Local Obsession: Bivio Pizza Napoletana
There’s no shortage of Neapolitan-style pizzas to eat in New York and New Jersey, but few are made with the same care as Tomasso Colao’s. At Bivio Pizza Napoletana, his postage-stamp pizza house in Montclair, New Jersey, he prepares pies the old-fashioned way: three at a time in a hand-built 950-degree brick oven, with natural yeast, genuine San Marzano tomatoes, and oregano all imported from Italy. Colao says that he only moonlights as pizzaiolo—he’s a jazz musician by trade; you can catch him at area clubs like Trumpets and The Falcon— but Bivio is his second smash restaurant. Needing a break, he closed the original, in Little Falls, New Jersey, back in 2014. Thankfully, he reopened on Pine Street in Montclair in early 2017, started out by specializing in bread, and expanded to dinner service last November. We love Bivio for its simplicity and the purity of its ingredients. Colao tells us about how and why he cooks this way.
The first thing you see when you walk into Bivio for dinner is you at your station, making pizzas one at a time.
When you visit Naples and go to a pizzeria, you always see the pizzaiolo doing his thing, making pizzas. My station is a miniature version of what you would see there, even 200 years ago: a marble counter, all the condiments set out, and a pizzaiolo. My family is Italian: My mother’s family is from outside Naples, and my father is from Salerno. I grew up in a household that was Italian, even though we lived in Paterson, New Jersey. My mother and grandmother made everything: homemade pasta, desserts, pastries, bread. I’m trying to stick to the tradition and keep it pure and simple. We do things the way they were done for centuries, with really high quality ingredients. A lot of customers tell us it’s like being in Italy.
That’s definitely how we felt when we came in. Can you tell me more about your ingredients? I read that the yeast you use is more than 20 years old.
In my hands, it’s about 22 years old. I was able to get it, dried, from a small place in Italy. We call it the baby. I feed the baby every day. We use no commercial yeast, no chemicals, no by-products, no bromated or bleached flour. We use only flour from Naples to make our dough, and we ferment it for a couple of days. That’s where it gets lightness, its richness. Being all natural makes it easier to digest.
As much as I can, I use the ingredients that I would use if I lived in Naples. We use only authentic San Marzano tomatoes. San Marzano is an area in southern Italy, around Naples. The volcanic soil from Mount Vesuvius gives the tomatoes there a beautiful flavor. We get our buffalo mozzarella, made with buffalo milk, from Salerno. I make homemade mozzarella with cow’s milk daily. All of our other cheeses are imported from Italy. Our oregano is from Sicily because I feel like it’s a little sweeter—it’s not as bitter as other oreganos. We also make things like candied walnuts here, in the oven.
As much as I can, I use the ingredients that I would use if I lived in Naples.
Is it the same oven from the old restaurant?
No, it’s a new one, a Marra Forni. The company was started by three brothers from Naples who came to the States and opened a small factory in Maryland. A lot of the materials they use, even the soil for the bricks, are from Naples. We bake at 950 degrees, so each pizza is only in there for 90 seconds or so. It actually takes me longer to assemble a pizza than it does to bake it. I put three pizzas in at a time—maybe I can sneak in a fourth if I’m taking one out—because as soon as you turn around and back again, it’s toast.
What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?
We have five pizzas on the menu all the time, the basics: the traditional marinara, without cheese; the margherita, with cheese and basil and plum tomatoes; a white pizza, bianca; a porcini, which is the wild mushroom; and a filetti, which is the cherry tomatoes with mozzarella and fresh garlic and fresh basil and olive oil and sea salt.
Then we do two pizza specials every night. I have 43 or 44 different pizzas. Some that customers really like are the hot soppressata with thin slices of Meyer lemon and buffalo mozzarella. People say, “I never thought I would like a pizza with lemon on it.” But it’s a really nice balance with the hot soppressata. Meyer lemons are a little sweeter than domestic lemons; when you cut into one, it almost smells like gin. I would love to use Amalfi Coast lemons—they’re just so beautiful—but the Meyer is a good alternative. Another one we do is duck sausage made with fois gras, macerated figs in red wine, fresh spinach that gets crispy in the oven, and a little garlic. We do spicy lamb sausage with Cipollini onions. My father’s favorite pasta dish was green olives and capers with a little anchovy and a light tomato sauce—we do that as a pizza. For our amatriciana pizza, we use guanciale, which is wild boar cheek that’s been cured, and sautéed onions. Another of my favorites is pancetta with sweet and sour onions that we make in the oven and radicchio that’s baked in a little bit of balsamic. One more and then I’ll stop. [Laughs.] We’ve been doing a wild boar sausage one, where I make kind of a sausage with the boar and roasted garlic and toasted and crushed fennel seeds and a little red wine and plum tomato. We put that on a pizza with small Italian cherry tomatoes, pomodorini, and we put a little roasted fennel on that as well.
What are you doing differently this time around?
I really scaled back. I used to make a lot of appetizers: wild boar ragu over crispy polenta, braciole, meatballs, homemade manicotti. It was a lot of work, like 16-hour days. It was getting busier and busier, and now I’m trying to do less. It’s very small, with just 24 or so seats and the four or five of us working. We don’t do parties bigger than six, we don’t do takeout, and we’re open only four nights a week for dinner, Wednesday to Saturday. When I told my wife I wanted to open another pizza house, she said, “Be careful…I know you!” But I have been very good. I’ve been tempted at times to go back to doing more, but it’s working out fine.
Bivio Pizza Napoletana 107 Pine Street, Montclair Wednesday–Saturday, 5-10 p.m. 973-941-9602