Joe Beddia doesn’t get off on regular pizza anymore. If he’s going to break his proverbial fast, there has to be something special about the ‘pie’ in question and, naturally, its composite elements: its flour and its tomatoes, its mozzarella and its trimmings. Perhaps a nice rainbow chard, a handmade sopressa made locally, or anchovies sourced from slightly further afield (Sicily, to be precise). All of this is not to say that Beddia has sworn off pizza for good – far from it, in fact – just that after spending the better part of the last decade preoccupied with pies in all their manifold glory, the lustre of a typical slice has lost some of its shine for the man who is said to have mastered the manna of many.
One slight adjustment, on that note: “I would never call myself a ‘master’ of anything,” demurs Beddia, shrugging of the mantle that many have bestowed upon him, maker of “The Best Pizza in America”. But if those kinds of accolades do not a master make, how then does Beddia measure the success of his namesake endeavour?
“I don’t want that stuff to get to my head,” says Beddia, referring as much to the hyperbolic epithets as he is to the four hour long lines that once snaked around the block that Pizzeria Beddia occupied until earlier this year, as well as those who have decreed that the experience of eating his pizza is a “life-changing” one. “There’s two great things that come from that [title]: one is that I know that I work really hard and I know what I put into it, that for somebody to just get that on some level is amazing, it’s the best feeling; and then, obviously, it’s a financial thing. I mean, I’m in Sydney, Australia, talking to you! I’m just some guy, except for [making] beer now I make pizza. That’s awesome! It almost chokes me up to think about how much of an awesome ride that is.”
In March this year, at the height of his pizza powers, Beddia shuttered Pizzeria Beddia. The five-year lease on his shopfront in the Fishtown neighbourhood of Philadelphia came to an end and Beddia didn’t have it in him to renew it just yet (a second iteration with new partners, and serving Beddia’s own first vintage of biodynamic, natural chardonnay, will follow at a later date). Beddia started the 300 square foot pizzeria at 36. Famously, it had no chairs, no phone, no by-the-slice means of ordering, no delivery and only two employees. Even though he only sold 40 pies a day, Beddia was still putting in 60 hours a week across a four-day working week; as the legend goes, he made every single one. “It was a pretty taxing schedule,” he recalls. “To do five more years on another lease was too much.”
Beddia pegs himself as the kind of person who, once they fixate upon something, will doggedly pursue an exhaustive understanding of that very thing until they have it all but figured out, before moving swiftly onto the next thing. “I want to be on to the next challenge,” says Beddia, whose patterns of speech – drawn out Pennsylvannian vowels clipped only by a swift change in direction – mimic that very tension and restlessness. “I’m not the type of person that feels because I did this I have to make pizza for the rest of my life. I don’t care enough about ‘a thing’ in that way.
“I love pizza,” he continues, by way of a disclaimer, in case you might be getting the wrong impression. “When I was researching for years and testing things and travelling and tasting, that was great – but once you do it… I don’t have the same thing in me. I just want to do things the best way I can possibly do them, figure them out and concentrate on the process. Once I get to a point where I’ve done it for a while, I want to do something else. I want to keep discovering new things. I don’t have that drive that [someone like 83-year-old] Dominic DeMarco from Di Fara [a pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York] has,” says Beddia, invoking the “life changing” experience he had when he discovered Di Fara’s “no BS” pizza for the first time. “It’s inspiring to me, but it’s not for me.”
