Now that the list of Eater Young Guns semi-finalists has been released, it's time to get to know these rising stars. Check this space for regular introductions to each of the 50 semi-finalists and tune in on June 24 to find the list of winners.
While most Eater Young Guns fall in the under 30 years of age category, Steven Dilley is one of the few exceptions. The 40 year-old restaurateur opened Bufalina, a Neapolitan pizzeria in Austin, less than one year ago with basically zero prior restaurant experience. In a matter of months, local restaurant critic Matthew Odam named Bufalina the best Neapolitan pizza joint in town, and Zagat even called Dilley "the Aaron Franklin of pizza." That's a huge compliment for anyone familiar with Franklin Barbecue, considered one of the top barbecue places in the country (check out the line). Below, Dilley talks about his career change from finance to food and why his pizzas stand out.
Prior to opening the restaurant, what was your experience with pizza? I didn't have extensive pizza experience. Before opening the restaurant, in my prior career, I had a lot of flexibility in terms of time. And so I was essentially a home cook. I cooked a lot at home and I would dine a lot out. So when I got the idea to maybe do a restaurant I had moved back to Austin from New York and I knew going into it without any restaurant experience that it would probably be a risky proposition. But one way that I thought I could push the odds in my favor was to focus on something very specific. So, as you know, being up in NY, Neapolitan pizza hit in a wave starting about five, six, seven years ago, and it's something I really like. And it's something I had worked on at home as well. So, it all just kind of fell into place. I was getting more interested in the nuances of that style of pizza — everything that surrounds it from the flour, the dough, the oven. It seemed to make sense and it was a way to mitigate the risks of doing a first restaurant.
You came from a Wall Street background, is that right? I came from a trading background. So, it wasn't technically a Wall Street background. But, I had a firm that specialized in algorithmic equities trading, that's actually why I was up in New York for so long. I studied computer science and history and then somehow ended up having that as a career for a decade. And so to me making the jump from that to a restaurant didn't really feel that extreme because I'd already ended up in one industry that I didn't really have any training. And so for better or worse it made it seem like a step that kinda made sense for some reason.
Do you feel as through your trading background has helped you as a restaurateur? Yes and no. There's a certain part of running any business that is the business part of it. So, you're talking bookkeeping, dealing with employees, and that type of stuff. I don't think necessarily there's a lot of parallels between those two, but I think realizing the importance that numbers can play helps.
What were you expectations for Bufalina before opening? I was just hoping people would show up! When I signed the lease the build-out took quite a bit of time, and I certainly had my doubts. The part of town we're in now, there's a lot going on on the East Side now, but when we signed the lease there wasn't a lot going on. So my expectations were really tempered. I wasn't really part of the food scene here aside from being a diner. I didn't really have any industry connections so to speak. I was really just hoping people would show up, that it would be just a nice neighborhood place.
You've received much critical acclaim since inception. What makes your pizza stand out? It's definitely improving over the past nine, 10 months since we've been open. I look at photos from last summer and cringe a little. So, one, I think it's a good product and we stay relatively true to the process, as far as using the right oven, and the right flour, and running the oven at a high temperature. These are things you would see at any decent Neapolitan pizzeria. But, beyond that, we look to what's going on here as far as produce goes. What's in season, to some extent. In Texas in the summer it can be kind of tough. Obviously we use a lot of cured products and cheeses. We're constantly trying to come up with ideas that kind of work, and not only work, but work for this climate. A lot of the ideas we're working on now are more vegetable focused. Kind of lighter stuff. You can go out and eat a pizza and still feel like you can go do something else. You don't feel disgusting. I like to think all those things have some appeal.
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[Dilley photo by Nicolai McCrary.]