Editor's note: Mark H. (aka Famdoc), is back with another field report. You may be familiar with Mark's dispatches from the Reykjavik Pizza Company in Reykjavik, Iceland; Jule's Thin Crust in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and the Kula Lodge on Maui. He reports here, from exotic Stockton, New Jersey. —The Mgmt.
Via Ponte Pizzeria Trattoria
These are very good times for pizza, particularly in urban areas. As a New Yorker, I can shuttle from the East Village to Cobble Hill to Arthur Avenue and admire the handiwork of hardworking pizzaioli preparing artisanal pizza in custom-built wood-burning ovens. New Yorkers think nothing of waiting in line for one of those special pies, paying a premium for the privilege. A casual perusal of recent reviews on Slice supports the notion that a similar passion for artisanal pizza exists in many other cities.
If premium pizza is to enjoy widespread success in this country, it will have to make meaningful forays into the vast spaces between large cities. It will mean that risk-taking pizzaioli will have to introduce a new way of looking at pizza to a potentially large audience that's overwhelmingly accustomed to the Americanized idea of pizza preparation.
I recently had the pleasure of tasting the efforts of one such pizzaiolo who is bringing his interpretation of artisanal pizza to the riverfront community of Stockton, New Jersey, about 60 miles west of Manhattan in Hunterdon County.
Occupying the space formerly occupied by Atria, a more traditional, locally popular Italian restaurant, Via Ponte ("Bridge Street" in Italian, a clever reminder of the restaurant's address) bills itself as a "Pizzeria Trattoria," giving equal emphasis to the pizza it serves and the trattoria menu it also features. It is the brainchild of Sicilian Giuseppe Finazzo, who learned to cook pizza from his mother and cut his pizza chops in various New Jersey–area pizzerias, and his business and life partner, Katherine Wytovich, who hails from New Jersey. Open less than one year, Via Ponte has garnered excitement from locals, as well as good reviews in New Jersey Monthly, on nj.com, and in and several Philadelphia-area publications.
Upon entering the restaurant, you're immediately struck by the wood-burning oven and open pizza-preparation area, occupying the visual focus of the center of the room. The oven is covered in smoked-glass tile, giving it a modern, Italian look. Seating for four diners is available at the pizza station or at one of about 18 tables in this rustic yet modern dining room.
The pizza menu features a choice of 13 different varieties. We had a Napoletana ($11, above) and an Ortolana ($14, top of page), which is a Napoletana pie with onions, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, peppers, artichokes, and calamata olives. Pies were made to order by Ms. Wytovich, who explained that her pizza-maker had departed the previous day. She did a fabulous job of balancing ingredients. She apologized for not using wood in the oven that day, hoping to resume use of wood in the oven when a new pizzaiolo was hired (the job may still be open; call the restaurant, if interested). Pizza choices also included a traditional thick-crust Sicilian Spingione, with anchovy, fresh mozzarella, oregano, and toasted breadcrumbs. Via Ponte also offers calzones.
Our pies were served as soon as they were removed from the oven. The crust was crisp, thin, and had medium char. The sauce, a homemade, San Marzano–based sauce, had moderate sweetness. A generous amount of toppings were present, dominated by the sweetness of the red onion. The mozzarella was abundant and fully melted, with a central char on each piece. The crust retained its crispness well. Via Ponte is BYO, so we chose a DOCG Chianti Classico to accompany our pie. I might suggest that Slice readers visiting Via Ponte consider bringing a nice chilled white from the Friuli region to enjoy with the Ortolana.
The trattoria menu includes salads, pastas, meat, and fish. We had a potato and green bean salad splashed with extra-virgin olive oil from Sicily and topped with fresh mint ($7). We also enjoyed the codfish, prepared Sicilian-style (lightly battered, fried, and topped with onion, potato, and raisins in a light red sauce ($27). Our companions enjoyed the putanesca ($14). A neighboring table was visibly and audibly delighted by their grilled branzino.
Ms. Wytovich was charming, attending to the dining room, the pizza oven and the kitchen, while conversing with guests. Mr. Finazzo remained in the kitchen until late in the evening, when he unwound with a beer and shared stories of his boyhood home in Sicily. Via Ponte is a refreshing new addition to the growing list of artisinal pizzerias finding acceptance outside of urban areas.
Via Ponte is located in Stockton, New Jersey, an ideal location for a day trip or weekend excursion. There are hiking and bicycle trails along either shore of the Delaware River. You can also canoe, raft, and tube on the Delaware. A variety of bed-and-breakfast accommodations are available in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, and in nearby Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where pizza lovers can also sample Jules' Thin Crust in Doylestown.