Throughout my entire life, I’ve had a great relationship with pizza. My dad took over his uncle’s pizzeria, Pizza By Alex, just before I was born. Everything I know, in one way or another, is because of pizza. My appreciation and hunger for this particular food is remarkably strong. So when I heard that the world’s first pizza museum was opening this fall in Philadelphia, naturally, I planned on being there opening night.
On the opening night, I had the unique pleasure of being able to hang out inside the “brain” before its doors officially opened to the public. Brian Dwyer, founder and co-owner of Pizza Brain, and I had struck up a conversation over my “Ninja Throwing Slices:” real pizza that I encased in resin (think, fossilized pizza.) I originally created them for the American Design Club’s show “Threat,” which featured hypothetical designer weapons and objects of defense and which was held this past March in Brooklyn, New York.
When I received an email that I initially assumed was a museum newsletter, turned out to be a personally written message from Brian expressing interest in acquiring my “throwing slices” for the museum, I was excited and honored, to say the least.
You see, I have a unique appreciation for pizza. On one hand, it was almost single-handedly responsible for the lifestyle I grew up with, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. But there’s also an aspect of social psychology to food, and in particular this food, that I find completely fascinating. So many people have a love for pizza that is most likely rooted in their childhood, and for better or worse, has survived well into their adult eating habits. Pizza is synonymous with all things “awesome.” Everyone loves pizza; it’s the great equalizer.
No one knows this better than Brian Dwyer. He and his co-owners– designer Ryan Anderson, chef Joe Hunter, and business manager Mike Carter– put together an opening night that was nothing short of spectacular. The evening kicked off with a speech by Philadelphia Deputy Mayor, Michael DiBerardinis, who was the first to highlight the community aspect of Pizza Brain, reminding the crowd that the efforts of young entrepreneurs coupled with the support of a community are what turn a city into a home.
Mr. Dwyer then took center stage and went on to introduce team Pizza Brain in a style Michael Buffer would be proud of. As the kitchen staff ran down the street, flags triumphantly trailing overhead, the tone for the evening was set: this was to be the pizza party of the century. An acappella rendition of the national anthem was performed by the four owners, the ribbon was cut, and Pizza Brain was officially open.
A crowd had been growing steadily from about 4 pm, and an hour later when the doors officially opened, the line for pizza was literally a block long. This remained true for hours as the Pizza Brain kitchen fell into a steady four part dance: toss, dress, cook, serve. Throughout the night they turned out pie after pie with ease, as if they’d cooked for hundreds of eager diners many times before.
Outside the “brain,” those in line found entertainment came in all shapes and sizes. A string quartet, wandering accordion players, and giant inflatable figures all dressed in pizza garb weaved up and down Frankford Avenue. There was a man on stilts, jugglers, a balloon animal artist, caricature artists, and even a free haircut station. Inside the museum, attendees looking for more than the inaugural collection, were able to help artist, Hawk Krall, work on the backyard’s 220 square foot “Pizzalebrity Wall of Fame” mural, snap away in the free photo booth with a rotating pizza themed background, or step next door to Little Baby’s Ice Cream where they could grab a free locally brewed beer, and try what else but pizza flavored ice cream. And yes, it really tasted like pizza. It was one of the most unusual taste experiences my brain has had to sort out: spicy and warm on the tongue, but cool and smooth in temperature and texture.
Between my conversations with those in line and those who had already had their first taste of pizza history, one thing kept popping up: this overall sense of community. I spoke with a medical student decked out in hospital scrubs who said he was there because his cousin, one of the accordion players, had told him about the project. Others belonged to the same church group as the owners. Many had stumbled across an article online and had been keeping tabs on Pizza Brain, excited to see something like this happening in their neighborhood.
Chris Scala pointed out that he “had never been to a gathering of this size that wasn’t a music or art show and not “douchey”. Scala went on to say he’d “be surprised to run into a negative situation here.”
And that’s just it. The pizza aspect and food itself practically becomes secondary to the party. If you think about it, that’s almost always the case. Pizza is just the vehicle; a catalyst for bringing people together. It seems fitting, I mean, how many foods are so often followed by the word “party?”
Ok, ok, so maybe you’re thinking, “Cool, so the first day was a hit. You all had a blast, we get it. And wish we were there. But we’re talking about a museum and a restaurant– not a permanent party! What happens on day two?! And three, and four, and five… Is the collection legit? Is the space well designed? IS THE PIZZA ANY GOOD?!”
Fear not, good people! My weekend at Pizza Brain highlighted the new “three C’s” of success: community, consideration and commitment. Know your audience, deliver the best product you can, and remain focused on your mission.
As a museum, the collection is vast but curated. While there is pizza memorabilia everywhere you look, it is not overwhelming or artificial, and it is a far cry from the “let’s tack meaningless stuff everywhere” approach that one too many corporate chains have decided is good design. The space is warm and inviting; every element from the height of the counters to the lighting in the bathrooms was carefully planned. Everywhere I looked, nothing felt compromised; you could feel the hours of consideration and purpose behind every decision. The visual language is clean and consistent, evident in the little details like the “no smoking” and “employees must wash hands” signs. The building and its history have been honored and revealed throughout the space.