“I don’t know, honestly,” says Joe Powers as he shakes his head. The 24-year-old owner of Jay’s Artisan Pizza is sitting in the dining room hours before service. We’re discussing how a small restaurant in a suburb of Buffalo earns such a swell of notable international accolades.
In June, Jay’s Artisan Pizza was named No. 8 Best Pizzeria by 50 Top Pizza USA. 50 Top Pizza, an internationally esteemed organization, vets pizzas by dispatching hundreds of inspectors to assess the merit of a pizzamaker’s dough, toppings, and overall service. It applies this process to evaluate pizzas in Italy, the United States, greater Europe, and Asia. This wasn’t the first time the organization noticed Jay’s Artisan Pizza. In September 2022, it was ranked #71 on its 50 Top Pizza World list, landing among the ranks of America’s best pizzaiolos as well as heralded pizzerias in Naples, Rome, and less apparent locales such as Beijing, Berlin, and Barcelona.
Was it making the Daily Meal’s vaunted list of 101 Best Pizzas in America in 2018, 2019, and 2020? Could it be the period in 2019 that Powers spent learning to make pizza in Naples at the school operated by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN)? After all, couldn’t logging several weeks grasping the ins and outs of fermenting 00 flour (aka double zero flour) under the careful eye of Italy’s finest pizza experts have an impact? Or, perhaps it was the viral 2018 article in the Daily Beast that stated, “Jay’s Artisan Pizza could be put up against well-regarded masters of the genre in America’s other great pizza cities.”
Certificates, medals, and awards are often pay-to-play in the broader food world. But none of the opportunities outlined above fall into that category. And yet, here we are, on Delaware Avenue in Kenmore, just outside Buffalo’s city limits, talking to one of the top ten pizza makers in the USA. Trust me when I tell you: you can ask a thousand questions, you can go down dozens of online rabbit holes, you can make yourself crazy trying to figure it out. But save yourself the effort. Head to Jay’s Artisan Pizza. Grab a table, order a Margherita, and tuck in. It’s not just the first bite that will shut down any pervasive questions, but the post-pizza glow that lingers long after the last slice leaves the table.
Joe Powers was introduced to Neapolitan pizza at a Bills’ game, where Jay Langfelder’s pizza truck, O.G. Woodfire, made one of its first appearances. Powers and his father were hooked. Their enthusiasm and frequent family trips to NYC allowed the duo to explore some of the country’s best pies. “We found this place called Don Antonio, which is like one of the first Neapolitan pizza makers to come to the U.S.,” Powers recalls. “So, we had the pizza there, and we were like, ‘wow, Jay’s is actually better than this.’” A few years later, when Langfelder announced opening a brick-and-mortar, Jay’s Artisan Pizza, Joe applied to work the counter. As a then-college student, he envisioned that his degree from Trocaire College would lead him to a career in the hotel industry.
Naples, Italy, is where pizza was invented. While there are now countless styles and innovations, fusions and riffs, reinterpretations and reinventions of pizza globally, there is no question regarding its heritage. In 1843, novelist and playwright Alexander Dumas extolled the diversity of pizza’s many toppings on a visit to Italy, “The pizza is prepared with bacon, with lard, with cheese, with tomatoes, with small fish. It is the gastronomic thermometer of the market,” he wrote. By 1889, the formal presentation of a pizza to Italian royalty marked the ascension of the humble street food to a culinary staple.
A class trip introduced Powers to northern Italy firsthand. “It flipped a switch for me. It was more than just the food; it was seeing the farming practices and understanding how [Italy’s] food supply is so local and regional,” he says. Soon Powers was promoted from the counter to the kitchen. He began to take a serious interest in the woodfire oven’s technicalities and the finicky process of making the dough each day.
It’s important to note that Italians have stringent guidelines and rules regarding food and drink, including pizza. The purity of Italian ingredients is ensured through careful regulation of agriculture, harvest, and processing. The intention is to cultivate a sustainable and generational appreciation for seasonality and balance, for measure and restraint, and for heritage and tradition. Once you know Italy’s propensity for overseeing every aspect of its country’s food and drink, it’s easy to see how organizations like the AVPN exist.
As Powers studied at school and worked the counter at night, Jay’s Artisan Pizza garnered attention, first from the local food press and then from diners. That was followed by appearing in “Buffalo Everything,” a two-book series from NYC pizza guru Arthur Bovino. (For anyone connecting the dots, Bovino is also the author of the Daily Beast article linked a few paragraphs above.) “Langfelder may be the original gangster of Neapolitan pizza in Buffalo,” Bovino wrote in his love letter to the Nickel City, “but he always said that the “O.G.” stood for ‘one goal,’ making the best modern American Neapolitan pizza.”
Powers’ interest grew, and Langfelder encouraged him to undertake the several-week course offered by AVPN in Naples. Powers would head from his quarters down to the classroom in the morning. The day would consist of learning various techniques, from making, balling, and stretching batches of dough to perfecting the particular snap of the wrist required to move delicate pizzas off the pizza peel and into the woodfire oven. After lunch, the curriculum included guest experts, with visiting educators from the local flour factory or the company responsible for cultivating and gently processing northern Italy’s tomatoes. Afterward, from 3 to 8 p.m., it was time to build the hard-earned muscle memory that comes only with practice and repetition.
Powers returned from the experience even more enthusiastic and dedicated. He was confident that making pizza was the only thing he wanted to do. A year later, Langfelder decided to sell the restaurant to move to Georgia with his partner in pizza and life, Amanda Jones. Powers was the buyer. At 21, the young Buffalo native took the keys, assuming the responsibility of a full staff, a lease, and the shepherding of Buffalo’s finest Neapolitan pizzas into the future. The local pizza cognoscenti held its collective breath.
But only for a short time. Jay’s Artisan Pizza has ascended the national and global ranks in the three intervening years. This year, in addition to 50 Top Pizza hurtling the Kenmore pizza haven to No. 8 Best Pizzeria in the US, it crowned one of Jay’s Artisan’s signature pies—called ‘NDUJA—the international Pizza of the Year. Nduja is a delightful spicy, spreadable pork sausage from Calabria. Jay’s Pizza of the Year uses Temepsta ‘nduja, which is especially delicious. It is commingled with fontal cheese (a cousin of fontina), slivers of red onion, chili honey, and leaves of fresh basil to a mind-blowing and delicious effect.
“You’re only as good as what you put out on a daily basis,” says Powers. “We just keep doing what we’re doing. We have fun with it, too. I don’t know what the perception of Jay’s is, but we enjoy each other, we care about what we do, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”