Pizza might be the one constant in dining that never goes out of style. New York, Sicilian, bar pie, Detroit, Neapolitan— the list of pizza styles goes on, each one moving into the number one spot briefly before being dethroned by another worthy form. Thousands of NY-style slice shops, legendary bar pies such as Patsy’s in Paterson, rich tomato pies from dueling shops in a Trenton suburb, and so much more go into making New Jersey what is easily the greatest destination for pizza in the world.
Brick oven pizza had its moment for me five years ago when it was the only thing on my mind, but since then, I have admittedly grown tired of it. I much prefer a classic NY-style or even a thin, crispy bar pie. To fall back in love with Neapolitan-inspired pizza would require a specific type of savviness. I found just what I was looking for in a brick oven joint at Brick + Dough in Montclair, NJ, and with it, I unwrapped an incredible pizza journey.
Jason Rosenthal, the owner of Brick + Dough, turned to pizza making in 2019 when he was moping through the insurance industry. Miserable at work and tired of the same monotonous routine, he ventured out to find a new way to make a living. Rosenthal tried his hand at a plethora of things: Drone flying, videography, even piloting, but none provided him the same happiness that his first pizza oven had.
A 16-inch Ooni Koda— an at-home pizza oven for hobbyists— was the start of his passion. He began slinging pies out of his 2 bedroom apartment in Montclair to friends and family. Quickly, obsession took the reins and the hobby began to morph into something much larger. An empty room in his apartment became his “dough room,” complete with temperature control to create the perfect habitat for fermentation. Rosenthal graduated from the pizza oven shoved on his balcony and into a larger space at The Clubhouse in Montclair. Here, he would do private dinners serving pizzas and entrees. It wasn’t long after this that he felt ready to take the next step.
“Part of me felt like I didn’t belong doing this, but I said to myself, ‘I have a business sense, I can run the business side, let’s go all in,’” Rosenthal told me. “So I began looking for a space to do this thing. Location didn’t matter, I just wanted low rent and a way to get my pizza out there,” he continued.
He settled on a tiny storefront in Union City, NJ, in September 2019. From there, Rosenthal transported a custom-made pizza oven from Florida to the shop. It was a tiny operation, just Rosenthal and a dishwasher. He decided to hone in on that intimate feel. “It was just me making pizzas so I really wanted it to feel like you were walking into my home,” he said, “I wanted an open kitchen so people could watch the art that is pizza making firsthand.”
The casual style of Rosenthal’s pizza was part of the draw. He refused to open if his dough didn’t rise right, and he never did take out. The options were: Eat it there or don’t eat it at all. Like his home-style pizza-making before, obsession quickly took over. Rosenthal even set up a security camera in his dough room to spy on the fermentation process from his bed in Montclair. “Before the camera, I would have nightmares that something went wrong. I would wake up at 12 a.m. and drive to Union City. I was obsessed,” Rosenthal told me. And while it may sound unhealthy, this deluded passion proved he was ready to take this thing to the next level.
So, Rosenthal began looking for spaces to expand his operation and settled on a sleek corner storefront on Walnut Ave in Montclair, NJ. It was close to his home, and better yet, he was confident he could make a pizza superior to any other in the area. He stripped the building, transported the oven from Union City, and even installed an upgraded oven that would become the workhorse for Brick + Dough: The Fiero Pavesi, which blasts 900 degrees of heat throughout its inside— cooking pizzas in under two minutes.
Then, a timid but electric talent fell into Rosenthal’s lap. Rodolfo Ruiz was one of Rosenthal’s first employees at an expanded Brick + Dough and he was the first ever person that Rosenthal trusted to make his pizza. “I can be controlling, but I trusted him [Ruiz],” Rosenthal said. Ruiz didn’t just provide an extra set of hands, but he allowed Rosenthal to take a step back from the hands-on aspect and slowly move into an owner mindset. “He taught me to give up control. He is one of the most talented pizza makers around. He teaches me something new every day.”
Ruiz taught Rosenthal that dough can be repurposed. Before Ruiz, Rosenthal would make just enough dough so that none would be leftover to waste. This meant constant scrambling to make dough in time and often running out of it mid-service. Ruiz suggested they make an abundance of dough— more than they need— every day. This assures a few things: They will never run out during service and the leftover dough can find a second life elsewhere. Thus, “Rodolfo’s Knots” and cheesy breadsticks were formed. The items both utilize repurposed dough— a lesson in reducing food waste and maximizing profits.
