In the late 2000s, Jeff Smart found himself stranded in a pizza wilderness. The one-time chef and caterer had temporarily switched careers and was working in construction in Belize. The pizza offerings in the Central American country were not cutting it for the Watertown native, who had been eating at Pepe’s since, in his own words, “before I had teeth.”
Smart decided to experiment with making pizza himself. Like many would-be home pizzaiolos, he learned that you couldn’t get a home oven hot enough to make really excellent pizza. So he invented a device called the Pizza Dome, a curved stainless steel insert for a home oven that sits over your pizza and concentrates the heat, simulating a coal-fired oven.
Smart developed and patented the device, releasing it in 2013. Around the same time, he moved back to Connecticut. As he marketed his pizza invention, he honed his pizza-making skills and opened Sasso’s Coal Fired Pizza with Matt Cipriano in 2016. The Torrington restaurant was designed to showcase Smart’s pizza, alongside other coal-fired dishes in a relaxed, craft beer and wine bar setting.
Two years later, it is clear the restaurant has succeeded in that goal, with sizzling, coal-fired pies that could hold their own against New Haven’s heavy pizza hitters, and a menu fueled by local sourcing.
During a recent visit, the margherita pie (small $12, large $16) and the shrimp burrata and basil white pie (small $17, large $26) are both winners. The margherita is a classic fusion of thin dough, subtly sweet marinara sauce, topped with that essential mozzarella cheese. On the white pie, the shrimp and burrata serve as great, if unusual, toppings. A strength of both pies is the New Haven-style, coal-fired dough.
Comparing wood- and coal-fired pizza, Smart says, “The heat and temperature and the moisture content are very different. When you run a coal oven, instead of burning at somewhere around 1,500 degrees, it’s burning at 2,200 degrees, and it’s dry, so it doesn’t put moisture in the air, so you get a different texture.” He adds, “We can make a large pie here, whereas a wood-fire oven, it’s not really doable because the energy and the heat that is in the deck of a pizza oven gets drawn out so quickly, and the return from the wood is slower.”
Beyond pizza, Sasso’s offers a variety of paninis, salads and “coal fired” appetizers. Sautéed in garlic and finished in the coal oven, the escarole and white bean ($10) is a comfort food-style dish that I fell in love with and cannot recommend highly enough. Part of the secret to this and every dish here is the local sourcing. Many vegetables come from Petrichor Farm in New Hartford, and Smart’s uncle owns G&B Shellfish Farm in Stratford, which provides oysters and clams fresh from the boat.
And there will be more local sourcing in the future. The restaurant, which seats 50, is doubling its size and working with Petrichor Farm to build a 1,700-plant, hydroponic growing system on site, complete with living walls, greenhouses, hops and a variety of herbs. The restaurant will also expand to a full cocktail bar with freshly squeezed juices, bitters and flavor infusions. “It will be a nice bar scene, but everything that we make can also be made non-alcoholic and delicious with the types of ingredients and the homemade stuff that we’re making,” Smart says.
The restaurant features live music most Wednesdays but will start hosting more acts when the expansion is completed over the next couple of months.
In the end, Smart says passion is an integral part of what makes the food special. “We cook with a lot of heart and soul and we cook like we were your grandmother, in a sense,” he says.