This article first appeared in the Montreal Gazette in September 2011. It was syndicated by PostMedia News not long afterwards, and although you can no longer find the article on the Gazette’s website, you can still find it on the Ottawa Citizen’s site.
At the time, I considered this article to be my modest contribution to the project of determining each and every one of America’s vast number of regional pizza styles initiated by Slice NY, Serious Eats, and others in the 2000s.
All three of the pizza/flatbread restaurants featured in this article are still thriving, and I stand by all of them. Since then, however, Vermont’s Hippie Pizza scene has continued to grow at an impressive rate. Many more recent establishments could be added to this list. It’s quite possible that a follow-up article is in order. But that will have to be for another time.
In the meantime, without any further ado…
For at least a decade now, North America has been swept up in a full-blown pizza revolution, one characterized by a cult of Neapolitan pizza and an almost fanatical concern with authenticity and Verace Pizza Napoletana accreditation, not to mention a considerable amount of boasting and posturing.
Meanwhile, pizza enthusiasts in Vermont have been quietly going about their business, developing a similarly passionate and characteristically unorthodox approach to the venerable pizza pie.
This is a state that has made "Keep Vermont Weird" a mantra, after all. These are people who pride themselves on marching to the beat of a different drummer.
One might call it Vermont's very own Quiet Revolution.
In spite of a vibrant movement that dates back at least 25 years, Vermont continues to fly under the radar of most pizza authorities. The explanation for this is simple. It has to do with the relative lack of concern Vermont's pizzaiolos have shown for Neapolitan articles of faith like tipo 00 flour, D.O.C. San Marzano tomatoes, and imported Italian ovens. It has to do with the fact that pizza in Vermont is not rigidly bound by a type of oven, a type of crust, or a shape.
Instead, Vermont's pizza pioneers have put their focus on sourcing top-calibre local ingredients - from farm and chef partnerships like the impressive Vermont Fresh Network, which unites farmers, artisanal producers and chefs in a common cause, and mills like Norwich, Vermont's, highly esteemed King Arthur Flour - and on using these ingredients in an ingenious manner.
They've also placed an emphasis on community. At its best, pizza in Vermont is less a style than a way of life. One that's guided by an innate belief in the power of transcendental pizza to bring people together, even in the most rural of locations.
In fact, this is one of the signature features of Green Mountain pizza. While the history of pizza has been very closely bound to the urban experience, many of Vermont's most outstanding pizza establishments are well off the beaten path.
In other words, not only are there great pies to be found in Vermont, but many of the best are found in the most bucolic of settings. For those with a taste for pizza and the great outdoors, this is road food at its finest.
There were surely precursors, but the modern Green Mountain pizza movement began in 1985, when George Schenk built his first woodburning oven out of field stones from his property and founded American Flatbread.
Bigger ovens followed, including a domed, earthen oven built in the style of the traditional bread ovens of Quebec, which has become American Flatbread's signature model. And by 1990, Schenk & company had established their flagship location on the historic Lareau Farm in Waitsfield, near Montpelier, Stowe and Sugarbush.
It was there, at this idyllic farmhouse setting in the Mad River Valley, that my partner and I had our first extraordinary experience of pizza in Vermont. I remember it vividly, for as we turned off Route 100 and entered Lareau Farm [which doubles as a comfortable inn], we found a veritable Midsummer Night's Dream before us. Tables were set up al fresco next to the farmhouse. Kids were running freely across the meadow. A fire was burning in the fire pit. And those who were waiting for a table were spread out across the vast deck, sipping wines and drinking craft beers, and taking in a perfect summer evening. As the sun began to set, fireflies came out. It took us a while to get a table (2½ hours!), but we didn't mind - we couldn't have been happier, or more relaxed.
