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Pizza Essay

Rockaway Pizzeria Offers Authentic New York Style Pizza Without Compromise

Pizza Review, Pizza EssayDan TallaricoComment
Rockaway Pizzeria in White Oak PA

The Road to White Lodge of Rockaway Pizzeria

Driving to Rockaway Pizza in White Oak, PA, there’s not much. From Pittsburgh you leave the city and pass town after town that is slightly more economically depressed. You pass up a few strip malls that are hanging in there, dilapidated buildings, and strips of absolutely nothing. It’s only a 30 minute drive from the city, but whatever renaissance Pittsburgh is going through has yet to hit the surrounding areas. 

Eventually, you’ll arrive at Rockaway pizza. Which, if you didn’t know it was open you’d think it was another broken down building waiting to be bulldozed. Somehow, the Rockaway sign is old and faded despite being in business for only two years.

But pizza making isn’t about fancy architecture, building an ostentatious building signaling how great your pie is, or decadent signage. It’s about pizza. A temple built without frivolity. And Josh Sickels, an ex-drummer turned Pizza Shop Owner, focuses his energy on what’s important. Making great pizza.

After touring around New York City as a drummer in The Takeover UK and 1,2,3 (both Pittsburgh bands), Josh absorbed the regions pizza. Mostly from Queens. Those years of research and the attention to devouring a number of pies and reverse engineering their structure have paid off. Josh picked up on what makes N.Y. City pizza better (it’s not just the water) and has taken a deep dive into the process and fundamentals of recreating that pizza outside of Pittsburgh. He likes a wet dough, he uses a unique blend of cheese (Rockaway might be the only pizza place in Western PA that doesn’t use provolone in their blend) and, what he seems to be most proud of, are the 20 inch wire cloth screens he bakes certain topping-heavy pizza on. 

Josh called around and found a guy in Queens who makes these screens for the classic pizza places in Queens. Again, he might be the only person in Western PA with access to these thick wire cloth screens.

“The Queens style of New York pizza has more cheese on it, they figured out that the bottom would cook before the tops were done because there’s so much cheese,” Josh says. “The traditional pizza screen sucks because it makes the undercrust soggy. So they started using these ‘wire cloth’ screens.”

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These screens are thicker, raise the pizza a bit above the surface of the oven so steam can escape and slow down the cooking of the undercrust so the top of the pizza also bakes through. Both top and bottom come out perfectly baked and it reduces that soggy-swamp that sometimes forms at the center of larger pizzas. 

It’s a small tweak, but makes a huge difference on the quality of the pie. And Josh’s process is full of these small tweaks that optimize the flavor and quality of the pizza. Tweaks that on their own don’t seem worth doing, but build up throughout the process to make a large impact.

He even cuts the pizza on an elevated wood cutting board after they come out of the oven so the cold steel countertop doesn’t steam up and tarnish the pizza.

This attention to detail and uncompromising vision is admirable, but he is at times playing for an audience that doesn’t quite understand the magic.

 The most beautiful pizza from Rockaway. It covers the bases - from plain to the outrageous.

The most beautiful pizza from Rockaway. It covers the bases - from plain to the outrageous.

Waiting for the Ranch Dressing Horsemen 

Josh’s elevated taste results in delicious pizza with ingredients and flavors that are (maybe) ahead of the curve and foreign to the Western Pennsylvania way of pizza. His menu is vast covering a variety of toppings, meats and sauces. But what’s left off the menu is the sacred buffalo chicken pizza. There’s no deep fryer and the sides are practical spinoffs of what’s you’d expect - hoagies and garlic knots.

During my short time at Rockaway, ranch dressing was the subject of a number of conversations. A customer early on Saturday grabbed their pizza and, after paying, asked for a cup of ranch dressing. Josh froze. He should be used to this by now, but still he struggles with this request. He says “sure” and goes to the back to grab a small container of ranch. Hardly enough for more than one or two slices. She should be happy she gets that amount.

“Why am I aging my mozzarella when you’re just going to cover it in ranch?” Josh says after she leaves. He plans to hang a large “no ranch” sign behind the counter someday soon. 

A customer hears him explain this to me and he shouts from his booth, “Hey! I agree with you - no one should be putting ranch dressing on this pizza. It’s great the way it is.”

This might sound obnoxious and snobby, but this is someone with an uncompromising view of their pizza. He spent most of his life as a musician creating his own music. Owning a restaurant is an extension of that artistic vision. None of the pizzas on the menus are there by accident, it’s all very purposeful and thoughtful. Someone asking for ranch is akin to someone at a show yelling from the crowd that maybe he should consider playing the drums just a bit slower, maybe take it easy on the kick drum.

You don’t ask a musician to change their lyrics to fit your life. Their lyrics either resonate with you or you move on. 

 Josh Sickels has some iconic people hung above his pizza making station.

Josh Sickels has some iconic people hung above his pizza making station.

When This Kind of Fire Starts, It’s Very Hard to Put Out

Rockaway Pizza is a gateway to New York City pizza. I don’t think Josh would categorize himself as a pizza missionary, but he doing his best to spread the pizza gospel. In the 22 months he’s been open he’s cultivated a following of loyal pizza fans.

As Josh puts it:

No one else in the city is really doing this style except for Slice on Broadway and Badamo’s. I figured that yes, I use good shit, yes I have a deep knowledge of pizza. I make this style of pizza as a testament that New York style pizza is the best pizza there is. 

Lots of people haven’t been exposed to that. This is an economicly depressed area. They haven’t been to New York to try the pizza, but they can get a taste of that here.

Josh’s uncompromising vision bridges the gap between dirty unceremonious yinzer pizza shop with the technically superior style of New York pizza. He wants to expose as many people as possible to what he thinks is the best pizza.

