When is pizza more than just a pizza? It can be a family birthright. A social media hit. An infinite universe of culinary obsession. A defining neighborhood flavor. The root of friendship. A source of comfort. And sometimes even a gateway to hope — for an individual, or a new restaurant, trying to gain some footing with this icon of comfort in uncertain times.
Pizza is all those things and more, especially during a pandemic that has seen takeout-friendly pizzerias nationwide open faster than any other restaurant concept while the rest of the industry struggled. These three new pizzerias are worthy additions to Philadelphia’s ever-improving pizza scene. But each is distinct, shaped by this moment.
Kurt Evans is inspired. And not just because the Detroit-style pies with crispy cheese sides at Down North Pizza in Strawberry Mansion have continuously sold out for preopening pop-ups. (Regular hours are expected in March.) Evans draws inspiration from all around. Mentors like Robert and Ben Bynum, who inspired him to become an entrepreneur. Chef friends like Cristina Martínez and Ben Miller of South Philly Barbacoa inspired him to embrace food activism.
Philly artists inspire him, too, filling the walls of his pizzeria with street photography and a hip-hop soundtrack that sets the groove at this crisply rehabbed West Lehigh Avenue storefront, where pies are named for songs by Philadelphia rappers. Young Gunz’ “No Betta Love” reps the classic cheese pie with red racing stripes of Norf sauce (as in, North Philly), Evans’ sweet and spicy marinara (”there’s nothing better than a cheese pizza,” says Evans). Ms. Jade’s “Big Head” calls out the plump chunks of juicy chicken breast drizzled with dark, sweet house-smoked BBQ glaze. Cool C’s “The Glamorous Life” is apt for a vodka-sauced special lavished with shrimp and crab. My favorite, “Ima Boss,” is a white pie with turkey sausage, peppers and Bodega sauce, a sweet-tangy drizzle of reduced Goya Malta and tamarind inspired by the corner grocery: “That song took Meek Mill to the top.”
The “top” for Evans? He’s most inspired by food’s power as a vehicle for social change — in particular his mission to end mass incarceration. Down North is modeling solutions by hiring formerly incarcerated people, paying at least $15 an hour, and offering apartments upstairs where employees can live rent-free to get their bearings and learn work skills after release.
“We want to humanize people, not look at someone as their worst mistake,” says Evans, who says he and partner Muhammad Abdul-Hadi are creating a community center to expand Down North’s concept to a supermarket and culinary education program.
“We’re creating a network for when guys [and women] get out,” says executive chef Michael Carter, whose culinary studies at the Art Institute were interrupted by a return to prison in 2015 due to a parole violation. “Nobody is focusing on these skill sets in jail — it’s all punitive.”
Carter, who found himself cooking for 2,000 inmates a day, also crafted a side business making $10 “jailhouse pizzas” using vending machine ramen and Cheez-Its cooked together with an improvised immersion circulator. Out three years now, Carter recently made braised beef-scamorza pies at a Down North collaboration alongside guest pizza maestro Marc Vetri. Carter mused that night on Instagram at how far he’d come, then continued to refine his next creation: a chili-and-cheese pie nod to Lil Uzi Vert.
Other star guest chefs are lining up to give Down North’s mission a pop-up boost, from Chad Williams of Friday Saturday Sunday (Feb. 26) to Zahav’s Michael Solomonov (April 27). Weckerly’s is making a bean pie-flavored ice cream for milkshakes at Down North, too. Kurt Evans is inspiring them all. Down North Pizza, 2804 W. Lehigh Ave., downnorthpizza.com
Remember when you could pick up a phone and spontaneously order pizza for dinner? Those days seem like a distant memory thanks to Instagram scrambles for pickup time slots, and the crazy lines for preciously few pies that marked the pre-COVID-19 arrival of a buzzworthy destination.
Pizzata easily could have become one of those based on the pedigrees of its owners. Davide Lubrano, 35, met Vinny Gallagher, 35, on the competition stage at the 2019 Pizza & Pasta Expo in Atlantic City. Lubrano’s brother enviously poked Gallagher’s dough ball and pronounced: “You’re going to win.”
