Excellent vegan pizza is no longer pie in the sky

"VEGAN PIZZA? Isn't that an oxymoron?"

That's the most common response that the phrase "vegan pizza" generated just a few years ago, and now that we're approaching the first annual Vegan Pizza Day (Jan. 29), that's still the thinking of many.

After all, what's pizza without cheese? And if there's one thing we know about vegans, it's that they don't eat cheese.

Actually, authentic Italian pizza doesn't require cheese. But, more importantly, here in the U.S., times are a-changing, and with them, plant-based cheeses.

In the 20 years since processed vegetarian foods started showing up in mainstream grocery stores, nondairy cheese has come a long way. The first attempts were, let's face it, pretty sad. It seemed that the particular chemistry that formed dairy cheese could never be credibly replicated in a plant-based product.

A halfway solution - still out there - was to make cheese from soy but to cheat on the texture (so that it would melt) by adding casein, a protein from cow milk.

This was fine for people who only wanted to avoid lactose, but a nonstarter for vegans. Tofutti made some strides with dairy-free sliced "American" cheese, and Vegan Gourmet came pretty close to melting, and tasting, like "real" cheese.

In the past year two new cheeses, Teese (soy-based) and Daiya (tapioca and arrowroot flour), have become widely available and have raised the bar significantly.

In fact, Daiya - a rich-tasting, gooey-stretchy faux cheese - played a decisive role in the opening of Blackbird Pizzeria, Philly's first all-vegan pizza joint, located at 6th and Lombard streets, where Gianna's Grille used to be.

"I wanted to do a vegan pizza place," explained former Horizons line cook (and former NYC chef) Mark Mebus, "because I love vegan pizza. But I didn't think it would be viable with soy cheese. The texture is still off the mark for a lot of people. But Daiya is something marketable to the general public - that made the idea more possible."

Mebus and partner Ryan Moylan opened Blackbird last fall, grabbing some of Gianna's old clientele and attracting new folks from far and wide. In just a few months they've garnered a lot of buzz, partially because of the unique hook and partially because their pizza is really good (they also do a kick-ass vegan cheesesteak).

Earlier this month, Blackbird expanded its hours to seven days a week. It will launch a self-serve counter in time for the big day Saturday.

"It's great to see so many people come in," said Mebus. "Mostly young, sure, but really all different kinds of people. We get families coming in from the neighborhood, especially now that we're certified kosher."

Blackbird may also have lit a fire under other area pizza ovens, or it just may be at the tip of a major trend, but in the past few months vegan pizza has been popping up in old-school pizza joints all over Philly.

It's not as if Blackbird was the first place in town to do vegan pizza (Ed's added it a year ago, as the Daily News reported last summer). And the mainstreaming of vegan eating has been heralded in several recent major articles. For me, the tipping point was when I got another menu in my door from a local cafe that blared on the front, "Now Offering Vegan Soy Cheese!"

Nowadays, regular eateries are adding options to attract vegans, and regular folks are starting to give plant-based products a try, even something as counterintuitive as vegan pizza.

That's music to the ears of Dan Reed, whose company, Chicago Soydairy, along with a food blog called quarrygirl.com, created Vegan Pizza Day as the last Saturday in January.

"We're trying to celebrate the phenomenon," said Reed, "and believe me, it's great to see it moving more into the mainstream."

As one of the guys behind Teese, Reed allowed that "as a businessperson, it's great" to have a day focusing on your product, but he stressed that it's not about moving units of his own brand.

"This is a celebration of all things vegan pizza, including all vegan cheese brands and even the cheeseless pizza. We're hoping to open people's eyes to the multitude of ways to do pizza."

In fact, it's not just about pizza.

"Food is a great way to introduce people to veganism," Reed said, adding that his own lifestyle change was spurred by learning about what goes on in dairy production. "It's just not fair, and the more you learn, the harder it is to turn a blind eye."

Blackbird's Mark Mebus concurred.

"Hopefully, some people will be motivated to look into veganism in general" as a result of Vegan Pizza Day. "I think people are seeing it now as a plausible thing. It's more normal than, say, that one punk-rock kid in high school."

The official website (veganpizzaday.com) is tracking venues and celebrations nationwide, with parties, promotions and meetups already booked from Indianapolis to Portland to Los Angeles. All the fun, centered on the tasty tradition of pizza, will likely help to normalize veganism further. How much further remains to be seen.

"If we can convince 150 people to eat a vegan pizza on January 29," said Reed, "that's a start."

While it looks like that number's already been met, there's always room for more in getting this party started.

Grab a slice - you might find veganism's as easy as pie.

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