Adam Erace Adam Erace battles adult on-set diabetes and cankles as the restaurant critic for the Philadelphia City Paper. He also writes about food and travel for publications like Details, Fodor's and Southern Living. He lives in South Philly with his wife, Charlotte, and two rescue mutts, Lupo and Marco.
Among the charred skeletons of boxy buildings, the blown-out windows, the shadowed alleys and the abandoned rail line crusted like a shipwreck with earth-bound barnacles, optimism lives in the Loft District. The long-ascendent neighborhood north of Chinatown is famous for two things: Eraserhead, the David Lynch film its sinister past is said to have inspired, and the Reading Viaduct, the old rusted elevated train-track bed upon which area homeowners, urban renewalists and architecture buffs have pinned their hopes for a floating meadow a la New York’s spectacular High Line.
They say upholstering the viaduct in flowers and grass could take years, but the Loft District’s residents are a patient, dedicated bunch. Among their leaders are Mike and Jeniphur Pasquarello, who opened the zone’s de facto coffee-and-brunch club, Cafe Lift, in 2003 and craft-ale oasis Prohibition Taproom in 2008. In February, they added a third restaurant to their Loft District portfolio, Bufad, a wood-fired pizzeria whose name is an American bastardization of l’abbufatta, Italian for binge, feast, gorge.
The couple turned a Chinese takeout joint into a good-looking mash-up of industrial and baroque elements, with scrolling wallpaper (custom designed by a graphic-artist pal), white subway tile and exposed brick pouring down to herringbone pine-and-concrete floors. Big windows and lamps like bundled tanning bulbs light wood-topped tables on red metal legs. Across the way, a distressed-wood-paneled bar and marble counter divide the open kitchen from the 30-seat dining lane, home to a wood-burning EarthStone oven with gas assist that produces Bufad’s two styles of pizza.
The first: Roman, long, rectangular and resting at room temp under a glass cabinet built into the counter. As in the Eternal City, a cashier snips off squares with sharp scissors to order. Tucked in a box branded with Bufad’s mustachioed mascot — a swarthier version of the W.B. Mason guy whose lushly tattooed guns would inspire the envy of East Passyunk — the slices work great for harried neighbors in need of a heat-and-eat dinner. But it’s the two-minute Neapolitans, the second style, that occupy the young, energetic, eat-in crowd.
Mike and chef Lauren Weitman, a pastry specialist by trade, ferment Neapolitan four-ingredient dough (flour, yeast, water, salt) for two days and the Roman version (those ingredients plus a lot of olive oil) for one. Weitman and the oven share the success of the Neapolitan pies’ wonderful crusts, chewy and light with an ashy black perimeter that tastes like winter in New York. But as for the toppings, well, you can’t blame an appliance for those.
I tried two of Bufad’s pies and, sad to say, the excellent crusts couldn’t rescue either one. The “porcini cream” spread across a nightly special was more like condensed mushroom soup that liquefied in the 860-degree oven. Greensgrow watercress was a smart idea, but the past-prime leaves lacked their token zip, and piled on the wet, brown surface, gave the pizza the look of a muddy freshwater swamp. I didn’t know whether to eat it or look for beavers.
Alas, the second pizza was worse, combining two ingredients that are a logistical juggernaut to cook simultaneously: potatoes and eggs. Buried under fontina and gobs of pushy prosciutto, the former, sliced into thin rounds, had no chance of turning creamy or crisp. Cracked on top, the latter emerged with a properly runny yolk surrounded by whites so raw they should have been called clears.
“Break it with a fork and spread it all around,” the helpful server suggested.
I followed her instructions, hoping the residual heat of the pie would cook the clears. Instead I wound up with a pizza streaked with snotty goo. The Roman slices, dubbed SPQR for the city’s official insignia, didn’t fare much better, their focaccia-like foundations supporting undercooked beets with goat cheese on one version, more half-raw potatoes and rosemary on another. The pair of vivid tomato-pie-like “rossas” were way better, one spicy with guanciale and chile, the other tomato-only (and vegan).
Bufad’s small selection of starters showed promise, like a letter-perfect escarole/apple salad with a surprising rye personality from a warm speck-and-raisin dressing. But cooking time and temperature were persistent pests. Perched on undercooked Brussels sprouts, beautiful, breadcrumb-topped burrata came too cold for its straciatella center to spread. The antipasto plate “served room temp,” the menu specifically stated, also wore a flavor-blunting chill. Too bad, as the components (beets in orange gremolata, roasted carrots in salsa verde, a perfectly soft-boiled egg with capers and anchovy, sweet pickled fennel, lovely olives with citrus and garlic) were all great.
Unlike the antipasto, the house-bottled water was room temperature and tasted like it had been left out on the bedside table overnight. Instead I drank BYO wine from dusty glasses and later, a Pellegrino blood-orange soda poured over honey-rosemary gelato. The float came with little orange cookies, displayed under a pretty glass cake dome near the SPQR pizzas. I had a pudding-like chocolate panna cotta as well, drizzled with what looked to be Hershey’s syrup but was, in fact, balsamic vinegar, a combination that was clever and thought-provoking.
The same can be said for the future of this neighborhood. With a few more ballsy entrepreneurs like the Pasquarellos and a tighter attention to detail at Bufad, the district has the potential to count great food among its amenities. Nasty pizzas are no less offensive than an abandoned railway or a derelict warehouse, but they’re a whole lot easier to fix.
BUFAD | 1240 Spring Garden St., 215-238-9311, bufadpizza.com. Hours: Tue.-Sun., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Appetizers, $7-$11; pizzas, $11-$15; desserts, $5-$8.
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