And so far, it seems to be working. 

While I was in the shop there was an entire family who drove to Rockaway Pizzeria from Brownsville, about 45 minutes away. According Jason House Rockaway enthusiast, “This is the closest thing you can get to New York pizza around here. You can tell he loves what he’s doing, but everything is top of the line.” Jason had a pizza with pepperoni, peppers and sweet sausage. His girls love the white pizza.

Despite the low-key nature of Rockaway Pizzeria, enthusiasts seek out Rockaway like the religiously inclined travel to see those miraculous weeping statures of the Virgin Mary. In some ways, there’s a soul-stirring reaction to eating at Rockaway the first time.

Biting into Rockaway pizza compels you to tell friends, family, coworkers and complete strangers about it. Since my visit I’ve showed off the photo of my pizza to dozens of people. I tried to tell them how each bite was somehow better than the last, that the flavors kept building and that the whole pizza was perfectly cooked. I was crazed with pizza. Days later I’m still scrolling back through my photos and thinking about when I can get back down to the shop.

Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the environment and the high quality pizza. Maybe it’s the 40 minute drive I took to get to this place, but Rockaway Pizza feels somewhat miraculous. It seems like this pizza shouldn’t exist, but the forces of nature have conspired to bring this perfect pizza to White Oak. 

 The Italian Italian Hoagie at Rockaway Pizza. A textbook hoagie with elevated meats.

The Italian Italian Hoagie at Rockaway Pizza. A textbook hoagie with elevated meats.

What to Order at Rockaway Pizzeria

Everything is good here so please explore the menu at your leisure.

While I was there I had a sausage slice, pepperoni, plain and prosciutto with arugula. Each of the slices were top-notch. There is a vodka pizza on the menu—while I didn’t have a chance to try a bite of that I did get a sample of the homemade sauce. Good lord it was rich and delicious. It’s certainly at the top of my list when I venture back.

While Rockaway isn’t known for its hoagies, the Italian hoagie was textbook. Great meats, drizzle of sauce, and the perfect partner in crime to the pizza.

There’s nothing of waste on the menu. Josh made plenty of Frankenstein’s while I was there (a sampler pizza, very clever idea) and I’m dying to try the Sicilian. While they use the same dough as their traditional, they do “something special” to it to make it different. Stay tuned for whatever that means.

Book Your Mission Trip to Rockaway

If you’re a pizza fan you need to start planning your trip to Rockaway. It’s a small spot, so get their early. Bring some friends, make a day of it and get ready to reflect on some high quality pizza. You can find more information about Rockaway Pizzeria at their website.

Making Pizzas with Pittsburgh Pizzaiolo, Dan Cardone

Pizza Essay, Pizza VideoDan TallaricoComment

When I first started dating my now-wife, Christa, I didn't think pizza would become part of the fabric of our relationship. Soon after, I started this website and she has traveled with me on my pizza journeys across the land and film me eat slices of pizza. Around the same time, her father starting really getting into pizza.

His frequent trips to Italy became more frequent. Soon, he was spending weeks at a time at a Pizzaiolo school in Naples. He would return to the states with in-depth knowledge of Neapolitan pizza. A true pizzaiolo. While he has bounced around pizzerias, most of his baking takes place in his backyard where he had a pizza oven constructed next to his bocci court. Some say it's the Little Italy of the North Hills.

This video is from our most recent trip to the North Hills Little Italy. Watch Dan Cardone craft a Margherita pizza - with a big twist. That's right, we defied the strict rules of Margherita pizza and added tiny san marzano tomatoes. They added a nice burst of flavor and a bit of extra zest to the traditional pie.  

Here are a couple of the other pizzas we made that day, as well as the finished Margherita from the one in the video. 

Margherita Pizza San Marzano Tomatoes

Here's the pizza from the video. It was the first of the day and honestly, I think it could've used some more time in the oven. I like em crispy even though it's technically not "correct." The toppings could've been distributed better, but lots of jostling can happen from the walk on the basement to the backyard pizza oven. 

Margherita pizza with aleche

Now here was a divisive pizza! This one has some of that char I love, but it also has anchovies, or alici. When I served this pizza Dan was very clear not to tell people it had anchovies on it and that instead I should use the Italian word for it, alici. No one was fooled. 

And finally, here's one with a mix of shredded cheese. You know it's shredded because it burns up so quickly while the whole mozzarella stays nice and white. 

Oblong margherita pizza tomatoes shredded mozzarella

Women in Pizza, the Next Wave of Pizza Makers at the 2018 Pizza Expo

Pizza Essay, Pizza ExpoDan TallaricoComment

There's a 99% chance the last time you bought a pizza you encountered only men. The pizza industry is dripping with men as much as it's dripping with grease. I grew up working in pizza kitchens and the women in those kitchens were few and tortured. They had to put up with a boy's club full of dick jokes and abuse. It's not pretty.

But that's all changing. As Ann Kim, owner of , says, "Women are having their moment now." 

At the 2018 Pizza Expo I had the opportunity to talk with a number of women in pizza who are absolutely killing it. Giorgia Caporuscio is one of the very few certified women pizzaiolos. She's turned her focus on teaching other women how to make great pizza and break into the industry,

Nicole Bean operates shops in Texas with her family and is dead-set on hiring more women workers.

Ann Kim, a keynote of this year's Pizza Expo and owner / executive chef at Lola pizzeria, is leading by example. She's making great pizza, opening up shops and diving into this industry head first. Her pizzeria in Minneapolis is considered one of the best in the world.

The problem, as they see it, is that women have been driven away from pizza shops. Hostile, maybe, but definitely gross. There's also a stigma that this is a job for guys - but why? It's baking, cooking, precision and tasting. Skills anyone can develop and hone over time.  

Hopefully as more women get into the industry it becomes easier for others to follow. In Pittsburgh we are beginning to see more women leading pizza shops (Dinette being one of the most successful, lead by Sonja Finn and of course the newly opened Michigan & Trumbull which Kristen Calverley co-owns), but we still have a ways to go. 

2018 Pizza Expo: Traveling to the Expo Highlight Reel

Pizza Essay, Pizza ExpoDan TallaricoComment

Traveling to Las Vegas has been a bit exhausting. Since it's not about the destination, but really the journey, I thought I'd chronicle our first day of getting to Las Vegas and struggling to ham it up for the camera. 

It wasn't all an exhausting waste, we actually had a number of great conversations and captured quality content with the attendees here. Off the top of my head, here's some articles you can look forward to:

Pizza Expo International Pizza Challenge

I spoke with Jeremy Galvin at length about the International Pizza Challenge. He orchestrates the event and has been handling the logistics for a few years. In his words, the point of this challenge is to "elevate the pizza craft." It's basically an arena of pizza makers trying to out-pizza each other. 

Jeremy told me that the non-traditional categories fill up quick and the event is truly international as competitors fly in from all over the world to compete. Gluten Free and Sicilian / Detroit Style pizzas are bubbling up in popularity this year, so look for those!

Iron Born Visits Pizza Expo

Our associate editor, Tom Tallarico, spotted a young pizza maker in a penguins shirt. After talking a bit he found it was the owner of Iron Born pizza, Pete Tolman. Pete talked with us about his goals for Pizza Expo, how it took him years to get his dough to where he wanted it, and what the future of Iron Born pizza might look like.

He was also pretty stoked about the panel on whether or not a 24-hour fermentation has benefits on dough. Funny how I haven't had a chance to catch up with him a mile from my house, but we have no problem chatting 3,000 miles away from home.

A Young Pizza Competitor

I've been following the career of Anthony Scardino since Tom reported on his pedigree a few years back. He's competing in his first International Pizza Challenge this year and, at the time of this writing, is balling his dough up for this week's competition. What a guy!

We had a few minutes together to take a selfie and do a short interview. I'll be picking his brain about pizza, competing, and the pizza expo family in the coming days.

Happy National Pizza Day, Please Hug a Pizza

Pizza EssayDan TallaricoComment
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Pizza is humankind’s bestfriend. While we have created so many great industries, technologies and flavors, pizza is the one creation that loves us back.  

Think about eating a pizza. There’s no other experience like it.  

As each bite of pizza globs down your esophagus, strings of cheese latching onto anything it can grab and occasionally clogging the passage, it’s actually saying hello. It’s pizza’s way of saying, “Thanks for making us one and I promise that my sauce, oil, crust and whole being will help make you a better person.”

People and pizza go together like, uh, pizza and beer. Pizza is a simple food that we use as social currency and in return we are all the richer. The more you spend it the more there seems to be! When I’m interested in meeting up with someone we will obviously go and grab some pizza. Now, next time we meet we will either go to another pizza place or spend the whole time talking about how we bonded over pizza.

Pizza begets pizza begets pizza. 

Pizza has evolved alongside us. As we’ve settled across the country pizza has adapted to fit in with the local lifestyle. That’s how we have Detroit Style pizza and New York style. No matter what economic class you find yourself in pizza is one of the more accessible foods. Grab a slice on a street corner for a dollar or drop $25 a pie at a fancy brick oven place with a fancy awning outside their building.  

Pizza is there for us, waiting in the wings, never judging but always glowing its oily glow.

Happy National Pizza Day. Go hug a pizza and let it hug you back.

Here’s some pizza photos to celebrate.  

 Slice Island’s signature rectangles.  

Slice Island’s signature rectangles.  

 Buffalo Chicken Pizza from Michigan & Trumbull

Buffalo Chicken Pizza from Michigan & Trumbull

 Sausage and pepper pizza from Della Terra

Sausage and pepper pizza from Della Terra

 A lightly olived pizza from Piazza Talarico

A lightly olived pizza from Piazza Talarico

 A Sicilian pizza I made for Christmas! 

A Sicilian pizza I made for Christmas! 

 Tommy T doing his best Professor Pizza impression.  

Tommy T doing his best Professor Pizza impression.  

Michigan & Trumbull Delivers Delicious Detroit Style Pizza to Pittsburgh

Pizza News, Pizza EssayDan TallaricoComment
Michigan and Trumbull Detroit style Pizza

 

“What is Detroit Style pizza and why is it coming to Pittsburgh?” is a question I get a lot lately. 

Well, Pittsburgh is a culinary melting pot and it makes sense that eventually this city will play host to the largest variety of pizza in the country. As Pittsburgh sits in the midst of the Rust Belt, the city is uniquely poised to take advantage of the trends migrating to the East Coast and vice versa.

Michigan & Trumbull, run by Kristin Calverley and Nate Peck, is the latest Detroit Style pizza shop to open in Pittsburgh, the first being Iron Born in Smallman Gallery. Michigan & Trumbull is following their lead and opening up inside Federal Galley, the "sequel" to Smallman Galley, on the North Side.

I was lucky enough to visit Michigan & Trumbull during their pop-up at The Vandal. While they sold out amazingly fast and left a behind a wake of happy customers, I got a chance to sample their vegan pizza. Which, I gotta tell ya that this was a true delight to eat and I hope it is a staple on their menu. The creamy rémoulade is a fine substitute for cheese and the eggplant provided plenty of flavor. It is the perfect compliment to the cheese and red sauce that decorates a majority of pizzas.

