Fiddleheads on the Roof?

By | July 15, 2013
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Jason O'Toole of Pizza Barbonne

The Sky’s the Limit for a New Restaurant Garden in Hyannis. 

“The dirt is going up on the roof tomorrow at 7:00 am, if you’d like to come and join us!” was the intriguing email invitation from Ali Lane. She and her soon-to-be husband, Jason O’Toole, are owners of the one-year-old Pizza Barbone on Main Street in Hyannis. There had been some buzz about a restaurant rooftop garden, and it looked like it was finally coming together.

When I arrived at about 7:15, bleary-eyed but ready to help, Jason was already on the roof, explaining his intentions to a crane operator. Jason’s friend and hired muscle, Mike Silva of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, was waiting on the roof with a shovel in one hand and a straight knife in the other. Mike, a local food and farm enthusiast, nutritionist and personal trainer, looked as though he could carry the bags up the stairs himself. One by one, bags containing a total of 18,000 pounds of organic soil made it carefully to each of the nine 4’x 8’  garden boxes, which were all placed strategically over the massive support beams of the building. Also on the roof were 30 18”x22”x15”  self-watering containers.

 “I can’t believe this day is finally here!”  Jason announced with a smile and a squint from the morning sun. I asked him how much a crane cost to rent (not nearly as much as one would think), and Jason added, “I don’t think I’ll ever recoup my money after all the soil and seeds.” But to Jason this fresh air addition to the business isn’t about money at all. “Either way is fine with me,” he says. “I just can’t wait to come up here and work. I love the garden and it’ll be a great place for me to clear my head.”

Jason does love to garden, and cook, and experiment, and bake, and eat, and watch people eat. The guy just digs food. The inventory for the gardens is currently five varieties of tomatoes, two varieties of potatoes, runner beans, beets, broccoli, carrots, basil, two kinds of onions, peppers, rosemary, marjoram, parsley, cauliflower, marigolds, cucumbers, squash, and I think I heard something about a pear tree with a partridge in it, but I could be wrong there.

In the coming days, most of the seedlings are planted in the raised beds, except the tomatoes and cucumbers. The tomatoes are growing in self-watering grow boxes that Jason built himself. Jack Stacy from Matt’s Organic Gardens in Dennis selected and grew the tomato seedling varieties expressly for Pizza Barbone. The cucumbers are growing in large plastic buckets, and right now while the plants are still small, they are easily contained. Jason is still considering what kind of trellis support system will work best in the windy conditions at rooftop, but for some trailing vines, he will use old pallets.

Getting to the roof garden from the restaurant requires walking down a series of hallways and stairways and through various doors reminiscent of the opening sequence of Get Smart. (Google it.) So while it’s not terribly convenient to run to the roof for, say, a handful of basil during dinner rush, the yield from the garden will show up on thoughtfully-constructed daily specials posted on a chalkboard.

Jason’s colorful and savory life journey sprouted at only 12 years of age in the snack bar at Mashpee’s Willowbend Country Club. Under the tutelage of Chef Paul Cunningham, Jason eventually worked his way into the kitchen making salads and working banquets, and in 1996, at the tender age of 17, he graduated high school early, packed his bags, and took an internship at New York City’s iconic restaurant, Le Cirque. Jason’s duties at Le Cirque included working the fish and hot appetizer stations, and making all the filled pastas and gnocchi on Sundays. Two years later, in 1998, Jason moved home, working at various restaurants around the Cape, and a year later attended and completed studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, with an externship under chef Andrew Carmelini at Cafe Boulud in NYC.

With as much daring as it took a 17-year-old to take on New York a couple years earlier, Jason rolled his culinary diploma up into his carry-on bag and flew to London to work the appetizer station at Chef Gordon Ramsay’s Claridge’s restaurant. Soon the allure of traveling through Europe was too great, so Jason bid Ramsay a fond adieu, and traveled through Italy and France, sustaining himself as a private chef. Eventually, as it usually happens, New England beckoned, so Jason returned to work various chef positions in well-respected eateries including Michael Leviton’s Lumière in Newton and Lydia Shire’s new-wave Italian restaurant, Pignoli, in Boston.

Wanting to branch out on his own, and with an arsenal of new culinary tricks up his sleeve, Jason became a private chef on a yacht. In the fall of 2009, the yacht happened to dock in Charleston, South Carolina, where Jason discovered a restaurant named Extra Virgin Oven (EVO). The chefs at EVO would bring their mobile wood-fired oven to local farmers’ markets, and bake dazzling pizzas with fresh ingredients for the local community. The following day, after a restless night filled with visions of pizza toppings dancing in his head, Jason hopped off the yacht, marched over to EVO and bought one of the mobile units they had for sale. Thus, the first incarnation of Pizza Barbone was born: barbone is Italian for vagabond or tramp—a great name for a rolling business.

By May of 2010, Jason was operating his newly-acquired mobile oven at public events and farmers’ markets around Cape Cod. He quickly established a large following of customers for private parties and successfully continues operating his mobile oven to this day.

In the winter of 2012, Jason’s dream of owning his own restaurant came to fruition when he and his fiancée Ali signed the lease on their first brick-and-mortar location for Pizza Barbone at 390 Main Street in Hyannis, which is where our story takes place. Across the room glows a beautifully glass-tiled, 6000-pound monster of a pizza oven that they had shipped from Naples, Italy—one of only 35 of its kind in the United States.

The small yet innovative and diverse menu offers an unexpected conundrum for a rabid pizza freak, with delightful diversions like a gooey dish of baked Pecorino (sweet honey, hazelnut and thyme) with slices of house-made crunchy bread; an arugula salad with shaved fennel, orange, Kalamata olives and pistachios in a lemon vinaigrette; and roasted cauliflower sweetened with golden raisins and pickled red onion, topped with a healthy pinch of breadcrumbs, and served sizzling under a bubbling blanket of ricotta salata.

Although most of the pizzas appear familiar, the ingredients veer to the unexpected: the mushroom pizza is made with fresh forest mushrooms, garlic cream, rosemary, smoked mozzarella and truffle oil; the pesto pizza is made with pistachios; and the marinara sauce is made with fire-roasted tomatoes. Meatballs and sausage are made in house with care and love.

On the day of our visit there was also a pizza made with 36-hour pork, spiced eggplant purée, caramelized onions, smoked mozzarella and oregano; and a basil pesto, tomato, red onion, olive and feta pizza on the special’s board.

With the days getting longer and warmer, Jason kicked into the seasonal spirit early and surprised us with his newest pizza creation—a roasted corn number with caramelized onions, crispy bacon, roasted garlic purée, mozzarella and ricotta—which can accurately be described as sweetly smoked, garlicky, soft and bubbling-yet-subtly-crunchy.

While Jason tends to the pies and the peel, Ali weaves her way in and out and around the tables, checking that everyone is wearing the proper smile that Jason’s food induces, and is quick to notice the littlest details of every table, whether it be a fork out of place or a glass of red wine that desperately needs filling. When not greeting customers, managing the front of the house or spending administrative time in her basement office, Ali works a full time job as a design and décor expert, but when she is at Pizza Barbone, or working the mobile oven alongside Jason at an event, her customers’ happiness is the one thing on her mind.

As we walked out the door back onto Main Street we couldn’t help but feel all the love in the room. I know that sounds corny, but it’s meant in the truest sense. We felt the love of food from Jason, the love Ali has for her staff and her guests, the love the two put into creating such a special place, and the love the two have for each other. And with produce from their very own rooftop garden soon appearing on the specials board, there’ll be even more to love.

Pizza Barbone
390 Main Street, Hyannis
508-957-2377 /

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