Takeout during the pandemic was a double-edged sword. While some foods are made to take to-go, others suffered in transit. Cold noodle dishes like naengmyeon were a tough sell. Korean barbecue became an impossibility. Fries got cold. Pasta lost its freshness (Italian restaurants should send you home with a little pasta water to reheat tagliatelle, and no I’m not joking).
But people also began to sell things like sandwiches and baked goods out of their homes, and they were good. If anything, home cooks and pros alike were reminded that if you make something well enough, you can skip the hoops of sinking your life’s fortune into owning a restaurant or using a problematic delivery service to reach customers.
While pizza may be the quintessential takeout food, the sell-from-home model presents plenty of challenges. Churning out restaurant-quality pizza at home is a near impossibility. Having an oven shipped from Italy can cost a bundle. You need space to work the dough. You need an adequate vent hood system. Not only that, ovens for pizza work hot. Like, over 600 degrees hot. Your apartment would turn into a sweat lodge in July.
Somehow, Secret Pizza L.A. figured it out. Since last September, this anonymous pizza savant has been churning out delicious, East Coast-style pies from his apartment and selling through Instagram. The reactions to it have been exuberant. New York/New Jersey transplants and Angelenos alike are finding joy in the simple, delicious pies, which gained a following simply by virtue of their quality. The man behind it is just that, one man—a determined, easy-going, self-taught pizza slinger who is changing a lot of people’s minds about the quality of pizza in L.A.
We recently sat down to chat about his process, the challenges of his apartment kitchen, and whether or not the guff L.A. gets for its pizza is justified.
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So, keep it anonymous?
Yeah, I think that’s probably for the best. I’m in the stage right now of trying to get this thing out of the apartment. But while it’s here, for building management purposes, yeah, I think that’s best.
How many orders are you doing a week?
Right now, I do right about 50. I’ve been selling them three nights a week, and 16 pies each night.
And this is all out of your apartment oven?
Just the most basic oven. I used to do this in my old place in Jersey. And my oven there was much better. [Here] it doesn’t get quite as hot. And it doesn’t have a broiler. It does, but it’s in the drawer.
Oh, right. Every broiler here is on the ground. I can’t stand it. You have to crawl on the floor like a toddler just to brown the cheese on a chicken parm.
[Laughs] It’s never getting used.
So how hot does your oven get?
The top temp that it reads on the display is 500. I’ve learned on the internet that you can calibrate it to get it hotter. You can boost it like another 30 degrees.
Wait, what? How do you do that?
It depends on each oven, but if you hold down the bake button for like, 10 or 15 seconds, then it just brings up this little display and you can toggle it up and down to make it a little cooler or hotter.
Wow, that’s a pretty good oven hack.
Come here for your oven hacks. I mean there are things that people do that are a little more destructive to get their ovens hotter [laughs]. But, no landlord is ever going to have a problem with increasing your oven 30 degrees.
And you did pizza out of your apartment in Jersey?
I never did it like this, no. Like, three or four times a year I would have some friends over and make a bunch of pizzas. It was just a little hobby.
You were never a line cook? You never worked in pizzerias?
And so this just came from…
…from loving pizza. I would try to make pizza and it would suck. And at one point I was like, “If I could make my own dough, I bet it would suck less.” [laughs] And then just trying to learn how to make dough led me down this rabbit hole where I was like, “Now, I have to buy this thing, and that thing.”
You just started accumulating pizza equipment.
Yes. And just starting to become aware of like, “Oh, if I start using the things they use, then it comes out pretty similar.” So I just started shopping at restaurant supply stores in Jersey. Making it there for fun. And then when I came out here, it was more of a nostalgia fix. I need access to pizza because I care.
Right. Because you grew up with good pizza in Jersey. And you find good pizza in L.A., but, the type of stuff you grew up eating, you see less here, correct?
Yeah, that’s the thing. When I moved here I immediately started seeking out places that could do that style. And I found a couple where I said, “This is good. I like it!” But when COVID hit, I got a big bag of flour just delivered to the house, because I accepted, “Well, this is what we’re doing now.” I have an immune-compromised situation, and so I was being really isolated. So I started making pizzas and giving them out to friends. You know Burgers Never Say Die?