 The Michigan & Trumbull vegan pizza is not to be missed!

The Michigan & Trumbull vegan pizza is not to be missed!

While Pittsburgh doesn’t have its own well-defined style of pizza, it’s strange that Detroit of all places does. Like most things in Detroit, you can thank the motor industry for that. Pans used for car manufacturing happened to perfectly double as pizza pans. So what's Detroit Style pizza? As Nate Peck says, “I think what makes Detroit style pizza is the deep blue steel pan, and the cheese pushed to the very edge before cooking. This gives you the crispy cheese edge we love so much.”

And that’s the beauty of Detroit Style pizza. In some ways it is the antithesis of New York style and a distant cousin of Chicago pizza. Instead of a floppy triangle, Detroit style pizza is traditionally served as rectangles.It’s thick, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. 

The outside crust supports the sauce, cheese, and just about anything you can throw onto the slice. It’s an architectural beast that soaks up greasy pepperoni or fresh tomato sauce.

 Stacks of pizza dough waiting to hit the oven.

Stacks of pizza dough waiting to hit the oven.

So, why aren’t we seeing more Detroit Style pizza? Why is Michigan & Trumbull getting into this business now? 

Nate Peck says:

I’m not exactly sure what has taken the rest of the world to find out about Detroit style pizza. Honestly growing up in the Detroit area I didn't even think twice about it only being a Detroit thing. I thought we just had a choice of round and square. Then we moved to Pittsburgh and were like wait, nobody has anything close to pizza like home? which is why I started playing around with the dough and ordered a few pans.

Creating the dough for Detroit Style pizza, and the cooking process, is an involved. It’s not as simple as slapping the dough into the oven, rotating it out, and placing it on a tray. There's a lot that happens to the dough before it gets stretched out.

Nate describes his dough process to me, saying:

For our dough I do a 15 hour 'poolish' taking 20% of the doughs flour and water with a pinch of yeast and fermenting at room temperature. I then mix the rest of the ingredients. I usually do about 500-525 degrees for 12-15 minutes. You have to make sure you let the dough rise halfway up each pan after portioning.

For the sauce we do a really simple, fresh sauce. Using Stanislaus tomatoes. We don’t cook it very long to ensure it keeps its fresh tomato flavor. Since we do a nice long bake on the pizza I  use a whole milk mozzarella so it doesn’t burn.

Expect Michigan & Trumbull to setup shop in the Federal Galley when it opens this year. Keep up to date with Michigan & Trumbull on Facebook. I'll keep you posted on any other Michigan & Trumbull updates here on Pizza Walk With Me.

 

 

 

Driftwood Oven Turns 2! Let's Talk About Driftwood Oven!

Pizza EssayDan TallaricoComment
DriftWood Oven Turns 2

They grow up so fast, don't they? First they're fumbling their little dough balls, struggling to figure out logistics, and experimenting with flours. Now, they are feeding multiple breweries a weekend, growing their staff, and sourcing ingredients so intelligently it would make your head spin. Not to mention the trophy case of accolades.  To celebrate, Driftwood Oven will be at Roundabout Brewery this Sunday at 1pm with some of their pals. More info here, but let's talk a bit about their excellence. 

Driftwood Oven burst onto the scene in a flurry of excellence. From their first pizza everyone knew this was legit. I remember biting into my first Driftwood Oven pie and looking around nodding, waiting to be woken up from another one of my pizza dreams.  

Hard to believe they are only now turning two. Harder to believe a pizza landscape that doesn't involve Driftwood Oven. 

The way Driftwood Oven has woven their way into the Pittsburgh tapestry is remarkable. From hanging out on the fringe in Greenfield, to bouncing from breweries to breweries. From working in a basement to getting prep space in Larimer. They drifted to where they were needed. It seemed like most evenings they were never further than a 5 minute drive or walk from my house, always within an arms reach. 

Despite being a mobile oven, their aura is permanent. A night at Grist House or Dancing Gnome without Driftwood Oven feels empty. Heading to Round About brewery for a drink without that tent outside just seems off

 Justin greets visitors at their Greenfield spot. Neil bakes pizzas endlessly. 

Justin greets visitors at their Greenfield spot. Neil bakes pizzas endlessly. 

Justin always greets you with a smile and a large hello. His background in improve and comedy are not wasted in the Driftwood Oven tent. He's quick with quips and makes every pizza patron seem welcome. Neil works diligently behind the oven creating pies after pie. Bouncing between the oven and dough requires supreme focus and Neil never loses sight of a great pizza. And that's the way it has typically been. They've added some help along the way, which was much needed considering an evening at Grist House has them swamped in tickets as soon as the festivities begin. 

And their little oven, who would ever think that physics and science would allow it to make enough pizzas to serve hundreds of people without a single drop in quality? I've never had to wait longer than 15 minutes for a pie, which is a small miracle. And it's not because I write about pizza. You, the clever reader, get the same loving attention and speedy service that I receive. It's a democratic pizza process and they treat every customer like it's their thousandths pie. 

When I spoke with Neil nearly two years ago about his craft, he said, “I care a lot about what goes into this. Everything on the plate is good for you. I’m not going to serve you anything that I wouldn’t eat.”

That has been a staple of Driftwood Oven during their pizza tenure and it's great to see holding themselves to those standards. RSVP to Driftwood Oven's 2nd Anniversary Party here

Driftwood Oven also has really great t-shirts. You can watch my review below. 

Slice on Broadway, a Local Pizza Darling - #PGHPizzaWeek

Pizza EssayDan TallaricoComment

Find me a single person that dislikes Slice on Broadway. I dare you. Watch the video above and try and find a severe flaw.

