I first heard about Area Four while attending a #BostonTalks Happy Hour at WBGH last month. They make a fantastic pizza using twelve-year-old starter dough, fermented for over 30 hours, and handcrafted in their scratch kitchen. When I heard that Area Four (A4) sources most of their ingredients locally, I immediately set a date to visit their flagship store in Cambridge.
It’s late afternoon when I walk into the restaurant and it’s mostly empty, just a few couples and some servers waiting for the dinner changeover. The coffee shop in the front of the building is packed full of people waiting in line to get coffee and waiting to get a seat at one of the communal tables, but the main restaurant is quiet. It’s the perfect time of day to meet with Mike Andolina, the Chef de Cuisine at A4 at the Troy.
Mike orders me a Spring Pie and a City Growers salad as soon as I sit down. I pull out a slice from the pie and the cheese oozes all over. It’s topped with peas, pickled red onion, roasted asparagus from Verrill Farm in Concord MA, and mozzarella cheese that A4 makes in-house using curd from Narragansett Creamery in Providence RI. It’s delicious, but I’m more excited to try the City Growers salad. The spring salad has carrots, almonds, radishes, green apples, Manchego cheese and lettuce grown by City Growers, a Boston-based for-profit that transforms vacant lots into urban farms to feed their communities. City Growers has a special relationship with A4: they deliver lettuce to A4 one week before they start delivering produce to other vendors, giving them a leafy leg up.
City Growers is just one of the many local vendors that Mike knows and uses often. Mike goes to farmers markets with specific ingredients in mind, and, because he’s developed some great relationships, vendors will set aside the best picks for him. But even with farmers market friends and deliveries from City Growers, it’s still tough to get all of the ingredients locally. “Any restaurant that says they’re 100% local is 100% full of shit,” says Mike. “If everything in the restaurant was sourced locally, our pizza would cost $50 and we would run out of ingredients. Furthermore, some ingredients are just better when they come from other places, like Pecorino Romano cheese,” says Mike. “Some people make it around here, but the best is from Italy.”
There are many reasons why we buy certain food from certain places. Sometimes it’s about convenience, sometimes it’s because we’re trying to make healthy choices, sometimes it’s both (win). I can source most of my ingredients locally because there’s a farmers market in my town that sells great food, but there will come a time when there will be some ingredient that I won’t be able to find locally. Maybe a pineapple, maybe a macadamia nut, maybe a lemon. And when that time comes, I’ll think about how tasty my homemade guacamole will be when made with local tomatoes, onions, garlic and cilantro, even though that avocado came from California.
A4 makes good food, and Mike stands by his products. The ingredients aren’t all locally sourced, but they’re all good, and that’s what I take away from our lunch meeting. That, and a pizza box of leftovers.
Alice Kathryn Richardson is a new media photojournalist based in Boston, MA. She created The Clean Food Club in 2016, and previously spent two years working on Deserts in the District, a series of short-form documentaries exploring food access and hunger in Washington, DC. She is committed to supporting local and sustainable food businesses by telling their stories with photo and video. Follow her on Twitter @AKR_Pictures.