Pizza, for lunch, outdoors, under Hanoi’s burning sun? At first it seemed like a crazy idea to me, a young urbanite dependent on aircon to get through the day.
Entrance to La Bodega. Photo by Lam Le
But my craving eventually wins me over and takes me across the river to Long Bien District, which seems so far but is actually just an eight-minute ride from the city center.
After turning south from Chuong Duong Bridge, I hit a tiny village road running through corn and kumquat fields. By the time I reach the final turn, I’ve already forgotten about the heat as asphalt turns to dirt and I finally arrive at the makeshift gate of La Bodega.
If it wasn’t for the sign, I would have thought it was a private garden belonging to a big family.
In a sense, it is. Jeremie Cohen, the owner, rented the place two years ago to build a wood fired oven just so his four children could enjoy their pappa’s pizza, while also offering delivery to people in Long Bien. Then, the French PE teacher wanted to invite his friends over too, so he built a bar. Second-hand tables and benches followed, and so did a DIY children’s playground – all out in a garden reminiscent of a European orchard.
In no time at all, a former pigsty was turned into a bright yellow, one story house Jeremie and his children now call home. A home, which on a busy day makes as many as 80 pizzas after Vietnam’s most powerful marketing tools started doing wonders - word of mouth and an article in a Vietnamese site popular among young mothers.
It all started one afternoon after school. Jeremie and his colleague, a geography teacher, were just casually discussing what they’d do if they weren’t teaching.
“Opening a pizzeria,” his friend said.
Somehow, the idea stuck in Jeremie’s head even though he had never made a pizza before. So he headed to the supermarket, bought all the ingredients, Googled a recipe, and voilà!
“My first pizza was disgusting,” Jeremie recalls, cigarette in hand, sitting under the shade of a tree as I indulge in his four cheese pizza, fresh out of the oven.
His quest to find the perfect balance of fresh, locally sourced ingredients and imported cheese took months of trial and error. Then he reached the point where his electric home oven wasn’t good enough anymore, hence La Bodega.
Throughout our conversation, Jeremie can’t help but mention his kids, aged 4 to 13, as his prime motivation for this unexpected turn. A sportsman who grew up building his family home in northern France with his father is now building one of his own in Hanoi for his kids’ future.
Jeremie in front of his house in La Bodega, which he converted from a pigsty. Photo by Lam Le
Perhaps, the pizza calling has always been in Jeremie’s heart, waiting for the right moment to shine. His favorite pizza on the menu is the Illia, named after his Sicilian great grandmother who made it with tomato, black olives, anchovies and capers - no tomato sauce. Whenever Jeremie’s father comes to visit, he has to have the Illia.
Yet Jeremie refuses to call his pizza Italian, arguing that the dish has evolved to become international.
“There’s Italian, American, French, Japanese pizza,” Jeremie says.
“Long Bien pizza,” replies Jeremie, who considers himself 100 percent French AND Vietnamese. Then, he remembers the name of his restaurant: “Bo De pizza!” - referring to the famous pagoda just a short walk away.
Coincidentally, la bodega also means “wine shop” in Spanish.
Today, La Bodega is a collective effort of Jeremie’s “extended family”. The boss has stepped down from the limelight of a “pizza chef” and admits that now all he does is open and lock the door.
“The real chef is Dung, my kids’ nanny’s son,” says Jeremie with pride.
It took 17-year-old Nguyen Viet Dung two months to learn how to make a pizza after his mother reached out to Jeremie. Dung wasn’t interested in school and didn’t pass his high school entrance exam, so his mother was worried he would succumb to "social evils".
“But he makes better pizza than Jeremie,” so says Bi, La Bodega’s manager, whose children attend the French school where Jeremie teaches.
“I had no idea what pizza was initially,” says the young chef, who grew up in Vinh Phuc, a mountainous province northwest of Hanoi.
Since starting the job two years ago, Dung eats his pizza every day but admits he doesn’t like it. “I’m still not used to the [Western] taste; I prefer salads.”
Dung at work. Photo by Lam Le
While the only three people who have reviewed La Bodega on TripAdvisor so far say it’s the best pizza in town, Jeremie thinks pizza isn’t the real reason people come.
“It’s like the countryside here. It reminds Hanoians of their que [rural hometowns] and the simple lifestyle they’ve left behind,” says Jeremie.
After all, it’s not an everyday occurrence to find a cool spot under the shade of a tree in Hanoi during summer, I think as a yellow leaf falls onto my plate.
Jeremie has a lot of plans for La Bodega. The music lover, who named two of his pizzas after famous bands (Abba for a four cheese and Red Hot for a chorizo), wants to bring in live music in the evenings while holding garden-to-table classes for kids during the day.
As promising as it sounds, Jeremie has to keep his investments to a bare minimum. A conglomerate is said to have purchased the entire area for a real estate project that is scheduled to start in four years time.
But first, Jeremie needs to figure out how to handle the increasing interest in his pizzas. Initially only open during weekends, La Bodega has recently extended its hours to include Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings.