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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.