It's impossible. Helmed by Rico Lunardi, Slice on Broadway is a pizza shop that is slowly taking over Pittsburgh pizza. His aggressive and intelligent expansion has earned him a spot in PNC Park, replacing the bland Diamond Pizza shop. A win for all parties involved.

Rico's mission is to build out consistently delicious pizza and, basically, ensure that everyone in Pittsburgh has access to amazing pizza. He shows no signs of slowing down which is a boon for everyone in the area. 

I'm a big fan of what Rico has accomplished, heck the guy even got the mayor to declare April 14th as the official Slice on Broadway day in the city! If you haven't eaten a slice of Slice on Broadway, do yourself a favor and go to one of his locations this week.

What I Order

  • Rico stocks his shops with rare meats for a pizza shop: I always get a pie with soppressata. 
  • Pepperoni rolls aren a good side option!

Slice on Broadway Ordering Info

Slice on Broadway in the News

Driftwood Oven Experiments With Square Slices - #PGHPIZZAWEEK

Pizza EssayDan TallaricoComment
 Driftwood Oven experiments with square slices

Driftwood Oven experiments with square slices

I don't know what kind of witchcraft happens under Driftwood Oven's pizza tent. Over the cold season, Neil and Justin set up their mobile home and zip themselves inside their pizza den. If you're at Grist House, Dancing Gnome or any other location they call home, to order the pizza you unzip their tent and enter the pizza cave.

The Driftwood Oven pizza cave is a warm safe place. Some folks linger inside with their beer and watch Neil expertly work the oven. Justin is a one-man-show ready to entertain anyone that enters. The pizza cave draws people in, like travelers gathering next to a warm hearth to rest their weary legs and tell tales of pizza.

On my most recent visit into the Driftwood Oven pizza cave, Neil had a tray of square slices. Driftwood Oven has been teasing square slices for a long time. In fact, I had sampled some square slices from Driftwood Oven months ago. The ones Neil are selling today is an evolution of that product. I asked him if this means he finally mastered the formula. 

"It's never perfect. You know that. It's a constant work in progress," was Neil's response. I suppose an artist is never truly satisfied. 

But square slices have a nostalgia to them. My uncle was so excited to see the slices on the menu that he ordered six. "Growing up in Beaver, it's all we ate. For your birthday they set down a platter of square slices," said my uncle, Don Erb, about his history with square slices.

 Here Don uses the "blow on hot pizza" technique to cool it down a few degrees.

Here Don uses the "blow on hot pizza" technique to cool it down a few degrees.

There is a rustic feeling to the square slices. It recalls memories of grandma pie: dough mashed into a square tray and plopped into the oven. It requires much less finesse than getting a round pie. 

Driftwood Oven's square slices were delicious. The slices were solid, sturdy, and provided a hearty crunch. In past iterations the inside has been much softer, so maybe they're trying to strike that crunch-to-soft-balance. 

still, it was beautiful and it was simple. I'm excited to eat tray after tray of their square pie in the coming months.

What I Order

  • A margherita and something zany on the menu.
  • Gotta grab a square slice as an appetizer.
  • Get a pizza per person.

How to Hunt Down Driftwood Oven

Other Driftwood Oven News

 

Spak Brothers Pizza - #PGHPizzaWeek

Pizza EssayDan TallaricoComment
 Spak Brothers mural is a beacon in Garfield.

Spak Brothers mural is a beacon in Garfield.

 

Meet Spak Brothers. Spak Brothers sits in the heart of Garfield. Spak Brothers personifies modern Pittsburgh pizza, hence why they’re being highlighted during PGH Pizza Week here at Pizza Walk With Me.

 

Spak carries a wide variety of pizza, hoagies and appetizers that combine classic recipes with modern sensibilities. Their meats and cheeses are carefully sourced. You’ll never find a piece of pepperoni that’s overly greasy and their capicola is thick and just spicy enough.  On top of that, they’re home to a bastion of veggie and vegan food. For years, Spak was the place for vegetarians and vegans to get their fix of wings and hoagies. The Seitan cheesesteak is eerily authentic to the real thing.

 

Spak Brothers is a simple shop. They have one person answering phones and helping the line, of which there seems to always be one. They know people are willing to wait for a pizza or hoagie and go to great lengths to entertain customers throughout the buying journey. In the store you can look at local artist or the many flyers for upcoming shows. Admire the coozies and Spak lighters for purchase, or play a game of pinball. Spak is also one of the places I don’t mind being on hold. The owner has recorded a number of classic songs with new lyrics focused on pizza. Such as Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” and The Smith’s “Panic.”

 Spak hosts a Pizza Eating Competition during the Pittsburgh PGH Festival. It gets pretty nasty.

Spak hosts a Pizza Eating Competition during the Pittsburgh PGH Festival. It gets pretty nasty.

As Pittsburgh pizza continues to grow, Spak will forever be the community pizza place. It’s a pizza glue that holds garfield together and is truly a pizza place of the people.

What I Order

  • 1 Large Pizza, half capicola, half hot peppers.

  • A whole hoagie, either BBQ Chicken with Grilled Chicken or the Italian Hoagie.

  • A garden salad with carrot ginger dressing.

Spak Bros Ordering Info:

Location: 5107 Penn Avenue
Phone Number: 412-362-SPAK (7725)
Website: SpakBrothers.com

Other Spak News

Celebrate Every Week Like it's #pghpizzaweek with Pizza Walk With Me

Pizza EssayDan TallaricoComment
pghpizzaweek

Hi there, I’m Dan, local Pittsburgh pizza journalist. Next week the City Paper has declared that it will be “#pghpizzaweek” where they will be highlighting pizzas from, at the time of publishing, 11 pizzerias. This is a city that has one of the highest amount of pizzerias per capita. This is a city where each neighborhood has a signature pizza and blocks are dense with pizza shops. 11 doesn't seem like enough, so I'm going to lend a hand.

