Pizza Brain: Delicious variations on the classic - and ice cream, too
"What are people expecting - the Louvre? A pillared building with pizza toys?"
Brian Dwyer's monumental shock of pepperoni-red hair (think Cosmo Kramer dipped headfirst into pizza sauce) is all aquiver, though not with indignation. He radiates the simple thrill of knowing a conversation is already baking the moment one steps for the first time into Pizza Brain.
So this is the already-famous pizza "museum," I ask? The one featured on the Today Show, All Things Considered, The Guardian, and every website looking for goofiness to temper their scandals - even before the pizzeria opened this fall?
It's hard to imagine, at least from first glance here at the assorted action figures (Ninja Turtles! Trolls!) and wall of albums (Pizza Man Hello Honky Tonks), that these cramped double rowhouse storefronts on Frankford Avenue amount to anything more than a funky slice shop and a North Philly hipster prank on the world.
And then I took a chomp out of a slice of plain "Jane," its delicately roasty crust snapping beneath a bright sauce, its mozzarella layer tanged with aged provolone and Grana Padano, a basil plume flickering with garden freshness. And then I took a lick - spicy, sweet, citrusy, sublimely creamy - of the Earl Grey-Sriracha ice cream churned by Little Baby's, the eccentric ice creamery whose "World HQ" is at the rear of Pizza Brain's dining room.
I was paying attention then.
Clearly, the mere notion of a museum devoted to pizza is whimsical enough to fire the machine of hype. And Dwyer, first nicknamed "Brain" while a crew member at the Center City Trader Joe's, is a natural impresario, capable of orchestrating a flash mob 50-strong to sing that Ninja Turtle hit, "Pizza Power," to the 1,500-plus who attended the grand opening.
And if you look closely enough at the plexiglass displays housing Dwyer's collection of pizza memorabilia - certified the largest by the Guinness Book of World Records - one can find a narrative, from vintage Pizza Hut menus on, the life of pie as an American pop culture icon. (My favorite relic? A gleaming pizza cutter shaped like the Starship Enterprise.)
But it is only because there is substance behind the counters that Pizza Brain and its frozen sidekick are worth a visit. This dynamic duo - each a collaboration of former artists and musicians - is less a conventional museum than an evolving work of edible art dedicated to the crust and cone as canvas.
Add in the youthful crowd rolling up on skateboards with multicolored hair and craft beer in tow, a fresh courtyard mural by Hawk Krall, and a mosaic-in-the-works by Isaiah Zagar. Listen to sprocket-happy Steph Irwin feistily run the register and phone in her bike cap - "Congratulations, you've just called Pizza Brain!" And you've got the set for a sitcom that could only happen on the border where Kensington meets Fishtown.
As it stands, the insane flavor creations from Little Baby's owners Pete Angevine, Martin Brown, and Jeffrey Ziga - who launched their venture from a tricycle at roller derbies - are closer to brilliance. More on those later.
But while there are certainly more exquisite and inventive pizzas in town, Dwyer and partners Ryan Anderson, Mike Carter, and chef Joe Hunter have done a surprisingly respectable job of spinning some worthy variations on the classic crispy American genre. No puffy, personal Neapolitan pies here. This dough, created by sous chef Austin Adams, is touched by the DNA of sourdough starter and delivers personality.
And while the toppings don't always quite match the zaniness of the pizzas' names (most culled from Dwyer's days as a young data-entry Dilbert), they highlight good ingredients and a fine sense of balance. Great pepperoni is the feature on the "Forbes Waggensense," the little slices puckering into charred rounds that taste almost smoky. The bold contrast of sweet and piggy is at play between the sweet dates and crisped prosciutto of the "Lucy Waggle."
A special dedicated to Joe Hunter's grandma and aunt, the "Henrietta Blanche," showed an ability to reach for some ambition, with fine fennel- and caraway-infused crumbles of house-made sausage and pesto from grilled escarole. But I liked the simplest pizzas just as much.
A generous scattering of fresh oregano clusters emphasized the sweet béchamel creaminess of the fontina and ricotta cheese in the basic white "Leonard Bookman." But that Gallic star "Felix Huppert" stole the show. Atop its béchamel base, caramelized onions, fresh thyme, and Gruyère evoked French onion soup.
Pizza Brain still has some rough edges: a tiny dining room that can seem like a free-for-all; a lack of pizza risers to maximize table space. And though I love edge, a couple of artifacts (the Road Pizza album cover; a floor display of pizza covered with plastic roaches) were hunger-kills. Why even hint at vermin?
A couple of pizzas also need tweaking - the hand-crushed red sauce on the vegan "Tom" was too acidic to ride solo. And PB's cheese-course pie, with Granny Smiths, almonds, onions, and blue cheese, was so off-balance in a funky way, we decided to pass on the even less appealing dessert option with pie-spiced sweet potatoes.
Why even bother, with Little Baby's scooping out the most exciting flavors at this address (and shooting zany sparks into the city's thriving artisan ice cream scene?). Launched in 2011 from a tricycle that's pedaled from Night Markets to concert halls and sporting events ("Roller girls are the single most ravenous ice cream-eating population in the city," says Angevine), their butterfat-rich confections spun from Trickling Springs dairy (as well as coconut-creamed vegan efforts) are as well-crafted as they are bold.
I've loved everything from Apple Snap (flavored with gingersnap liqueur), to granola and peaches (in season), vivid birch beer, vanilla molasses with Goldenberg Peanut Chews (pure Philly brilliance), as well as savory-sweet oddballs like the curried pumpkin and Earl Grey-Sriracha, a late-night joke that actually went right.
I am not so certain about the novelty ice cream flavored with "the power of pizza" (i.e. garlic, oregano and tomato paste. Really.) A sample is all you'll need, even if it's better than expected.
But then, so is Pizza Brain - once you get over the letdown that it really is no pizza-pie Louvre.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Mildred. Contact him at email@example.com.