I was familiar with their story, like they started in a backyard in Silver Lake. And I was like, “Oh, wow, I guess if people sell burgers out of their backyard…” And by the time I started to do it, I found out that there were people doing pizza out of their apartment for months [laughs]. I guess I’m just joining the party.
What is it that people connect with in your pizza? Because they do connect with it.
Yeah, that’s the thing that’s kind of kept me going. They go, “This tastes like home.” And I go, “Great! That’s what I think!”
And that taste, this pizza. Would you describe it as a New York slice?
That’s the best name to call it in order to communicate to most people what you’re talking about. And I’m fine with that terminology because that’s what I call it. But, I feel like “Northeast” is a better term. Because people will be in my DMs like, “Hey, I’m from Connecticut…or Pennsylvania…or Jersey.” And it tastes like home to all of them. You get more than just New Yorkers who appreciate it. I say it’s East Coast-style pizza. It’s a big pizza. I mean, you see a lot of 20-inch pies where I grew up. So, I try to do 18. You know, a really big slice. And then from there just a simple sauce. Some of these places try too hard with sauce. It’ll taste like a lot of garlic, which, garlic is good, but you don’t really see people put it in their sauce too much back East. It’s just a nice, simple tomato flavor.
And the cheese?
Obviously mozzarella, but, what I have found is that good Pecorino Romano creates that taste everyone is looking for. It’s the secret ingredient that makes you go, “Damn, what is that?” And then it’s already gone by the time you realize it. Either it’s blended with the mozzarella or a good amount goes in after you spread the red sauce, yeah. They all do it. I believe in getting a good Pecorino. The stuff from the supermarket just doesn’t taste the same.
Any pizza toppings you refuse to do?
That’s a good question. The problem is, I’m a pretty picky eater [laughs]. I’ve put olives on pizza because [people have] asked for it. I wish I could appease the New York slice purists and say, “I’ll never put pineapple on pizza,” but who knows? I might if people want it.
You will if you get a pineapple and ham sponsorship.
[laughs] Right, if Dole calls.
When Dole calls, you answer!
Who knows. I might do it. Again, I’m constantly thinking about, “Should I serve what I like? Because that’s just three things.” [laughs] Or should I open up more. We’ll see.
What are some of your favorite pizza spots in L.A.?
As far as that New York-style goes, I really like Mulberry Street. They’ve got a couple locations in West Hollywood. And Pizza Wagon in Sherman Oaks.
And how do you feel about L.A. pizza?
Growing up you hear, “Oh, the pizza in Los Angeles isn’t good.” But, I don’t know, it’s pretty good. It’s its own thing, but out here, I always say that it’s not the star of the show. It’s just not. This happens all the time: I’ll pass pizza places, and I’ll google them to check out their Yelp page. And when I do the first thing that comes up, almost always, are pictures of things that aren’t pizza. [laughs] Salads, sandwiches. People just don’t seek it out as much.
Right. When it’s 95 degrees outside you’re not like, “I should drive to West Hollywood and get a slice of pizza.”
Exactly. New York is a walking town.
And you’re exclusively self-taught, yeah?
Yes, I mean I pretty much learned on YouTube. There’s this video on YouTube of Michele Tomo [from Pizza Town, USA] stretching dough and making pizza. I must have watched it a thousand times.
The way you take orders, it’s smart, because you stagger them well. You open up slots, and people choose a slot. It’s not like you’re working a busy restaurant and tickets are coming in fast. It’s spread out well. I imagine you have to do that because of the size of your oven?
Exactly, yes. If I overcrowd the oven, the pizzas can get a little soft. Every time you open the oven door you lose heat. So, it’s important to keep it super hot. I’m obviously working with limitations.
Any plans for the future?
I’m going to take a little bit of time off in July. But I’ll be back, and who knows, maybe I’ll be back even bigger and better.
Secret Pizza L.A. is on a well deserved hiatus for July, but will be back bigger and better.
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