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Daniel Riviera, Executive Chef of L’asso Restaurant Talks Deep Dish and More

Photo credit: Hatti Lim

On the corner of Mott and Kenmare in Nolita sits L’asso (which means “The Ace” in Italian), a charming pizzeria with wooden walls, a pleasant staff and a deep-dish pie that just may rival its Chicago counterpart. Recently I had the chance to chat with Daniel Riviera, the head chef behind this neighborhood spot, dicussing what exactly deep dish pizza is; buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes and more.

Tell us about L’asso?

L’asso is a family-like environment, everybody’s very comfortable working here, everybody gets along; the kitchen and the front of the house. And overall we have the best service and the best special ingredients. But we keep it simple, nothing complicated; which is pretty much my motto, as well as the culinary industry and the restaurant industry. You know we just really want to aim for the best, but we don’t go too crazy. For example, we carry buffalo mozzarella here…

What’s that, buffalo mozzarella?

It’s pretty much from Italy and was always made from buffalo’s milk as opposed to whole milk. Not until the United States, and how it was imported, started changing it to whole milk. But the buffalo mozzarella itself we carry is from the direct region. So we have it imported. It’s very expensive but we use it on our Margherita D.O.C., which is our best selling pizza here. It contains buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomato sauce, oregano, basil, and extra virgin olive oil.

What does D.O.C. stand for?

You ever read the back of a wine bottle?? Well in order for wine or champagne to be classified as wine or champagne, it has to come from that region of France; so it’s the same thing for pizza. The D.O.C. pizza should never be made by any machine or equipment; the dough has to be handmade. It should not be stretched out more than 12 inches. It has to use San Marzano tomatoes, San Marzano tomato sauce. Also it has to be made with buffalo mozzarella. So it’s pretty much the stamp of approval from Italy that you are making a true Italian D.O.C.-style pizza. It’s the standard everywhere you go and we were essentially one of the first restaurants to do that.

Where did the idea to launch a Chicago-style deep dish in New York come from?

It was in the works for about three months. We talked about it, researched it…but we don’t want to call it Chicago style; we want to say its New York City deep dish. We want to be the first place in New York City to offer it. Chicago has their own version; we want to be the best that has it in New York City. In Chicago we can’t compete on their level and we don’t want to compete. We just want to provide the best and be one of the few restaurants that carry it. And here at L’asso we use the best ingredients.

Like the pizza I have for you in the oven right now is layered with shredded mozzarella, peppers, onions and San Marzano tomato sauce.

I’m looking forward! But what’s the difference between deep dish and other kinds of pizza?

Apart from our deep dish, a deep dish is not made in a brick oven, it’s made in a conventional oven. The only downside of any deep dish no matter where you go, there’s a slight wait time for it. It takes about 35 minutes to bake. So we do recommend that when customers come to order a deep dish that they have a salad or an appetizer, so that by the time the pizza comes out… its well-worth the wait.

And then as opposed to a regular pizza, a conventional oven maxes out at 500 degrees when we’re cooking a deep dish; as opposed to a brick oven, 900 degrees and those pizzas’s cook in about 5 minutes. So you really want the deep dish to cook through because there are so many layers. Our deep dish pizzas are about 8 inches in diameters and 2 inches deep. So I mean 2 inches deep is a lot of layers to melt and cook through. They definitely need lot more time at a slower temperature.

What’s so special about L’asso, why should everybody come here for deep dish?

We’re the only people doing it [deep dish] and we’re doing it the best. I really want to carry nothing but the best ingredients, provide the best food and best service. I’m very passionate about choosing the proper ingredients, from tomatoes to basil; if it’s not good I send it back. I’m not going to sit there and say I’ll work with it because I’m not. I want to provide the best. And the best thing about having higher quality ingredients is you have to do less to it.

Do you guys use mostly organic ingredients?

Our chicken is hormone and anti-biotic free. With the exception of greens, we don’t carry organic fruit but we do carry higher quality ingredients. Even our steak on the menu is USDA-prime, New York strip. I mean for a pizzeria, I still carry a really expensive set of meat. We’re not just pizza, we’re also pasta, we make homemade ravioli here and it’s filled with potatoes, zucchini and a walnut pesto sauce.

Last question, how’d you come to L’asso? What’s your background?

L’asso came along when I was working in a restaurant in New Jersey. I’d finished culinary school a year before…and a friend told me about this restaurant in New York and said “I know you can do it, you’re good at what you do”…I made a phone call to the owner and in one day I had my job.

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About ND McCray

ND McCray is a former Brooklynite, now St. Louis-based writer, penning pieces on arts, culture and other stuff.
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