Quick, what comes to mind when you think of eating in Omaha, Nebraska? Steak, corn on the cob, perhaps Rueben sandwiches? Well, I’m here to tell you there’s a Midwest food revolution going on and Omaha is at the center of this delicious renaissance. I recently traveled to Omaha and was pleasantly surprised at the level of culinary sophistication and devotion to local ingredients in this Great Plains town.
Pizza Galore and More
Thanks to a surge of immigrants from Italy at the turn of the century, Omaha has a large Italian population. So it’s no surprise that it’s easy to find great pizza in Omaha. We start our food exploration in the city’s historic Dundee neighborhood at Pitch Pizzeria, a casual, neighborhood pizza restaurant whose claim to fame is its 1,000-degree, coal-fired pizza oven.
Restauranteur and co-owner Willie Theisen, who started the successful Godfather pizza chain back in the 1970s, found the brick building six years ago and began the long process of rehabbing it into a comfortable eatery. He and his team developed original Neapolitan-style pizza and, to set his restaurant apart, opted for a coal-fired oven. “The original pizzas in New York were coal-fired,” explains Willie. “We buy Italian flour, grind our own sausage and use as many local ingredients as possible. Just before pulling out our pizza, we move it close to the coal to get that char.”
They offer Margherita; Sausage/pepperoni; basil/chicken; meatball; Thai; and fig and goat cheese pizzas. The flavors on these pizzas are fresh and vibrant, with no skimping on ingredients.
Pitch’s meatballs, two baseball-sized orbs of ground chuck, ground round, short ribs, and a “touch” of pork, are even more delicious than their pizza. Bathed in slightly spicy marinara sauce, the meatballs are fine-textured and juicy. The Lobster mac and cheese, a customer favorite, is generously studded with pieces of lobster, but the dish is overly creamy and a bit bland for my taste. However, Pitch’s Tuscan white beans, with rosemary, grana cheese cream and fresh garlic, really hit the spot.
Another place in Omaha to get good pizza is Frank’s Pizzeria in Linden Market. Frank’s is a casual, neighborhood place with fluorescent lighting, flat screen TVs, sports posters and shouts of “number 14, number 15…” alerting customers when pizzas are ready. Like his dad and mom back in New York, owner Joe D’Elia bakes up solid, straight-ahead New York-style pizza.
Frank’s Margarita comes with a simple a simple sauce of crushed tomatoes and fresh basil and mozzarella. The meatball, onion, and mushroom, a best seller, offers plenty of meatball flavor and crisp crunch from al dente onions and the crust, while not exactly thin, offers enough crispness for a satisfying chewiness.
Veteran chef Nick Strawhecker, owner of Dante Pizzeria Napoletana on the city’s west side, cooks up wonderfully creative pizzas and much more. This smart and casual eatery serves up rich and complex dishes that reflect Chef Nick’s deep culinary knowledge and his decade of cooking around the world.
We sample a simple and tasty, thin crust marinara pizza studded with big pools of house made fresh mozzarella and shreds of fresh basil. It’s creamy, classic and garden fresh. But the next pizza is a complete surprise–chicken liver and lemon with mozzarella and red calabrese peppers. This is not a combination I’d normally order. However, it’s incredibly delicious: rich, crispy chicken livers, thin, tangy lemon slices all offset by silky mozzarella and sweet red peppers.
Dante’s offers much more than pizza. We try their duck liver crostini, tiny, super-crisp toasts fried in duck fat and topped with uber-silky duck pate and duck prosciutto with greens and finely shaved radish that gives a fresh crunch and astringency to this rich dish (see photo above). Next is a delicate soup—chicken stuffed tortellini in a flavorful yet light rabbit broth. The handmade pasta has the perfect al dente chewiness, the chicken filling is smooth with a soft chicken flavor, and the broth makes me want to tip the bowl up and drink it.
The next dish, as beautiful as it is flavorful, is rabbit roulade with house made rabbit sausage with fresh and grilled persimmons and fennel and hand-pulled mozzarella. The rabbit saddle, perfectly cooked and juicy, has just the right seasoning and the flavorful sausage has a deep, rich rabbit-herb flavor. The grilled persimmons offer a sweet smokiness that marries perfectly with the creamy cheese.
Fennel-persimmon salad, lightly dressed with lemon-thyme vinaigrette, provides a nice freshness to round out our meal. A bowl of fingerling potatoes with crunchy oats, lightly smoked with apple wood, have just the right chewy texture and smoky flavor. However, for me, the star of the day is beef cheeks with mitaki mushrooms, fall-off-the-fork hunks of deeply-flavored beef. This perfect fall/winter dish takes hours and hours to make, makes me swoon.
Scotch, Ruebens, Fish and Chips
While they don’t serve pizza, Dundee Dell, is an 80-year-old Omaha institution food lovers shouldn’t skip. This modest little bar/restaurant boasts the largest collection of single malt Scotch in the world (800+ bottles) and regularly offers informative Scotch tastings. They also have an impressive selection of gin, 150 bourbons and more than 200 beers. They bar takes pride in serving classic, old school cocktails like Manhattans.
Executive Chef Mary Kelly leads us through several tastings of Scotch from various regions, explaining how the terrior and distilling methods in each region of Scotland contribute distinctive flavors. “The island of Islay is the only region that smokes their Scotch with peat,” she explains. Mary and Dundee Dell’s owner regularly travel to Scotland to add to the bar’s impressive collection. “You’ll get the essence of the sea from this Scotch. In other regions, the Scotch will taste more floral or heathery.”
