The King of the Pizza Nerds Is Opening His Own Restaurant
The great pizza nerds of the Internet know things you do not, like the correct way to take a pizza upskirt, or undercarriage. (That’s a photo of the crusty bottom of a slice, which can reveal more about the pie than the Instagram-friendly top.) They know this and more. And among them, few names command more respect than Adam Kuban.
Kuban, 41, earned this respect over a decade of tireless reporting on the pizza beat. He was one of the early single-subject food bloggers, a category he helped to define with Slice. In its salad days, back in 2003, Slice was one of those extraordinary, delightful nooks of the Internet that you could tell was fueled by a pure, all-consuming love-borderline-obsession for its subject. Then, after amassing years of pizza knowledge, Kuban quit blogging and started making pizzas in real life.
On a recent Saturday morning, when all the magnolias were in bloom, I met up with Kuban at a pizzeria called Emily in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood. Since last summer, he’s thrown a pop-up there called Margot’s, taking over the wood-fired oven in the back of Emily and Matt Hyland’s kitchen to sell his pizzas to a full house. Kuban’s menu is a shortlist of seven bar-style pies, all thin and crisp and generously topped, like the Margot-rita—a tomato-and-cheese that Kuban snips basil leaves over with a pair of scissors—and the more flashy Love Supreme, piled with sausage, diced green peppers, and very fine slices of red onion.
This week, Kuban told me, he’d sold out of tickets to the pop-up within 60 seconds of sending out an e-mail. When Kuban explains things like this, he manages to be completely un-braggy about it. If you find this hard to believe, keep in mind that he often signs off his e-mails and comments with a cheery “hasta la pizza!” And any time he feels like he's talking for too long, he'll interrupt himself with a self-effacing “blah blah blah.”
By the time I arrived, Kuban was rolling out dough on the counter, in the dark. He had on a white baseball cap with the beak flipped right up and a loose apron tied over his striped pink T-shirt. There were more than a few days of stubble on his cheeks, and his rubber clogs were caked with flour.
“Please stop me if I’m mansplaining,” he said, rolling a wide pin over each puff of dough until it was smooth and flat. I’d asked him about his dough, and he was breaking down the hydration level, or percentage of water, in his current recipe. It’s about 55 percent for these bar pies, which means they get crisper than, say, Neapolitan pizzas, which are closer to 65 percent.
Kuban had also made a few extra dough balls with organic khorasan wheat, from Montana, just for fun, and was excited to try out a new brand of canned tomatoes called Bianco DiNapoli. The tomatoes are fetishized as much as canned tomatoes can be: grown organically in California and co-branded with the superstar pizzaiolo Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. The minutiae of raw ingredients matter when you get down to the nitty-gritty of pizza—a lump of dough and toppings—and a subtle change in one element, like the tomato brand, can drastically change the overall effect of the pie.
Now, here are the particulars of Kuban’s pies: They are perfectly round and saturated with color like a particularly sweet memory, or a cartoon. Their structure, in profile, is lifting slightly away from the pan as if encouraging you to go ahead, pick us up. They are thin and crisp, but pliable enough to fold a little when hot. You’ll notice some extra weight along the perimeter where Kuban, who builds each pizza himself, has tapped the dough into the edge of the pan with his fingertips, then sprinkled over some extra cheese. This fuses in the hot oven, developing into a deep golden lace of caramelized cheese and pizza crust that mimics the best bits on a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s totally delicious.
“The edge!” Kuban says happily, when I ask him about that cheesy ring, whose presence is even stronger, more gloriously brown and crisp, on the pies that come out in the second half of the lunch shift, when the team has hit a groove. “I actually don’t like to talk about it too much,” he says, “because I like people to just find their own way to the crispy cheese edge.” The crispy cheese edge is a journey, not a destination.
Adam Kuban grew up on the Kansas side of Kansas City. His father was obsessed with pizza, tinkering with sauce recipes on family pizza nights, for which Kuban helped press and roll the homemade dough as a kid. In the early 1980s, Kuban’s father realized his dream and opened his own pizzeria in Kansas. He called it Mamma Mia’s and it lasted a year and a half. “It all went downhill after a Pizza Hut opened across the street,” Kuban says. After that, the family turned to the Chef Boyardee pizza kits with just-add-water dough, canned sauce, and powdered Parmesan cheese, doctoring it up minimally. “We just went into sweatpants mode after the pizzeria closed,” Kuban explains. “But I still love that kit pizza.”
