Pride of the Yankees: How a pair of New York transplants put a tiny Mississippi town on the world’s pizza map
In the Mayberry-like hamlet of Sardis, Dutch and Rebecca van Oostendorp have used the power of pizza to revive smalltown values at TriBecca Allie.
The sleepy Mississippi Delta hamlet of Sardis may not have a bumbling deputy named Barney or a town drunk named Otis, but it’s about as close to Mayberry as you could get. On Main Street alone, you’ll find a hometown theater, the Panola Playhouse, that has been staging family-friendly productions since 1962 (think The Miracle Worker and My Fair Lady), a pet grooming shop, even a “Cat Crossing” sign near the hardware store, right about where you will often spot at least one stray tabby ambling across the street.
It’s also where you’ll find a couple of transplanted New Yorkers who are making some of the finest wood-fired pies in the Deep South. As owners of TriBecca Allie Café (tribeccaallie.com), Damian “Dutch” and Rebecca van Oostendorp have built a little pizza shop with a big reputation, drawing customers from all around north-central Mississippi—because, as folks in these parts will tell you, Dutch’s award-winning Magnolia Rosa Insalata and Rebecca’s famous Triple-Layer Lasagna always make the long drive worthwhile.
Married for 17 years, the van Oostendorps—he’s a former pro golf instructor, and she’s a swim coach when she isn’t in the kitchen—have come a long way from their days of selling bread loaves at a farmers market in nearby Oxford. Once outsiders newly arrived from the north, they are now some of Sardis’ best-known—and best-loved—citizens, not to mention important business leaders and job creators. “When you move [to Mississippi] from a place like New York, you have to shake off the chains of being seen as, you know, the ugly Yankee,” Dutch admits. With a smile, he adds, “Now they say we’re damn Yankees—because we came and stayed here.”
Escape From New York
Truth is, the small-town southern life suits these Yankees pretty well. “My hometown in New York was pretty small, too—not as small as Sardis, but small by New York’s standards,” says Dutch, who grew up in the Hudson Valley, northwest of Manhattan. “Everybody knew everybody. Every parent knew who you belonged to.”
Rebecca, meanwhile, came of age in lower Westchester County, just outside the Bronx. When her parents decided to retire and head for warmer climes in the late 1990s, she followed. A former country club manager, she took a job as director of Ole Miss Catering at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Meanwhile, shortly before she moved south, she and Dutch met at a mutual friend’s wedding. Duly smitten, Dutch soon dropped everything and followed his true love to Mississippi.
Rebecca was ready for a change, her husband recalls. “She was getting tired of the craziness in New York—a lot of break-ins, missing cars and snowstorms.” But, for all its quaint appeal, Sardis, like many small towns in America, had its own problems: very little growth, a struggling business community, and nearly one-quarter of the population stuck below the poverty line.
Dutch van Oostendorp uses hardwoods, such as white oak, red oak, pecan or red gum, to keep the home fires burning at TriBecca Allie.
The van Oostendorps were determined to make a difference in their adopted home. After testing the waters with a backyard brick oven and a little bread baking business that created some serious buzz, the aspiring restaurateurs purchased and began renovating an old two-story building in downtown Sardis. It took them five years to bring TriBecca Allie to life. Dutch even built the wood-fired oven himself, mostly from recycled brick. “It was definitely more cost-effective,” he says. “Depending on your financial situation in the beginning and your lead time before opening, having an oven that’s already built for you will make a big difference. You can order them fully assembled or in modular form, where you put them together yourself. In our case, there wasn’t any hurry in getting the restaurant going. Financially, it behooved us to take it in stages and build it ourselves. And if you build your own oven, you know its ins and outs—and its potential drawbacks—from the beginning.” (For more info about Dutch’s oven and his tips on wood-fired oven management, check out the sidebar below and watch our exclusive video interview on PizzaTV.com.)
TriBecca Allie officially opened in January 2010, and popular acclaim quickly followed. Its Magnolia Rosa Insalata won second place in the American Pizza Championship in Orlando, Florida, that same year. In 2013, Zagat named their Patate (potato) Pizza the best pie in Mississippi, and Thrillist reached the same conclusion about the Magnolia Rosa Insalata the following year.
