The Aaron Franklin of Pizza: Bufalina’s Steven Dilley

September 24, 2013
by Megan Giller

The soft-spoken, bespectacled chef and owner of Bufalina nerds out about dough, ovens and fire as much as Franklin Barbecue’s Aaron Franklin does about brisket, smokers and, well, fire.

Like Franklin, Dilley started tinkering with the raw materials every day in his spare time. By the late 1990s the bright thirtysomething and native Austinite owned two algorithmic-equities trading companies in New York City, but his passion was still in food and drink. And as he says, “A decade is a long time to do something you’re ambivalent about.”

Dilley moved back to Austin and decided to embark on a culinary adventure. He had been making pizza in his NYC apartment since 2007 (think rigging the oven to stay on the cleaning cycle and breaking the lock), but in April 2010 he enrolled in the Vera Pizza Napoletana’s training program in Naples. The organization is dedicated to preserving the definition and execution of Neapolitan pizza. Dilley at once saw what the real product should look like, and he set to work learning how to handle the dough as well as learn how to use the oven, manage the wood, tend the fire and so on. He also worked at Pizzeria D’Atillio, a family establishment that has been around since 1937, and he breathed dough and fire for a while. But, as he says, “They’re not going to let some clown like me in there to throw logs around.”

As with barbecue, the ingredients are simple enough. Instead of brisket there’s double-zero flour, and instead of salt and pepper there’s salt, water and fresh yeast. The trick is in the chef’s skill and execution. So when Dilley returned from his one-month class and stage in Naples, he set to master dough and committed to opening a pizzeria.

After three and a half long years, Dilley finally opened his much-anticipated East Austin pizzeria in mid-July. Austin’s response has been instantaneous and dynamic, with good reason. Dilley’s strong opinions about dough (24-hour bulk dough fermentation, then eight to 12 hours of proofing), in-house pulled mozzarella (they use New Jersey curd for now and local in the fall), combustible oxygen and fire mean high standards. And to some degree, pizza, like barbecue, is a science. For example, if Dilley makes a batch of dough that weighs in at 35,000 grams, there are only six grams of yeast. “So if you’re off by a gram in the yeast,” he says, “you get wildly different results.”

The mathematically-minded chef uses post oak aged between 12 and 18 months, cut to size by resident handyman, foodie and neighbor Bubba Stark, whom Dilley worked with at a brokerage firm in the 1990s and has reconnected with here in town.

But the real prize is the Stefano Ferrara oven that Dilley shipped from Italy. One of three Neopolitan oven choices, the Ferrara was mainly chosen because it could fit through the door, with four inches of space to play with. But the oven only arrived a few days before the soft opening, so Dilley and his small team (six people total, for front and back of house, only one of which has restaurant experience) set out to make as many pies as possible. In two months he says he’s made over 3,000 pies.

“Now I can look at a pizza,” Dilley told us, “and say what’s wrong with it. The fire or there’s not enough gluten development or they didn’t let the dough rest long enough or it was handled improperly. Or, wow, the fire is burning perfectly, we’re getting convection in the oven, we’re getting direct heat from the fire radiating off the wall, all at the right time and the dough is doing exactly what it needs to do, and it just looks perfect.”

So is the product as authentic as what you’d get in Naples? “I need to recalibrate my palate,” he says, adding that he thinks it’s pretty darn close. Of course, keep in mind that true Neopolitan pizza isn’t the crispy New York style but much wetter. “In Naples they serve it whole, with a knife and fork,” he said. “They don’t cut it, because it’s soupy.” Bufalina’s pizzas hold in that wetter tradition, though they do slice the pies. The restaurant also uses local ingredients from purveyors like Salt and Time, Antonelli’s and Easy Tiger, as well as boasts an esoteric but welcoming wine list curated by none other than Dilley himself.

Want to try it for yourself? We advise getting there right at opening, at 5:30 PM, since wait times can vary from 15 minutes to two hours. The team plans to expand the service to seven nights and lunch, but that’s nowhere in the near future. For now the fire and flame starts near sundown and continues late into the night, until around the time Aaron Franklin starts to fire up his smokers.

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