Mary, who has been cooking at the Dell for more than a dozen years, is understandably proud of their food too. A brine and BBQ expert, she smokes all of Dundee Dell’s meat, including brisket and corn beef. The iconic Rueben sandwich was invented in Omaha and Dundee Dell’s are smoky, juicy and covered in melty cheese. “We make everything from scratch here,” she says.
For me, the piece de resistance at this landmark is their fish and chips. Served in a foil-lined bag, you get two big filets of Icelandic North Atlantic cod battered and fried so light it’s a surprise this moist and delicious fish doesn’t float away. “We have an exclusive contract and we’re the only place in North America you’ll get North Atlantic cod,” Mary says with obvious pride. “Other places serve Pacific cod. Our Atlantic cod is firm and less sweet.”
The fish and chips are absolutely addictive and some of the best, if not THE best, I’ve ever eaten.
Omaha has done a great job of re-inventing its downtown warehouse district. The brick buildings, many dating from the turn of the century, make an intriguing backdrop for the many breweries, restaurants, and boutiques springing up in this charming part of town. One of them is Le Bouillon, an upscale restaurant with exposed brick walls and 30-foot ceilings that serves both small plates and larger Mid-Western style plates. Like a number of other Omaha farm-to-table restaurants, Le Bouillon smokes their own meats and makes their own charcuterie and sausage.
We order a number of small plates: pork terrine; charcuterie; Spanish tortilla with salt cod and potato; a sausage plate; duck heart skewers; radicchio salad; rice paella confit; PEI mussels in a cider broth with foie gras butter; and “toasts” with toppers like pork rillet with autumn spiced pear jam, duck cofit with greens, and winter squash with house made ricotta and chili oil.
This an ambitious menu for any chef or restaurant, especially one that’s less than two years old. Le Bouillon execution is uneven. Some dishes soar. The arroz paella features a crispy pancake with rich duck confit that’s chewy and deeply satisfying. The duck prosciutto is unctuous and slightly smoky.
Others dishes are less successful. For instance, the toasts, thick pieces of house made grilled sourdough bread slathered with flavorful pork, duck and veggie toppings are hearty, but the bread is too thick and the bread tends to get soggy. The pork terrine and rillet need salt. However, the fall-flavored pear jam is so good it makes me want to leap with joy.
In mid-town Omaha, chef Clay Chapman has been inspiring foodies ever since he opened The Grey Plume five years ago at the tender age of 22. This 50-seat, upscale dining room’s pre-fixe menus (with or without paired wines) have made the restaurant a favorite in the city for fine dining.
We start our dinner at The Grey Plume with a creamy yet light parsnip soup that’s redolent with gouda, black pepper, and fresh arugula. It’s the perfect fall soup—comforting with a hint of spiciness. Next comes a spaghetti squash gallette, an interesting combination of crispy pastrami, roasted and pureed leek, kale and fresh pomegranate seeds.
With all this richness, we’re grateful for the palate cleanser: a cool, creamy buttermilk ice that has just the slightest bit of sweetness. It’s just the right refreshing “nap” for our mouths before we dive into more complex dishes.
Next comes foie gras made with pear, pecan and laurel. The rich duck is seared so the exterior is crispy, contrasting nicely with the uber-creamy interior. New Bedford scallops come next. Normally, I’m a huge scallop fan and I was especially looking forward to this course. However, my scallop, served with bok choy. Kohlrabi, shallot and persimmon, is super salty. So salty, I can’t eat it. Several of my dining companions have the same salty shellfish, but not everyone. I taste one that isn’t overly salty and the scallop’s sweetness pairs well with the veggies and the fragrant persimmon.
The next course, one of my favorites, celebrates duck four ways—juicy slices of duck breast, chewy duck sausage, smoky duck prosciutto, and, of course, crispy and rich duck confit. It’s served over a silky celery root puree that’s the perfect foil for all this rich decadence.
T.D. Niche’s Heritage pork comes next: loin, belly, sausage and mortadella. It’s served with fall sides, including beech mushrooms, sweet potatoes and Mount Rose apples. The loin is appropriately juicy, the belly (my favorite) is crispy-rich, but the sausage has too much spice and the mortadella lacks flavor.
Our meal ends on a high note with two desserts: a moist olive oil genoise served with maple lemon ice cream and a smear of smoked pear puree and a chocolate gateau with a brownie-like texture with allspice, blackberry and cocoa nibs. While the genoise is all about creamy and silky, the gateau is cakey, crumbly, crunchy textures. It makes a satisfying end to our meal and proves that Omaha has the kind of culinary chops to make it a foodie destination. – Photos and story by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
If You Go
Pitch Pizzeria, Underwood Ave., 402-590-2625, www.pitchpizzeria.com
Frank’s Pizzeria, 711 N. 132nd St. (132nd and W. Dodge Rd, Linden Market), 402-493-0404, www.franksnewyorkpizza.com
Dante Pizzeria Napoletana, 16901 Wright Plaza, The Shops of Legacy, 402-932-3078, www.dantepizzeria.com
Dundee Dell, 5007 Underwood Ave., 402-553-9501, www.dundeedell.com
Le Bouillon, 1013-17 Howard St., 402- 972-6828, www.bouilllomomha.com
The Grey Plume, 220 S. 31st Ave., Ste. 301, 402-763-4447, www.thegreyplume.com