On a Saturday afternoon in Jersey City, fourteen people had gathered outside Bread & Salt, a restaurant that should have started serving pizza seventy minutes prior. That schedule, to be fair, was only approximate, as the venue has neither a website nor a public phone number. “Open at 1:00 p.m. today,” read a sticky note taped to the door. It was now 1:10 p.m. And while the scent of baking dough was permeating the air, the lights were still off. “Every time I come here, they’re closed or they’re open an hour late,” said an unhappy bystander, adding “Don’t they notice the one-star Yelp reviews?” A muscle car zoomed by, and the sting of burnt rubber overtook the sweet aromas wafting from inside. Then a newborn barfed on the sidewalk.
Things were getting pretty crazy at the latest East Coast endeavor by Rick Easton, a pretty serious pizzaiolo who’s currently putting out some of the finest slices in the tri-state area. “I’m going to knock,” a person next to me said, who clearly wanted one of those slices very badly. This was a profoundly bad idea, I thought. The last thing I wanted to do was be involved in some sort of collective sedition that resulted in Easton leaving town — he has ditched New York before — or getting us banned from the institutional altogether. Please, don’t knock. The pizza will come.
Easton opened Bread & Salt in June on a quiet stretch of the Heights in New Jersey, where a nearby park affords stunning vistas of the West Side and Hudson Yards. It’s the third iteration of his restaurant, following now-closed versions in Crown Heights and Pittsburgh; like Una’s Anthony Mangieri, Easton hasn’t so much built an empire as he has temporarily taken his craft to whichever lucky city to which he decides to relocate.
“I’m pretty happy going to work 20 hours per day in my own spot,” he tells me during a phone interview. “I don’t know how to do that in multiple locations.” Easton, in short, is meticulous. The upper echelons of pizza making involves fickle starter doughs with precise fermentations. It takes persistence. It takes patience. And for those venturing from afar, it means that Bread & Salt might not be open yet when you get there, as multiple diners have reported — or sold out of precisely what you want, like at a barbecue spot.
Still, knocking the door won’t help. Yet the person next to me knocked. I winced. Then she knocked again. “Five more minutes,” a (polite) staffer inside said. A few minutes later, Bread & Salt threw open its all-glass, garage-like door, and the kitchen began sending out bread showered in mullet roe so yellow, it’s as if the fish fed exclusively on underwater sunflowers. The dried petals dissolved on the tongue like briny truffles.
Easton, who often stands with his back to the room, spends the bulk of service making pizza, painting sheathes of dough crimson. The crackly slices, sometimes thinner than a few sheets of construction paper, taste of tart, fragrant, you’re lucky-to-try-these-once-a-year tomatoes.
I ask Easton where he procures these ephemeral edible jewels of summer. “They’re canned,” he tells me. He uses the Gustarosso canned variety from Puglia. They pack a faintly acidic kick, followed by a meaty, MSG-style mouthfeel, and a velvety finish — thanks to a proper dose of olive oil.
The following should be obvious by now: When contemplating New York’s top pizzerias, it would be remiss to overlook Jersey City. Doing so would match the absurdity of excluding Stone Barns from a local fine dining guide because it lies a train ride away. If one were to ask where to find the top Neapolitan style pies locally, whether creative or traditional, I’d probably send them to Razza before any place in Manhattan. Just the same, any consideration of Roman-style slices would be lacking without Bread & Salt.
Like any proper slice joint, there’s no wait service at Bread and Salt. Diners simply queue up and watch with horror as so many slices start to disappear. Some will not be replaced. A host calls out your order; you wolf it down; and you get back in line again to sample a slate of completely new, previously unavailable pies.
A chalkboard sign advises to ask about dessert. So I do. “We don’t have dessert today.” They do, however, have (average) meatballs in red sauce, tangy Sicilian salads with green beans and potatoes, and bowls of milky stracciatella with impossibly sweet roasted cherry tomatoes ($12).
Though really, you’re primarily here for the pizza. If you’re lucky, translucent slices of green tomato will cover one of those pies, adding clean crunch while anchovies impart aggressive salt. Recommended pairing: a nice sweet German Riesling to slice through the fishy brine. Just be sure to bring it yourself. While new style pizzerias have been matching their haute pies with excellent natural wines and elegant stemware, Bread & Salt is BYO, which means you can bring your own Zaltos or cans of wine spritzer.
Easton’s pizza is closest to Roman al taglio style, which is to say square. Unlike his previous endeavors, Easton doesn’t uses a pan here. He instead shapes oblong pies by hand, which he bakes on his electric oven floor for 10 to 12 minutes. For the dough, he uses a high-hydration sourdough starter with a long fermentation; that’s pizza-speak for dough-making that results in a crisp, extra-bubbly crumb with all sorts of air pockets. The product is obscenely light, barely sweet, and faintly smoky, with a gentle stretchiness that gives way to crispness. Easton tells me he wants his pizza to almost have the texture of pastry, and indeed, on my last visit the crust seemed to flake like a pain au chocolat.
Of course, things can change. If most modern Neapolitan pies are about strict precision, Easton’s pies exhibit more variation. Slices of sausage pizza with peppers were pleasantly dense and very sweet one night, while a cherry tomato pie — strikingly vegetal with punches of bitter parsley and fiery cayenne slices — was more ethereally crispy, boasting the thinness of lavash from Caucuses. It crackled and tugged at first, then almost seemed to dissolve.
Specialty pies will come and go, but the rosso and margherita pies are constants.
Here’s Easton on the subject of cheese: “I’m totally against all imported mozzarella,” he says, explaining that most mozzarella di bufala is too old for his tastes. “You wouldn’t feed that to your dog,” he adds, and claims that most stateside mozzarella is a “total fraud.” Accordingly, he buys fresh curd from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which he pulls himself before service, laying the milky strands on the pizza only after it’s removed from the oven. Wait a minute before eating, and the cheese is already too dry. Those who take a bite right after it comes out of the oven will experience a remarkable union of dairy, starch acid, olive oil, and basil, which is more sweet than sharp here.
Last Friday, 90s hip hop filled the room, as did smoke from a charred pizza. Folks in t-shirts and baseball hats waited in line, speaking in English and Italian. Helium balloons floated about for a birthday. Staffers took count of what slices were left — while letting patrons borrow the bottle opener to crack open beers purchased from a local bodega. Not since Roberta’s opened in Bushwick in 2009 has excellent pizza felt so much like a party.
What’s all the more impressive is that it can do this with the chief product running as low as $2. It’s a far cry from the spendier (if occasionally excellent) pizza worship happening at baking temples across the five boroughs. And it all reaffirms something I’ve long been convinced of: For all the great pies the tri-state area puts out, there is nothing more vital, creative, nourishing, or compelling to New York and New Jersey pizza than a slice, even if it means waiting a bit.
Note: Getting to Bread & Salt, for some, shouldn’t take too much longer than a ride out to Di Fara or Totonno’s. Best bet is to take the PATH to your closest stop in Jersey City then hop in a ride share or taxi.