Has anyone else noticed how wondrously adventurous the food in the Hudson Valley is getting lately? In the past month, I’ve eaten scallops served with a white chocolate/potato puree at DA BA in Hudson, roasted marrow bones and cow’s heart (separate dishes) at Elephant in Kingston, and a pizza with roasted sweet potatoes and parsnips, drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction at Baba Louie’s in Great Barrington.
By far the most surprising was the pizza—Baba Louie’s calls it an Isabella Pizzerella. The Isabella contains not only the aforementioned root vegetables, it also serves as a platform for caramelized onions, parmesan, roasted garlic, shaved fennel, and mozzarella. (I include the mozzarella here not to pad the ingredient list but to make a point about the pizzas at Baba Louie’s: Don’t assume anything, especially that any of their signature pies are made with mozzarella. The traditional Italian cheese is only one of seven cheeses you can top your slice with at Baba Louie’s.)
As I had been disappointed on an earlier visit to the Great Barrington outlet by another pie with potatoes—the Dirty Brutto, which showcased dry, starchy roasted red spuds, and seemed undersauced by a hesitant application of pesto—I was ill prepared for the subtlety and balance of the Isabella. The roasted vegetables, drizzled with vinegar, were powerfully reminiscent of French peasant cuisine, like a side dish to roast lamb or chicken. (This made complete sense when chef/owner Paul Masiero explained that the Isabella had been inspired by a dish he created at Aubergine, the former shrine to French-inspired country cuisine in Hillsdale.) The sweet starchiness of the vegetables provide a solid grounding for the anise-nip of the fennel and the syrupy jolt of the balsamic, perfect hearty winter fare.
The Isabella, like many of the pies at Baba Louie’s, elevates “mere” pizza to a level of sophistication—in both its ingredients and flavor pairings—that you are unlikely to find at your neighborhood pizza shop or Italian restaurant, and which this pizza lover has not tasted in the Hudson Valley since the demise of Steven’s Pizza in Kingston almost 10 years ago. (Chefs on Fire, John Novi’s pizza cave at the Depuy Canal House in High Falls, being a notable, if inconsistent, exception.)
The foundational ingredient at Baba Louie’s is its crust: organic sourdough made by baker Richard Bourdon at the Berkshire Mountain Bakery. Baba Louie’s has been using Bourdon’s sourdough crust since its Great Barrington location opened 12 years ago and that, as the poet wrote, has made all the difference (Masiero bought the business in 2000 and opened his Hudson outlet in the airy storefront formerly inhabited by The Charleston restaurant in 2005.) Bourdon’s organic sourdough crusts consist of three ingredients—flour, water, and sea salt. They contain no yeast, which leads much commercial pizza dough toward heavy, glutinous gloom. Some of my dining companions detected a trademark earthy sourness in the flavor of the crust, but I mainly noticed its supple yet firm texture, even under the weight of multiple toppings. Sourdough is also more nutritious and easier to digest than regular wheat flour, but I’m enchanted with its reed-like bounce and how it breaks off between the teeth with a satisfying snap. There’s magic in what the wood-fired oven does to that sourdough. The spelt crust (available for all pies) has even more of a cracker-like snap, but it’s far from brittle.
The Abbondante BBQ Chicken Pizza is another revelation. Normally, when someone suggests chicken on pizza I demur (and BBQ chicken is a compounded abomination), but on my first visit to Baba Louie’s, the couples at the next table recommended the BBQ pizza so enthusiastically it seemed churlish not to try it. The key to its success is two-fold: The BBQ sauce is not a hyper-sweetened, gloopy mess, but a restrained topping with a tangy note that played well with others, specifically the smoked gouda, the pie’s other standout ingredient. (Masiero later admitted that the Abbondante was his best seller, and joked, “People rave about it. They say I put crack in it to get them addicted.”)
Baba Louie’s also serves panini, a pasta special daily, and salads, but with the exception of the antipasto—a huge heaping of meats, cheeses, and vegetables of a quality not normally associated with a pizza joint (plus roasted garlic spread on toast points!)—stick to the pizzas. Not because the other food is subpar, it’s not. If you must, try the pastas and the salads. They were lovely. But the juice at Baba Louie’s is elsewhere. With pizza this inventive and consistently excellent and cheap—dinner for two with a bottle of wine, an appetizer, and a large pizza was $50 with tip—I don’t see the point in ordering anything else.
A few other knockout pies that Baba Louie’s features: the coquettish Dolce Vita, with figs, gorgonzola, and prosciutto upfront, spinach, a light layer of tomato sauce, and rosemary infused olive oil on the backend; the assertively piquant Puttanesca, with anchovies, shrimp and capers; the complexity of the interplay between the eggplant, gouda, and pesto in the Melanzana Cardinale—think Monica Belluci transformed into smoky ratatouille. Of course, with 37 toppings available, you could get silly creating your own signature pizza, pairing ingredients like tofu, artichoke hearts, asiago cheese, and pesto.
A note on the two locations: The Great Barrington space squeezes 40 seats into a cramped storefront, but it’s fun because you’re always within a few feet of other people’s pizzas and you can chat excitedly with your neighbors and compare pizzas, perhaps trade slices. The Columbia County outlet is the definition of Hudson family chic: a hip place where you can get kiddie comfort food but still feel firmly planted in the adult world.