In the past couple of years, Pittsburgh has experienced a pizza renissance. There’s a healthy mix of wonderfully greasy pies, mobile pizza heroes and neopilitan pizza that seem to import flavor from Italy.

Pizza has that effect on people. It’s a powerful food that can calm your nerves, put you at easy and transport you into a delicious pizza trance.

Over the next couple days I’ll be highlighting a number of local pizzerias as part of #pghpizzaweek. Pittsburgh is a pizza town as much as NYC, I truly believe that. We have some of the best pizza in the world here and it’s my job to highlight that.

So, over the next week you’ll see pictures, videos and essays on the following pizzerias:

I've covered many of these places in the past, and it's always fun to look back on great pizza from great pizza places. #pghpizzaweek may be one of the best weeks yet! Pizza ya later.

 

Behind Every Delicious Pizza is a Supportive Crust

Pizza EssayDan Tallarico2 Comments
BehindEveryPizzaIsASupportiveCrust

Bread by itself is deceptive. If you bring a quality loaf to a friend’s house they’ll say thanks, kiss you on the cheek, and that’s that. Maybe later after a few bottles of wine a guest will ask where you got the bread. What bakery? Where is it located? How much? Wow really, those are some fun facts. Forgotten as soon as the hangover kicks in.

Once you add sauce and cheese onto that bread people won’t feign interest. They’ll react like you just birthed this pizza from your well-kept womb. It’s always a surprise, a pleasant one, that is met with cheering and excitement that can make or break a party. There’s a reason the crowd gathers around that steaming box. People can’t wait to waft in the scent, admire the placement of the cheese, and make judgement calls about the toppings. People act funny around pizza, as if it was some horror manipulating humans from a Lovecraft story.

One day in history bread + cheese + salt will cause a great war if it hasn’t already. It inspires gusto and aggressiveness and if you happen to try and figure out who has the best pizza there’s no doubt that you can round up a pizza militia faster than General Washington and Lafayette at the Battle of Yorktown.

During these arguments the opponents will get to talking about the dough. They’ll say, “Well, their dough is too sweet. Too much sugar in their crust.”

Or

“Their dough is too flimsy to support the cheese and sauce.”

Or

“It’s just too crispy and crackery. It shatters the moment it touches my teeth! I have to get a dustpan out just to clean up after myself.”

Truly, pizza is nothing without a foundation of bread. Without the bread base you’re working with sauce and cheese. At best it’s a french onion soup knockoff.

Two of the newest and exciting pizza places in Pittsburgh both got their start with bread. Their goal was to make a solid sourdough loaf. But, from there they achieved greatness.

 A slice of Tony  Giaramita's Pizza al Taglio from when he was bringing pizza to Espresso a Mano. 

A slice of Tony Giaramita's Pizza al Taglio from when he was bringing pizza to Espresso a Mano. 

First is Driftwood Oven pizza - to truly understand the pizza you’re getting you have to come to terms with their roots. They didn’t set out to make pizza.

Nope. Pizza was sort of an afterthought. Kind of like penicillin, velcro, x-rays and super glue. This wasn’t a “mad scientist” situation, it’s just Neil - the studious and scientific baker - wanted to make bread. In according to Neil, “You’re trying to do the same thing with the pizza [make something perfect]. With bread you don’t get to touch it, you put it in the oven and it’s done. You hope everything is perfect. But it’s not hands on and fun like wood fired pizza.”

And when you make bread there are repercussions. In order:

  • Bare, lonely bread is depressing. A melancholy loaf can sit in your pantry giving off an aura of wheat, its grainy body decaying rapidly. As it hardens day by day and molds from the inside out you’re reminded just how short and moldy your life is. It’s no good.

  • You can butter that bread. Slice it open, add some butter. It’s smooth creamy and full of cholesterol that bounces down your esophagus and funs up your intestines.

  • Butter is just the beginning - why not start packing ingredients atop the bread to create something more. Bread is the universal bonding agent of food. Food chemists worship it and if there was a food periodic table you can bet bread would be the keystone keeping things from falling apart.

  • When bread is used as a foundation it becomes a conduit to get food into your mouth. Make it a whole meal by combining a vegetable (sauce), dairy (cheese) and some protein (sausage). Bread gives these elements an ecosystem to co-exist together. Without bread it’s just a mess in your kitchen sink. It’s nothing. It’s a sad college meal you force yourself to eat at 4am because maybe this is the silver bullet that destroys your hangover.

Bread is vital to pizza. 

 Bread & Salt's Margherita pizza. Look at that bubble structure!

Bread & Salt's Margherita pizza. Look at that bubble structure!

So - a bread guy makes pizza...why?

When you make bread you have simply made a loaf of bread. Nice. No one is going to complain about that.

But pizza is different. It’s a living entity that you are constantly tampering with. It’s a constant challenge. Bread is awesome. But bread is a pamphlet for a high school bake sale sitting next to a choose your own adventure set in a future where pizza is currency. Which would you rather spend your life reading?

Challenging your skills, overcoming barriers and pushing yourself to the next echelon is what growth is all about. And if you chart the growth of Driftwood Oven over the past year, you’ll see they’re on an explosive path.

In the heart of Bloomfield we have Bread & Salt - a bakery that promises simple, basic foods born from the combination of bread and salt. It’s simple stuff. But from the seeds of simplicity they have grown a magnificent mix of complex flavors. They’ve built a pizza with a bread-first focus and the results are stunning.