Time went on and Brick + Dough continued to do well, but the restaurant needed something more to take it to the next level. That’s where Chris “Boomer” Pietrowicz came in. A year prior, Rosenthal and Pietrowicz had a talk about a potential team-up, but Pietrowicz ultimately decided he wanted to learn more about pizza before diving into this operation.
Pietrowicz started his journey with food at Johnson and Wales University, where he graduated in 2017. From there, he bounced around at Jersey restaurants before finding a home at Robbie Felice’s flagship restaurant: Viaggio, in Wayne, NJ. Pietrowicz managed to work his way up from line cook to Sous Chef and eventually, Chef De Cuisine. While he was no doubt a talented chef, he felt ready for a change of pace. “Fine dining isn’t necessarily my passion. I was really into bread making and pizza. I wanted to make the food that I love to eat,” Pietrowicz told me.
Pietrowicz decided to leave Viaggio to pursue his goal— becoming an expert pizzaiolo. He landed at the highly lauded Razza in Jersey City. Razza isn’t just a big name in North Jersey, it is a name known by pizza lovers across the globe. The New York Times even named it “the best pizza in New York,” which angered many New Yorkers in the fall of 2017. There, Pietrowicz met Dan Richer, who is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats in pizza making. “Dan is a good guy. He’s so meticulous and he is one of those savants when it comes to dough,” Pietrowicz said, “He showed me that you don’t have to be stressed all the time in a kitchen. He taught me the happy medium and how to have fun making food. I text him with questions to this day,” he continued.
Pietrowicz spent about a year at Razza, where he learned the ins and outs of making a pizza that actually sticks with people. He was looking to make pizza that diners would dream about afterward. “I wanted to learn to make pizza from the best and I did. Razza was fucking awesome. I learned about how laser-focused you have to be to make a pizza that separates itself from the rest,” Pietrowicz noted.
After getting his feet wet in the pizza universe at one of the best there is, Pietrowicz and Rosenthal reconnected and he was brought on as the executive chef of Brick + Dough. This was a huge transitional point for Rosenthal’s business and between him, Ruiz and Pietrowicz, Brick + Dough was in the best position it ever had been. As expected, the public took a liking to this new page in the corner pizzeria’s book.
Rosenthal and Pietrowicz had similar ideas for what they wanted their pizza to be. An expertly crafted item, sure, but also one that would shatter pizza norms. Brick + Dough’s pizza style is similar to that of a Neapolitan pizza— fluffy outer crust (also known as cornicione) and a thin base that holds its form. However, where it differs from a classic Naples style, which is beholden to a long list of rules, is that they have essentially decided not to follow these guidelines as strictly. Imported San Marzano tomatoes only? No way, instead they use California-grown Alta Cucina Valoroso tomatoes. Limited number of toppings? Absolutely not, you’ll find anything from buffalo chicken to kimchi on a pizza here.
“Fuck the rules,” Rosenthal yelled as he stretched a pizza. That’s the motto.
That’s why on Brick + Dough’s menu you will find several playful pizza options. These are of course pizzas that your typical novice might scoff at, but to me, pizza is juvenile at its very core— we should stop treating it as anything but that. Rosenthal and Pietrowicz want eating pizza to be amusing and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more fun pizza spot than this.
The pizza itself is composed of several key pieces, but it always starts with the dough. Brick + Dough’s pizza dough uses Caputo Super Nuvola flour— a very fine pizza flour meant for high hydration doughs and longer fermentation times. The Nuvola becomes the perfect starting point for Rosenthal’s 48-hour fermented dough. Flour is combined with fresh yeast, salt and water before being bulk fermented for 24 hours at a controlled temperature of around 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Bulk fermentation is the process of mixing your dough and leaving it to rise as a large, singular mass rather than separately balling it up. By doing so, you allow your product to develop flavor and accumulate gasses that will determine the structure of the dough’s interior. The developed gluten traps carbon dioxide within the internal structure— leaving pockets of air within your pizza crust after baking. The large cornicione is a characteristic that has become synonymous with Brick + Dough’s pizza, but without this step in the fermentation process, it would be impossible to achieve.
After 24 hours as a large blob, the team divides the dough into single-portioned dough balls and stores them in the fridge for a second rise at 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, after two full days of preparation, the dough is ready to be made into pizza.
A pizzeria is often as good as the products they use and Rosenthal makes sure to use some of the best. Lioni fresh mozzarella and stracciatella dress pies such as the Sesame + Stracciatella, while Grande mozzarella brings their NY Style to life. Grande, which was allegedly forced upon New York pizzerias by the Bonnano Crime Family in the ’70s, has become the gold standard for low-moisture mozzarella in the business.