“Vinny’s a dough genius,” says Lubrano, who grew up working in his family’s pizzeria in Napoli.
And so their dough-mance was born. But plans for a Philadelphia collaboration were quickly reshaped by the pandemic. Their delicacy of Neapolitan pies did not seem durable enough for takeout. The sturdier crisp of a 16-inch New York-style pie was a smarter bet, especially for the naturally leavened doughs Gallagher became obsessed with on the West Coast. But could they harness ever-changing sourdough into an operation that produces the volume of a local standby with consistency?
“We want it to be a neighborhood pizzeria, because pizza is for everybody,” says Lubrano, who took over the Gusto space near Fitler Square.
Not only is Pizzata cranking out over 800 pies a week to first-come, first-served callers (online ordering is unavailable), their pizza has a character that stands alone. Gallagher’s dough forms a crust that crackles with a flavorful chew and roasty tang that reverbs after a slice is gone.
The judiciously distributed toppings work in harmony with the tart sourdough. The Salsiccia blends the piquance of sausage and pepperoni with the sweet sting of hot honey. Wide rounds of soppressata, curling around the edges like big-boy pepperoni, are echoed by crunchy loops of red onion.
They’ve started making “pan pizza” sandwiches with dough baked into puffy rounds, stuffed with spicy coppa and scarmoza, or burrata, arugula pesto and prosciutto. They’re very tasty. But Pizzata, after all, means “pizza party.” Order in advance by phone. The pies will be ready within an hour. Pizzata, 240 S. 22nd St., 215-546-7200; pizzatapizzeria.com.
“Oh no!” That was Cary Borish’s initial reaction when he realized Pizzata and its sourdough crusts had opened just two blocks from where he was still building Sally with partners Mike and Lena Parsell. Coincidentally, they’d also been planning for many months to do naturally leavened pizzas — previously a rarity in Philadelphia.
But Borish quickly realized the projects were very different. Yes, the wood-fired oven left there by Mama Palma’s assured pizza would be central to Sally’s menu. But the place named for his grandmother, Sally Stein, is destined to become a more complete restaurant experience than takeout-centric Pizzata, and not strictly Italian, with seasonal small plates from chef Rob Marzinsky ranging from binchotan-grilled carrots to chicken meatballs in Stroganoff cream. A natural wine program overseen by manager D’Onna Stubblefield, who draws from the 80-plus labels in the attached bottle shop is a serious draw.
Tapping the natural wine buzz is partly what Borish hopes makes Sally “meaningful in this moment.” For months prior to opening, meaningfulness also meant Marzinsky could lead a kitchen crew of volunteers to cook thousands of free meals for those in need.
It will be April when Sally’s crew of employees is comfortable enough to tackle sit-down dining outdoors with the public, and fulfill its vision as a chill neighborhood spot dedicated to local ingredients and wild yeast. That’s true in both the low-intervention wines (try the lively cab franc from Bloomer Creek in New York) and the Neapolitan-style crusts made from Pennsylvania flour.
The pizzas, prepaid and served though a takeout window, offer a glimpse of Sally’s potential. That’s in large part due to Anna D’Isidoro, 27, an alum of Kensington Quarters and Bloomsday, whose Italian father was a career pizzaiolo. Her dedication to local sourcing is what makes these pizzas shine.
The supple and heat-blistered Neapolitan doughs don’t have quite the sour swagger of Pizzata’s crispier rounds, but offer instead a present back beat twang to thoughtfully composed toppings, from creamy stracciatella she makes from Lancaster’s Maplehofe dairy, to the fermented pepper jelly that sparks soppressata, and the Chester County funk of Birchrun Hills Farm’s Fat Cat Cheese. Marzinsky makes garlicky sausage to pair with fennel salad; a béchamel for the shaved potato pie with chives.
And just when you think Sally risks becoming too precious, here comes the Pizzazz, a playful wink to South Philly’s quirky contribution to the pizza canon, its trademark American cheese thankfully upgraded with a house sauce that flows between fresh tomato rounds and crunchy banana pepper rings. I’ll definitely look forward to savoring the full Sally experience one day, when dining life returns to some semblance of dining normal. Sally, 2229 Spruce St., 267-773-7178; sallyphl.com