Bread & Salt has flipped the Pittsburgh Pizza Script. Rick Easton has set up shop, backed by years of bread experience.

Bread & Salt Pizza in Pittsburgh

Their sauce is simple, I had a piece with a basic basil leaf. And the cheese was delicious gloopy cheese. Anyone has access to these ingredients. I can go to the Strip or restaurant depot or my backyard for basil. I can find mozzarellas from various parts of Italy around Pittsburgh. The one thing I don’t have access to is Bread & Salt’s bread.

Luckily, I live three blocks from Bread & Salt so it’s not a huge issue for me. But for you? Gosh, better buy a nearby row house before the Bread & Salt real estate effect starts rippling out from Pearl St.

Next time you bite into a slice of pizza, think of the crust. Take a look at the cross section of the pizza and admire its structure. Notice how when you bend the pizza the crust cracks, but doesn’t break. Like it’s winking at you, telling you that it has your back.

Notice the bubbles in the crust and how they support the pizza from stem to stern.

Every great pizza has a great crust. Next time you see a pizza take a moment to admire the bread supporting your toppings.



Driftwood Pizza Oven Brings Pizza to Pittsburgh Pizza Deserts

Pizza EssayDan Tallarico1 Comment

Driftwood Oven is a mobile pizza unit that drifts from one Pittsburgh neighborhood to the other on a regular basis. Here’s a look at one of their recent schedules:

They’ll set up shop outside coffee shops, breweries, neighborhoods and just about any location that needs an oasis in a pizza desert. I met the Driftwood Oven duo, Neil and Justin, while they were in Greenfield. "We see the most characters in Greenfield," Justin tells me, as a man walks by blurting out an out-of-the-blue confession that he has lived in Greenfield for 40 years and thinks his son should open up a pie shop called We Got Pies.

"I always have the best names, but no money." the Greenfield Citizen says with a hearty laugh, masking any hints of regret. Can you believe he just gave that idea away to us for free? And now I'm here broadcasting his thought to the world? Man. 

The curious citizen / entrepreneur wanders off and Justin continues to tell me how he got in this business when Neil approached him about a bread partnership.

Justin was working at the front of the house with Neil down at Legume / Butterjoint. Neil does the baking and heads up the dough making for Driftwood Oven. Neil approached Justin with a business idea of making bread. Justin basically said he'd be crazy to not follow Neil into bread battle. And now here they are.

They started with bread, but bread is just a gateway grain to improved, complex, foods like pizza. Neil is a big fan of sourdough bread, he says “I was really interested in sour dough bread which translates well to pizza. I started baking, pizza is a nice combo of baking, cooking and manipulating food at the same time.”

Neil began to create pizza simply because it’s fun. He says, “You’re trying to do the same thing with the pizza [make something perfect]. With bread you don’t get to touch it, you put it in the oven and it’s done. You hope everything is perfect. But it’s not hands on and fun like wood fired pizza.”

And eating their pizza is fun. The telltale sign of a Driftwood Oven pizza is its lillypad nature; the pizza is light, floppy. There’s a crunch to the crust, but the charred coating is merely a thin piece of armor. A trick to scare away would-be predators? Inside the pizza guts are soft, chewy, almost like a naan.

I had their margherita and Archer. I found the margherita a bit too salty. Maybe because the sea salt ontop of the pizza was a bit too much? Despite that, I devoured the pizza. The crust was calling my name and a bit of salt wasn't going to stop me from enjoying the rest.

On the opposite end, the Archer had the perfect amount of sauce and sausage. The sausage had a pleasant heat to it. A warmness that was much appreciated on a cold Greenfield night. Combine quality meats with a stunning crust and you have a pizza that you'll write poetry to.

The pizzas they serve host an entire pizza ecosystem. They're more mature, the ingredients are precisely installed on the dough and cooked with a keen eye. These pizzas just seem wise and cultured.

Is it the presentation? The look and feel of the pizza? Everything feels at home. The cheese settles in just the right valley of crust. The sauce spread itself just thin enough.  Each time they pop a dough into their oven a big-bang like event occurs and a billion years of pizza evolution happens in just 10 minutes. The finished product is a pizza built with the knowledge and experience of every pizza that came before.

But that’s due to Neil’s obsession. He's just as worried as what you put in your body as he is.  He says, “I care a lot about what goes into this. Everything on the plate is good for you. I’m not going to serve you anything that I wouldn’t eat.”

Neil's studious and careful nature doesn't end at ingredients. As you read this there is no doubt Neil is tinkering with his bread recipe and has multiple kinds of bread rising in the wings. Neil says, “I have four or five different recipes that work with our timing schedules. There are some rising now. So, our pizza is going to be different depending on when you eat it, but it’s pretty close every time. It’s a good system.”

While I was loitering outside Driftwood Oven, I saw families come and go, a policeman call in a pizza and then drive across town to pick it up. I saw Neil and Justin introduce themselves to newcomers. Their excitement around the oven built as the night went on.

While the mobile oven doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop any time soon, Neil can envision a world where him and Justin grow some roots and open a store. Neil says, “This is a nice opportunity to build a skill set then transfer it to a brick and mortar place. I hope I can have a little spot some time soon.”

Watch Driftwood Oven batter Pizza Boat in the Pizza Dojo:



The True Watermark of Success for a City is Pizza - Pittsburgh is Swimming in Delicious Grease

Pizza EssayDan Tallarico3 Comments

That’s not humidity clinging to your body. Those aren’t beads of sweat forming on the bridge of your sweat. Those are droplets of grease; our atmosphere is ever-changing but right now the climate is stunningly pro-pizza. Staggeringly so. There was a time where the best pizza in Pittsburgh was locked in a 50 year old pizza house that hasn’t changed their formula in years. Now, you need a Pizza Tour Guide to help you scout out and find every pizza gem in the city. You could spend an entire day eating pizza and barely scratch Pittsburgh’s doughy surface.

