It’s no secret that the Hudson Valley is truly, madly, and deeply in love with the farm-to-table movement.
It’s no surprise, either. With an abundance of dedicated farmers and equally dedicated consumers, the region thrives upon the symbiotic relationship between farms and restaurants and the people who frequent them both. So, when those boundaries blur and farms and food meet, the result is a beautiful harmony that shines a light on the bounty of the Valley.
Traditionally, that harmony takes place at farm-to-table dinners or restaurants dedicated to promoting local farms and seasonal produce. Yet sometimes it takes a more unexpected route…say, like a Hudson Valley pizza pop-up, for instance.
Curious? You should be. For the pizza pop-up that’s happening in the Hudson Valley this summer is the sort of seasonal activity that ranks number one on any food lover’s bucket list.
The first thing of note is the location. The pop-up takes place at Katchkie Farm, a working farm in Kinderhook, now through the end of September. The Columbia County farm is certified organic by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York and plays host to The Sylvia Center, a Hudson Valley- and New York City-based program that teaches children about fresh food and preparation. While The Sylvia Center is normally up and running with daylong programs at the farm, it’s moved to a largely online format in response to the COVID-19 crisis for the time being.
Because of this, the farm is a lot quieter this summer. Or, it was until Hilltown Hot Pies set up its pizza pop-up onsite.
As is the case with many of the best ideas, the initial brainstorm for the pizza concept resulted from a simple conversation. Hilltown Hot Pies founder Rafi Bildner’s mother was on the phone with Katchkie Farm founder Liz Neumark when Liz mentioned she had a pizza oven that needed using. Bildner’s mother immediately volunteered her son for the project and, in no time at all, he was on his way from the Berkshires to the Hudson Valley to give the oven a test run.
Of course, Bildner is no stranger to pizza-making. In fact, the self-proclaimed pizzaiolo has quite the history with dough. Born into the fourth generation of a family with a hand deep in the food industry, he spent his early days visiting farms and learning about food systems. After culinary school and college, he veered from food to dabble in politics and outdoor guiding, but he always found himself back in the kitchen in some way or another. Eventually, he realized being in the kitchen and making pizza was where he was happiest.
“I call pizza the great equalizer,” he says. “It’s about creating community and bringing people together. It’s such a beautiful canvas that you can paint with anything you see around you.”
That artistry is part of the reason he was instantly sold on the idea of a pizza program at Katchkie. He had already been operating in a similar pop-up format in the Berkshires after honing his skills in pizza kitchens in New Haven and San Francisco. So, when he saw Katchkie’s oven and surrounding fields with the abundant summertime harvest, he knew he had all he needed and more to craft a pizza experience dedicated to the flavors of the Hudson Valley.
Open since mid-July, Hilltown Hot Pies at Katchkie Farm is one of the most scrumptious farm-to-table operations in Columbia County. Every weekend on Thursdays to Sundays from 4-8 p.m., Bildner fires up his signature sourdough pizzas with produce straight from the fields at Katchkie for diners to order online and devour. Walk-up orders are not allowed, but the farm is open for socially distant picnicking, and Bildner says that the view of the Catskills in the distance is a spectacular dinnertime backdrop.
Leading up to the weekend, he starts his process on Mondays by chatting to Katchkie’s head farmer about what’s growing. By Wednesday, he has fresh produce in the kitchen for use the next day. His sourdough crusts come from a starter he began culturing five years prior and brought with him around the world. After crafting the dough, he fires it Neapolitan-style at a temperature between 800- and 900-degrees Fahrenheit. Because he knows many diners will take their pizza to-go, he cooks his pies at a slightly lower temperature than traditional Neapolitan preparation to ensure they hold up during a drive.
“[My pizza] crosses the line between a really fluffy Neapolitan and a crispy, structured New York-style,” he explains. He also notes that, because of the changing nature of his sourdough starter, his doughs vary in taste from one week to the next in reaction to the changing environment. “It’s not a cookie-cutter product,” he says.
As far as the pies themselves go, Bildner sticks with a handful of classics while switching up others to highlight the ingredients the farm gives him each week. Sure, he has staples like Margheritas and Marinaras, but he also does charcuterie and vegan pies, too. In the height of peach season, his peach pie with blue cheese, basil, mozzarella, and a balsamic reduction is a fan favorite.
Hilltown Hot Pies at Katchkie Farm runs until mid-September. After that, Bildner leaves his future open to where opportunity takes him. He loves the surrounding Berkshires and Hudson Valley landscapes, and he admits that his ultimate vision is to create a dedicated “pizza farm” that spotlights local produce on seasonal pies. He’d love to make it a destination experience, with music and event opportunities down the line as well.
“It’s the potential to create the happiest place for people,” he says. “The pandemic has made very clear the power of restaurants and the hospitality industry in bringing people together through food. I’m very inspired and motivated, and I’m ready to put down roots.”