The Secret Sauce of Philly's Pizza King Joe Beddia

The real magic of pizza—any pizza—is that it will always be greater than the sum of its parts

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Apr 21 2017, 8:44pm

It's lunchtime on a Tuesday in April and Joe Beddia is about to show me how to make pizza. Out of the subway, walking through Philly's Fishtown neighborhood, I pass by his unassuming 300-square-foot restaurant and hang a left on Shackamaxon Street.

Shackamaxon, I'm told, is an early Lenni Lenape name for the area. It's on this street where you'll often find a line of resolute customers willing to trade $20 and the majority of their afternoon for one of Pizzeria Beddia's whole pies.

Joe, who opened up shop four years ago, prepares enough dough each day for only 40 pizzas and makes few concessions toward customer convenience: there's no phone, it's cash only, you can't buy a slice. A selection of toppings is available, and they're just expensive enough to force some careful consideration. He'll often sell out 15 minutes after unlocking the door, so people come early and wait.

Joe's shrine to 'Pizza Camp' at Pizzeria Beddia. All photos by the author.

Pizzeria Beddia was originally buoyed by word of mouth and the natural intrigue of a brick-and-mortar destination with such a limited menu. "It wasn't always this busy, but we'd often go through all the dough [by the end of the night]," Joe says. When he received some national press recognizing his pizza as the best in America, his already steady flow of customers turned into a queue down the street.

But the shop is closed today, and it's mostly quiet now. Joe's spiritual presence lingers in a shrine he's built to honor his new cookbook, Pizza Camp. In the pizzeria's front window, the book is flanked by maneki-neko (those Japanese lucky cats), action figures, and his signature Phillies mesh-back hat. Since it's his day off, we're meeting up at his house a few blocks away.

Sorry, friends.

Fishtown, once a hub for the Delaware River's prolific shad fishery through the 19th and early 20th centuries, has long held a blue-collar reputation. More recently, however, the area has become an increasingly unaffordable destination for Philadelphia's middle-class professional set.

While Joe settled in the neighborhood 15 years ago, beating the crush of suburban transplants by nearly a decade, his pizzeria opened in time to welcome them. Beddia's shop has flourished while feeding a demographic willing to spend a little more, and wait a little longer, for something that feels premium, local, and hand-made but not stuffy or exclusive. Waiting outside for dinner, customers will peer into the shop's back window to catch a glimpse of Joe's practiced movements as he builds each pie to order.

"Bring wine" is the unwritten rule when visiting Beddia's house. And he appreciates the good stuff: natural and biodynamic bottles from Old World producers. It's one of the few instances where I've found him willing to suspend his strong preference for local production. A former brewer (Joe spent time working at Japan's Hitachino, among other well-regarded domestic breweries), he switched from beer to wine as his obsession with sauce and dough grew: "Natural wine just goes better with pizza."

I ring his doorbell with bottle in hand.

Joe gazes into his oven at home.

Now 40, Joe is affable, with dark features that confirm his Sicilian heritage. He invites me into his narrow row home and wastes no time finding a corkscrew as we exchange hellos. Here, we learn the first step to making pizza is to pour some wine into glasses. The second, he explains, is to preheat your oven:

"I can make pizza at home that's better than what I make in the shop."

Joe picks up the incredulous look I'm shooting him.

"No, really. It's not hard. You use a pizza stone and turn your oven up as high as it can go. Mine goes to 550 [degrees Fahrenheit], and most ovens will go to at least 500 [degrees]. What's important is that you let the stone preheat for at least an hour. The advantage at home is that you can finish your pizza under the broiler."

His assurance seems reasonable: At Pizzeria Beddia, he bakes his pies in a brick-lined gas oven at 600 degrees—considerably cooler than the wood-fired, Neapolitan method favored by many pizzaiolos of his ilk. "Early in my pizza quest I was obsessed with traditional, wood-fired pizzas. Using 00 flour, baking at 1,000 [degrees], making sauce with only San Marzano tomatoes … but I slowly realized that all of my pizza heroes didn't really follow any strict codes. They created their own paths.

Rainbow chard 'za at Pizzeria Beddia.

"I feel like I came to pizza by being observant. By being a genuine fan. By seeing, tasting, and feeling. It was a culmination of life and pizza experiences. That's how I arrived at Pizzeria Beddia. All the pizzas that inspired me brought me right here: the Arizona olive oil that Chris Bianco finishes his pies with, Dom DeMarco's use of both fresh and aged mozzarellas, and the simplicity of Anthony Mangieri's Neapolitan pies."

As the temperature climbs, Joe pulls a ball of dough from the fridge. It's been fermenting for 24 hours and needs to warm before it will reliably stretch into a thin disc. "Press the dough with your finger and it will come back slowly. It should feel supple, like a butt cheek." I measure my personal suppleness and compare it with the dough's: definitely not ready yet.

