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Why Jay Jerrier Makes the Best Pizza in Dallas

The Irish Catholic (who curses like a sailor) quit his corporate gig and built a huge wood-burning oven in his backyard.
photography by Joshua Martin

Jay Jerrier is a jovial Irish Catholic from Boston who, 30 minutes into a profanity-laced conversation, will look down at his clothes and suddenly discover that he is covered with flour. He is also a man given to impulse. For example, one time, without consulting his long-suffering wife, Karen, he commissioned the installation of a rather large wood-burning pizza oven in his backyard.

This was in early 2005. Jay was working for Alliance Data, a business-processes outsourcing company that had just gone public. “It was so frickin’ boring,” Jay says, “but I had a good run there where I was doing deals in the hundreds of millions of dollars.” Brokering business-processes outsourcing deals might have been boring, but it compensated Jay well enough that he could afford to build a pizza oven like the one he’d seen at Fireside Pies on Henderson Avenue. The pies there reminded him of the best pizza he’d ever eaten, when he and Karen honeymooned in Italy after their first wedding, the one that most of her family is learning about right here, with this story.

Right. Maybe we should have started in Sorrento. Back in 1995, Jay lived in Connecticut, where he managed bad-debt portfolios for GE Capital. “Because I was super-awesome at collecting bad debt,” Jay says, GE rewarded him with a 10-day trip through Nice, Monte Carlo, Naples, Sorrento. He’d met this nice girl named Karen. She was also Irish Catholic, from Boston. She also worked for GE Capital. He’d proposed, and she’d accepted. But GE had a rule: only spouses could come along on the Mediterranean cruise. No fiancées allowed. So just days before the trip, Jay and Karen went to a justice of the peace and did the deed. Karen didn’t tell most of her family about this. When the “engagement” dragged on for more than a year, they just thought Jay had cold feet. Surprise, guys!

In any case, Jay’s buddies in Connecticut warned him about Italy. “Everybody up there had this New York attitude,” he says. “ ‘You’re going to hate the food. The pizza over there sucks.’ ”

At this point, Jay produces a photograph. In it, people are seated at tables. Their hairstyles look super-awesome. Jay points to himself. And there’s Karen. A sign is visible in the background. It says Pizzeria Aurora. That was in Sorrento. That was the moment.

“That’s when I was like, ‘Holy shit. I can’t believe how awesome this is,’ ” Jay says of his first taste of authentic Neapolitan pizza. “I was just blown away, from the cheese to the crust to the sauce. You could taste the tomato. You could taste the milk in the mozzarella, versus the dry, shredded mozzarella that most places used back then.”

Two years later, Jay and Karen found themselves in Dallas. Allen, to be more precise. And then they moved to Lucas to get a little more land—you know, enough that a man could surreptitiously build a pizza oven. When it was finished, Jay called Karen out to the backyard and said, “Look what I did!”

Thing is, Jay had no idea how to cook authentic Neapolitan pizza in a temperamental wood-fired oven. He got his recipes from the internet and made his own dough. “Mother effer,” Jay says, cleaning up his language a bit. “I burned so many pizzas. They sucked so bad. I was so frustrated.”

Back to the internet, where Jay found the American delegation of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the guys who certify true Neapolitan pizzerias in the United States. They offered a pizza-making class in Los Angeles designed for restaurateurs. No matter. Jay signed up. He thought the lessons would go down in a classroom setting, but, turns out, he walked into a functioning pizzeria totally unprepared. Most students showed up with a video camera to record their lessons. Jay didn’t even bring a pen. That first lunch service was challenging, but Jay eventually found a pen and even a scrap of butcher paper on which to take notes. He still has that scrap of paper today. On it, he wrote his dough recipe, his mozzarella recipe. And after slaving through a week’s worth of 16-hour days, Jay could cook pizzas that most decidedly did not suck.

“I came back from L.A., and it was on,” he says. “My game was hard-core. My pizzas were great out of my own home oven.”

And there the pizza-making adventure, for most folks, would have ended. Except Jay isn’t most folks. He was a little obsessed. And he had cash. Alliance Data had gone public, and Jay had left with some stock. He eventually took another frickin’ boring job and did super-awesome there, too. So in 2006, when he found that he liked the pies at Campania Pizza, in Uptown, he signed on as an investor in a new Campania store in Southlake. It took two years to open. The less said about that whole experience, the better. But Jay can’t help himself.

