Up On The Roof

Date May 31, 2006 at 10:00 PM

Author Barry Fields

Publication localflavor magazine

Categories Local News & Sports

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Dear Barry,

Another story for you...Rooftop Pizzeria. Latest enterprise of the tireless Gerald Peters and Santa Fe Dining. Jeff Jinnett is the creative and strategic brains of the Santa Fe Dining enterprise...Tyler Carr is the General Manager of this restaurant, Russell Thornton is the Executive Chef (and pretty much developed the menu along with consulting chef Tom Kerpon), Nick Zocco is the chef de cuisine...I like their approach that "this is what Santa Fe needed"€ because I think they're right on target. I really loved this place-I think the pizza is in a class by itself-ambiance-creativity-urban chic. And the rooftop aspect makes it so special for the June issue. Hope there's time.....Patty

Dear Patty,

I can't imagine why another pizza joint is what the city needs. But I always have time for pizza. I'll do it.

Barry

A few days later, I'm here with my friend Tera, who's in the process of moving from Manhattan, home of Ray's, among the myriad holes-in-the-wall serving up more good pizza than you could eat in a lifetime. It's going to take a lot to impress her.

The smell of baking pizza wafts out into the hallway. As we enter, the open kitchen is bustling with activity. Bottles of wine line up on a counter, good stemware hanging down from a partial wall, wine racks above. (Too high above. Kitchen ovens are bound to heat the bottles.) The narrow dining room stretches out to the right. It's all clean lines and, as Patty said, inviting urban chic: sleek wood tables, tan colored suede chairs, large scale, electric-looking framed photos of flowers and leaves on the walls.

We're led onto the portal, where the feel is Santa Fe-wood roof and tile floor-and city-modern, with shiny patterned metal tables reflecting the sunlight, metal chairs, and metal stools at a counter overlooking Water Street. Reading through the menu, Tera and I know we're not in traditional pizza-land anymore. One pizza catches my eye: smoked duck with roasted garlic spread, spinach, basil, green peppercorns, and four cheeses ($14 for a 12 inch, up to $21 for a 16 inch). And the wine list, both by the glass and bottle, shows careful thought and quality considerations.

The young, hip wait staff provides fast and thorough service throughout the meal. We start with small salads, served on square white plates echoing the square tables. The Caesar salad is a pretty sight: anchovies artistically set in a five-pointed star and a slender triangular wedge of bread sit on top of whole romaine leaves. Other than preferring standard crunchy croutons to chewy bread, I love the salad. And the balsamic sesame vinaigrette on the house salad is terrific.

Tera doesn't want duck so we order roast vegetable lasagna ($11.00) and a twelve inch Mediterranean roast vegetable pizza ($12.00, completely different vegetables from the lasagna). Both dishes deliver more than I expect. The pizza is so chocked full of veggies, and made so savory by the excellent basil pesto sauce, that we're half way through before we realize it's cheese-less. Tera's impressed: "I prefer this to New York pizza. It's not so dense, and it has much better flavor."€ I'm taken with the Artisan crust, inaccurately labeled "traditional"€ on the menu. Its unique taste and texture enhance the culinary experience. The lasagna, too, emphasizes a medley of vegetables. The roasted tomato sauce has a Southwest kick, and the cheese complements rather than overwhelms the preparation.

I'm back the next day to meet with G.M. Tyler Carr, imbued with the pizza spirit from an early age, since his grandparents, then parents, owned and operated a family pizza place in Maine throughout his childhood and early adulthood. We sit at the table closest to the kitchen, and he talks about the birth of the restaurant.

After Gerald Peters bought and remodeled the building on the plaza, he wanted a restaurant on the top floor, but he left everything up to the Santa Fe Dining team, which began by brainstorming. "We kicked around many different ideas,"€ including a sushi bar, a raw bar, an Asian fusion restaurant, intimate fine dining, and a bar with a full liquor license. As Jeff Jinnett, Santa Fe Dining's director, later tells me, "One of the things that attracts people to work for our company is that there are outlets for creativity. We allow people to use their creative gifts and talents."€

No one in Santa Fe had developed a niche in gourmet pizza, the team decided, and three of them headed to the Bay Area, where, Tyler says, "we had a nonstop pizza frenzy for three days."€ The vision for Rooftop Pizza came out of that trip, the group inspired particularly by the nationally recognized A 16 in San Francisco's marina district, and Chez Panisse, still under the legendary Alice Waters, serving such unusual fare as yellowfin tuna and capers pizza.

Tyler's talking, I'm taking notes, and wait staff start to bring dishes to the table. I try spectacular prosciutto-stuffed crimini mushrooms topped with truffle oil and served with sweet red onions and aged balsamic vinegar sauce ($5.00), while hearing how Russell made over sixty different styles of crust in a test kitchen before they settled on the Artisan crust, which uses brewer's malt to feed the yeast for an added flavor dimension. The other choice is a unique blue corn crust. Then I savor the delicate yet complex flavors of pistachio-crusted goat cheese ($6.00) prepared with a red wine reduction and cherry chutney.

What are appetizers like this doing in a pizza place? "People often dismiss pizza because of the fast food implications,"€ Tyler says. "There's so much more to it than that. We've created our own little realm of pizza."€ I plunge into that realm when the smoked duck pizza shows up, the meat shredded for ease of eating and blending, soft green peppercorns offsetting it with nice, earthy flavors, and the spinach and four cheeses making it more multifaceted-and better-than a divine duck pizza I still recall in Bergerac, France. Tyler's wife, he tells me, refuses to call what they do pizza, referring to it as "warm bread with fancy toppings."€

The pizzas keep coming, some with so-called traditional red sauce, flavored by fire-roasted tomatoes and roasted veggies, others with alfredo sauce. I try the blue corn crust (corn mixed into a high gluten flour) with an amazing mushroom, roasted garlic, and truffle oil combination. Writing furiously, listening intently, I tell Tyler I'm astounded at the variety and originality of these gourmet pizzas. "Everybody had a really open mind,"€ he replies. "We just experimented. It was teamwork that brought this together."€

Kelly Torres, who works at Rio Chama, was given free hand in decorating. She chose everything: artwork by Robert Beulteman (produced by transferring images of electrified plants directly to film negatives), flooring, dinnerware, tables, colors, décor. Jeff Jinnett, already a veteran of many restaurants before coming to work for Santa Fe Dining ten years ago, admires the result. "After we finished, we said, "€˜Wow, this looks good.'"€ In spite of the small space, the floor plan and décor worked.

The place opened the middle of March and became an instant hit, so good that Peters himself has been eating here a few times a week. As I finish my conversation with Tyler, he tells me that a few days ago they served over 100 pizzas for dinner.

I'm ready to leave, but a tiramisu cheese cake with sweet marsala wine reduction sauce and bittersweet chocolate on top appears. It's another Russell Thornton masterpiece. "The man is a genius when it comes to food,"€ Tyler declares. "We kept the place fun. It's a trendy upscale atmosphere. But it's still basic, down-to-earth."€ As I sample the inimitable dessert and sip coffee, I have to disagree about the basic part. But that still leaves upscale, fun, original, and genius as apt descriptors.

Yes, Patty, they've definitely hit upon something Santa Fe needed, even if The City Different didn't know it beforehand.

Rooftop Pizzeria is located on the top floor of the Santa Fe Arcade building facing Water Street on the Plaza in Santa Fe. Open Sunday-Thursday from 11am to 10pm and Friday and Saturday 11am to 11pm. 505.984.0008.

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