So with time to kill and wine to drink, we take our seats by the hearth. Unlike normal people, Joe does not have a kitchen table. Instead, he has two beautiful mid-century lounge chairs arranged side-by-side and positioned an arm's length away from his oven. Joe, a tall guy at six-foot-three, can easily adjust the knobs from his seat. We gaze into the oven's viewport and admire the electric-orange glow.

I think this is hilarious. Joe, however, doesn't find it strange that we're enjoying his oven-cum-fireplace from such a comfortable position. "I kinda embrace the idea that the kitchen is the heart of the home. And, anyway, where else would I put the chairs?"

Joe's cookbooks, with thought-poem.

Joe has this imaginative, play-it-as-it-lays style that strikes me as more artist than chef. In his kitchen, cookbooks are stacked high in an arrangement that's more sculpture than library. Pizza-themed curios and framed artworks (several by the musician Daniel Johnston) are scattered throughout his space and supplemented with his own doodles and thought-poems. The best of these personal efforts, often featuring his jocular bubble-letter hand (see the Pizza Camp cover, which Beddia designed), are drawn in Sharpie directly on the walls. If there are rules, Joe's prepared to break them; if any wine was involved, I didn't ask.

Considering his perfectionist approach to pizza and the annoyances baked into ordering at his shop, it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine Beddia with a brusque vibe similar to those found in Philly's neon cheesesteak windows. But at his shop—if you make it to the counter, anyway—you're welcomed warmly. And Joe feels regret when he can't serve everyone. As I was taking photos for this article inside of Pizzeria Beddia, a young girl, held by her father, looked on through the back window I mentioned earlier. Unprompted, Joe turned to me: "It's really tough when kids don't get a pizza."

Joe does, however, insulate himself from the pain of breaking bad news to customers when they've missed their chance for a pie. That task falls to John Walker, 30, who has worked with Joe since the early days, running the register and expediting orders while managing an inflow of hungry stomachs through the door. He delivers his message with the sympathy necessary to encourage a would-be customer to try again next time. If you're ever in Fishtown and need a place to eat, John would have good recommendations.

Beddia's formula is special.

Still admiring the glow of Joe's oven, we start talking about his time at the Hitachino Brewery and how he's long admired Japanese attitudes toward precision and focus in cooking. In Pizza Camp, Joe writes, "I never could have predicted how much I would walk away with after those months in Japan."

Inspired by watching sole proprietors hold it down behind miniature storefronts, and one unforgettable pizza experience at Tokyo's lauded Savoy—"best pizza of my life … it was like sorcery"—he knew he wanted a small shop of his own where he could dictate the rules and dedicate himself to craft.

With our pizza stone hot, Joe rises from his chair and begins assembling today's pie just as he's done 30,000 times before. For all the acclaim, Joe's recipe is remarkably straightforward and, as I'll later realize, deceptively simple. His sauce, for instance, is just three ingredients: crushed New Jersey tomatoes, pressed garlic (yes, from that hand-held gadget), and salt. The acid from the tomato works to break down the garlic, but the sauce is raw when he paints it on the dough. Complexity increases ever so slightly with the addition of two specific varieties of mozzarella: one fresh, as hunks, and one aged, coarsely shredded. And that's it. The "almost pizza" (his words) then cooks for 10 minutes.

The pizza bubbles away.

Joe's signature move, which I witness immediately after the pie is pulled from the oven, is a generous finish of finely grated aged gouda. Gouda, on pizza?

Beddia stumbled upon the cheese ("Old Gold" on his letterboard menu) in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market. Like most of Joe's ingredients, it's produced nearby–in this case, his source is Hidden Hills Dairy in Everett, Pennsylvania. While the specific character of the cheese melts away atop the hot pie, when combined with a drizzle of olive oil and some heady Sicilian oregano, it amplifies the pizza's umami aspect exponentially.

Joe's pizza takes you way beyond the simple pleasures of taste and texture.

And the final result?

It's the physical manifestation of your best pizza memory. This is how slices tasted when you were a kid, back when a sauce stain on your shirt was your parent's problem to deal with.

It's thick with cheese, but structurally sound, and crisp-but-chewy from tip to tail. It's far more savory than you might expect, with oregano playing an earthy bass line for the tomato and cheese to harmonize above. Joe's pizza really is remarkably good, but it takes you way beyond the simple pleasures of taste and texture.

Each slice is a trigger, and childhood memories come flooding back: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reruns, birthday parties at the skating rink, that impossible Yo! Noid Nintendo game. This isn't heat lamp pizza, but it is exactly as satisfying to my 30-year-old self, today, as heat lamp pizza was to seven-year-old me back then. It's a wonderful reminder that so many of life's best moments have been celebrated with pie.

Dinnertime in Philadelphia.

The real magic of pizza—any pizza—is that it will always be greater than the sum of its parts: a simple dough, tomato, and cheese forged into everyone's favorite food. But there's an incredible distance between favorite food and favorite food memory. When I ask about the secret ingredients he must've forgotten to mention, Joe says simply: "Pizza is practice."