Joe Beddia and Andrew Knowlton at the Free Library on April 24, 2017

Joe Beddia and Andrew Knowlton at the Free Library on April 24, 2017

Danya Henninger

The best pizza in America won’t leave Philly, Joe Beddia promises

The Fishtown shop might close, but its founder told a Free Library crowd he isn’t going anywhere

Joe Beddia and Andrew Knowlton at the Free Library on April 24, 2017

Joe Beddia and Andrew Knowlton at the Free Library on April 24, 2017

Danya Henninger
danya

Pizzeria Beddia fans, take heart. Even if Joe Beddia doesn’t renew the lease on his Fishtown destination next year, as multiple reports have suggested, “there will be pizza in Philadelphia in some form or another that I am associated with,” the pizzaiolo told Bon Appetit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton Monday night.

Beddia’s cookbook, Pizza Camp (2017), was released April 18 by Abrams Books, and he joined Knowlton — who declared Beddia the best pizza in the country back in 2015 — on stage as part of the Free Library’s Author Events series.

“It’s a bit embarrassing and exhausting,” Beddia said of the national fame his pizza has acquired. “I mean, someone says it’s great, and then… But it wasn’t me who said it. I didn’t ever say it was even good!”

He does think the pizza he makes is good, he quickly reaffirmed; he still eats it around once a month. “Plain, I think,” he said in response to a question from a nine-year-old boy in the audience about his favorite type. “Is that a good answer?”

A plain pie at Beddia isn’t exactly mundane — its long-fermented crust is topped with three kinds of cheese and finished with a swirl of olive oil — but the inventor maintains anyone can create a pizza just as good at home if they follow the instructions in his book. A good portion of the five years of research he put in before the shop’s 2013 opening were done in his home kitchen, Beddia said, which is also where many of the book’s glossy photos were shot.

The original inspiration for the style of pies served at Beddia, which he termed “American-Neapolitan,” was a York, Pa., pizzeria run by his uncle (now closed). Chasing that childhood flavor memory took Beddia on a pizza hunt around the world. He cited pies at Savoy in Tokyo, DiFara in Brooklyn and Great Lake in Chicago as contributing to his final result, as well as time tossing dough at Philly’s Zavino and Osteria.

Osteria is where Beddia picked up his nickname — which he uses as a social media handle and also tapped for the title of his cookbook.

During his time on the line at the Vetri restaurant, he’d made inquiries into a possible stage (internship) with Chris Bianco of Arizona’s renowned Pizzeria Bianco, “because I knew he was friends with Marc Vetri.” But apparently another line cook there had already lined up a summer position with Bianco, and felt threatened by the move: “He thought I was infringing on his territory or something.” One day the other cook confronted him in the employee locker room.

“Ok, pack your shit up,” he said to Beddia. “Pizza Camp is over.”

“Pizza Camp” was far from over, of course — but the success of the tiny Fishtown storefront was as much of a surprise to Beddia as anyone, he said. He also told Knowlton that many of the quirks (no phone, just 40 pies a night, no slices) came about not because of some grand plan to stoke interest, but as ways to handle what ended up being a crush of customers from the very first day.

“It was the day after my birthday, March 20, so I was probably a little hung over,” Beddia recalled. “It was very busy all of a sudden and we sold out really fast.” He had bought a telephone but hadn’t had a chance to hook it up to a landline yet. “We were so busy those first few nights that I thought to myself, ‘Who is going to answer the phone?’ So it’s still sitting in the basement.”

Not selling slices was the same deal, he said, acknowledging that although he could probably make more money with a by-the-slice model: “It would have complicated things further.”

“If you had presented that business plan at Drexel,” Knowlton joked, “they probably would have kicked you out.”

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Not everyone is a Pizzeria Beddia acolyte, Knowlton noted, referencing the host of one-star reviews on Yelp. And the same goes for the cookbook. Though Pizza Camp on Amazon currently boasts four stars overall, there are already a handful of bad reviews. Which Knowlton asked Beddia to read aloud.

“Mostly a waste” begins one that continues to claim the tome is “written for folks who don’t know better and are looking for the next eccentric pizza guru to put on a pedestal.” (To which Beddia responded, “I’ll take it.”)

“Use with caution,” exhorts another reader, who was apparently very taken aback by Beddia’s use of curse words in the book. “I am NOT a prude, [but] he has publicly written his thoughts, using an extensive ‘potty mouth’.”

“Lots of filler,” says a third, who did not like the fact that the book sometimes strays from pizzamaking to discuss other things Beddia enjoys, like art and wine and Philly in general.

“The whole thing is a love letter to Philadelphia,” Knowlton told the audience. He recalled a visit where Beddia told him they’d go out for a drink after work at “his favorite bar,” Fishtown Tavern, which he said was right down the block. “So you think you’re just heading across the street, but then it turns into this winding walk around the neighborhood because Joe has to show you his favorite rowhome or some cool statue he saw. That’s how much he loves this city.”

Beddia described Philly as “an honest food town” with “a lot of good food everywhere,” and Knowlton agreed. “Compared to New York, Philly feels real,” the Bon Ap editor said. Could Pizzeria Beddia even exist in any other town?

“In some way,” Beddia answered. “But probably not like this.”