By Ginna Parsons
SARDIS – Rebecca and Dutch Van Oostendorp certainly aren’t the first New Yorkers to move to Mississippi and open up a pizza shop.
But they very well may be the best.
In 2010, the couple took second place in the American Pizza Championship for their Magnolia Rosa Insalata, a pizza made with red onion, three cheeses and pecans and topped with a salad of mixed greens, pine nuts, balsamic vinaigrette and more cheese.
And in September, the staff at Zagat, a ratings guide, picked their Pizza de Potate, made with sliced potatoes, two cheeses, bacon, chives and sour cream, as its favorite pizza in Mississippi.
The Oostendorps operate TriBecca Allie Café, located at 216 S. Main St., in downtown Sardis. And they came to Mississippi the same way many families from the North do: chain reaction.
“After my parents moved down here, I fell in love with the area and the land around Batesville and Oxford,” said Rebecca, 49. “Dutch and I knew each other from years and years ago and he asked me out, but I told him I was about to move to Mississippi. So he followed me, and then his parents followed him.”
Rebecca originally moved here in the summer of 1996 to take a job as the director of catering for the University of Mississippi before coaching swimming in Oxford. Dutch followed the next spring and taught private golf lessons. The couple wed in 1998.
But there was something missing in their marriage – bread and pizza from New York.
“So he built us a brick oven in the our backyard and we started experimenting with different breads and pizza doughs and we sold them at the farmers’ market in Oxford,” Rebecca said.
As the couple’s goods became popular, they started making schiaciatta, a long stretched dough with no sauce topped with cheeses like feta, Romano, Parmesan or goat, and fresh veggies. Customers would buy them to grill during ballgame tailgates.
“And then people started saying, ‘Oh, why don’t you open a restaurant?’ and we were just dumb enough to listen,” Rebecca said.
And so TriBecca Allie Café was born.
Nice press helps
The restaurant opened in November 2009 after three years of hard work.
The couple first had to totally gut the two-story brick building which had housed the Sardis Post Office, a NAPA Auto Parts store, a video store, a glass etching place and, most recently, a clothing store.
They remodeled the structure, building a brick oven in the wall and a staircase to the second floor, which, Rebecca said, was full of garbage from every business that had ever been in the building.
“We worked on it whenever we could,” she said. “Everybody in town thought we were crazy. Everybody in town made fun of us. They were sure we’d never open. I think they were betting against us.”
But open they did.
“In the beginning, the business was good enough to keep us alive,” Rebecca said. “That first year, we got lucky. We won a pizza competition in Florida and DeSoto Magazine did a big article on us. Then we’ve had other little bits of nice press along the way.”
A loyal local base has helped keep the doors open five days a week.
“The people in the community have been so supportive,” she said. “They’ve become like part of the family.”
Every Wednesday, Bob Canon, Luis Castillo, William Dees and John Delgado gather for lunch.
“I only come on Wednesday because I’m working the other days, but the rest of them come in here every day,” Delgado said.
“It’s our kitchen,” Castillo said.
“I said to someone the other day, ‘I’ve got to go home for lunch,’ and then it hit me. I’m not going to my house. I’m coming here,” Dees said.
“I used to do a lot of cooking, but now I’ve gotten kind of used to this,” Canon said. “Rebecca is always in that kitchen experimenting. Basically what you’ve got is a couple who loves food and they prepare it well.”
More than pizza
The public encomiums the Oostendorps have received have been for their wood-fired pizzas, but they also offer specials several times a week.
You might luck up on manicotti, jambalaya, Swedish meatballs, osso buco or lasagna or maybe stuffed pork loin, moussaka, quiche, veal piccata or salmon en papillote.
“If you compare our restaurant to virtually any other restaurant in the country, you’re going to find that, oddly, inconsistency works for us,” Dutch said. “We’re successful because we don’t have people who come in here and order the same thing every time.”
Dutch is largely responsible for cooking the pizzas in the wood-fired brick oven because he’s got more experience.
“When we had the oven at home, I made more of the pizzas,” he said. “The way the business has gone, this just seems to be the way to go.”
The Diavola, which has house marinara, mozzarella, pepperoni, fresh basil and red pepper flakes, and the Piemontese, which has house marinara, mozzarella, pepperoni and mushrooms, are the most popular pizzas on the menu, Dutch said.
“People come in here knowing about the (award-winning) Rosa, but they don’t necessarily try it,” he said. “They stick with what they know – pepperoni.”
There are other offerings on the menu in addition to the 12 pizzas, including calzones, chicken salad, Thai shrimp salad, lemon dill shrimp salad, pimiento cheese, salads, soups and desserts.
“People come from Oxford, Tupelo, Southaven, Memphis, Hernando, Grenada, Pontotoc, New Albany, even Helena, Ark.,” she said. “It’s really become quite a little destination.”
But locals and regulars make up the majority of the customer base.
“They’re not so much customers – they’re more like guests in your house,” Dutch said. “They learn to adjust their expectations. Sometimes we have time to talk and sometimes we don’t. And sometimes if we get real busy, they’ll even bus their own tables.”
“I don’t know how it’s worked out that way,” Rebecca said, “but we really do have little angels that take care of us.”