Is a Lithuanian Immigrant Making the Best Pizza in Ohio?
Vytauras Sasnaukas grew up under Soviet occupation, eating ersatz pizzas topped with hard-boiled eggs. Now he's making real-deal Neapolitan pies in Cleveland.
Pizza's origins are pretty much indisputable: Naples, Italy circa 1890. It's a story involving King Umberto I and Queen Margherita, but that's not what this story is about. Despite its specific geographic roots, pizza has managed to become a globally adored staple. You can get inch-thick pies in Chicago—although some would argue this is not actually pizza—crispy individual versions from street vendors in Havana and tikka masala-covered slices in San Francisco.
During the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, you could even get some semblance of pizza in the form of dough topped with cheese and hard-boiled egg. It might have been a far cry from what is widely categorized as "pizza," but it was what madeVytauras Sasnauskas, a.k.a. Chef V, discover his life's calling.
"Food is my passion, but it's not only a passion—it's also a hobby. It's what I do at work, it's what I do a home," says Sasnauskas, the owner of Cleveland's Citizen Pie. "It's not only a passion, it's a lifestyle."
At age 12, after his first ersatz Lithuanian pizza, Sasnauskas decided to become a chef. Shortly before attending culinary school in Lithuania, the country gained its independence, and with it came a wave of new cuisines, from sushi to kebabs. Sasnauskas was able to get his first taste of pizza made by Italians, but he knew there was more, better pizza to be had. In 1996, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, attending culinary school once again. This time, however, he didn't experience the formulaic approach to cooking preached by textbooks in his home country, but rather the classic French techniques and finesse pioneered by Escoffier. He taught himself English by reading cookbooks by American culinary icons, such as Michael Ruhlman's Making of a Chef. He traveled to New York to stage, then met a Lithuanian-American woman back in Cleveland and decided to make Ohio his home. His first pizza shop, however, was still nearly a decade away.
"After I started cooking professionally, on my days off, I was cooking pizza," Sasnauskas explains. "I realized that it's one of the most difficult things to make. When I started to read more and experiment with the different ingredients, I noticed that the most important ingredients are flour, water, and salt. For years and years, I researched flour, water, salt; I started to make sourdough bread from heirloom grains at home. I noticed that it's basically dedication of all your life to research the grain, the best tomatoes, the best olive oil, the best flour; experiment with the hydration, salt, weather, and temperature. It's always changing—it's never perfect."
Sasnauskas' first restaurant, Americano, thrived in Cleveland for seven years. It offered crispy calamari that earned a cult following and housemade charcuterie, as well as early iterations of Sasnauskas' sourdough pizza. On Wednesday nights, he fired off about 60 balls of slow-fermented dough and hauled a mobile oven into the parking lot for pizza happy hours. But the expansive menu of Euro-American fare meant Sasnauskas had to juggle the demands of bringing in fresh produce, sourcing proteins and fish, as well as running the business side of the restaurant. He departed shortly before its closing in 2015, in favor of a project that would allow him to have more control of his menu and focus on his true calling.
Despite his years of practice and studying, Sasnauskas still did not feel ready to open a dedicated pizzeria. So, he traveled to Italy with a backpack and two pairs of pants to eat pizza in its birthplace. "The best pizza in the world is only in Naples. I don't care what people say," he says. "Even Italians, when they travel through Italy, stop in Naples to have pizza, because that's where it was born and that's where they take it very seriously."
He returned to the States with not only a newfound dedication to old-school style, but also a commitment to importing many of his ingredients—such as 00 flour—directly from Italy. Sasnauskas sees no bounds when it comes to sourcing the best flour, olive oil, meats, cheeses, and tomatoes. He's even been known to open cans to make sure there are at least 38 whole tomatoes in each one.
The pizza served in the one-year-old pizzeria is a far cry from the one Sasnauskas first enjoyed in Lithuania. Its textbook bubbly crust is covered in markings that span the char spectrum from golden-brown to nearly burnt-black. Its distinct depth of flavor and subtle sour notes come from the fermentation process and sourdough starter added to the dough—a trick Sasnauskas picked up while working at a bakery. There is no specific recipe, but rather a method and careful monitoring of temperature and moisture level of the restaurant to ensure a perfectly fluffy and chewy crust every time.
His pies may mirror the pizza he enjoyed in Naples, but that doesn't mean Sasnauskas has forgotten his roots. The restaurant's name, raised fist logo, and images of famous revolutionaries—from Robin Hood to Martin Luther King Jr.—on the walls of the tiny pizzeria pay tribute to his humble beginnings. "I grew up in the Soviet government and my wife likes the revolutionary graphics," he explains "So that's where we came up with 'Pizza for the People' and how Citizen Pie was born."
In a way, the aesthetic also represents Sasnauskas' pizza philosophy. While there is no fucking with Citizen Pie's crust, there are no rules when it comes to what goes on top of it. Divided between red and white pies as well as two calzones, the pizzas pay tribute to Sasnauskas' travels (Roman) as well as his former restaurant (Americano) and new hometown (Collinwood), and each is cooked for 60 to 90 seconds in the 900-degree oven made with Italian brick.
Like it says on Citizen Pie's menu, "Every pizza is a personal one if you try hard and believe in yourself."