Kuban’s no snob, and this has always been part of his work’s charm. He launched Slice on Movable Type in his free time with the intention of making it a “pizza culture zine.” But Kuban had gone to journalism school, too. “I knew I’d have to back it up, that I had a responsibility as a writer,” he says.
So Kuban covered pizza in all its facets, from the latest wood-fired oven opening, to the best in frozen pizza (FYI, according to Kuban that title belongs to both Totino's and Jeno's, two brands owned by General Mills), to weird pizza moments in pop culture. He quickly developed a readership including restaurant cooks, journalists, and non-industry, hard-core obsessives he got to know in the comments. (Kuban sold Slice, along with his burger blog, A Hamburger Today, to Serious Eats in 2006 and joined the staff as an editor.)
The Hylands were longtime readers of Slice before they hosted Kuban’s pop-up at their restaurant. And the first time they sent Kuban an e-mail, they were nervous. “We were giddy like a couple of schoolgirls, wondering if he was even going to write us back. Adam?! Kuban?!” Emily Hyland exaggerates the fangirl bit, but only a little.
New York-style pizzas, with their pale, chewy crusts and cafeteria-style presentations, are the heart and soul of the city’s slice shops. Squares of thick, bready grandma-style or Sicilian-style pizzas are instantly familiar. There are blistered New York-style Neapolitan pizzas puffing away in wood-fired ovens across the city every night. But the bar-style pizza, or bar pie, hasn’t been celebrated with as much enthusiasm. Certainly there is no certificate of authenticity to be doled out for it.
This may have to do with the fact that the bar pie evolved quietly in dingy dive bars, and in the gas ovens of modest restaurant kitchens. Also, it’s called the bar pie. Kuban explains it with a shrug: The bar pie should be thin and crisp, large enough to share, but small enough to polish off on your own if you’d like. And yes, yes, yes, you’d definitely like.
I land two hot slices of Kuban’s pizza when an order catches in the oven, tearing a hole through the middle. Matt Hyland shouts cheerfully from the back, “Refire a Margot,” and a minute later he’s deposited the messed-up pizza onto the wooden table in the kitchen where the team keeps their laptops and backpacks. It’s not OK to sell a misfire, a pizza that’s damaged goods for one reason or another, but it’s certainly OK to eat it. Better than OK. The slice is very thin, but not delicate, carrying as much cheese and barely sweet, slightly herby tomato sauce as it can reasonably hold. The flavors are bright but melded together, soft around the edges, harmonious. And the deeply satisfying crunch of the crust, complicated at the edge where the cheese has laced, is gorgeous.
A few bites in, and I understand why Kuban is joining the ranks of Internet food writers to make a go of cooking IRL (Lisa Fain, who has written the blog Homesick Texan since 2005, recently opened a Texan restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen; Pim Techamuanvivit of Chez Pim opened Kin Khao, a Thai restaurant in San Francisco, a couple of years ago; and Molly Wizenberg, also known as Orangette, continues to write but also co-owns two restaurants in Seattle). Kuban, who is looking for a full-time space of his own, is not far behind. He’s a great cook, with heart and skill in equal measure, and it's easy to see why his pizzas are already drawing regulars.
“We used to ask people this question back at Serious Eats,” Kuban tells me, as he rains toppings down on one of the last orders of the day. “When you go home, where do you eat?” I think about it. “Don’t think about it! Just the first place that pops into your mind.”
For Kuban, that place is Maria’s, a pizza joint he has visited since he was a boy of 8 or 9, driving through Milwaukee with his father. His father, when he was a young man, still dreaming about opening his own pizza place one day, also ate at Maria's.
Maria’s is not fancy. It’s a restaurant with character, run by the same family since 1957, decorated with religious art and tinsel, Christmas lights and red-checkered plastic tablecloths. The pizzas are gigantic wonky oblongs with thin, flaky crusts, served on platters that can barely hold them, by waitresses who wear all red. Maria's pizzas are not famous, but they have fueled generations of pizza dreams.
“People get into pissing matches about pizza,” Kuban says. “But man, remember when you were a kid? You loved pizza. You didn’t know why. You just loved it.”