Address: 84 1/2 Morris Street, Jersey City, NJ 07302 (near Exchange Place)
Hours: Mon-Fri 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sat-Sun 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. (hours can be quirky; call ahead)
Payment: Cash and all major credit cards
The Skinny: Takeout and delivery only, with some outdoor seating
All photographs by Michael Parillo
BY MICHAEL PARILLO .:::. As both a lifelong New Jerseyan and a pizza obsessive, I've been known to get gloomy about the state of the slice in my area. Too many ten-gallon cans of industrial-grade tomatoes, too much sweet and spongy dough. So a couple of years ago when I was tipped off about a killer pie in Jersey City, I made a beeline to La Rustique Bakeria.
JC isn't exactly in my neck of the woods, but if you have pizza, I will travel. I loved the pie, and I vowed to return. But then, whether out of laziness or wanting to avoid faraway takeoutLa Rustique has just one table inside but adds outdoor seating in the warmer monthsor simply because I've been captivated by my wife's homemade pizza and the impressive recent offerings in New York City, I didn't make it back until now.
Not much has changed at the small, modest-looking storefront bakery and pizzeria. A blown-up 1938 mug shot of Frank Sinatra still watches over the pizzaioli as they stretch their dough ("Nice and thin, gumbahattaboy," I imagine Blue Eyes saying), and a glass case by the register still holds a tempting array of enormous pieslarger than those on the menuwhich are cut and sold as "oversized slices" (Margherita $3; with toppings, $3.50).
After paying and shrugging off a sarcastic comment about my "taking pictures for posterity"did he think I was trying to steal his design secrets?I threw my short stack of boxes in my car and drove away. This is the part that kept messing me up. I was staked with hot pizzas, but I had no nearby safe house at which to tuck into themhome was almost 20 miles away. Park bench? Hourly motel room? I pulled over and settled for a few quick bites of the white pieyou know, because it would be unfair not to eat some of the stuff while it was as hot as possible. This was a good move, for the moment.
But then, as I drove, with my windows fogging over and my taste buds teased into great expectation, I had to endure the tantalizing aroma of smoke, herbs, tomatoes, and hot cardboard (I love the scent of pizza-warmed cardboard, a perk of the takeout experience). I avoided looking at my speedometer, and I'm lucky I wasn't pulled over.
I made it home while the pizza was still warm, and I went to work in earnest. The Margherita looked similar to the one I had the last time, which I'd photographed, for posterity. Today's specimen was a gorgeous, colorful pie, with snow-white house-made mozzarella peeking out from under the bright red blush of San Marzano tomatoes. (The cheese is so delicate and low in moisture that it must be placed beneath the tomatoes or it will burn.) The vibrant red was blurred to a fuzzier hue where Parmesan cheese had been sprinkled. The end crust bore the precious burn marks that I've come to value so highly.
Unfortunately, the pizza wasn't thin enough in the middle, and some of the internal areas met my teeth with a somewhat gluey texture. It seemed the bottom had charred before the dough directly beneath the cheese had had a chance to set fully.
Still, this was one tasty pizza, albeit subtly so. La Rustique achieves a refined savoriness rather than favoring forceful flavors. In fact, it's a pizza that resists being adorned. I liked the sausage slices, but the fennel-rich links, though nice, threw the flavor out of balance a bit. There's no question in my mind that ordering a Margherita is the way to best appreciate this pie as a wholethe creamy and mild mozzarella, the tangy and not-too-sweet tomatoes, the salty Parm, the nicely charred crust, all in harmony.
Yes, the Margherita is the star, but the white pie might earn top billing elsewhere. Not surprisingly, it, too, had subtle charms, given all of its innocent white, so its generous dusting of oregano and its scattered slivers of basil really picked up the flavors. And it contained no mozzarella, only a thin layer of ricotta. My thoughts on ricotta-topped pizza can go both waysas much as I love No. 28 in Manhattan, I've found the ricotta on its white pie to be too pillowyand so I was glad that La Rustique got the ricotta-to-other-stuff ratio exactly right. My only complaint about this pizza was that I could not detect the presence of the roasted garlic that was noted on the menu as being blended with the ricotta, which sounded like a nice touch.
Overall, with both pies, the very best parts were the burnt bits. There's just nothing like an oven that's hot enough to literally put its mark on a pizza. La Rustique's dough itself is good, not quite baking up crisp-chewy at the end crustthe ultimatebut offering a satisfying crunch before the cornicione collapses. Where it's charred, though, and where the smokiness of the burn marks can mix with the flavor of the cheese and the tomatoesnow that's heaven on earth. Jersey, listen up: No more pale pizzas!
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