Then we were seated at an outdoor table and our pizzas arrived, and the experience was taken to a whole other level. We'd never had a pizza named after an obscure evolutionary theory before, but when that beautifully blistered Punctuated Equilibrium arrived fully dressed with Kalamata olives, roasted sweet peppers, handmade Vermont goat's cheese, mozzarella, fresh rosemary, red onions and garlic, we were sold. The work of Stephen Jay Gould had never tasted so good. And our New Vermont Sausage Pie was an even bigger hit. Its combination of homemade maple-fennel sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and caramelized onions was positively lusty, and the maple syrup notes gave the pizza a real gout du terroir.
We left Lareau Farm in a state of bliss. We'd discovered Vermont hippie pizza at its finest and its effects were mind-expanding.
Glover is a Northeast Kingdom town best known for its associations with the Bread and Puppet Theater, a radical performance ensemble that developed a reputation for sharing bread with its audience in an act of communion. Just a couple of miles away, in West Glover, stands the Lake Parker Country Store, where, at the back of the store, past the displays of local organic produce, Vermont artisanal cheeses, locally sourced maple syrup and convenience store staples, you'll find the Parker Pie Company. There, another kind of communion has brought the local community together - one based on the twin pleasures of Vermont pizza and American craft beers.
Started five years ago by partners Ben Trevits and Cavan Meese, the Parker Pie Company was an instant sensation, a back-country treasure that locals guarded jealously. And with good reason. Parker Pie's pies are the product of a conventional electric pizza oven - not the imported wood-burning ovens preferred by pizza snobs - but they feature a crispy-chewy crust that borders on the sublime and contains a secret ingredient: maple syrup. (Meese's parents are maple syrup producers.)
No pizza captures the peculiar genius of the Parker Pie Company as powerfully as its Green Mountain Special, an inspired combination of wilted spinach, cheddar, red onion, crisp apple slices, and Vermont Smoke and Cure bacon. Here, you have it all: a perfect union of imagination and execution, an edible homage to the state that produced it, and a pizza that's so magical that it enters into your dream life.
Roughly 20 kilometres south of Burlington, in Charlotte, you'll suddenly find a painted roadside sign bearing an image of a pizza that looks suspiciously like a circular map of the world (with tomato sauce oceans and mozzarella continents) and bold lettering that reads "Pizza on Earth: Wood Oven Bakery." We slammed on the brakes and made a U-turn so that we could take a closer look.
The story of Jay Vogler, the founder of Pizza on Earth, contains so much of what makes the Vermont pizza scene so special. Trained first as a painter, then as a cook, he left New York 20 years ago and relocated his family to a farm in Charlotte, out of the conviction that farmers would be to the '90s what superstar chefs had been to the '80s. He and his wife ran their farm as a wholesale vegetable farm, then a CSA before the cooking bug and the chance purchase of a previously owned wood-burning oven got the better of him.
A decade later, you can gauge Vogler's success not only by the number of pizzas he sells on a typical Friday night (about 150), but also by the range of licence plates you find in his parking lot (Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, New York). And it's easy to understand why.
The combination of Vogler's specialty pizzas - like his Sausalito, with garlic sausage, chard, red onion, Parmesan, mozzarella and a dash of garlic oil; and his Spudnik, with bacon, sour cream and (you guessed it) thinly sliced potatoes - and the relaxed atmosphere of open-air, bring-yourown-bottle Champlain Valley dining is completely seductive.
Like Parker Pie and American Flatbread, Vogler insists on using Vermont flour (King Arthur) and locally sourced herbs and vegetables. And like the best of the Green Mountain pizzerias, Vogler creates some unusually creative and flavourful pizzas - pizzas that capture the spirit of Vermont, pizzas worth travelling for.
Lareau Farm, 46 Lareau Rd., Waitsfield, Vermont 1-802-496-8856 www.americanflatbread.com
Parker Pie Company
161 County Rd., West Glover, Vermont 1-802-525-3366 www.parkerpie.com
Pizza on Earth
1510 Hinesburg Rd., Charlotte, Vermont 1-802-425-2152 www.pizzaonearth.com
Where to stay:
Lareau Farm Inn, which is connected to the original American Flatbread in Waitsfield, is an absolute gem of an inn.