The pandemic crisis has been a disaster for most of Philly’s restaurant scene. But there are some worthy projects that never would have launched had the coronavirus not necessitated creative solutions to new realities.
Philly’s best new pizzeria, Manayunk’s Pizza Jawn, is one of those gifts.
Imagine having your livelihood tied-up in both the catering and fitness industries, only to see four weekends worth of booked catering gigs and the health club you own be shut down overnight. That’s exactly the situation David and Ana Lee were facing in mid-March. So they did the counterintuitive and opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Of course, pizzerias are built for takeout, which is exclusively Pizza Jawn’s mission (for now). But the Lees, who began selling pies out of their house before opening their storefront in late July, already had another major advantage: local cult status on Instagram with 22,000 followers chomping for access to their pies.
When the order form for their weekly menu was posted one recent Sunday, 2,000 people crashed their website as they vied for one of the 360 pickup slots between Thursday and Saturday.
“We’ve shifted to one night at a time, posting at 8 p.m. a week in advance,” says David.
I know, I know. Every hot new pizzeria now seemingly requires some inconvenient acrobatics to get a pie. But Pizza Jawn is worth it.
Because Lee is one of the few pizzaiolos who specializes in more than one style, crafting outstanding renditions of three very different kinds of pizza: a char-spotted round of a crispy Neo/NYC thin-crust round pie (get the minimalist Margherita); a hefty Detroit pizza whose tall pan-roasted sides crackle with an edge of caramelized cheese (load it up!); and a chewy, rustic Grandma square distinguished by the fistfuls of sesame that speckle its edges and bottom crust. (The sesame is David’s homage to two New York favorites, Freddy’s Pizzeria and Paulie Gee’s.)
Lee, a veteran Manayunk bartender who runs boot camps at his CrossFit Manayunk/Manayunk Athletics (Ana is a full-time Realtor), fell deep into pizza geekdom as a hobby before emerging with a pop-up business at local breweries. He’s paid meticulous attention to the details that make each style special, with 40-hour fermentation periods to develop complex dough flavors.
The light, crunchy crust of his foldable NYC rounds has an extra Neapolitan puff around its edges for delicacy. The Detroit pies are two inches deep, but somehow still impressively light against crunchy dark edges of roasted cheddar and jack — and are not par-baked, like some, so the toppings become more incorporated into the dough.
Lee’s Grandma style, though, is his work of art, with the seeds adding a breadstick-like crunch around the edges and a nuttiness that lends a dynamic layer of extra flavor. This big 16-inch square pie isn’t as deep as the Detroit, but can still handle substantial toppings. Go for a meaty shingling of good pepperoni drizzled with hot honey.
David’s fitness business has slowly rebooted (“Clean! Squat! Press! Squat! Clean…!” he barked during our phone interview to an outdoor class), and he’d like to expand his pizza hours, too, beyond three days. (On Sundays he opens for meatball sandwiches only.) But aside from Lee’s head gym coach, Drew Schnabel, who also doubles as his trusted weekend pizza oven lieutenant, hiring during the crisis has been a problem, he said.
Even so, that’s a win for the pizza public. “If COVID didn’t happen, we’d still be doing just brewery pop-ups and private events.”
— Craig LaBan