If something delicious is to come from this pandemic, it will be pizza.
Since the masks went on, the city has seen the debuts of Pizza Jawn in Manayunk, eeva in Kensington, Pizza Plus in South Philly, Bourbon & Branch in Northern Liberties, and Pizzata Pizzeria and Pizza in Style in Center City, plus Benny Casanova’s, a delivery-only shop out of West Philadelphia, and Kurt Evans’ forthcoming Down North Pizza in North Philadelphia.
But the buzziest pizza operation in town right now might be Good Pizza, a passion project run by Ben Berman, 27, who grew up in Portland, Maine, and transplanted to Philadelphia a year and a half ago to attend grad school at Wharton. He bakes 20 New York-style pies one after the other in his Center City apartment’s electric oven.
And he gives them away.
All you have to do is donate money, which he sends to his favorite causes. His last bake of 20 pies — baked two at a time, every 15 minutes — netted $1,500, split between Philabundance and Project HOME.
It’s a pick-up-only arrangement. When the pizza is boxed up and ready — and this is where the coronavirus angle comes in — Berman or his girlfriend, Jimena Sanchez, adds a cheery note to the box and places it into a basket attached to a rope, lowering it to the patron on the street below. There’s no fixed schedule for the drops, for which you sign up by following @goodpizzaphl on Instagram and joining a lottery.
Berman was practically begging his friends to take pizzas until Nov. 20, when media mogul Dave Portnoy from Barstool Sports, the popular sports-entertainment brand, posted a segment about Good Pizza for his popular One Bite Pizza Reviews.
Portnoy has been sampling voraciously at pizza shops throughout the region since moving to Philadelphia over the summer after signing a nine-figure deal with locally based Penn National Sportsbook, which owns 36% of Barstool.
After the Barstool video hit, Berman’s Instagram following skyrocketed (10,000 in 24 hours) and his sign-up sheet blew up — 900 people clamored for the 20 spots Monday night, even though Portnoy had given Good Pizza a respectable but not outstanding 7.9 rating. Portnoy saved his drooling in the segment for a cinnamon-brown sugar doughnut obtained from Federal Donuts across the street.
But more important, Portnoy has put his money where his mouth is. He offered to match donations to Good Pizza. In October, Portnoy persuaded Penn National to pony up to close the gap in a $250,000 GoFundMe campaign for cash-strapped Reading Terminal Market.
All told, including Barstool’s direct donations of $7,200 to the nonprofits, the Good Pizza campaign has raised $15,000, Berman said.
Berman has been baking twice a month as his schedule allows. The dough requires a three-day fermentation — one day at room temperature, followed by two days in the refrigerator. He buys ingredients from Di Bruno Bros. two blocks away. He’s been offering cheese pizza, mostly.
Have you done anything in the food world before this?
I actually started a food truck up there while I was in college [Tufts University] with a really good buddy, called Mainly Burgers. They still run the food trucks, and they have a shop in Boston. He’s an amazing friend, and I love their business and love supporting them and being a fan of what they do, but after I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to do something else, and I had a lot to learn. So I went into consulting for a few years and sort of took a traditional MBA track. And so I’m here doing all of that. But I’ve always been just interested in food and cooking.
Is this an MBA project?
No, this is just something that I enjoy doing. Honestly, I really like to cook. I really like to make people happy through my cooking. And I found a way to be able to give away some money. In my mind, I can either give away $100 to a nonprofit that I care about, or I can spend $100 on pizza ingredients and give it away and [through donations] give away $500. And that was the original thinking of it. And now it’s been even bigger than that.
Tell us about your relationship with pizza.
My mom [Kerri] is an amazing cook. She always cared a lot about making people happy with food and getting us around the table. It’s always has been something that’s been important to me. I’ve been working on my pizza for about a year, year and a half, basically since I got to school. ... When I started, I made a lot of pizza because I was just making people happy to come pick it up.
The pulley system?
Honestly, that was just to lower [the pizzas] to friends at the beginning of the pandemic, when we didn’t know if it was safe to see each other at all. Could you even do this handoff [in person]? Everyone started posting on Instagram, and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe there’s something here. This is actually cool.’ So that’s just slowly sort of grown over the last few months, and I’ve been doing it semi-regularly, about once or twice a month. I had a hundred Instagram followers and some friends, and I’d text them and we do a ‘pizza drop,’ and I’d raise a few hundred dollars. I probably raised about $2,000 total over the last few months.
How long will you keep this going?
I think this will be part of my life for a while. And who knows the scale at which that happens? But I want to keep doing this even if it’s twice a month, just pizza for friends, and we make a small donation as part of it. I want that to be a part of my life. I think it’s been a lot of fun for me. I found that the platform makes sense to people. People seem excited about this idea of giving away something in exchange for donations. And so there’s a part of me that thinks, how cool would it be to have Good Pizza in cities all over the world or good lemonade stands? Where people could who maybe don’t have money to give away to causes that we think are good can give in other ways, and people can support them in doing that? I think there are lots of ways that it could get bigger.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Oh, I wish I had an answer for you there. I have two interests right now. I do a lot of work in health care, and I’m in the health-care management program. What I think about is how to transform health care to patients. My consulting work is focused on rare genetic diseases in the life-sciences space and helping patients get access to those therapies. I think that’s a big part of what I want to do for a few years and one day, retire and open up a little pizza store. We’ll see how that goes. I could have friends over, at the very least.