The NY Style also comes topped with crispy pepperoni cups if you’d like. The pizza’s base is laden with Ezzo Pepperoni, which buckle into cups under the scrutiny of 900-degree heat. This style of pepperoni has become immensely popular over the last half-decade and if we are lucky, it is a trend that will stick around for good.
The Margherita pizza is unmistakably delicious, albeit it cannot be labeled as “authentic” by Neapolitan standards. But, who cares if it tastes great? Certainly not me. Lioni fresh mozzarella and plump tomatoes simply dress the dough before being finished with a dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano, basil and extra virgin olive oil. Many US-based pizzaiolos agree that importing their products—so that a pizza can receive a DOP label (Protected Designation of Origin)—is pointless if the overall quality suffers. Why import cheese from Naples when you can have an equally great mozzarella that only has to travel a fraction of the distance? The negatives of a DOP pizza in the states, to me, seem to greatly outweigh the positives.
Pietrowicz tops another popular pizza with mortadella from Butler and the Board just up the street, pistachios, goat cheese and locally produced honey. The mortadella is expertly crafted and when combined with the high heat of the oven, the edges get ever-so-slightly crisp, transforming into morsels of rich, cured pork flavor.
The Maple Bacon is one of the most popular pizzas on the menu this season. Dough is donned with smoked mozzarella, pancetta, caramelized onions, chicharron bread crumbs and Our Woods maple syrup from the Adirondacks. The pancetta and cheese offer obvious saltiness to the equation, while the syrup and onions bring sweetness. The onions are cooked for several hours, earning the title of “caramelized.” Too often do restaurants label onions as such when they are merely sauteed for 20 minutes, barely gaining any color or flavor in the process.
Pietrowicz then slid a white pie in front of me which he showered with five grams of freshly shaved truffles. The earthy aroma infiltrated the entire dining room and the grin on the young pizzaiolo’s face was contagious. It was a steady reminder that even when in its most luxurious form, pizza can still be fun. As we weave in and out of various different truffle seasons, keep an eye out for what Brick + Dough will be shaving the fungi on next.
Salads and a family secret recipe for meatballs dot the menu in addition to pizza. However, one of the most intriguing things at Brick + Dough is the limited sandwich specials. Each Thursday, the team comes up with a new sandwich. Sometimes served as a wrap, sometimes thrown atop their house-made focaccia and the sandwiches at Brick + Dough sell out fast. Brisket, New England scallop rolls and smash burgers are just some of what’s in store each Thursday.
For those unable to eat gluten, Brick + Dough has something special. Their gluten-free Detroit-style pizza is seriously impressive. Using Antimo Caputo gluten-free flour, Rosenthal and Pietrowicz saw the flour’s potential in high-hydration applications. Therefore, the oily and focaccia-like Detroit pizza template became the perfect gluten-free option for Brick + Dough’s standards. The pizza is baked in a carbon steel pan at a lower temperature and for a longer time than the standard 90-second pizzas at the shop. As the dough slowly forms, cheese caramelizes and burns to the outer crust— creating a lacy cheese skirt around the edges of the pie that is addictingly salty and delicious. This isn’t just a pizza that is “good for being gluten-free,” this is a remarkable pizza, period, and that is what makes it so exceptional. Gluten-free isn’t a burden for the team at Brick + Dough, instead it is a welcome challenge that they happily take on.
Brick + Dough also serves up scoops of the immensely popular Cafe Panna gelato for dessert. Cafe Panna is a Roman gelateria in New York’s Gramercy neighborhood and its clever flavors like peanut butter or strawberry shortcake, make for the perfect dessert options at a pizzeria. “It’s my favorite ice cream to eat,” Pietrowicz told me. I have to agree.
Jason Rosenthal’s Brick + Dough is ever-changing. Since his humble beginnings as an at-home pizza maker, Rosenthal has assured that he will never become complacent. He strives to constantly reinvent the wheel— refusing to remain in one spot for too long. From a two-bedroom apartment, to Union City, to his spot now in Montclair, the only constant in Rosenthal’s business is that he will serve you some of the best pizza you can find in New Jersey. Closely working with Pietrowicz and Ruiz, the team is constantly coming up with new ways to wow diners.
At the end of the day, Rosenthal understands the most important aspect of running a pizzeria: Pizza is fun and you should never mess with that. When asked what’s in store for the future, Rosenthal has his sights on expansion. As of this week, he’s officially picked up the keys to a space next to the Market Basket in Franklin Lakes near storefronts that, over the last couple of decades, are where many businesses go to die. However, the upscale suburb hasn’t seen anything even remotely similar to Brick + Dough and Rosenthal’s concept might just be the exception to the strip mall’s high turnover.