By Jenna Mason
It started with an oven.
When Rebecca and Damian Van Oostendorp moved to Mississippi from New York, their search for satisfying pizza came up short again and again. A little research helped them make pizza at home that far surpassed what they could find elsewhere. But the more they learned and tested and tasted, the more they felt convinced: To create the pizza they truly craved, they would need a wood fired oven. So Damian—everyone calls him Dutch—built one in their backyard.
Once you’ve talked with Dutch awhile, his building a personal pizza oven seems a natural progression. He strives for constant improvement even seven successful years after opening TriBecca Allie Café in Sardis, Mississippi.
“Every time I make a pizza, I want it to be the best I’ve ever made,” he says. “It should be better than the one I made right before it.”
TriBecca’s current dough recipe was five years in the making. On the rare occasion that he takes time away from the restaurant to participate in culinary competitions, Dutch makes it his priority to listen and learn from other cooks.
Dutch and Rebecca had no plans for a restaurant when they followed Rebecca’s parents to Sardis almost 20 years ago. Rebecca was a professional swim coach, and Dutch was a PGA golf pro. It’s when I ask why they opened TriBecca Allie Café that I note Dutch’s gift for simplifying complexities.
After he built the backyard oven in 2003, he and Rebecca began baking bread and schiacciata (an Italian flatbread) along with the pizzas they’d learned to craft. They sold them at the Midtown Farmers’ Market in Oxford where customers urged them to open a restaurant. Simple as that, to hear him tell it.
Dutch strips the science of pizza-making down to the essentials, too.
“It’s all time and temperature,” he explains, and these elements hinge on the wood fired oven. A fire to one side and a dome-shaped ceiling allow for three modes of heat transfer: radial, conductive and convective. This means a simply dressed pizza bakes in about ninety seconds.
The more he talks about manning the oven, though, the more animated and descriptive Dutch grows. He divulges that his oven is “a part of the staff,” not just a piece of equipment. It requires constant attention and forethought. Without knobs, switches or thermometers, a cook must gauge temperature by sight and by feel; he must think ahead to judge how much wood to add and when. “It’s almost primal,” Dutch confesses. “It’s simple—time and temperature—but it isn’t easy.”
He’s talking about cooking, but this philosophy of simplicity permeates Dutch’s management of TriBecca. He laments that many prosperous restaurants eventually try to do too much, to make too many people happy, and the quality of the food suffers. He recognizes, for example, that there are 11 regional styles of pizza and that not every customer expects the thin, slightly charred crust that comes out of a wood fired oven. Still, he sticks to the Italian style of pizza he has perfected over nearly two decades.
His streamlined strategy works well. He opens the restaurant during peak hours—for lunch on weekdays and dinner on weekends—and uses the remaining time to prep and handle the business side of the restaurant. The limited hours keep overhead down, and the small staff benefits from a full house during most of their shifts. Even TriBecca’s location attests to its uncomplicated ambition. Since Sardis locals frequent the place during lunch year-round, TriBecca mostly avoids the dramatic swings in business that plague restaurants in university-centric towns like Oxford.
Weekends do see plenty of visitors from surrounding areas like Batesville, Oxford, Collierville, Tennessee, and Helena, Arkansas. Despite his pride that TriBecca’s reputation draws distant diners, though, Dutch admits he’s wary of what he calls “the travel channel effect”: when fame from well-intentioned reviews suddenly overwhelms a small, family restaurant. While popularity can bring prosperity, a restaurant’s regulars—the folks who “have flesh in it”—often lose a sense of ownership along the way. Keeping it simple isn’t easy.
Dutch’s reservation is well-founded as upscale pizza places, from Nashville’s City House to Oxford’s own Saint Leo, garner increasing attention across the South. Perhaps being situated in Sardis, miles off the cotton-lined highway, will be TriBecca’s saving grace.
Perhaps we should keep it quiet, just in case.