Have you heard of Pizza Brain? It’s a scientific Kickstarter aimed at filling our brains with pizza. Well, pizza knowledge. There’s a troupe of guys in Philadelphia who are as fanatical, if not more so, than me about pizza. Their logical route of action? Start a pizzeria/pizza museum. It’s a great endeavor that will preserve a wealth of pizza memorabilia that would otherwise end up stuffed in some guys broken pizza oven, right next to his secret pizza recipe, and dreams.
I had to know what inspired these people, so I contacted Joe Hunter, the person behind the food at Pizza Brain. Enjoy the interview that explores what makes pizza pizza, what a pizza shop needs to do to survive, and the future of pizza!
Pizza Walk With Me (PWWM): What is this project all about? Why this and not a hoagie museum? Or a burrito museum?
Joe Hunter (JH): Funny you ask, Dan. Pizza Brain at the heart is all about bringing people together. Sure, we have a really neat pizza memorabilia collection, but our passion is probably more about the power of pizza. Pizza is the unifying food. It’s something everyone can get behind. We want to use that pizza power to get people together to make a positive space in a neighborhood and city that we care a lot about. We aim to practice sustainable techniques and to include many local sources on our menu. Over time, we hope to be able to help empower people by helping start new small businesses with knowledge we’ve gained, and hopefully capital we will have gained through this project.
PWWM: What does pizza mean to you? Like, what makes pizza pizza. Is it the crust? Sauce? Cheese?
JH: Not to cop out on the answer, but it’s all of that stuff. If one lacks, the whole pie lacks. If they’re all there together in harmony, you’ll get that wide eyed, “Wow,” people get when they taste truly great food.
PWWM: What is your pizza past? Were you raised by pizzas? If so, how do you deal with eating pizza?
JH: Brian and I especially grew up with this awareness of pizza in our pop culture. Ninja Turtles, Home Alone, Wayne’s World, etc. Pizza was actually the first word I wrote down. I wrote it on this arts & crafts tambourine made from beans and paper plates. Ever since, it’s been my favorite food to eat, especially because everyone has their own take on it.
PWWM: What kind of pizza will you be serving at this restaurant? Will you be doing crazy toppings? Or playing it safe with some margherita?
JH: All kinds. We will definitely serve the classics that people have grown to love like the margherita, and build your own, but I think we’re more excited about pizza with really creative taste combinations. Some may be reminiscent of a salad, a soup, a breakfast dish, an ethnic dish, a dessert, or just something we’ve pulled out of the ether.
PWWM: How does a new pizza place begin to differentiate itself this day and age? Do you think they’re forced to go out on a limb and play with the pizza formula? Seems like many of the pizza places that last have been there for years and have regular customers.
JH: I feel like some of the popular places that have started up in the past 5-10 years are really riding this wave of bringing classical Neapolitan pizza to the forefront in America, using a dome style wood fired oven and predominately imported Italian ingredients. I think those places are great, but I tend to prefer something a little more pragmatic, local, and delivery friendly. I think family places in neighborhoods have an edge in that department and it’s no wonder why they last. Good, familiar, and affordable pizza is something your average person wants to have close to them.
PWWM: Have you seen this pizza sleeping bag? Would you sleep in it?
JH: No! But Yes!
PWWM: Do you have a favorite pizza?
JH: As far as topping/flavor combos, I feel as though I’m fond of so many, it’s really hard to choose. I’ll tell you this much, my favorite place (and all the partners of Team Pizza Brain agree) is Di Fara in Midwood Brooklyn. Dom makes a truly transcendent pie, toppings or not. I prefer no toppings with him, just so you can really taste the work of art that his plain pie is.
PWWM: How much of a successful pizza shop is building community? Maybe I’m inserting to much of myself in this interview, but I really do think that pizza is a community activity. I mean, it’s “Pizza Party” not “Panini Party.”
JH: I swear I didn’t read ahead in this interview! You just said our mantra. It’s all about community. That’s one of the reasons I don’t want to do slices. We want to encourage people to eat together. The partnership of Pizza Brain itself came from relationships formed in our faith community here in Philadelphia called Circle of Hope. We feel like life is better shared with others and that with a vehicle like Pizza Brain, we can really be a catalyst to building inclusive and authentic community.
PWWM: Is there such a thing as “Philadelphia pizza”? If so, what is it?
JH: You know, there are a few guys like Tacconelli’s, Lorenzo’s, Lazaro’s and a few others that have a bigger name around town. As you can see, they’re all Italian last names, and they all fallow pretty traditional approaches. They’re pretty great. I suppose Philly in general has a very Northeast American approach to pizza- not unlike New York. Usually larger pies, floppy slices, traditional toppings and no frills aesthetics. Speaking of New York though- did you know that Philadelphia has more pizza shops per capita than New York? FACT!
PWWM: Where do you see the future of pizza and pizza shops going?
JH: Hopefully people in the pizza biz continue to be creative and have fun. Like you, Dan, and my partner Brian like to say- Pizza is the only food synonymous with the word ‘party.’ I hope that pizza shops around the globe realize the power they possess and use to it be community hubs in their respective towns. Lots of them already are. I know that places I’ve been a part of in the past have sponsored youth sports teams and donated to local charities. Hopefully our idea of sending people off to chase their dreams and start their own businesses will catch on.