My recent day-trip to the Pioneer Valley couldn't have been better timed. For one thing, leaf season in Western Mass. is pretty spectacular; had I'd been one of the zillions of high schoolers college-shopping in the area, I would have signed on the dotted line right then and there. More importantly, the 2011 James Beard semifinalist Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton had just reopened after an almost three-month-long hiatus, during which time owners Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei pooled their limited resources and renovated the State Street space.
The biggest upgrade: a Llopis wood-burning brick oven that's twice as roomy as their original wood-fired vessel. (They've also expanded the footprint of the bakery a bit to accommodate the oven, as well as a grain mill.) As they've proudly proclaimed on their website, that means they're baking more bread and pizza than ever.
Ironically—or, rather, expectedly—they'd still run out of bread by the time I stopped in around dinnertime on a Saturday night, but the takeout-only pizza operation was just getting going. Everyday between 5 p.m. and closing time at 9 p.m. they portion out rounds of their sourdough base and toss them in the air to make pizza crusts (12 or 16 inches; prices vary). The menu is 16 pies deep and meat-free (save for anchovies), and the combinations are as sophisticated and carefully matched as you'd expect: chevre, blue potato, rosemary, sea salt, and high-quality extra-virgin olive oil on one; a mushroom quartet (including white truffle oil) with Kalamata olives on another.
I'm a purist when it comes to pizza, but I'm also a sucker for really fresh ricotta, so I combined the two into a Napoletana (plain cheese) with dollops of pillowy curds from The Farmstead at Mine Brook spooned over half of the pie. Twenty minutes after my order went in, I watched the staffers turn the oven's massive steering wheel until my pie reappeared at the opening, and fish it out with long-handled wood peel.
I can honestly say it was some of the best pizza I've had in New England. The crust was gorgeously charred and bubbly, with full-bodied, hearth-baked, faintly sour flavor. The sauce and cheeses were plain and simple—maybe a tad under-seasoned&mdsash;but clean-flavored, reminding you that this is bread-baker's pizza, and the crust is the obvious focal point. My friends and I demolished the whole pie in the car (carryout only on a cold night leaves limited options when you don't live in Northampton), and I can't wait to go back for more.
Hungry Ghost Bread
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Associate Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for various Boston-area publications.