There may be no quicker way to start a fight on Facebook than to ask what’s the best pizzeria in town. Tastes in pizza, often determined by the style that was standard in the neighborhood where you grew up, vary a good deal. Some people judge a pie by the amount of gooey mozzarella bubbling on top, or the flavor of the tomato sauce that underlies it. Runnels and rivulets of olive oil are essential to some, a major turnoff for others. And how much garlic or oregano is enough?
Probably the biggest source of contention is the crust. Here in upstate New York, very thin, brittle crust seems to be the most favored style these days. But if you grew up in New York City, spoiled by easy access to the best pizza in the world on practically every block, chances are that you want your crust to be a little chewy. By that I mean not thick and doughy (unless you’re going for deep-dish Sicilian style), but rather slightly elastic, offering some resistance to the teeth, like a good baguette. Such a crust requires the use of high-gluten flour (preferably imported from Italy), which costs more, so many pizzerias in the hinterlands don’t bother with it. And many pizza consumers won’t care.
The three owners of Ollie’s Pizza, just opened in late July at 4 Bruceville Road in High Falls, met while working at DuMont Burger, an über-trendy fast-food joint in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. While Ilan Bachrach, Innis Lawrence and his wife Sophie Peltzer-Rollo are not native Brooklynites, they’ve spent enough time there to absorb the Big Apple’s high standards for pizza-making. And they learned from a master of the art: Frank Pinello, a Bensonhurst native who studied at the CIA and now runs the popular Best Pizza, also in Williamsburg.
When it came time to open their own place outside New York City, they gravitated to the town where Lawrence grew up, which hadn’t had its own pizzeria since the Chefs on Fire Bistro in the cellar of the DePuy Canal House went away. The son of recently deceased artist Chris Lawrence, Innis originally became friends with Bachrach when the two were involved in running live-action roleplaying camps for the Kingston-headquartered Wayfinder Experience. They reconnected several years later in Brooklyn. Peltzer-Rollo grew up in New Jersey, but had already found a welcome with her new in-laws in High Falls.
Fixing up the Black Barn
Cementing the deal, and the trio’s full-time move north, was the fact that the perfect spot right in the middle of High Falls was on the market last year, It was the building known as the Black Barn, where Accord-based antiques dealer Ron Sharkey used to stage his periodic field and barn sales. The 1850 structure had no insulation, electricity, running water or septic system, but it came with an enormous back yard adjacent to Route 213.
Little did they suspect when they bought the place in December 2019 that ample room for socially distanced outdoor café tables would, within a matter of months, become a major selling point for a restaurant. “This is our entire dining area,” said Peltzer-Rollo, waving with a sweeping gesture across the big yard, its ten tables generously spaced.
Beginning in January, the new owners gutted the building, taking care to preserve many of its vintage features, including hand-hewn posts, rough wood paneling in the upper story, and a corrugated steel roof. They brought in more natural light by adding more windows in the same style as those already existing, sanded the old wide-plank flooring, and hand-plastered over the new wiring rather than installing sheetrock. French bistro-styled booths with scrap-marble tabletops and comfortable-looking wood-slat benches line the perimeter, surrounding an enormous lilac-marble-topped oval bar that the owners plan to put into service as soon as it’s safe for New Yorkers to gather for drinks.
A new extension was built to house the state-of-the-art kitchen, equipped with not one but two pizza ovens. A wood-fired brick oven, custom-designed by Forza Forni, is used to make Roman al taglio a/k/a “Grandma” pies (rectangular), while an electric oven that can reach 1000 degrees Fahrenheit flash-bakes New York-style pies (14-inch-round) with tomato, Margherita or white toppings. Standard optional add-ons are anchovies, black olives, pepperoncini, shallots, Calabrian chilis, mushrooms, vegan cheese, pepperoni and sausage. Other toppings are offered as available, seasonally, from local suppliers including Back Home Farm in High Falls and Solid Ground in Hurley.
Choose your table
And what of these pies? Do they meet the test? Your picky Queens-bred correspondent tried two variations – white with caramelized sweet onions and tomato with pepperoni – and gave them two thumbs up. People who prefer great gobs of sauce and/or cheese might be a little nonplussed by the emphasis on fabulous half-naked crusts with toppings mainly clustered in the center, but that’s really the selling point here. Using a secret blend of domestic and imported flours, the chef/owners create a crust that’s thin but divinely chewy, with “a little bit of char” from the brick oven around the edges.
The rest of the menu at this time includes garlic knots, summer salads and ice cream sandwiches from Boice’s Dairy. Other sides, including oven-roasted vegetables, along with gluten-free crusts for those who need them are planned. For beverages, there’s a “curated” selection of organic wines, mimosas, local microbrews, cider and kombucha, homemade lemonade, iced tea, Arnold Palmers, fresh-squeezed juices and a refreshing cucumber/mint lemonade, which you can also get spiked with vodka. An espresso machine was awaiting its first coffee delivery at the time of our visit.
Until such time as congregated indoor dining is no longer a health hazard, you must place your order at an outdoor counter and choose a table, which has been wiped down with disinfectant since having been vacated by the previous patron. Your name is called when your order comes out of the oven.
A bank of clay pots filled with lavender plants wafts their scent over the yard, and adjustable patio umbrellas provide shade. It’s a lovely place to sit and enjoy a tasty meal, listening to soft reggae over the sound system or the subtle music of the cascades on the Rondout Creek.
Ollie’s Pizza (named for Innis and Sophie’s three-year-old daughter) is currently open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. To learn more, visit www.ollies.pizza.