Molly Wizenberg and Brandon Pettit met in 2005 after he read her popular food blog Orangette. Molly lived in Seattle, and Brandon in New York. He was a composer; she was writing her first memoir, “A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table.’’
That book details the time she spent in Paris grieving for her father, who had just died. The trip was ostensibly to do research on her dissertation, but the lure of chocolate shops and patisseries got the best of her. She pored over cookbooks instead of anthropology books and was forever hooked on all things gastronomical.
Molly and Brandon’s e-mail correspondence blossomed into a romantic relationship, and the following year Brandon came to Seattle to begin a PhD program in composition. The two married in the summer of 2007. Brandon worked his way through school in a couple of Seattle restaurants whose kitchens and staff Wizenberg vividly portrays.
The experience inspires Brandon to open his own restaurant, an idea that propels the beginning of Wizenberg’s new memoir — the story of a young marriage in tandem with the launch of a business.
Wizenberg depicts her husband Brandon as something of a restless dilettante — a guy who initially wanted to earn a living building wooden boats and then violins. After moving to Seattle, he begins to miss Manhattan, where he lived and worked during college, as well as his favorite pizza joint, Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn.
Brandon decides he wants to open a pizza place modeled on Di Fara. The reason? “The thin crust puffs at the rim, taking on a texture not unlike a good baguette: crisp where it greets the tooth but chewy on the inside, flecked with bubbles. It’s Neapolitan-style-meets-New York-style, bending but not floppy, mottled with char along the rim and underside.’’
What’s not to love?
Brandon becomes a man with a mission. He manages to get a sample of Di Fara’s dough to poke, stretch, dissect. It’s an exercise that reflects the “same way he’d been taught to parse music — to break it down to its component parts, to pick out and listen to a single instrument amidst the noise of an orchestra — he began to teach himself to parse the dough.”
With the perfect pizza dough finally in hand, Brandon forges ahead just as Wizenberg finishes promoting her first book. Casting about for her next project, she signs on as a full partner at Delancey. It doesn’t take long for the pair to realize that there is more to opening Delancey — named after a New York subway stop — than cooking good food.
For starters, there is the matter of finding the ideal location and gutting and renovating that space on a minuscule budget.
This is where Wizenberg shines as a writer. She brilliantly turns the ups and downs of their do-it-yourself project into a compelling yet hilarious narrative. Reading how the “Peapod Book and Birth Store” shed its teal concrete floor and ugly cottage-cheese popcorn ceilings is like dipping into a lively, keenly observed diary.
It turns out the overwhelming challenge of getting the restaurant ready is only the beginning as Wizenberg and her husband immerse themselves in the all-consuming effort of actually running the business.
Over time Wizenberg, who mourns for her lost personal and writing life, faces a crisis over her role in the restaurant. The work strains the marriage, leaving her unhappy and exhausted. “My interest in food,” she writes, “has always been about sharing it — about the kitchen table, about home cooking, not restaurants. I like the intimacy, the quiet, the scale of home cooking.” Her crisis becomes their crisis.
Wizenberg seeds her charming memoir with humor, insight, and recipes of the kind of simple, well-prepared meals chefs might enjoy at home. She pulls the reader in with the kind of intimacy implied by the sharing of “love pies’’ — those pizzas not fit to be served to paying customers. “The only person they’re fit for is someone who already loves you and doesn’t mind that dinner looks like a volcanic eruption.”
Judy Bolton-Fasman, a columnist for the Jewish Advocate, can be reached at www.thejudychronicles.com.