Seattle Marinara-ers

A few months ago, I found myself alone in Seattle, a city I know very little about. Yes, there’s Pike Place Market and the Space Needle and the Rem Koolhaas–designed Central Library. And, OK, I’ll just go ahead and show my age: Nirvana and all those plaid flannel shirts. But what I’m really talking about is where to eat, of course. No matter how much you love your local haunts—and I love more than a few of mine mightily—novelty always counts for something. And it always gives me an appetite.

As it happens, this is a sentiment Molly Wizenberg can get behind. I know because in one of the many charming stories in her first book, A Homemade Life (2009), she approvingly quotes a friend who neatly captured her own travel ethos: “The only reason I travel . . . is for an excuse to eat more.” What can I say? Me, too.

A Homemade Life grew out of Wizenberg’s popular blog, Orangette, which she started as a lost twentysomething who had dropped out of her cultural-anthropology Ph.D. program. It’s a book of episodes and recipes that tells the story of growing up as the only child of her mother and the last child of her adored father, food lovers both. Moving into adulthood, she recalls how her father suddenly died of cancer when she was in her early twenties and how she started her blog and then met her husband through it. (All you bloggers who think getting a book deal is the ultimate jackpot, think again!) The memoir is funny and sweet, occasionally precious, and, at times, painful. As someone whose father also died quickly after being diagnosed with cancer, I could barely read her account of her father’s final days and what he ate, though I appreciate more than I can say the delicacy and clarity with which she put it down on paper for posterity.

Really, though, A Homemade Life is a book about food. The stories are there, for the most part, to give the recipes context. Now comes Wizenberg’s second book, Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage (Simon & Schuster, $25), which, though it also contains recipes, feels more of a piece than A Homemade Life. Rather than a series of disparate moments strung together, it’s more of a seamless narrative. It is entertaining and wondering and plainspoken, and, during that recent visit to Seattle, it had me poring over a map of the public-transportation system in order to catch a bus to Ballard, a neighborhood just a few miles northwest of downtown. That is the location of Delancey, the wood-oven-pizza restaurant that Wizenberg and her musician-turned-chef husband, Brandon, opened in 2009. How it got to be there is the story of Delancey, the book, which, although it is less dramatic than it’s made out to be, is a good tale nonetheless, full of the hard work and trial and error of emerging into adulthood. Throughout, Wizenberg plays the straight man to Brandon’s wild dreamer with a relish she only sort of manages to hide. “Brandon thinks up a lot of crazy, and sometimes illegal, schemes. I listen, and I might even nod, but my temperament is less Bonnie Parker and more Bea Arthur on The Golden Girls,” she says at one point. “He’s thinking about a getaway car; I’m thinking that our hatchback is due for an oil change.”

The pizza oven at Delancey restaurant in Seattle.
The pizza oven at Delancey restaurant in Seattle.

And so he came up with the crazy idea to open a restaurant, which Wizenberg mostly ignored (she refers to her attitude as “pathological nonchalance”) until it became clear that he was not only totally serious, but wanted her to go along with it. This expectation—that she be a part of the process, even as A Homemade Life was about to be published—precipitates the crisis that is meant to be the center of Delancey, but is actually its least interesting dimension. “More than ever, I was in Book Land; Brandon was in Pizza Town. . . . I wanted to be the kind of person who would applaud her husband’s hard work, even if the end goal scared her. He had asked nothing of me but my support. But in truth, I mostly wanted the restaurant to go away.”

Much is made of the disconnect between their dreams. There is crying, failed pizza dough, general exhaustion and angst, and a large dose of hilariously described hysteria:

Brandon gashed his thumb on a sheet of steel in a home improvement store. . . . Clearly he was going to lose his thumb. He wouldn’t be able to cook. Why hadn’t we bought disability insurance? Why hadn’t we had his hands insured for millions. . . . We were going to lose the restaurant before it was even open. With no restaurant, no job, and only one thumb, Brandon would fall in with a bad crowd. He wouldn’t come home for weeks. I would cry myself to sleep. One night, high on desperation, he would commit a burglary, and he’d bring the stolen cash to me, promising to come home, to help me pay down our debt. We’ll start over, he’d plead. But the cops would be after him, and we’d have to run.

As I’m sure you can guess, none of this comes to pass. Delancey opened and was an instant success (thanks, in no small part, to Wizenberg’s by then best-selling first book). Which is not to say that there weren’t some kinks along the way. As Wizenberg puts it, fairly succinctly, “Every day was a new rescue operation, and it would be that way for a while.”

It’s the details of these operations that actually make up the heart of her story, rather than the marital crisis happening between two smart, successful, overwhelmed young people, which, ultimately, resembles most people’s fairly superficial marital crises. Far more compelling are the many moments of chaos at Delancey, like Wizenberg in the role of unhappy cleanup crew: “Everything gets dirty in a restaurant. You wouldn’t believe how many people manage not only to spill their wine, but to spill it onto a wall.” Her description of the elaborate hierarchy of places they devised for letting their dough rise depending on the weather, one of which included their home’s basement and required loading all the dough into a car and driving it back and forth, is crazy making even to read. And the weirdo story, familiar to anyone who has worked at a restaurant, of the seemingly perfect pizza chef who accepted a job at Delancey before it opened, and then just never showed up, evokes a kind of sympathy that tales of late-night screaming and sleeping in the guest room don’t. There’s probably no marriage on earth, given enough time, that hasn’t had its moments of garden-variety selfishness on both sides, but most of them haven’t taken place against a tomato-and-mozzarella backdrop.

Which, fortunately, brings me back to Delancey, the restaurant, where the tomatoes and mozzarella—and everything else—are delicious, and where I was lucky to get the last seat in the house on the night I arrived, after a thirty-minute bus ride, fifteen minutes after it opened at 5 pm.Sitting at a little table by the door, I had a good view of everything—the lively dining room, the chalkboard announcing the extra toppings available that day, the crew of regulars seated at the bar chatting with Brandon (I recognized him from the photos in Delancey!) as he slid pizzas in and out of the wood-burning oven. The vibe was comfortable and calm in spite of the fact that the place was packed. Wizenberg writes frequently of her desire to have the restaurant feel like a really great dinner party—which is to say, unpressured, unfussy, full of laughter and good food. I’d say she’s done it (and I’d argue that people spilling their wine on the walls may actually be a sign of a really great dinner, whether you’re out or at home). I ordered a starter of wood-roasted radicchio with citrus and a bacon-and-onion pizza. The vegetables were perfectly caramelized and tangy, an ideal warming way to begin a meal on a rainy (of course) Seattle evening. The pizza was even better, slightly charred and chewy, studded with local bacon and slivers of onion. I don’t know whether one is supposed to eat an entire Delancey pizza alone (they’re about twelve inches across), but I did.

About half an hour into my pizza extravaganza, the door to the restaurant opened and in staggered a curly-haired toddler with a joyously round face. “Hi!” she screeched at me with wild merriment as she lurched by. She was followed by her mother, whom I also recognized from Delancey. Wizenberg came in, closed the door behind her, adjusted a few knickknacks on a shelf by a fraction of an inch apiece, then plunked her daughter down in a cardboard box to play and went behind the bar to get the child something to eat—another version of family dinner. Whatever she came out with, I have a suspicion it’s going to end up in her next book. Let’s hope she includes the recipe.

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).