer jokes. “We’ve come a long way with science—in figuring out what’s actually happening. If you understand what makes an ingredient great, and if you know how to put it together properly, you can make a great product.”
Case in point: The two margheritas laid out on the table, which differ in playful ways. “This is our standard margherita,” Richer says, pointing to one of the pies. “The tomatoes are the winner of the tomato tasting that we do every year. The cheese we make here every morning. And the basil goes on after the bake.”
The tomato tasting is one of the many ingredient rubrics Richer includes in his book. Every year, he and his team conduct a raw taste test of numerous canned tomato brands, comparing their moisture level, acidity, sweetness, and flavor. “Tomatoes are an agricultural product. There should be variation year to year and certainly from place to place,” he explains. “So for us to know that we're serving the best possible tomato, we have to consistently taste.”
And he encourages at-home pizza-makers to replicate that same process—to develop a vocabulary for what they like and dislike. “The more we taste, the more we talk about it, the more refined our palates are going to be. And then we’ll be able to pick up on subtle differences,” he says.
Richer then introduces me to the second pie: the Jersey Margherita. “This is a highly localized version with a sense of place,” he explains. “You can see the cheese is yellowish compared to the other one because it’s made from grass-fed cows in New Jersey. Grass has chlorophyll in it, and that comes through in the cheese with a different color.”
The sauce in this variation makes use of field-grown tomatoes, taking advantage of the tail end of tomato season in New Jersey. And the basil here is cooked, simply because Richer likes it both ways, and that’s the beauty of a margherita: Modify just one ingredient, and the entire pie is transformed.
Both pizzas meet the criteria Richer spells out in his book. When you pull apart a slice, there is no sagging at the tip. Each slice maintains its structural integrity, and yet it feels as light as a feather. The sourdough crust is airy, with a crisp, perfectly-caramelized rim. And every topping plays its own, distinct role.
When Razza first opened, Richer was not met with immediate success, struggling to get enough people in the door. “I had the restaurant on the market. I was going to sell it at one point during those first four years,” Richer explains. “And then at the four-year mark, I made the commitment. I said, ‘I'm going to make this work. I believe in Jersey City. I believe in what we do.’”
And then The New York Times review came out, declaring that New York’s best pizza was in New Jersey. “Thankfully, it was a good review, because we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t,” he adds. And ever since then, Richer’s life became a lot busier. Pre-pandemic, never-ending lines would form outside of Razza’s doors, made up of people coming from far and wide to try the Jersey delicacy.
“When I land in Newark, I immediately go to Razza and have a pizza that transcends locale,” says Katie Parla, from Italy via FaceTime. “It’s not a Jersey pizza, and it’s not a Neapolitan pizza. It’s very uniquely the pizza of Dan Richer—an expression of the textures and flavors that he likes.”
“It’s not a Jersey pizza, and it’s not a Neapolitan pizza. It’s very uniquely the pizza of Dan Richer—an expression of the textures and flavors that he likes.”
Parla is a Rome-based food and beverage author, culinary guide, and cookbook author who collaborated with Richer on The Joy of Pizza. Though she moved to Rome in 2003, she’s also from New Jersey, and like the rest of us, has spent a fair share of time defending the Garden State.
“As funny as Jersey is as a punchline, it’s time to recognize that there are some really great people doing food here,” she says. “Some of the best mozzarella in all of America is in freaking New Jersey. And Jersey tomatoes versus California tomatoes is this whole thing. We’re a state of farmers and people who devote untold concentration, love, and attention to the land.”
And The Joy of Pizza spotlights these efforts, as much a book about agriculture and community as it is about pizza-making. In it, Richer addresses the common misconception that, in order to have good pizza, you must import ingredients from Italy.
“When in humanity have we ever been able to truck or ship ingredients 2,000 miles from their origin? Pretty much never, until right now,” Richer explains. “I don’t believe that soil in Southern Italy is any better or worse than soil we have here in New Jersey or California.”
What we should do, Richer explains, is replicate the Italian ideology of sourcing ingredients. “In the Naples area, they’re using San Marzano tomatoes because that region is right there,” he says. “The water buffalo making buffalo milk mozzarella cheese are right over there. So it makes sense for them to use those products in their pizza.”
The next pizza we try—and my personal favorite—is the Funghi, a white mushroom pie made with fresh mozzarella and scamorza. The mushrooms were brought to Richer by Dan Lipow of The Foraged Feast. The two have developed a long-time friendship, embarking on a number of mushroom foraging trips together. This week, Lipow will be bringing in some chanterelles, a selection that’s likely to change soon after. But Richer celebrates that inconsistency.
This collaboration with Lipow is one of the many relationships that contribute to Razza’s standing as a “community of food makers.” Richer places his trust in domestic farmers, sourcing freshly milled flour from Clifton, New Jersey, or handmade, fresh mozzarella from Jersey Girl Cheese in Branchville.
“It makes my job more meaningful,” Richer explains. “What interests me is talking about how special this cheese is, standing on a field, surrounded by cows, and then walking 20 feet and making cheese from the milk that came from those same cows.”
Another pizza reflective of Richer’s lasting partnerships is Project Hazelnut, a pie made of fresh mozzarella, ricotta, Rutgers University hazelnuts, and local honey. There is a worldwide hazelnut shortage, but thanks to a project spearheaded by Dr. Thomas Molnar at Rutgers’s agriculture school, Cook College, hazelnut trees are getting revived.
Richer recalls how, when he first started working with Molnar, the busy team at Razza had to engage in a painstaking process of getting the nuts out of the shell, cracking them one at a time. But this year, because of Razza’s support, Molnar purchased an electric sheller and sorter. “We just received a box of shelled hazelnuts,” Richer says, excitedly. “I carried it into my kitchen and my whole team cheered.”
Rutgers sold its first 10,000 trees this year to farmers, and Richer continues to showcase the ingredient’s potential. Parla, who grew up visiting the farms at Cook College, says Project Hazelnut is her favorite pie at Razza. “It’s a slice of pizza that’s so objectively delicious, but it carries with it all of this cultural baggage,” she says. “And it makes you think about the way that we purchase food and the importance of education in reviving this tradition.”
The Joy of Pizza comes at a time when sourdough baking is already a familiar concept. During the pandemic, Richer really cracked the code to making restaurant-quality pizza in a home oven, finding the process to be meditative. “Being able to nurture something like a sourdough starter gives people hope. It gives them purpose. It’s got to be fed,” he says. “It’s really difficult to worry about life when you’re engaged in a hands-on, learning process.”
He includes a recipe for a beginner dough, made with white flour and commercial yeast, as well as more complicated variations that make use of whole wheat and high extraction flour, sourdough starter, or freshly milled grains. And scattered throughout the book are QR codes leading to instructional videos, perfect for visual learners.
Parla adds, “It may ruin your local pizza when you realize, ‘Oh my god, this is under -fermented.’ Or like, ‘The cheese broke.’ All the lessons that people are going to learn from a basic observation of the ingredients in their raw and cooked form will be really fun to engage with.”
And although the book is reminiscent of a science experiment format—with rubrics, technical illustrations, and measurement charts—the goal is not actually perfection. Pizza-making is an endeavor that’s half-science, half-art, and even Richer is still striving for the best. I ask him how the pizzas in front us rate, according to his Pizza Evaluation Rubric.
“Pretty bad, honestly,” he jokes. “I mean, it's all a journey, right? Every pizza that we make, we have the opportunity to make a really great pizza or an okay one. And my standards are pretty high for myself. These are great pizzas, but they could always be a little bit better.”