Editor’s note: Tribecca Allie Cafe will be closed for Christmas break from December 18 through Jan 2, 2018.
The sleepy Delta hamlet of Sardis may not have a bumbling deputy named Barney or a town drunk named Otis, but it’s about as close to Mayberry as you can get. On Main Street alone, you’ll find a hometown theater, the Panola Playhouse, that has been staging family-friendly productions since 1962, a pet grooming shop, even a “Cat Crossing” sign near the hardware store, right about where you will often spot at least one stray tabby ambling across the street.
It’s also where you’ll find a couple of transplanted New Yorkers making some of the finest wood-fired pies in the Deep South. As owners of TriBecca Allie, Damian “Dutch” and Rebecca van Oostendorp have built a little pizza shop with a big reputation, drawing customers from all around north-central Mississippi—because, as folks in these parts will tell you, Dutch’s award-winning Magnolia Rosa Insalata and Rebecca’s famous Triple-Layer Lasagna make the long drive worthwhile.
Married for 17 years, the van Oostendorps—he’s a former pro golf instructor, and she’s a swim coach when she isn’t in the kitchen—have come a long way from their days of selling bread loaves at a farmers market in Oxford. Once outsiders newly arrived from the north, they are now some of Sardis’ best-known citizens. “When you move [to Mississippi] from a place like New York, you have to shake off the chains of being seen as, you know, the ugly Yankee,” Dutch admits. With a smile, he adds, “Now they say we’re damn Yankees—because we came and stayed here.”
Escape From New York
Truth is, the small-town southern life suits these Yankees pretty well. “My hometown in New York was pretty small, too—not as small as Sardis, but small by New York’s standards,” says Dutch, who grew up in the Hudson Valley, northwest of Manhattan. “Everybody knew everybody. Every parent knew who you belonged to.”
Rebecca came of age in lower Westchester County, just outside the Bronx. When her parents decided to retire and head for warmer climes in the late 1990s, she followed. A former country club manager, she took a job as director of Ole Miss Catering. Meanwhile, shortly before she moved south, she and Dutch met at a mutual friend’s wedding. Duly smitten, Dutch dropped everything and followed his true love to Mississippi.
Rebecca was ready for a change, her husband recalls. “She was getting tired of the craziness in New York—a lot of break-ins, missing cars and snowstorms.” But, for all its quaint appeal, Sardis, like many small towns, had its own problems: very little growth, a struggling business community, and nearly one-quarter of the population stuck below the poverty line.
The van Oostendorps wanted to make a difference in their adopted home. After testing the waters with a backyard brick oven and a little bread baking business that created serious buzz, they purchased and began renovating an old two-story building in downtown Sardis. It took them five years to bring TriBecca Allie to life, but when TriBecca Allie opened in January 2010, popular acclaim quickly followed. Dutch’s Magnolia Rosa Insalata won second place in the American Pizza Championship in Orlando, Florida, that same year. In 2013, Zagat named their Patate (potato) Pizza the best pie in Mississippi, and Thrillist reached the same conclusion about the Magnolia Rosa Insalata in 2014.
“Rebecca and Dutch van Oostendorp certainly aren’t the first New Yorkers to move to Mississippi and open up a pizza shop,” the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported. “But they very well may be the best.”
A Cosmopolitan Menu
The van Oostendorps aren’t the first married couple to run a pizza shop, either, but they appear to be a match made in culinary heaven. Dutch is the pizzaiolo, a skilled oven master who peels out savory specialties like the Capricciosa (ham, artichoke hearts, ripe olives, mushrooms and mozzarella) and the Polpette (housemade meatballs, ricotta, mozzarella and oregano).
Rebecca handles the equally popular daily specials, which range from moussaka and muffalettas to gazpacho and tamale pie. “If you have a request for food that you miss from where you grew up, I will make it for you,” she says.
Dutch allows limited customization with the specialty pizzas—he doesn’t mind holding the onions or the mushrooms, for example—but he draws the line at substitutions. Each recipe boasts a delicate and precise balance of flavors, and he’d rather not meddle with them. Customers can create their own pies, but, even then, he says, “We limit them to five toppings. At the temperatures we cook at, it’s difficult to manage a pizza with more than five toppings.”
Most locals don’t mind the no-substitution rules or the restaurant’s unusual hours (you can only go there for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, for example). They take immense pride in the little pizza shop. “The city clerk and the director of public works—more often than not, if you want to find them at lunchtime, they’re here,” Dutch says.
It also helps that the van Oostendorps have ingrained themselves into the community like true lifers. They’re not just there to take your money. They want to feed you and send you home full and happy. And they want to see Sardis thrive—not just because it’s good for business, but also because small-town life, they believe, is good for the soul.
“We didn’t get into this business to be million-dollar earners,” Dutch says. “I think America needs to get back to its roots and have those local places where people go eat and know that whatever they eat there is good. We need to get away from the big supermarkets—maybe we can see old-time butchers and bakeries come back. Go from the north end of Main Street to the south end and do all of your shopping and see eight or 10 people along the way and know all of their names.”
This revival of small-town America has to start somewhere—why not with an awesome little pizza joint like TriBecca Allie?
That’d be fine with Dutch. There’s nowhere else he’d rather be and nothing else he’d rather be doing. As he says, “I feel like making pizza is a really righteous way to make a living.”
Rick Hynum is editor-in-chief of HottyToddy.com. An expanded version of this story originally ran in PMQ Pizza Magazine.