When I posted my rundown of up and coming pizza purveyors in Richmond, I had Aziza’s at the top of the list. Of course, it was in alphabetical order, but even so, I haven’t really hidden the fact that, over Stuzzi, Pie, and Bellytimber, Aziza’s pizza is the one I’m looking forward to most. At my most recent visit (March 30th?), I lingered over dessert long enough to chat up my server, Bridget, and she gave me a peek at the woodfired oven being built in the addition on the back. Alas, the lights wer cut off, so there wasn’t anything to see. After dawdling a bit longer, I got the attention of guy sweeping the floors at the end of the lunch shift. That would be the owner, Billy Fallen, and that would be him in the picture below (with lights).
Billy used to bake bread at a little storefront in the Fan. Perhaps you’ve heard of Billy Bread. It can be found all over town in restaurants and your better grocery stores. It’s a substantial and sought after loaf that fetches a pretty high price tag (at Ellwoods, anyhow). After perfecting that product, he handed the business over to others a while back and I haven’t heard a word about it faltering one bit.
Now, Billy is running his own restaurant on East Main, making big impressions with his Lebanese inspired deli counter, breakfast and lunch options, and legendary chocolate covered creme puffs. Personally, I’ve been a devoted follower from the first olive I plucked off of my brunch plate of beans and eggs (a dish I termed “huevos Lebananos”). Although I haven’t tried their Thurs/Fri (only) dinner menu, I’ve tried enough of Aziza’s wholesome daytime options to get a sense about the high quality of Billy’s cooking. That kind of rustic technique, together with a smoke-belching cavern of fire, is sure to produce sublime pizza. Well, that’s my prediction.
The Second Rise of Billy Bread
Talking to Billy about pizza was exciting. I explained how flame-baked pizza changed my paradigm for pizza analysis. He agreed that the pizza stone is just one element. Fire is the other. Then he explained about one of his inspirations: American Flatbread’s dedication to a primitive approach to pizza preparation. Back in the day (don’t recall when he said), Billy worked at a bakery in Vermont down the road from the American Flatbread mothership and got to see their process first hand. They do everything so low tech and old school, strictly by sustainable practices, it’s a wonder they’re able to meet the demand to fill the freezer sections of natural grocery stores, like Whole Foods, all over the country. Not only was American Flatbread making a quality product for retail, they also served fresh baked dinners to locals a couple nights a week to give themselves a break from production.
With a similar ethic, Billy has a handful of local farms where he gets all of the produce that his family isn’t growing themselves. I don’t know if Billy is aiming for the same level of market infiltration as American Flatbread, but he does plan to turn his sense of baking integrity into a diversified culinary portfolio. For starters, that oven is going to do more than produce pizza. Taking another turn at the helm of a bakery gives Billy the chance to experiment, to develop more than just one popular baked good. We can also expect to see a variety of breads that will probably wind up competing with his namesake Billy Bread to some degree. And with the oven operational by sometime in May, Aziza’s will open for dinner all week, adding numerous new items to the regular menu. During dinner, there will be 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock seatings at the baker’s table near the oven where you can dine on whatever firey creations Billy wants to serve up to impress you.
Between the woodfired pizza and the baker’s table surprises, I think Aziza’s may teach Richmonders some new/old tricks. I know, I’m jumping to conclusions, and probably jinxing Billy’s restaurant expansion, but I think the evidence is pretty convincing, and the trajectory of his cooking vision has long been established. Of course, it doesn’t hinder my impression that Billy is a seafood eating vegetarian (pescatarian), like myself. That’s right, he doesn’t really eat the meat dishes that he cooks up for his customers (and they’re generally enamored with). Also, the one time I strayed from the creme puff dessert regimen, I had the most amazing carrot cake. This one, actually, Billy couldn’t take credit for. The cake comes from a baker in Farmville who used to be the pastry chef at the White House while Bill Clinton was president. I’m not sure how that last bit ties in, but the great tasting cake was another good sign, in my book. We’ll see how things evolve once Aziza’s changes their game in May, but I suggest going there in the meantime so you can say, “I remember Billy when…”