Oak Pizzeria Napoletana Makes A Great Thing Extraordinary
By Jamie Larson
I love pizza, but it’s not often I’m surprised by it. The new Oak Pizzeria Napoletana in Hudson, New York is surprisingly, shockingly good. To my taste, the clam pizza is, frankly, the best single thing I’ve eaten all year. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the experience that there are also small plates inspired by southern Italy with thoughtfully paired wine, all in a beautifully designed space that blends modern style with rustic charm.
Owners Juliana Santos, a Brazilian CIA grad, and husband Joe Alvarez, who grew up in and around Hudson before culinary studies at Johnson and Wales, have been dreaming up every aspect of this restaurant for years.
“We always had a plan for the place,” says Santos, who manages the front of the house with a welcoming smile while Alvarez mans the oven. “We were looking for a city that needed us. We want everyone to feel comfortable here.”
At the restaurant’s core is the handsome, domed, wood-fired oven. Everything cooked is cooked there, exposed to the extreme heat and flavor of burning oak. Alvarez says he loves the balance of cooking something delicate using such a powerful elemental technique. With produce from local farms, fresh seafood delivered daily, imported and domestic Italian meats and cheeses, and pizza dough cultivated from a house sour dough mother, Alvarez is forging nuanced flavors where the quality of minimal ingredients takes center stage.
“With our oven it’s wood and that’s it,” Alverez says. (The day I was there he was catching smoke from the oven between a large mixing bowl and a sheet pan to smoke white fish.) “It forces you to be more creative. One day I had fish, octopus, potatoes and apples all cooking in the oven at the same time. It’s fun because you have to stop and think, how do I do this?”
“I catch him just staring into the oven sometimes,” says Santos, joking that the beautiful device has become their second child.
All the pizzas are personally sized, but also great if you want to get a few and share. There is of course the straightforward marinara ($10) and a classic Margherita with mozzarella di bufala ($15). Then there are signature pies shaped by seasonality and the owners’ travels and influences. The aforementioned clam sees bubbling sourdough crust covered in a generous amount of shellfish enhanced by just garlic, chili flakes, Parmesan and parsley ($16). They have a balanced sauceless bianca ($14) and currently on the menu is a farmer’s pizza with new potatoes, leeks, Hawthorne Valley alpine cheese, chili flakes and garlic ($15).
For small plates Oak offers traditional plates of excellent cured meats and cheeses while focusing the oven’s flames primarily on seafood and veggies. Flavors and preparations are very Mediterranean. There’s octopus with egg, chickpeas and buttermilk dressing ($9), whipped salt cod with potato and lemon on housemade bread ($9), marinated head-on shrimp with tapenade ($9) and more. Vegetable-forward plates include ember-roasted leeks with sardella ($7), yellow bean salad with a pancetta-sherry vinaigrette ($8) and roasted cauliflower with apples and balsamic figs ($7).
Oak actually incentivizes trying a little bit of everything and eating communally. You can mix and match three small plates for $21, or five for just $35. Getting a few small plates, a couple pizzas and some wine, for a small group, is an ideal way to spend an evening, or afternoon, or an afternoon that turns into evening. Specials and regular offerings change seasonally and depending on the chef’s whim.
“It’s the style of how we like to eat,” Santos says. “Fish is nice for small plates because it allows you to create a lot of different textures. We wanted some things other than pizza that, at the same time, doesn’t compete with it.”
Santos and Alvarez met working in the kitchen at Vidalia in Washington, DC. She then went to Citizen, where she perfected her wine and front-of-house expertise and he went to Two Amys, where he became deeply addicted to dough, Neapolitan pizza and the controlled chaos of a wood-fired oven.
After five years in Portland, Oregon and the birth of their daughter (now two), they were back in Columbia County last year for Thanksgiving with Alvarez’s family and happened to take a walk down Warren Street, where they saw the building (previously Earth Foods) undergoing a total renovation.
“We immediately knew it was the place,” Alvarez says. “We were just enjoying the feel of walking down the street, we had a drink at the Spotty Dog, everything just felt right.”
If the food isn’t enough of a draw, the interior of the restaurant is a delight all its own. The formerly cavernous space was renovated by architect Kenneth Kraus to be open, warm and bright. Clean white walls and exposed metal beams give it a modern feel, and a huge vaulted skylight bathes the rear half of the long dining room in natural light, giving it the feel of a garden villa. When it’s warm enough, the front wall of windows can be slid open to turn the restaurant into a kind of indoor-outdoor breezeway that feels very relaxed and European. Alvarez and Santos brought in natural wood that works perfectly with the dark metal beams and almost cottage-like angles of the glass roof. The key is balance, not too rustic and not too modern but enough of each that both styles influence each other. It takes great skill to make it look this easy.
I’ll say it again: I love pizza. I’ve eaten more of it over the years than any other type of food, in a lot of different places, across the country and while living in NYC. So I don’t make the following statement lightly. Oak might just be the best I’ve ever had.
Oak Pizzeria Napoletana
523 Warren St., Hudson, NY
11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.