Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Find Pizza Inspiration in Sardis, Mississippi

Who knew that a Neapolitan-style pizzeria with an old-school brick wood-fired oven was baking up some of the best pizza in America—and doing it in small-town Mississippi? Well, a growing number of local folks and energized fall newcomers visiting the football-crazy Oxford, Mississippi, area, home of Ole Miss, know. They're savoring some of the best pies west of Naples on sale about 45 minutes away from Oxford in charming Sardis, Mississippi.

Dutch and Rebecca Van Oostendorp, originally from New York, opened the TriBecca Allie Café eight years ago. Dutch came to Mississippi to pursue his passion for golf and Rebecca, the brightly smiling woman that would become his wife. Rebecca, inspiration for the name TriBeccca, was already in the Magnolia State coaching swimming and working at Ole Miss. Before long, the athletic soulmates, now living in the pastoral lake community of Sardis, had found a unique way to channel their shared drive for excellence and East Coast food favorites. They found it in the comforting, fragrant warmth of homemade bread loaves.

When Dutch realized instructing aspiring golfers in the laid-back south was not his cup of sweet tea, he and Rebecca went back to their Northeastern roots—without leaving Mississippi.  The Van Oostendorps built a brick oven in their Sardis home and started a small business selling their lovingly baked artisan breads to local farmers markets. But when the ideally situated TriBecca Allie location at 216 South Main became available in 2007, right next to the Sardis Playhouse theater, the couple jumped at the opportunity. They erected the only wood-fired brick pizza oven in Mississippi at the restaurant. Then they piled on grueling working hours building an award-winning reputation for delicious old-world, thin-crust, authentically Neapolitan pizza. “At first it was a bit of a challenge educating our customers that a little char on the bottom of their pizza didn’t mean it was burned,” Dutch explains. “We like to think we’ve helped out regular customers become pizza connoisseurs.”

It doesn’t take a pizza expert, however, to fall in love with menu selections like the Magnola Rosa Insalata, 12 inches of pizza preeminence topped with mixed greens, pine nuts, house-made balsamic vinegar and Pecorino Romano cheese. You don’t even have to love pizza to dig TriBecca, since they offer daily home-cooked specials and wonderful desserts.

But the pizza here is remarkable, and more than worth a few words of description. The original Magnolia Rosa pays tribute to the Van Oostendorp’s adopted home state featuring Mississippi pecans, and TriBecca’s Margherita owes its tangy “Viva Italia” signature flavor to homemade marinara sauce and fresh, whole-milk mozzarella. Don’t worry, meat lovers are never short-changed at TriBecca. They stake claim to their own protein plenty with sausage, ham, bacon, pepperoni, chicken and meatball options. Again, while you might not have to be a pizza perfectionist to appreciate these hand-crafted pies, the pizza pantheon has already spoken. The Magnolia Rosa Insalata brought home culinary glory to Mississippi and the Van Oostendorps when TriBecca Allie's masterpiece earned second-place in the World Pizza Championship in Orlando, Florida, in 2010.

So what did I think when I visited the picturesque pizzeria with attached gelato shop last week? I was deeply moved by the quality of the pizza and the quality of the professionals who run this family dream-come-true. To watch Dutch and Rebecca in action, tandem pizza chefs maneuvering their peel-poised pies into the fiery dark promise of TriBecca’s red brick oven, is to witness the definition of teamwork. Watching them chat with customers and staff, and especially, to see these committed partners smile at each other, is to share a vision of service, respect and pride that is as meaningful as it is simple. They create this touching taste and dining experience with time-tested tools and ingredients—at their own pace with standards that are never compromised. And they carry out their life’s passion in a place where enduring values mean everything. I think a trip to Sardis, Mississippi, and TriBecca Allie Café is simply extraordinary.  


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