“Rebecca and Dutch van Oostendorp certainly aren’t the first New Yorkers to move to Mississippi and open up a pizza shop,” the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
reported a few years after TriBecca Allie opened. “But they very well may be the best.”
As Seen on PizzaTV:
PMQ test chef Brian Hernandez and the PizzaTV crew spent an entire Thursday afternoon with two of our favorite restaurateurs—Damian “Dutch” and Rebecca van Oostendorp, owners of TriBecca Allie Café in Sardis, Mississippi. Check out the exclusive video interview with this dynamic couple at PizzaTV.com and watch Dutch, a true master of the wood-fired oven, in action. Meanwhile, he shares three quick tips with our readers:
1. Wetter is better. To create a dough that can withstand the intense heat of a wood-fired oven, you’ll need to use more water in your formula. “[More water] gives you greater lift in the dough, because you will get more evaporation due to the high temperatures,” Dutch says.
2. Follow the three-touch rule. “Try not to move the pizza too much,” Dutch warns. “Once you put it in the oven, leave it in that spot until it’s virtually done cooking.” As it starts baking, he adds, “Think of touching it three times—touch it once to turn it, touch it a second time to turn it again, and for the third touch take it out…and you’re done.”
3. Char’s the star. Wood-fired pizza is all about the right amount of char. “The char is what adds flavor to that final bite,” Dutch notes. “We call it the pizza marshmallow, with that toasted burnt-marshmallow flavor. Don’t be afraid of a little bit of char.”
A Cosmopolitan Menu
The van Oostendorps aren’t the first married couple to run a pizza shop, either, but they appear to be a match made in culinary heaven. Dutch is the pizzaiolo, a skilled oven master who peels out savory specialties like the Capricciosa (ham, artichoke hearts, ripe olives, mushrooms and mozzarella) or the Polpette (meatballs, ricotta, mozzarella and oregano). Rebecca handles the equally popular daily specials, which range from moussaka and muffalettas to gazpacho and tamale pie. They’ve built up an email database of customers from around the north-central part of Mississippi, along with a fast-growing Facebook and Twitter following. “We post and send the menu out on Tuesday night and rotate out about 60 different specials through the cycle,” Rebecca says. And they pay close attention to customer feedback. “If you came in and said, ‘Jeez, Becca, I really miss the pot roast,’ the next week I’d get the pot roast back on the menu for you.”
From Italian dishes to Cajun classics and gourmet desserts, Rebecca can cook just about anything. “If you have a request for food that you miss from where you grew up, I will make it for you,” she says. But some dishes go over better than others, she admits. “In the first year we opened, I made Hungarian goulash, and no one ordered it. I couldn’t figure out why—it was a great dish. I finally figured out if I named it Beef Tips and Paprika Sauce, it sold like wildfire. No one wanted to eat something called goulash.”
Some locals were also leery of the unique smoky flavor and charred texture of wood-fired pizza, Dutch admits. “We did have a hard time educating them. For a lot of them, their only experience with pizza was from Pizza Hut or Domino’s. Obviously, our pizzas looked more ‘well-done’ than they were used to. Some people thought they were burnt.” For some regular guests, Dutch started out undercooking their pizzas, then gradually increased the bake time over several visits until the customers became accustomed to the taste.
Dutch allows limited customization with the specialty pizzas—he doesn’t mind holding the onions or the mushrooms, for example—but he draws the line at substitutions. Each recipe boasts a delicate and precise balance of flavors, and he’d rather not meddle with them. Customers can create their own pies, but, even then, he says, “We limit them to five toppings. At the temperatures we cook at, it’s difficult to manage a pizza with more than five toppings.”
TriBecca Allie’s hours are limited, too. The store opens for lunch only on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, for lunch and dinner on Fridays, and for dinner only on Saturdays. Enforcing strict standards of quality are important to the van Oostendorps, so they handle all of the cooking, prepping and pizza making themselves. The servers are cross-trained to man the POS system, of course, and busboys and dishwashers play their key roles, but the culinary duties fall exclusively to Dutch and Rebecca. That means TriBecca Allie can’t run on a standard chain restaurant’s hours, they note. “We may only be open for 20 hours a week, but we actually work about 80 hours a week,” Rebecca says. “People say our hours are funny. To us, they don’t seem funny. These are about how many hours we can work.”
