Pizza Brain, set to debut, rethinks the pie

Pizza memorabilia lines the walls of the museum, which holds the record for pizza-related items.
Pizza memorabilia lines the walls of the museum, which holds the record for pizza-related items. (PHOTOS: YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: September 07, 2012

IT'S IMPORTANT for me to begin my column for the Daily News by establishing what I'm not. I'm not a chef. I'm not a culinary school graduate. I'm not an expert. I'm not a connoisseur. And please don't call me a "foodie," that cheese-ball catchall slapped on anyone who expresses even the slightest interest in where their eggs come from.

I'm just very curious and very hungry.

Which is how I first got to know Brian Dwyer, who's on the verge of opening a new kind of pizzeria for Philadelphia.

With his David Lynchian head of reaching-for-outer-space red hair, fondness for fluorescent tank tops and knack for spouting quixotic quotables, it's awfully difficult to avoid focusing on Dwyer, even if you don't want to.

The 28-year-old ginger bon vivant has captured local and national media attention, thanks to his Guinness World Record-holding collection of pizza memorabilia and the Kensington museum/restaurant that will house it. But he wants to deflect attention from his coiffure to the rest of the dough-stretching crew.

"I'm just one facet of this beautiful brain," said Dwyer, referencing Pizza Brain, which he'll open Friday on Frankford Avenue with partners Michael Carter, Joe Hunter and Ryan Anderson.

Chatter around the concept, which first went public in early 2011, has mostly surrounded Dwyer's cache - pepperoni-laden ephemera by the thousands, from LPs to framed photos, T-shirts, toys, you seriously name it. That's left little room for discussion of the place's circular mode of commerce.

"The concept has been so hyped and there has been so much attention that I think people just assume we haven't put any thought into the food," said Dwyer, who's been profiled by Time, NPR, HuffPo and Zagat, all before serving a single slice. "But that's all Joe has been doing. We want the food to outshine the reputation of the museum."

Hunter, the only partner who's worked in a pizza shop, came here from Charleston, S.C., via the progressive Christian faith community Circle of Hope, which counts pretty much all Pizza Brain associates as members. He's been working on the "za" for 18 months with Auston Adams, an avid home baker known for throwing elaborate pizza parties.

In contrast to the fancier, Neapolitan-style product at popular pizzerias like Stella, Zavino and Nomad, Pizza Brain is striving to craft maximized takes on "East Coast, thin crust-style pizza" - basically, the straight-ahead paper-plated slices we all grew up snagging after school as kids.

"This is American pizza - the traditional slice," said Carter, the partner responsible for the finance and real estate aspects of Pizza Brain. "We deliberately chose not to do wood-fired or coal [ovens, going instead with] the traditional gas deck oven. We take that traditional taste and build on it."

That building process, for Hunter and Adams, involved painstaking research and development with the dough, made with high-gluten King Arthur Sir Lancelot flour from Vermont, and the sauce, made with Stanislaus tomatoes from Modesto, Calif., and fresh, never-dried herbs.

Once satisfied with the basics, the pie men tumbled "into some deep rabbit holes" developing flavors and styles. "What are the kinds of foods we like, and why do we like these foods?" Adams said, recalling the duo's square-one starting point. "Then we thought, how can these things be reverse-engineered into pizzas?"

Two examples - a roast beef sandwich and French onion soup - are fully realized options on Pizza Brain's menu of slices ($3) and full pizzas ($14 to $22).

The flavor of the cheese- and crouton-topped classic soup is re-created incredibly accurately on dough using caramelized onions, gruyere, mozzarella and fresh thyme. The sandwich's beefiness resurfaces in ropes of tender slow-and-low brisket, caramelized onions, zippy Maytag blue cheese and horseradish over housemade white sauce.

Even the simplest pies have been carefully curated. Pizza Brain's "classic" will be a quattro formaggi, or four-cheese blend, with sauce and fresh local basil. The pepperoni pie comes scattered with gamy, smoky, quarter-size slices from Jersey-based exotic meat purveyor Fossil Farms.

The odd-sounding menu item names - "Wendy Wedgeworth" is an all-veg option; the aforementioned brisket pie is known as "Bob Shieldsmoose" - were culled from names on the paperwork Dwyer handled in his former career as a data-entry grunt for a wind energy company.

Full pizzas and delivery will begin in the coming weeks. It'll be slices only for Pizza Brain's opening weekend, which kicks off tomorrow at 4:30 p.m. with a ribbon-cutting and a live entertainment-laden block party. This is due to logistics, in part.

Close to 900 people have RSVP'd to the event on Facebook, and it's likely even more will show up. But the strategy will also nod to the inspiration for Pizza Brain - saucy source material that's as nostalgic as it is populist.

"It fits with the whole pizza experience that we're familiar with, that we're all honoring. The American pizza experience," said Dwyer. "We're really just a strange embodiment of the neighborhood slice shop, amplified a thousand times."


Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene for more than six years. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com.

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