I love pizza — who doesn’t? So I don’t know why it took me so long to get to The Independent Pizzeria in Madison Park.
I had heard about owner Tom Siegel, a largely self-taught pizzaiolo, who switched from a career selling wine to open this tiny pizzeria nearly four years ago. Driven by persistent scuttlebutt that Tom makes the best pizza in Seattle, I recently made the pilgrimage to the foot of East Madison Street, climbed onto one of three stools at a wee counter that affords a view of the kitchen as well as Lake Washington, only to discover that Tom no longer makes the best pizza in town. Joe does.
Joe Heffernan has been Siegel’s apprentice since 2012. As Heffernan tells it, Siegel moved to Baltimore in July with his partner, who won a scholarship to the Maryland Institute College of Art. (The couple’s long-term plan involves opening a pizzeria in Japan, but that’s another story.) Meanwhile, Siegel retains ownership of The Independent, but left the running of it in Heffernan’s very capable, floury hands.
The puppy-eyed, 26-year-old Heffernan is as relaxed as his astonishingly elastic dough. He chats easily with customers while he stretches it into pies about the size of the dinner plates they are served on, sliced into six wedges.
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Most combinations start with a layer of tomato passata, a strained purée that underpins the cheeses and various high-quality toppings. But it’s the crust that sets this pizza apart from the competition. It’s thin, but not floppy-thin, crisp but not cracker-crisp. It has a faint crackle when you bite, but a breadlike pull. The gas-fueled oven gets hot enough to gently char the bottom and blister the edges.
On one pie, Zoe’s pepperoni curled into brittle cups on a thin blanket of mozzarella. On another, fennel-flecked Fra’Mani sausage embellished bitter greens that wilted into a melt of provolone. Whole basil leaves and creamy pools of fior de latte (whole milk mozzarella) dotted the “Queen” (i.e., the basic Margherita).
“The Farmer” is a rich, salty merger of mozzarella, ham (speck from the Italian region of Alto Adige), eggs (whites cooked through, yolks rich and runny) and a final flourish of grana padano cheese.
Joe makes each pie himself. They cook in just a few minutes, but if you order several, they may come to the table in staggered fashion.
“If we’re busy you are not going to get in and out in half an hour,” Heffernan told me in a phone interview. “That’s an issue for some.” He suggests folks call and inquire about the wait, or come off-peak.
While you wait, you might share a salad or a plate of salumi. The Caesar dressing has a just-right anchovy punch. “The Indie” surrounds olive oil-dressed arugula with slices of Roma tomato and whole milk mozzarella, sweet La Quercia prosciutto and a marinated artichoke heart.
Check the chalkboard for drinks, special pizzas (recently it was cremini mushrooms, La Quercia prosciutto and fontina finished lightly with truffle oil) and the dessert du jour, which might be a superb panna cotta crowned with a layer of root beer gelée.
Drinks include local brews and Crater Lake root beer on tap. The inexpensive, constantly rotating roster of wines is chosen with an eye toward value. None of them is in the same league as several empty white burgundy bottles I spied perched high on a ledge.
“We bring in the best wines we can but we’re a pizzeria; they aren’t likely to be French Burgundies,” Heffernan explained. “We have some serious wine drinkers among our regulars, though. Sometimes they bring their own wine and we get a taste. If we really like it, the empty bottle goes on the ledge. The corkage fee ($20) has been known to be waived in those cases where we get to try a fine white Burgundy.”
The Independent seats about two dozen and it isn’t fancy. The furnishings look secondhand, but foraged by someone with an eye for interesting detail. The friendly staff keeps tables turning without making diners feel too rushed. I could have sat for hours, inhaling the cheesy aromas and eavesdropping on the lively banter of families all around us, but others were waiting. As we relinquished our table, I heard one of them say, “How is it we’ve never been here before?”
My thought exactly.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org