Nothing in life is a coincidence: The Wolf’s Den story

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Pizza from Wolf's Den. —Marnely Murray

As I munch on a slice of the Steak Bomb pizza from Wolf’s Den Pizza after my interview with owner James Goff, I realize nothing in this life is a coincidence. Basically, it’s tough to believe in luck after hearing Chef Goff’s story. The twists and turns that got him to where he is now all had to be part of some larger plan. Let’s start from the beginning.

James Goff has had many jobs. A hardworking Cape Codder, he has made his way around the country and back, working in kitchens and restaurants of all types, focused on learning as much as possible about the culinary world, how it operates, and most important, what tastes good.

Enter Kenny Bowers, an old Island chef who left Edgartown in the ’70s to set up shop in Orleans at a restaurant called the Binnacle. (A bit of foreshadowing: Wolf’s Den Pizza has a pizza called “the Binnacle”). The Binnacle was one of James’s first jobs; he worked as a dishwasher. He moved on to life in Florida and Vermont, honing his skills, but keeping the Cape in the back of his mind. He returned a decade later to find that the executive-chef job at the Binnacle was open. James took it on, and this was where the original recipe for Wolf Den’s Pizza was born.

Five years later, James moved on to a restaurant called Laurino’s in Brewster, a spot where his main focus was to bring the establishment up to to recent times, as it was a restaurant deeply rooted in tradition. His experience helped him to shape Laurino’s and to prepare him for his next step, Venus de Milo in Swansea. At the region’s largest event, wedding, and banquet facility, James learned the ins and outs of making a lot of food — mostly banquet food, but a lot of it. Making huge quantities of food doesn’t make you a good chef, but it makes you a prepared and well-organized chef, and that’s what Goff became. The Venus de Milo was also the spot that gave Chef Emeril Lagasse a stepping stone to what would become a stellar career, but that’s not my point. Let’s rewind the story way back, just one more time.

James’s high school job was at the Ocean Edge Resort in Brewster, as a dishwasher. But “as luck would have it” — and remember, I don’t believe in luck — Jackie and Doug Korell, who now own the Katama General Store, also worked there. Keep that in mind, as James left the Venus de Milo kitchen and finally headed to Martha’s Vineyard.

After a couple of stints at Island restaurants, James finally landed as the chef at Katama General — what are the odds? But the odds don’t stop there. He worked as the chef for the Korells for a couple of seasons, with a break in between because he wanted to hone his baking skills (Does this guy ever stop learning?), and got a job at Mocha Mott’s. And it’s at Mott’s where he met his partner, Tanya Chipperfield, a multigeneration Islander who would come in for coffee almost on a daily basis, catching James’ eye. Had he not left Katama General for a minute, would he have met her? Maybe, maybe not. A love story grew around coffee and a true love for food, and Tanya and James started building a life together. Fast-forward to the end of 2014, when James was working at Bob’s Pizza and Subs, and creating a loyal following of Island fans. An opportunity arose for a spot in Vineyard Haven; all the while, Tanya was pregnant with their first child (the doctors told them the baby would be a girl), one whose name will inspire another name …

Pieces of the puzzle come together, and a location was secured for what would become Wolf’s Den Pizza. That same week, Tanya gave birth, and to their shock and surprise, it was a boy! A boy quickly named Wolfgang, a strong name for a cute baby. And a nickname was born: Wolfie. And a realization that they have a name for their new food establishment: Wolf’s Den. Inspired by their son, but also by James’ love for the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia’s guitar, called the Wolf.

So we’ve finally reached Wolf’s Den — and you might be wondering, how’s the pizza? The pizza is fantastic! Unlike thin-slice or deep-dish, this pizza is a crossbreed: pan pizza. The crust is coated in true olive oil and baked in a pan, with the cheese and toppings overflowing to create that crunch. Inspired by his travels and work, Chef Goff’s showcase is the Binnacle’s pizza, a recipe that he has been working on since then, and even at Laurino’s, and one that won the Cape Cod Magazine award many years in a row. A pizza recipe that has been in the back of his mind for decades, and a sauce that has improved for just as long. A blend of Wisconsin Cheddar and Italian mozzarella is shredded in house, in a ration of 50:50, to create the best meltability.

It’s hands-down one of my favorite pizzas on the Island, because it reminds me of my deep-dish Chicago love, but it’s easier to eat — you can still pick it up by the slice, instead of the usual fork and knife in Chicago. They’ve also got some incredible grinders, and having tasted the Chicken Parmesan Grinder, I can recommend it fully. The chicken is pounded, breaded, and baked in the kitchen for that homemade taste, and topped with the gorgeous tomato sauce. Not craving anything heavy? They’ve recently opened a salad bar ($8.99 a pound), and with both indoor and outdoor seating, it’s a fantastic spot for friends and families to dine. Open year round, Wolf’s Den Pizza has become an Island destination. With Tanya’s local roots and James’ culinary background, they’ve created something magical. If you’re craving something sweet, you have to try Tanya’s desserts, especially her Tiramisu, which I have heard is the best (they had already run out when I stopped in).

As I look back on my notes and listen to the recording of this interview, I smile. Nothing in life is a coincidence.

Stop in to Wolf’s Den Pizza on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven year round from 11 am to 9:30 pm. During the summer, they are open until 10 pm on weekends. For more information and menu, visit wolfsdenmv.com