Steven Dilley was separated from one of his prized possessions for almost two years. It was just down the road, but it must have felt like a million miles away.
About nine months after signing the lease for Bufalina, Dilley received his Stefano Ferrara pizza oven from Naples, Italy. But negotiations with his neighborhood association, a lengthy re-zoning process, managing relationships with general contractors and the type of bureaucratic red-tape hurdling you hear about from almost all restaurant owners put the opening of his restaurant on hold.
So he waited. And waited. And the pizza oven — a gorgeous work of volcanic brick and soil, and the centerpiece of his restaurant — sat in a small warehouse near the airport for almost two years. Dilley didn’t visit, but he’d call and check on it from time to time, mostly to make sure the little family-owned storage business was still in operation.
In a perfect world, Dilley would have spent several weeks training his staff, ironing out the menu and testing the oven. But after waiting 2 1/2 years, once he got the green light to open this summer, Dilley spent little time fine-tuning behind closed doors. Within a week he was serving pizzas to friends and family. Soon came the customers. Lots of customers.
“It was pretty nuts, looking back on it. Most of the learning took place when we opened, especially with respect to the oven,” Dilley said of the thick-walled oven with a domed ceiling.
Dilley is modest in discussing the first couple of months, admitting that his first foray into the restaurant business had a steep learning curve. But there is no need for Dilley to explain or defend his operation. By the time I made my first visits in mid-October, Bufalina was already well on track. Dilley, who cooks almost all of the pizzas at Bufalina, was putting out the best Neapolitan pizzas in town. Those pies, plus a solid Italian wine list, selection of quality cured meats, hand-pulled mozzarella and vibrant salads make Bufalina my Austin restaurant newcomer of the year.
The Ferrara oven at the rear of the dining room looks like an igloo but burns with a ferocity, giving the pies a slight char and bubbled edges. Roasted red peppers and crisped salami bring smoke and salt to a calabrese pizza dotted with pools of melted mozzarella. The mushroom pie made a believer of this once fungi-averse diner, with firm nobs of pan-sautéed crimini mushrooms mellowed by the salt and milk of Parmesan, fontina and mozzarella. And the fresca pizza was one of the best things I ate last year — ribbons of prosciutto picante hiding beneath a pile of citrus-tossed bitter arugula and slabs of shaved Parmesan.
A University of Texas graduate who grew up in Copperas Cove, Dilley owned a proprietary trading company before heading to Naples for a month to learn more about his pizza passion that was kindled while living in New York City. Dilley, who admits to learning the most about pizza-making on the fly at his small restaurant in East Austin, has proven a quick study.
“We’re getting closer to the quality and consistency that we want,” Dilley said. “I think we’re starting to hit some kind of stride.”
Sounds like a newcomer with staying power.
10 NEW DISHES TO REMEMBER
Austin had another robust year of restaurant openings. From a celebrity chef to a sandwich trailer from a relative unknown and the revitalization of an Austin icon, new offerings ran the culinary gamut. The list below represents some of the more memorable dishes I enjoyed at places that have opened since last December. The number of great meals I had over the past year is too great to count, but the dishes here provide a snapshot of the individual restaurants as well as the Austin dining scene as a whole. The dishes are listed alphabetically. It’s a celebration, not a competition.
Croque monsieur at Arro
601 West Sixth St. 512-992-2776, ArroAustin.com
Chef Andrew Curren brought warm French country comfort to West Sixth Street with his handsome and modern restaurant dotted with rustic touches. I enjoyed the fall-from-the-bone frog legs in a pool of brown butter, but the croque monsieur left an even bigger impression. Curren’s Easy Tiger down the street proved the chef knows sandwiches, and the bubbled and bronzed croque monsieur confirms it: thin shavings of French ham and creamy béchamel pressed between soft slices of bread coated with a melted and slightly nutty gruyere.
Lamb chops at Barlata Tapas Bar
1500 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-473-2211, BarlataAustin.com
Daniel Olivella and wife Vanessa Jerez’s restaurant features a host of tapas and paellas, but my favorite dish at the lively South Lamar Boulevard spot was the excellent baby lamb chops. A sweet sherry reduction tamed the mild gaminess of the chops cooked to a rosy medium-rare. Pair the dish with the tar and dark berry of a 2006 Medrano Reserva Rioja Tempranillo from a broad and approachable Spanish-centric list. If you don’t eat meat, try the fluffy Tortilla Espanola with potatoes and onion.
Chicken under a brick at the Bonneville
202 W. Cesar Chavez St. 512-428-4643, TheBonnevilleAustin.com
I hope people give the restaurant from chef-owners Chris Hurley and Jennifer Costello a chance. It hides in plain sight downtown on Cesar Chavez Street and features a nice happy hour and solid brunch. The dinner menu includes the bistro classic chicken under a brick, a roasted Cornish hen with crackling skin seasoned simply with salt and pepper. They serve the tender bird in a ginger-chardonnay gastrique.
Cured salmon sandwich at Epicerie
2307 Hancock Drive. 512-371.6840, EpicerieAustin.com
This airy and bright café and grocery makes for an excellent addition to the Rosedale neighborhood. Chef Sarah McIntosh’s restaurant does dainty (perfect macaroons) and brawny (oxtail stew) equally well. I love the sandwiches here, including the elegant salmon sandwich on buttery rye, ample velvety swaths of fish punctuated with fragrant dill and topped with pickled radish and sliced red onion.
Crab cake and beef tartare at Jeffrey’s
1204 West Lynn St. 512-477-5584, JeffreysOfAustin.com
This is not your parents’ Jeffrey’s. Larry Maguire and his team have updated the Austin icon with the verve of a posh private club, complete with valet attendants in pink seersucker. The roster of dry-aged steaks serves as centerpiece for the menu, but the appetizers stood out on my visits. Beef tartare comes laced with shaved black truffles for earthy decadence and topped with a dainty quail egg, and wood roasting left a superb crust on the lump crab cake in a decadent sauce Paloise.
Reuben at Melvin’s Deli Comfort
501 E. 53rd St. 512-705-3906, MelvinsDeliComfort.com
Kevin Ennis serves the best beef pastrami I’ve had in Austin out of his fire-engine-red trailer in a parking lot near North Loop. Meat pulls apart like an accordion, the purpled ridges connected by fatty sinew, in the Reuben that is stacked high like the ones you’d find at a New York City deli. A punchy homemade Russian dressing drapes the brined-and-smoked meat topped with melted Swiss cheese and a tangle of sauerkraut. Watching your waistline? The turkey, rubbed with coriander and pepper and smoked over applewood, is just as good as the beef. And Ennis gets bonus points for his tulip-like homemade potato chips.
Beef tongue tacos at Mettle
507 Calles St. 512-236-1022, MettleAustin.com
I had a few uneven experiences at Mettle, but the kitchen showed promise with several dishes. The beef tongue taco appetizers were one of the best I had all year. Wonderful homemade tortillas wrap tender meat with a crunchy exterior, with spicy tomatillo and homemade escabeche providing sting and pop.
Rabbit seven ways at Qui
1600 E. Sixth St. 512-436-9626, QuiAustin.com
You can’t easily define the cuisine at chef Paul Qui’s hotly anticipated new restaurant. The ever-changing menu ranges from Filipino classics like dinuguan (pork blood stew) to raw fatty yellowtail and butcher’s cuts from Salt & Time. Though it has disappeared a few times, the rabbit seven ways keeps hopping back on the menu. The time I had the dish, it was a study in flavor and inventiveness; the artful palette featured a ballotine wrapped in lard and served with pickled mustard seeds, a melt-in-your mouth loin spiced with turmeric and, my favorite, sweet strands of grilled tamarind-glazed belly.
Italian grinder at Salt & Time
1912 E. Seventh St. 512-522-7258, SaltAndTime.com
If the same people making your sandwich are the people responsible for making what goes on your sandwich, you’re probably in good hands. This butcher shop and salumeria serves a rotating roster of sandwiches at lunch. The Italian grinder is the best I’ve had yet and the best of its kind in town. Layers of savory beef cotto salame, pistachio-studded mortadella and piquant pepperoni are stuffed into an incredibly soft sandwich roll from Moonlight Bakery. Swiss cheese brings a little added salt and the slight soothe of dairy to the sandwich dressed with vinegar, oil and mayonnaise for tanginess and dandelion greens for a bright snap.
Son-in-law and salt-and-pepper shrimp at Sway
1417 S. First St. 512-326-1999, SwayAustin.com
I have trouble deciding on a favorite dish at this Thai (by way of Australia) restaurant in South Austin. Luckily the large tables make it easy to share dishes. The son-in-law was one of the dishes people talked to me about most in the past year, and if you’ve had it at its best, you know why: succulent pork shoulder, a soft-boiled and fried egg with honeyed yolk, and a sweet and salty sauce. The salt-and-pepper shrimp are massive crispy coils of crustaceans dotted with fermented black bean and chili oil.
1519 E. Cesar Chavez St. 512-524-2523, BufalinaPizza.com
For Matthew Odam’s full review of Bufalina from October, visit Austin360.com/TheFeed.