The Pie's the Thing
One man's dedication to dough pays off at Bufalina
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., Oct. 18, 2013
Bufalina1519 E. Cesar Chavez, 512/524-2523
The first thing you see when you walk into Bufalina is the oven. Situated in the back of the tiny restaurant, the white-tiled pod is only a few feet away from the dining area, separated from the nearest table with knee-high steel railing that is more rhetorical device than protection from harm. It's also the symbol of one man's singular pursuit of a lofty goal: to open a Neapolitan-style pizzeria. In July, when Steven Dilley finally opened the doors to Bufalina in a refurbished Cesar Chavez strip mall, his three-year odyssey finally came to fruition, and the dinner crowds have been lining up at opening time ever since.
The menu at Bufalina is not extensive, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Diners can start their meals from among two or three salads or antipasti in the form of a meat or cheese plate ($12). The salads, comprising vegetables sourced just down the road at Boggy Creek Farm, are not only a triumph of locavorism in action, they are masterpieces of composition and plating. For example, the Bibb salad ($8) finds velvety leaves tossed with cream and herbs, then stacked in an architectural mound with radishes tucked in here and there like Easter eggs. The Early Fall salad ($8), a tidy, refreshing heap of lightly dressed baby lettuce dotted with wee daubs of ricotta cheese and mustard seeds, has just a nip of spicy chile. The house-made mozzarella ($8) is tossed with halved tomatoes, basil, and a smidgeon of olive oil, and is the perfect light bite (if a bit parsimonious for the price).
The dough, though, anchors the entire operation at Bufalina. Dilley, who quit his Wall Street job to pursue his passion for pizza, studied the art of pie in Naples and now uses that expertise in the production of his dough. The bready base is fermented for 24 hours, then proofed for several more. The resulting product is pleasantly chewy, showcasing the nuttiness of the yeast and the tang of fermentation. The calibration of the oven yields just the right amount of char, with nary a huge, blackened bubble or gummy center in sight. Simply put, Dilley's dough is flawless.
On any given night, there are about half a dozen pizzas on the menu at Bufalina, subject to seasonality and availability of ingredients. A few pies seem to be standard, though, including the margherita ($12) and the fresca ($15), both of which were executed with utmost respect for the ingredients. The calabrese ($14) was fine, though it didn't leave much of an impression. If you are lucky enough to dine on a night when the mushroom pie ($14) makes an appearance, you would be a damn fool not to order it. The white pie combines chunks of umami-rich cremini mushrooms with nutty fontina and mellow mozzarella, accentuated with a hint of sweetness from the caramelized onion for a buttery, savory slice.
Dessert is homemade ice cream, but if you dine on a Sunday night there might not even be any available. When we dined on a Thursday night, the only option was a dish containing a scoop each of chocolate and almond vanilla ($7). They were fine, but I'd save the calories for something truly special. The almond vanilla flavor was particularly disappointing, in that it tasted thin and became unappetizingly slimy as it melted.
Lovers of local beers will rejoice when they peruse the offerings, which include Hops & Grain's Alt-eration and Austin Beerworks' Peacemaker ($5). Dilley himself curates the wine list; I found myself drawn consistently to the 2012 Derey Frères Marsannay Pinot Noir Rosé ($11 glass/$32 bottle), which bears a crispness that pairs well with the pies.
The decor and ambience at Bufalina emit unself-conscious elegance, from the gorgeous wine glasses to the minimalist approach to art and the hip soundtrack. The seating is a combination of long, farmhouse-style tables for large parties or communal dining and more intimate two- and four-tops. (But no high chairs; parents of toddlers should plan accordingly.) The presentation of diners' checks tucked into vintage paperbacks is a bit "twee's company," but this is the Eastside and you can't have gentrification without a bit of preciousness.
So many times in life, the things we wait for ultimately fall short of our expectations, disappointment taking the place of anticipation. In the case of Bufalina, it was absolutely worth the wait.