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Pizza Pilgrimage | Vermont's Mad River Valley

Can any pizza possibly justify a seven-hour drive? On a weekend tour of Vermont's Mad River Valley, a traveler learns the answer is yes.

Driving half a day in pounding rain for a pizza is a grand, dramatic—and ridiculous—gesture. It's more ridiculous if you live in New York City, where you can have every permutation of pizza—coal-oven, wood-grilled, stove-griddled—brought to your door. More ridiculous still if the restaurant you're visiting sells its pies in supermarkets.

But American Flatbread seemed to deserve a pilgrimage. It wasn't just the poetic name, its Whitmanesque overtones matched only by the name of the location, the Mad River Valley in central Vermont. I'd heard about the eccentric owner and the three-hour waits outside for a table. Most of all I'd heard about the pizza—the impeccable crust, the sublime toppings. This part I'd partially verified by buying a frozen pie at the Whole Foods Market in Manhattan. It was the best frozen pizza I'd ever had—and, at almost $9, the most expensive one sold there. If American Flatbread could work such wonders with frozen dough, I thought, the real thing must be unbelievable.

I drove up to Vermont with my friend Alex during one of the most ferocious downpours the state had seen all year. After three hours of heavy traffic, we were getting testy, and our mission was beginning to feel completely inane. When we finally checked into the Pitcher Inn, a Relais & Château hotel in the Mad River Valley town of Warren, we decided to leave American Flatbread for the next night. A stormy seven-hour drive is too much pressure to inflict on any restaurant.

Luckily, the inn was a calm place to wait out the rain. Built on the site of a 150-year-old hotel, also called the Pitcher Inn, that was destroyed by a fire 10 years ago, the white three-story house dispenses with the clichés and clutter of most country inns. (Although the guest rooms are themed around Vermont pastimes—fishing, skiing, horseback riding—they're done with a light, witty touch.) We drank port in the warm, clubby lounge and played pool on the 19th-century billiards table. Back in our room—the Trout Room, which had an antique outboard motor for decoration and a ceiling slatted like the bottom of a canoe—Alex built a fire in the fireplace.

We woke up to a gorgeous morning and decided to spend the day eating our way around the Mad River Valley. About 45 minutes from Burlington, the area feels absurdly perfect in its Vermontness: narrow roads twisting over mountains, 19th-century white-clapboard houses, roadside farms selling maple syrup. The region is known for its ski resorts, including the treacherous Mad River Glen, which has slopes mostly untouched by snowmaking machines. ("Ski it if you can" is the motto.) The valley is also, less famously, the site of some of Vermont's best food.

One of the most popular sandwich spots happens to be across the street from the Pitcher Inn. The Warren Store, a general store that dates back to the late 1800s, bakes its own pastries and sandwich breads. It also has an impressive selection of wines (Opus One, Château Margaux). We sat at the lone wooden table and sampled the moist, plump scones and the thick, sweet bread used to make hefty sandwiches like the Montpeculiar (roast beef, mayo, horseradish) and the Family (capocollo, salami, provolone, hot pepper relish). Then we got in the car and headed north on Route 100, the main artery connecting the towns of Warren, Waitsfield and Waterbury.

Our first stop was brunch at the Mist Grill in Waterbury, a four-year-old restaurant popular with locals. The dining room is laid-back and appealingly rustic, with strategically mismatched chairs and banquettes carved from old wooden posts. The menu is full of inspired riffs on traditional breakfast dishes, like pancakes with diced Vermont apples and local cider, and variations on eggs Benedict called Benedict Arnolds—the one we tried was duck confit with hollandaise sauce on a cube of corn bread.

A brunch like this should have been followed by four hours of abstinence. But a few minutes down the road, we pulled in at the Red Hen Baking Co., which makes European-style artisanal breads. We bought a Crossett Hill Round, with a crunchy crust similar to that of a French pain de campagne, and a loaf of potato bread packed with chunks of organic, skin-on Yukon Gold potatoes.

