PHOTOS BY BETTY LIU
When looking for a crave-worthy slice of pizza, one might not think to begin the search at a place called Bagelsaurus—a place whose name clearly indicates they serve a different sort of doughy delicacy (and one they make extremely well). But on Friday afternoons, if you are privy to the secret, it’s just the place to find one of the best slices in the city.
Rabottini’s Pizza is the brainchild of Dan Roberts, whose square pies can be found popping up at noon on Fridays alongside the bagels and bialys that have taken Cambridge’s Porter Square by storm since Bagelsaurus opened almost two years ago. The secret’s out: Roberts is making pizza that is unique and exceptional.
A lifelong baker and farmer, Roberts grew up in New Jersey and just outside Philadelphia, part of a large Italian family who would ultimately lend their surname to his pop-up (Rabottini being the original Italian iteration of the now-Anglicized Roberts). Roberts started his career in pizza early, working at a Domino’s chain outpost. He quickly moved on to bigger and better endeavors, though, following his passion and cultivating his talent for pizza making. He would spend time living in Portland, Oregon, working at the now critically acclaimed Apizza Scholls—a West Coast pizza mecca—until he found his way back east and ended up in Massachusetts. Together with his wife, Erinn, he was helping to manage Waltham Fields Community Farm, a 14-acre, 500-member CSA vegetable farm in Waltham. Erinn still manages the farm, and their produce has been known to show up on his pizzas.
After six-plus years on the farm, Roberts was feeling the itch to get back into a professional kitchen. So in February 2015, by sheer coincidence, Roberts came upon an opportunity at Bagelsaurus. He recalled the serendipity of his start there, explaining, “I came in to eat bagels one time and was just blown away. And there was a sign on the door saying bakers needed, and I got in touch with Mary [Ting Hyatt].” Ting Hyatt, the young, successful owner of Bagelsaurus, saw the value of Roberts’ significant professional baking experience (even if it was primarily in pizza) and took him on.
It didn’t take long for the idea of Roberts doing a pizza pop-up inside Bagelsaurus to take hold. Ting Hyatt explained, “We spend a lot of hours in the kitchen just shaping [bagels] so we have a lot of time to just chat. We were always talking about Dan’s dreams for his pizza shop and just brainstorming.” With her encouragement, the concept of Rabottini’s started shifting from a theoretical concept to a more realistic opportunity.
And Ting Hyatt knows a thing or two about successful pop-ups. She initially launched Bagelsaurus from within Cutty’s sandwich shop in Brookline on weekend mornings when she was working there three years ago. The owners of Cutty’s, Charles and Rachel Kelsey, encouraged her find a way to create a great product using the equipment that was available to her there, advice she in turn gave to Roberts, knowing that he had the talent to make great pizza with the tools available at Bagelsaurus.
Roberts admits he is most comfortable making thin-crust pizza, but because the Bagelsaurus ovens weren’t conducive to the requisite high heat and quick cooking required for that style of pie, Roberts had to get creative. Ultimately, he looked to his family roots for inspiration.
“I’ve been making pizza my whole life. It was a big part of celebrations when I was a kid. My father made pizza, my grandmother made pizza,” Roberts said, remembering how his grandmother would often make square pies to feed their large Italian family. “She would be cooking for 60 even if she was only cooking for five.”
The square-style pie fit the bill. He started playing around with doughs in an attempt to find one that suited. Finally he settled on what he calls his “back-pocket dough,” the same one he uses when making thin crust. “I tried some really wet doughs, trying to get an open structure, and I tried some full sour doughs, hybrid half sour doughs, and one day just bounced back to this dough because I know it so well and it was, like, exactly what I was looking for.” It is a Goldilocks dough: not too wet and not too complex. It’s just right.
To have his dough ready for Friday service, Roberts starts the prep for it on Wednesday afternoons. It goes through a poolish (POO-leash), or a pre-fermentation, on Wednesday evenings, then continues to proof for a total time of 40 hours. On Thursday, it is divided and shaped for the six pies that will be made on Friday, and then refrigerated overnight. “It’s sort of a tricky dance,” Roberts says, “where the [bagel] dough mix is done, I start working on pizzas, we have about an hour and 15 minutes for pizza production, and then I jump back into bagel shaping. It’s really just this tiny little sliver where we stuck pizza in.” A tiny sliver of time that turns into a little slice of heaven.
The result of this well-choreographed dance is a dough that is at once chewy and sturdy, a wonderful base to build upon. Roberts tops the dough with the simplest sauce: a sweet, balanced combination of nothing but good canned tomatoes, garlic and salt. And, of course, assorted rotating toppings. The magic, though, is in how he brings these elements together and cooks it so well, which he accredits primarily to his tutelage under renowned pizza and bread master Brian Spangler, for whom he was a right hand man when Spangler opened Apizza Scholls in 2005.
Roberts says of his time working for Spangler, “He taught me an unbelievable amount about dough making and about oven management… that was where I transitioned from a person who really loved making pizza for fun and for work into a person who really loved and enjoyed the dough making process.” Spangler speaks equally highly of his time with Roberts. “What was really amazing about Dan was his attention to detail and the process. It wasn’t just a job for Dan. He truly cared about making our pizzas as good as possible and he wanted to continue to learn the baking craft.”
The pizza Roberts is making now is quite different from what he was making with Spangler, but the techniques he perfected in Portland shine through in his pies. He even paid homage to his time with Spangler when Rabottini’s first began by using a classic combination of toppings from Apizza Scholls: thinly sliced red onion and Kalamata olives.
The toppings are the cherry on the Rabottini’s sundae, perfectly supplementing the toothsome crust and simple sauce. Roberts typically makes six to eight pies each Friday in three different varieties, with eight slices per pie. Showcasing plain cheese (the mainstay), pepperoni and a revolving door of creative combinations such as a red pie with house-made sausage and pickled pepper; or a white pizza dotted with ricotta, basil and farm-fresh multicolored cherry tomatoes, he tries to make enough each week so the slices don’t sell out too early. Between the well-curated flavors and carefully calibrated ratio of dough to sauce to toppings, Roberts is on his way to pizza glory.
Rabottini’s is not only distinctive from other pizza in Boston, but is a tasty testament to what happens when passion and technique come together. Ting Hyatt’s eloquent description of the mammoth square slices is thorough, and accurate: “The dough is pillowy and pliable and bubbly and delightful, and the perfect combination of very simple sauce and the right amount of it, and oozy cheese and a good dose of salt from the Romano cheese he sprinkles on top... he just pays a lot of attention to the details.” That he does, and boy, does it pay off.
Two months into this endeavor and Rabottini’s has grown into a delectable addition to Boston’s pizza landscape. Roberts is extremely humble, but his product speaks for itself. “He is just a nice, awesome, passionate dude,” his boss Ting Hyatt says of Roberts. “Everyone wants the best for Dan. Everyone is excited to see this happening for him.”
Word may be out about the pop-up pizza inside the bagel dino on Friday afternoons, but the enduring secret to Rabottini’s pizza, according to Roberts? “Pick great ingredients and stay out of the way.”
Stay updated on what’s coming next for Rabottini’s Pizza at rabottinispizza.com.
BETHANY GRABER is a Boston-based food writer whose work can be seen in The Boston Globe, Edible Boston and on her blog winedinerepeat.com. A lover of coffee and a glutton for pastry, she and her insatiable appetite can be found eating their way through the city or at email@example.com.