Hype, Orangette, and a Pair of Meals at Delancey

Likely the most talked-about restaurant on the West Coast rides the wave with ease.

I received a postcard from two San Francisco friends this week. One filled up the card’s main panel with a nice thinking-of-you note; another found just enough room in the bottom corner to scribble, “Have you been to Delancey yet?” And that wasn’t the first out-of-town query I’d received.

This two-month-old restaurant is probably the most buzzed-about pizzeria on the West Coast right now, a small, built-with-spit-and-Scotch-tape place in Ballard whose construction accidents, no-show cooks, and opening-night jitters have been chronicled on its owner’s blog. Sounds like a common enough story these days, perhaps, but Orangette (orangette.blogspot.com) is one of the world’s best-known food blogs, and author Molly Wizenberg and her husband, Brandon Pettit, started building out the space just a few months before Wizenberg’s book, A Homemade Life, hit The New York Times‘ bestseller list. (Side note: Minuscule as the Seattle food-writing scene may be, I’ve never met either of them.)

Wizenberg has a great gift for catching the gossamer details of a meal and holding them, fluttering in her cupped palms, for readers to marvel at through her fingers. Reading her blog is an intimate experience; reading her memoir of losing her father and falling in love with Pettit even more so. Readers in London, Seoul, and San Francisco have taken in the news of Pettit’s research trips to pizza places around the country (while cooking at Boat Street Cafe), and Wizenberg’s decision to stop blogging for a few months so she could help open the restaurant, like missives from a close friend.

Which is why, if you hit the restaurant at 6:30, there’s a 60-minute wait.

Wizenberg and Pettit’s policy on reservations—only for parties of six or more—means that after you leave your name on the list, a trip across the street to Tarasco is in order, where there’s Old Seattle Lager on tap and Cazadores on the shelf to keep you occupied while you wait for your cell phone to ring. Is the wait worth it? I’d say yes.

Delancey’s arrival cements the rep of the intersection of Northwest 70th Street and 15th Avenue Northwest as a new gourmet microghetto, with Lunchbox Lab, Honoré Artisan Bakery, and A Caprice Kitchen all within a block or two. The shallow, two-room storefront still feels as if it’s under construction. Shelves next to the wood-fired oven where Pettit and his assistant work, and in the dining room, are still almost empty at this point; wine cases and beer kegs crowd the corner of the entryway where people wait for seats. The plain white of the walls is broken up only by a few photographs; the floors are poured cement; and the chairs are mismatched, heavy on the Danish modern. Déja vu haunts the space: Have I seen this, you wonder, photographed in fuzzy-edged close-ups on Orangette? Even the messiness feels curated, or at least excused by the tales Wizenberg has spun around it.

During our Indian summer, the kitchen fan didn’t have the power to blow the heat up and away. Now that autumn has officially begun, the heat flowing from the oven is welcome, and the dining room’s tiny enough that the white noise the crowd produces is concentrated but not oppressive. Despite the long waits and the aura of glamour that surrounds its owners, Delancey somehow feels as if it’s reached beyond the early-adopter, trend-chaser crowd. There are babies being passed around the table, young couples with bicycle helmets and rolled-up cuffs sitting at the bar, women meeting over a plate of salumi and a chanterelle pie for a wedding-planning session. Look over at the next table’s pizza, and you’ll likely end up chatting with the occupants. (One night we even swapped slices.)

The owners and their small crew have gotten the most important thing right: They’ve tailored the menu to their capacity. There are a couple of cursory appetizers—a plate of sliced coppa from Zoe’s Meats with some piercingly vinegary pickled peppers and a mixed green salad with radishes and shaved grana padano (Parmesan-like aged cheese) in a vinaigrette that needs toning down. There are four reds by the glass and four whites, as well as a couple of desserts, such as a simple and beautifully executed plum-ginger crumble with a not-too-sweet layer of fruit and a thick, nubbly crust that had that just-baked crack to it.

As someone who often rails about restaurants that try to do too much, seeing two cooks in the kitchen and just eight or nine pizzas on the menu was both a relief and a pleasure. And even the pizzas themselves were modest. The padrón, the sausage, and the Brooklyn shared all but one ingredient. All three started with a thin smear of tomato sauce, its crimson glowing through a weave of melted mozzarella and grana padano and around the edges of larger, whiter pools of fresh mozzarella. The Brooklyn was marked with torn pieces of basil; the sausage dotted here and there with nuggets of Pettit’s fennel-laced ground pork; the padrón decorated with five dark-green fingers of roasted, seeded peppers potent enough to set your gums and lips abuzz. That balance of crust, tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings was finely calibrated so that every element shone through in its own rhythm.

Not so with the two white pizzas I tried. Before hitting the oven, the wild lobster mushrooms and chanterelles on one night’s special could have stood for a little sautéeing to soften them up and call out their fragrance, and the tang of the crème fraîche drizzled over the crust dispersed in the oven, leaving the pie a little bland. Another night’s pizza with chanterelles and onions was overburdened with cheese, and also needed one more ingredient (garlic? more grana? herbs?) to set off the flavors of the vegetables.

But the thing that Pettit has apparently been obsessing over, in all his pre-opening research trips, is the crust, and every pie that hits the table has the same one. It’s a couple millimeters thin at the center and rises into inch-and-a-half-high bubbles around the rim, almost as much sponge as air in the heart of the puffed-up parts. The rim’s papery, brittle exterior is deeply charred, too, enough that the burned spots have a prickly bitterness. It’s the kind of pizza crust that appeals most to those of us who would make s’mores by plunging our stick directly into the heart of the flame, then bringing the flaming cube back up, waiting a few seconds to blow off the fire, and sucking off the black skin, sacrificing the roofs of our mouths for the crackle and smoke that tinged the molten sugar.

That’s exactly why, in my mind, Delancey’s pizza crust is up there with Serious Pie and Veraci—near the top of the ranking. You have to eat it with urgency and give what you can’t finish to your neighbors. Pagliacci, All Purpose, and Piecora’s pizzas are all just as good or better the next morning. Delancey’s pies won’t be worth reheating a half-hour out of the oven.

For being internationally famous, Delancey is actually a great little neighborhood restaurant, with the kind of formula—friendly vibe, weekday-meal prices, consistently good food—that should endure as long as the pizzaiolo’s passion does. Is Pettit’s pizza iconic, capable of producing its own hype instead of benefiting from Orangette’s? Time will tell. But for the restaurant to ride the instantaneous buzz surge, and do it well, is a strong sign of success in itself.