The valley is home, most famously, to the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory in Waitsfield. Unsurprisingly, this is a slick operation, with half-hour tours given every day by peppy college kids. At the end, you get generous scoops of the newest flavors (we tried Uncanny Cashew, Brownie Batter and Oatmeal Cookie Chunk). Our favorite part was the Graveyard of Dead Flavors, a short walk up the hill from the factory. Carved on headstones are epitaphs for failed flavors, like Fresh Georgia Peach: "Fresh-picked peaches, trucked from Georgia, tasted great but couldn't last. Cuz Georgia's quite a ways away, and trucks don't go that fast."

We spent the rest of the afternoon in a relaxed, aimless way, stopping at antiques shops. I'd been looking for an old mirror and found a white three-paneled one I loved for $20 at the Gotham Collection in Waterbury; in Manhattan it would have cost easily three times that.

At sundown, still full on carbs and ice cream, we were ready to endure the infamous wait at American Flatbread. The stretch of Route 100 leading up to the restaurant in Waitsfield was quiet and dark. Turning into the driveway, we thought we might have hit the place on a slow night. Then we saw the campfires—two roaring ones with dozens of people milling around, sipping wine. It was like an outdoor party. This is what's missing from New York City pizzerias, Alex said: campfires.

We walked into the restaurant—a low-ceilinged space inside a converted horse barn—and put ourselves on the waiting list. American Flatbread is open only on Friday and Saturday nights and doesn't take reservations, so the lines can be interminable. To pass the time, we asked if we could meet the owner, George Schenk. Wearing beat-up jeans, a khaki vest and a tie, Schenk looked like a slightly rumpled college professor. The former biologist—who launched his food career when he worked with chef Gary Danko at nearby Tucker Hill Inn in 1984—is passionate about wood-fired baking. After an unexpectedly successful attempt to build a stone oven in his backyard for a party, he opened an outdoor pizza stand on the Tucker Hill grounds in 1987 with an oven he'd built from field stones. Schenk soon upgraded to a sturdier, Native American—style one built inside a maple-sapling wigwam before chancing upon an archaic clay model in a library book called The Bread Ovens of Quebec. This oven, which Schenk uses at American Flatbread's current site at Lareau Farm, can handle 800-degree temperatures and produces a nicely browned crust with "the perfect crispy-chewy contrast"—Schenk's Platonic ideal.

Schenk takes the same amount of care with his toppings, mostly Vermont-grown organic ingredients: sausage from a pig farm in Waitsfield, shiitake from the Intervale, an experimental farm in Burlington.

When our table was finally ready, the hostess sat us near the oven, so we had a close-up view of the bakers shifting the pizzas in and out with a giant peel. The specials were listed on a chalkboard: one with New England baby clams, capers and the restaurant's signature wood-fired tomato sauce, and the other with pancetta, oyster mushrooms and herbed Vermont goat cheese. At Schenk's insistence, we ordered both, plus two pizzas from the regular menu—the New Vermont Sausage, with maple-fennel sausage and sun-dried tomatoes, and the Punctuated Equilibrium (named after an obscure theory of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's), heaped with olives, roasted red peppers, goat cheese and rosemary.

Part of American Flatbread's genius, no doubt, is making customers wait so long they're ready to eat the furniture. We'd spent the day eating, so we weren't as susceptible. But when the waitress brought our fragrant, bubbling-hot pizzas, we eagerly tore a piece of crust off the edge. The flavor had amazing depth; it tasted like real bread—vibrant with the flavors of organically grown wheat flour, kosher salt and olive oil. And the texture had that elusive contrast Schenk was talking about: crispy on the bottom but doughy enough on top to have a pleasing chewiness. Plus, each topping stood out as if it were starring in its own dish: the briny clams; the maple-sweetened sausage; the crisp, smoky pancetta; the bewitching sauce, made from tangy tomatoes cooked in a wood-fired cauldron.

As we ate, we gazed at the posters on the wall, which Schenk had made himself and which meshed with the restaurant's neo-hippie vibe. "Irrigation and the Death of Civilization," read one. "Irrigation led to the rise of the city-state, and city-states led to slavery..." Next to Alex's chair was a less strident proclamation. "Things Bears Need," it began. "Deep woods, big old trees, berries, solitude." We wanted to steal the poster. Instead, we came up with our own list, with the things we needed to cap off this epic weekend: another game of pool at the Pitcher Inn, a cup of tea by the fire in our room and a peaceful—and dry—drive home in the morning.

Published July 2003
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