by Laurel Miller
Photograph by Aaron Pinkston
Steven Dilley is cradling a handful of what look to be dusty tan rocks. “These just came in,” he says with excitement. “They left Piedmont just two days ago. “They” are aromatic white truffles from Alba, Italy, and diners at Dilley’s Neapolitan pizzeria, Bufalina, can have up to six grams shaved atop their pies.
Dilley opened Bufalina in 2013, despite a lack of experience save for a month in Naples spent eating and making pizza at various restaurants. For the first eight months, he manned the custom oven, which had been made overseas. Today, he has “a crew who are total pros.” Over the past five years Dilley has acted as wine director (in 2017, Food & Wine magazine named him a Sommelier of the Year), both at the main Bufalina outpost, on the East Side, and Bufalina Due, which opened on Burnet Road in 2015.
Tackling challenges head-on is clearly in Dilley’s DNA. After double majoring in computer science and American studies at the University of Texas, the Copperas Cove native took a job at a downtown brokerage firm. “My office was around the corner from the Austin Wine Merchant,” he says, “so I started buying wine as a hobby.” In 2002, he moved to Manhattan to work as a trader. Even with 12-hour workdays, he still found time to shop the famed Union Square Greenmarket and cook lavish meals. “My mom is Taiwanese and my dad is Italian,” he says, regarding his innate interest in food. “In the back of my mind, I’d always thought about opening a restaurant.”
After eight years in New York, Dilley relocated back to Austin to be near family. Although still working as a trader, he’d “lost interest” and was feeling increasingly drawn to the idea of being a restaurateur. “I started reaching out to people in the local food industry,” he says, “and they were super-friendly, with great advice. Some were very quick to tell me about the high failure rate, but that statistic isn’t unique to restaurants. Being a self-employed trader and having a background in business was helpful.”
Dilley knew he wanted a small space with a “simple concept and menu, which would give me the best odds of dialing in quality and consistency.” A lifelong pizza enthusiast, he was exposed to Neapolitan-style pies in New York (an authentic vera pizza napoletana is made with 00 Italian soft wheat flour, which yields a thin, supple crust. The dough must be made by hand and topped with canned San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala or fior di latte cheese; it should cook for no more than several minutes in a wood-fired brick oven).
Dilley found a former engine shop on East Cesar Chavez that seemed a perfect fit for his then concept. The space is now infused with warm, rustic touches, and visually dominated by its glossy white-tiled domed oven. Bufalina’s delicate pies are bursting with flavor. The menu is a mix of traditional staples like Margherita and pizzas inspired by other cultures and seasonal ingredients.
The wine list, which is updated several times a week, is Bufalina’s other star attraction. Despite the abbreviated menu, the wine choices are extensive and esoteric. An admitted Francophile, Dilley is a fan of natural wines from mom-and-pop winemakers and those made from less common varietals.
Dilley is quick to point out that he’s not a certified sommelier (of his Food & Wine nod: “They said they were looking for people who have an opinion”). “I’m a wine enthusiast,” he says, “I admire the people and process but I feel more compelled to continue my studies independently. Maybe it’s analogous to my career path. I didn’t have a background in business, trading or food and beverage, but I’ve been interested — and lucky enough — to pursue those things on my own. Maybe that’s why my therapist thinks I have imposter syndrome!”
What Dilley finds rewarding is talking to his customers and sharing “new, fun bottles we have on the list. I associate wine with having a good time,” he says. “If I’m drinking it, I’m probably cooking or dining somewhere and hanging out with friends. The best thing about this job is working with my staff and interacting with our diners, many of whom have become close friends.”