On its bubbly, cheesy surface, pizza is just dough, sauce, toppings. How hard can it be to make, right? But for a small group of passionate pizzaiolos in Seattle, pizza is a twisting, turning rabbit hole that you fall down in constant search of perfection.
“You mess up a lot. You set your oven on fire, just make every mistake in the book and keep learning and move forward,” said Garrett Fitzgerald of the pizza pop-up Dantini.
Dedication like this puts Fitzgerald in a club that I affectionately refer to as Seattle’s Secret Pizza Scene.
So far, 10 intriguing pizza pop-ups have surfaced in the Seattle area — though there will almost certainly be more by the time you read this. These pop-ups run weekly or monthly. Some use sourdough starters and some don’t. They include Neapolitan-style, square Detroit pies with lacy, crispy edges, and those with seasonal toppings from local farmers and dough made with flour milled from local grains.
They mostly rely on Instagram to announce their pop-up schedules, though several also have newsletters and websites. Some have high-tech ordering systems, others just have you text to place your order. Nearly all of them make a few extra doughs for walk-ups the day of the pop-up.
It’s tempting to say that the emergence of these pop-ups is the direct result of COVID-era constraints placed upon restaurants, but it’s more nuanced than that. Some of these pizza chefs hosted their first pop-ups long before we ever heard the word “coronavirus,” while others have only found time to make pizza since the pandemic took hold. Some have been road-testing recipes for years, toiling away at other pizza shops while getting a feel for dough. Two have owned restaurants in other countries. Others are just winging it, messing about with hydration levels just to see what works and somehow still turning out lip-smacking pizza that might be better than the established pizzeria down the road.
But together, they’re refreshing the once-boring Seattle pizza landscape.
“Seattle for so long has not been a pizza city,” says Jordan Koplowitz, who makes crisp, Neapolitan-esque pizza and pops up weekly on Capitol Hill as Blotto.
It’s a sentiment shared by many. Sure, University of Washington students have been in love with Northlake Pizza since the late ’50s and longtime Seattle staple Pagliacci opened on the Ave in 1979. But for a long while, Seattle’s pizza scene consisted mostly of national chains proliferating in what Good Shape’s Chris Lein refers to as “the race to the bottom,” where toppings, sauces and doughs were a sad lineup of sameness.
There have been bright spots in the growth of pizza in Seattle. In the late 2000s, a wave of Neapolitan-style pizzerias opened — Delancey, Pizzeria Pulcinella and Bar del Corso among them — and Seattle’s pizza scene moved beyond (for lack of a better term) basic.
It was a moment in time where Peter Reinhart, baker, James Beard Award-winning author and pizza fanatic (he runs the website/blog/vlog Pizza Quest) thought Seattle was poised to become the next great pizza city.
“There was a type of scene happening, but it wasn’t like what was happening in Portland, which has really become a significant pizza center because it’s [composed of] people who are really creative and went for it,” Reinhart says.
Additionally, Lupo in Fremont, SliceBox in Sodo and Post Alley Pizza downtown were all places that the pop-up owners I spoke to consistently named as spots they love.
Still — things never tipped over for Seattle. A “good” pizza city needs to have two things, says Dave Lichterman, a Chicago native who owns Chicago-style Windy City Pie on Phinney Ridge, and Midwestern pan-style Breezy Town Pizza on Beacon Hill.
First, representation of multiple styles. Chicago, where Lichterman grew up, isn’t a one-note pizza town. Even within the category of deep-dish, “there’s pan, there’s stuffed, there’s Lou Malnati’s,” he says.
Then, there’s the Detroit-style pizza, which Lichterman had for the first time while in Chicago. More like a puffy focaccia, Detroit-style usually uses brick cheese instead of mozzarella, sprinkled all the way to the edges so that when the pie (baked in a deep pan) is finished, it is complete with a crispy ring of cheese.
Point being — instead of boring homogeny, even in Chicago, which is synonymous with deep-dish pizza, “you have all these styles living in harmony,” Lichterman says.
That relates to another factor Reinhart considers important for a “great” pizza city — keeping on top of trends.
“Square pizzas are very hot right now, so if there’s nobody in your city doing it, you feel like the wave is missing your city,” Reinhart says.
The other thing that makes a city stand out in the world of pizza, Lichterman says, is experimentation and the collaborative spirit that nurtures such experimentation.
“There’s the guys at Paulie Gee’s and Professor Pizza [in Chicago] and a lot of different people in the pop-up scene and they’re all good friends. They all talk to each other and bounce ideas; that’s what really makes Chicago the pizza city it is now,” Lichterman says.
It comes down to people’s passion, Reinhart says: “pizza operators who are really committed to making great pizza. … And [at] a certain point, if there’s enough of them, it can tip over” and then spread like wildfire, turning a lukewarm pizza city into a real pizza destination.
From that standpoint, this push-pull of the old guard getting in with the newer pizzaiolos is key, allowing respect for tradition to coexist with a healthy dose of ingenuity. And it can happen in Seattle, too, Lichterman says.
Seattle’s pizza scene has continued to bubble and grow like a sourdough starter. You can now find square Detroit-style pies, Chicago-style deep dish, New Jersey-inspired grandma pies, and plenty of pizzaiolos perfecting their own style, crispy little pepperoni cups and all.
What will it take for Seattle to turn the corner from good to great in its evolution as a pizza city?
“It only takes a few good places … a couple sparks and wind and energy to suddenly get it going and it ignites,” Reinhart says.
Lichterman’s take: “Once people stop ‘talking about their favorite drunk slice as much’ and start chatting about how ‘the chew on the crust was amazing and it didn’t literally fall in my lap.’”
Seattle isn’t quite there yet — Blotto’s Koplowitz suggests this might be because the city has not yet birthed a pizzeria that’s garnered national attention, but also, because local pizza chefs haven’t quite coalesced into the interconnected community you see in some of the great pizza cities, with a sense of camaraderie and an organic exchange of ideas.
“I don’t feel like, right now, pizza in Seattle feels very connected,” Koplowitz says.
The pop-up pizza chefs of Seattle’s Secret Pizza Scene are working on that. Most of the 10 know (or know of) one another and have connected on Instagram or in real life, supporting each other and sharing tips and techniques.
Perhaps that growing interconnectedness will produce the elusive spark that ignites the pizza scene into a bona fide movement with its own distinctive flair.
This much is clear: The quality, creativity and variety of the pies at these 10 pop-ups is proof that Seattle’s pizza scene is on an upward trajectory.