Pittsburgh swells with innovation, health, bike lanes and great food. Bakery Square is becoming its own personal pan pizza with every amenity and topping to keep residents from venturing outside its crusty walls.

Luxury apartments are going up in Lawrenceville, The Strip and any place where water is nearby, like a family of sea monkeys brought to life with some of earth’s water. Where once you could see a bright yellow bridge you instead see a new PNC building or a hotel. Contractors can hardly finish their Primanti’s sandwich between having to tear down old warehouses and build rows of apartments. Whatever yeast has been sitting dormant in Pittsburgh is now beginning to proof.

It’s all exciting stuff and there’s no doubt that Pittsburgh is growing fast. But to me the true testament of growth for a city is the wealth of pizza options. Whereas a few years ago answering “Best Pizza in Pittsburgh?” took a moment. It was a dry question, easy to swallow and easier to spit back up.

 Just a stack of Pizza al Taglio

Just a stack of Pizza al Taglio

 

But answering that question today? Man, you have to narrow it down. Do you mean neapolitan pizza? Roman? New York style pizza? Wood-fired oven? Brick oven? Vegan? Gluten free? Which neighborhood? Delivery? Sit down?  The age-old pizza question is impossible to answer without specifying what pizza breed you’re talking about.

Because the secret is that the best Pizza in Pittsburgh is everywhere, and most of it didn't exist five years ago.

Some of Pittsburgh’s best pizza comes from Bread and Salt, a bread shop in Bloomfield. They’ve received nation attention for their pizza al taglio, which is the second place in Pittsburgh that is bringing that Roman delight to Pittsburgh. The second being Pizza Taglio in East Liberty, and both are thriving.

Then of course you have your utility pizza. This is the kind of pizza crave after a night of drinking, after a hard day of work, and when it’s too hot or too cold outside. It’s pizza you convince yourself you need when life is tossing a few sucker punches your way. These days, every neighborhood has easy access to one or two of these shops. I can actually walk outside my door in Lawrenceville be outside The Pizza Company, Fazio’s or Graziano’s in two minutes.

Slice on Broadway keeps Beechview flowing with pizza.

Grab your dead cat and swing it around your head. I’m confident your cat corpse will graze against a building that contains bags of cheese, a dough mixer and pumps out pizzas frantically on Sunday and feeds the masses Friday and Saturday night.

The delicious grease can be found in any neighborhood no matter the price of real estate. Can you believe the author of The Pizza Bible, Tony Gemignani, chose Caliente (Yeah, Caliente in Bloomfield) spent his one day making pizza in Pittsburgh. Caliente doesn’t have a steep legacy of feeding the Steelers. They aren’t written about in the New York Times. But the folks at Caliente care and they put their heart into the pies they make. And every pizza that they make perks Bloomfield up just a little bit more.

Beyond pizzerias there is a wave of mobile pizza units sprouting around Pittsburgh. Like the seeds of a dandelion plant blowing through town, you never quite know when you’ll stumble into a mobile pizza unit. A cart, a truck, a table with a quaint tent and an oven is all anyone needs. Pow - you got pizza in your zipcode.

Pizza Boat, one of the first Pittsburgh mobile units, served up some of the best pizza in Pittsburgh. They're now at home at Slice Island at Spirit Lodge in Lawrenceville.

I try to eat at as many mobile units that I can, mostly because the reaction from natives is always new. “Where did yinz come from?” they’ll ask, their tattered Polamalu jersey flowing in the wind. With each question they come to terms with the idea that there’s pizza available a block from their house today, but tomorrow they’ll be gone. Those that give in are rewarded with fresh ingredients, most are sourced locally, and an investment in a unit that could become a weekly staple in their neighborhood.

Between Driftwood Oven, Flatbread Pizza, and The Brownstone, you have a Ringling Bros. Pizza Circus forming.

 Spak Brothers organized a pizza eating contest at this year's Pizza Fest.

Spak Brothers organized a pizza eating contest at this year's Pizza Fest.

Most of the pizzerias I listed here didn’t exist five years ago. And no one is showing signs of slowing down. Pittsburgh never got too fancy with their pizza. It was a Friday night thing for a long time. Slowly and surely, Pizza is evolving in Pittsburgh. Its tentacles are finding its way into all aspects of the city, integrating itself with the steel core.

Pizza is so personal to every citizen because it’s introduced to us at such a young age and so often. Fridays after school you’d get pizza. Sleepovers you’d have pizza. If you read a book you got pizza. Kid’s love it and it’s affordable. As we develop pizza binds itself to our DNA. Whether we realize it or not pizza is a dish that has made a tremendous impact on us all. It’s a food for everyone.

When I delivered pizzas it wasn’t uncommon to take two pies out for delivery, one to a house that looked like could have been a half-way house and the other being a tiny mansion in the city. The only difference being the amount of 2-Litre Pepsi bottles I had to carry up their steps.

Before long Pittsburgh won’t be heralded for its medical advancements or sports teams. Or its education institutions or livability. Or whatever criteria someone decides to use to rank cities. Pittsburgh will be known far and wide for its illustrious pizza eco-system. And the fact that this basic food is thriving in Pizza is all you need to see to see that Pittsburgh is doing better than ever. 


Pizza is a food of the people. As Pittsburgh grows and thrives it only makes sense that more pizza shops open up to meet the demand of every Pittsburgher.