“The guys from Campania were idiots,” he says. “I learned a lot about what not to do there. I learned never ever build a restaurant in the suburbs. Because even though the demographics look good on paper, at the end of the day, they want as much pizza as possible for as little money as possible.”

With all the kids and all the sharing, Jay guesses they were making $4 per customer. Yes, they were named in 2008 by Pizza Today magazine as the country’s top independent pizzeria. But money was tight, and when Jay wasn’t around, he says the Campania guys scrimped on ingredients, ran the ovens at lower temperatures.

So, of course, Jay bought another pizza oven. His daughter was in pre-K at Greenhill, where a carnival gave him the only excuse he needed to plunk down $20,000 on a trailer-mounted mobile unit. The oven hadn’t had time to cure properly, and Jay thought the pies didn’t turn out well, but everyone kept telling him they were the best pizzas they’d ever eaten.

After the carnival, Jay parked his new oven at his house, where it sat neglected for months as he attended half-heartedly to his day job. Karen’s affection for the thing taking up space in her driveway waned daily until she finally told her husband: “What the hell, Jay?” She had a good point, he had to admit. Jay cold-called several wine bars in the area to see if they’d like him to come by and cook one night a week. Kert Platner at Time Ten Cellars was the only person who called him back.

That first Wednesday night, Platner told him to bring 20 dough balls and see how it went. Jay had made a big batch at Campania, so he brought 60, just in case. They sold out in a hour.

“Holy crap,” Jay said. “We’re on to something here.”

What he was on to was a rare thing in Dallas: an authentic Neapolitan pie. It’s a thin crust, like a New York-style pizza, but it’s not crispy and overloaded with oregano and toppings. He makes his dough with four simple ingredients: sea salt, water, yeast, and imported 00 flour (aka “double zero” flour), the most finely ground available. For his sauce, he hand-crushes tomatoes from San Marzano, Italy, to ensure that no seeds are broken, which can make the sauce bitter. He makes his own mozzarella, which has to be moist enough to withstand his 900-degree oven. Some fresh basil, and you’ve got a basic Margherita pie, a thing of bubbly-crusted beauty. You can get a little fancier with mushrooms and maybe Jimmy’s sausage, but you won’t find pineapple or pepperoni or any of those other silly toppings that would gravely disappoint the guys at the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. Just the thought of pineapple on pizza gives Jay the fantods.

Those Wednesday night gigs at Times Ten Cellars really got things moving. People started asking Jay to cook at private parties, and, pretty quickly, two things happened in succession. First, people with more money than Jay told him that he ought to open his own place. The guys from the investment firm Madison Partners told him that he needed to come see a space they had for lease in Deep Ellum. And, on an Indian Princess campout, two Greenhill dads urged Jay to get serious about pizza. One of the dads, Larry Goldstein, was a venture capital guy; the other, Scott Wheeler, was a former mayor of Addison.

“These guys started breaking my balls,” Jay says. “ ‘Who cares about credit collections? You need to get into the pizza business.’ ”

Those two Indian Princess dads put their money where their mouths were. They’ve invested in Jay’s new restaurant, which should open this month in Deep Ellum. Cane Rosso (Italian for “red dog,” a tribute to a Hungarian pointer named Zoli that Jay lost to cancer) will follow that dough recipe scribbled on butcher paper years ago, turning out amazing Neapolitan pies at 2612 Commerce Street, right across from Twisted Root. As this story was going to press in late December, Jay had just taken delivery of Dallas’ first true Neapolitan pizza oven, a gorgeous cherry red sculpture that he practically hugged when the forklift set it down.

Which brings us to the second development spurred by those Wednesday nights at Times Ten Cellars. Jay’s wife, Karen, finally had to admit that his “crazy pizza scheme,” as she called it, had paid off.

He’s happy to have the acknowledgment but had a slightly different goal in mind. “All I want is for people to have the same holy shit moment I had back in 1995,” he says. “It’s not an epiphany. It’s not that grandiose. All I want is for people to say, ‘You know what? I used to think Pizza Hut was good. But now I realize that stuff is shit.’ ”

The profanity is optional. The pepperoni and pineapple are not.

Write to [email protected].

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