The oven is an arresting sight. It’s Le Panyol Model 120, if you want to get technical about it, from a French company that dates back to the 1840s and specializes in refractory earthenware products fashioned with a special white clay called terre blanche that’s quarried on the edge of Provence.
“I did a lot of research to find it,” says Harvest & Hearth chef-owner Peter Michelin. “And I spent a couple of days in Maine learning how to cook in an oven like this, at a cooking school called Stone Turtle, run by Michael Jubinsky.” Jubinsky is a legend in hearth-cooking circles, and his classes sell out months in advance.
Harvest & Hearth’s most recent incarnation was as Chameleon on the Lake, but it’s undergone a remarkable change inside and out. Some of it is subtle, some dramatic, like the glistening wood floors. But nothing tops the sight of that oven, poised like a large stone Dalek at one end of the dining room, its mouth a rictus of dancing flame. Pizzas go in and mere moments later emerge, transformed into crisp, bubbling pies.
We visited early on a recent Saturday evening and watched as Michelin turned into a machine, his assembly line of pizza construction including one person shaping dough and another applying toppings, while Michelin applied the finishing touches and navigated them through the fire.
You’re paying a little more for these pies. A small one, which is sliced into four pieces but really only yields two, starts at $7.50 for a basic covering of mozzarella and asiago cheeses with fresh herbs, which you can further enhance with a range of toppings. Or choose from the preconfigured styles, each of which also comes in a larger (eight-slice) variety starting at $13.
The “harvest” part of the restaurant’s name comes into play with the toppings, which are as local and organic as possible. Thus the pepperoni pizza ($8.50/$15) boasts a nitrate-free topping from Applegate Farms, a New Jersey-based consortium of more than 300 socially conscious animal farms. I plucked a couple of slices from the pizza to get a sense of its individuality, and it tasted like excellent hot pepperoni, thin-sliced and moist. But as part of the whole shebang, it’s enhancing the flavor of something that’s already excellent. Thin, hot-fired crust, superior (and usually local) cheeses, a hint of tomato sauce where needed—this is something far removed from the doughy, sticky pizza of the typical parlor.
“Hearth House” ($8/$14) is a simple assembly of tomato sauce, mozzarella and asiago cheeses and fresh herbs. “The Shrooms” ($9/$17) uses wild mushrooms, fontina and caramel-ized onions. “Sammy’s Free Range BBQ Chicken” ($9/$18) puts fire-roasted poultry in the mix, with smoked gouda and organic barbecue sauce. “The Epiphany” ($9.50/$18) seems a stretch in the nomenclature department, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, what with kalamata olives, goat cheese, roasted red peppers and rosemary on the palette.
We sampled a small version of “The Natural” ($9/$18), its name (at least literarily) suggesting a hit, and it won me with but two of its several ingredients: nitrate-free maple-fennel sausage (I have a severe sausage addiction) and sun-dried tomato pesto. And there was a special-of-the-day pie with chicken, Buffalo-wing-inspired sauce and blue cheese, of which we sampled a small one ($11) that blended those flavors with an inspiring touch of spiciness.
My daughter’s friend Aleks, who lives in Saratoga and already knew Harvest & Hearth, insisted that we try the signature salad: Mamie’s Poppy ($8 normally, $18 for the family-sized portion we ordered). The combination of fresh mesclun and equally fresh goat cheese gave it a brightness nicely accented by the barely sweet poppyseed dressing. Roasted pecans were a bonus; the slices of poached organic pears had too little flavor to compete with their surroundings.
Seasonal soups also are offered. We were lucky enough to visit during scape season. Garlic plants produce a flower that, when picked before it blooms, has a long, curly stalk called a scape that can be prepared like string beans but with built-in garlic flavor.
As a soup, it can be combined with potatoes for a hearty brew, and the bowl we sampled ($5) had that gentle garlicky flavor set off by cream. It’s been an early-summer favorite at the restaurant for the past three years—in other words, from the beginning, as the place opened in October 2008.
We finished with a slice of cheesecake from the Nuns of New Skete ($6), unnecessarily garnished (to this purist) with whipped cream.
You may need to relax after a meal like this. Avail yourself of one of the colorful hammocks outside, at the top of Saratoga Lake at Fish Creek Marina. That’s what we did.
Harvest & Hearth, 251 Stafford Bridge Road, Saratoga Springs, 587-1900, harvestandhearth.com. Serving 4:30-9 Tue-Thu, 4:30-10 Fri-Sat, 4:30-9 Sun. D, MC, V.
Cuisine: gourmet pizza
Entrée price range: $7.50 (small cheese pizza) to $18 (large BBQ chicken pizza)