At Frog’s Pearl Station, the van Oostendorps’ dessert and coffee shop located next to TriBecca Allie, friendly servers like Maddie Garrett dish out espressos, eclairs, cappucinos, sea salt caramel gelato and more.
A Sense of Ownership
Most locals don’t mind the no-substitution rules or the unusual hours. It helps that TriBecca Allie has helped put Sardis on the map for many foodies around the state and attracts crowds of diners to the downtown business district, especially on weekends. “Supposedly 75% of the people who walk into your restaurant live within five miles,” Dutch muses. “Not here. For us, most of the high-volume days tend to be folks coming from farther out. We get people from a 30- to 45-mile radius on the weekends.”
The good folks of Sardis, meanwhile, take immense pride in the little pizza shop. It’s a “locally owned” pizzeria in more ways than one. “Twenty percent of our clientele feels a sense of ownership of the restaurant,” Rebecca says. “They publicize it for us. They...protect us and look out for us.”
Dutch agrees, adding, “The city clerk and the director of public works—more often than not, if you want to find them at lunchtime, they’re here.”
“We have a local judge who will get up from his table on a busy Saturday night and start clearing tables to let people sit down,” Rebecca says. “He thinks nothing of it. It’s what he’s supposed to do, because this is his town. Our clientele is very protective of the restaurant and patronize us as much as they can.”
A Righteous Living
It also helps that the van Oostendorps, although New Yorkers by birth, have ingrained themselves into the Sardis community like true lifers. And this is, perhaps, the greatest marketing lesson they can impart to new pizzeria operators looking to succeed in small towns. They know everybody’s names; they know when the owner of the hardware store has gone on vacation and when he’s coming back. They know the Panola Playhouse’s production schedule and the phone number of the local handyman, who will often tell them how to fix the problem rather than come over and charge to fix it himself.
They’re not just there to take your money. They want to feed you and send you home full and happy. And they want to see Sardis thrive—not just because it’s good for business, but also because small-town life, they believe, is good for the soul. After renovating their own building to build TriBecca Allie, they purchased the building next door and set up Frog’s Pearl Station (frogspearl.com), a picturesque Victorian-style cottage where guests enjoy desserts ranging from gelato and tiramisu to eclairs, cream puffs and chocolate-covered pretzels. Now they’re working on a third downtown building, hoping to make it an attractive site for future entrepreneurs.
Dutch and Rebecca van Oostendorp transformed an old run-down building in downtown Sardis, Mississippi, into one of the hottest pizza spots in the Deep South.
“Folks say we have [helped revive downtown Sardis],” Rebecca says. “We worked for five years renovating this building, and people watched us and thought, ‘Oh, they’re never going to open anything.’ Then we opened it, and it started to grow—people saw that something good could happen in Sardis. Since then, we’ve had a lot of new businesses open in town, including three antique stores, and the pet grooming store down the street now gets more business from other towns.”
Meanwhile, customers who drive in from Oxford—which is nationally renowned for its restaurant scene—have urged the van Oostendorps to open a second store there, but that’s unlikely, Dutch says. “If we did [open a second location] for some unknown reason, it probably wouldn’t be in Oxford. A lot of folks come here from Oxford to escape. If we opened in Oxford, it would certainly shoot this store in the foot.”
“We didn’t get into this business to be million-dollar earners,” he adds. “I think America needs to get back to its roots and have those local places where people go eat and know that whatever they eat there is good. We need to get away from the big supermarkets—maybe we can see old-time butchers and bakeries come back. Go from the north end of Main Street to the south end and do all of your shopping and see eight or 10 people along the way and know all of their names.”
This revival of small-town America has to start somewhere—why not with an awesome little pizza joint like TriBecca Allie? That’d be fine with Dutch. There’s nowhere else he’d rather be and nothing else he’d rather be doing. “I feel like making pizza is a really righteous way to make a living,” he says.