Beddia’s path to his own life-changing pizza was a circuitous one. Sure, his uncle John owned a pizzeria, Argento’s, in Pennsylvannia, where he would play with dough in anticipation of the reward of a large cheese pizza that awaited him, but Beddia, who is of Sicilian heritage, says that as far as making his own was concerned, it wasn’t until he reached his late twenties that a hobby soon morphed into an obsession. Beddia learned first through seeing and tasting, before eventually doing. He never trained formally, or cooked professionally; instead the pie impresario is a self-styled autodidact by way of stints in institutional hospitality management and in breweries, both micro and macro. The latter gave Beddia his first real career, one that took him around the world between thankless stages (unpaid internships) at high-end restaurants and menial prep work in wood fired pizza restaurants from Philadelphia to Wisconsin. It was there, in those backrooms, that Beddia honed a particular worldview that has put him in good stead during the coming years where he would be forced to prove his mettle. “The idea is to just keep doing things that I want to do,” Beddia says, speaking as much in retrospect as he is forecasting his future. “It sounds like a luxury or something but it’s important. There are people that are less fortunate that have to do shitty jobs, but the goal is to think about how you can get out of that shitty job and do something you want to do. You’ve got to figure a way out of those situations and almost create a new world for yourself,” he says. “It’s definitely a luxury to even know that you want to do something.”
He remembers clearly the moment he knew what he had to do. After watching a PBS special on Japanese swordmaking, Beddia grew enamoured with the single-minded devotion of the craftspeople of the country, include those who made a Hitachino Nest XH dark ale in shochu barrels that had captured his attention not long before. He entered first into a long-distance correspondence with the head brewer at the Kiuchi Brewery north of Tokyo, before agreeing to partake in a hosted work experience that would see him travel to the country, and work at the brewery in exchange for board. For four months, Beddia worked twelve- to fourteen-hour days, six days a week, immersing himself in the specificity and laser-focused devotion that is so unique to Japanese culture. “Everything is so specific in Japan – somebody does ramen, somebody makes yakitori, somebody makes sushi – that the pizza thing is the same thing,” Beddia recalls with fondness. “It’s so inspiring and it’s something that really spoke to me.” From then on, he knew exactly what he wanted to do: open a small pizzeria and focus on one thing, and one thing alone. “It was like an epiphany. To have even had that one idea is like a blessing. There are a lot of people who go through life not knowing what they want to do and they don’t commit to something and then it’s just over. For me, there’s some sort of purpose I get [from] thinking about new ideas and sometimes it’s a problem because my brain doesn’t stop.” For Beddia, the goal is not only to “really focus and get to know something”, but also to keep that thing alive inside of you.
That’s all well and good, but what is it, exactly, that makes his pizza such an exceptional one? If you were to ask Beddia, he’s just as quick to apportion the responsibility to anyone but himself. He’s just as likely to cite the legacy of “the traditional, foldable slice of New York” and “the original [coal-fired] pizza places, Frank Pepe in New Haven [Connecticut], Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, Grimaldi’s [all in New York]” as he is the legacy of Neapolitan, wood-fired pizza, with its unequivocal focus on purity of produce. But where Beddia differentiates himself is in carving out his own niche, something he describes as a hybrid between “a modern chef’s take on a pizza and also the old school stuff, using the best organic flour and the best produce” and a gas-fired deck oven instead of wood-fired (Beddia’s pizzas are cooked for longer and at a lower temperature to produce a well-done pie, crispy at the bottom and soft on top, with deep charring on the crust).
“It’s like whatever your grandfather would’ve done,” says Beddia, who says his aim to replicate the practices and ethos of centuries ago, albeit with a keener eye and the highest quality produce. “They didn’t have access to shitty meat [before] everything came homogenised and pasteurised. I’m not trying to create something new or change anything, but that seemed to really stand out because it’s pizza that people recognised. [Peoples’] parents would be like, ‘Oh, that’s what pizza used to taste like’. Just to do that well was all I wanted.” There’s something almost primordial, Beddia reckons, in coming face-to-face with an unadulterated version of a beloved dish – something that transcends generations. “If you’re doing something really honest that’s of a high quality and people can see that, and physically taste it and it’s a tangible thing, it just connects. I think there’s something there. It’s not bullshit, you know what I mean?”
For much of the last week, Beddia has been deeply ensconced in an altogether different world at a Pizzeria Beddia pop-up in Bondi Beach, at the Bondi Beach Public Bar. At BBPB, Beddia has staged a 60-seat pizzeria, made entirely of pizza boxes purpose built for the occasion, that has reliably drawn sell-out crowds every night. It’s apt, then, that the partnership be a natural one, all things considered. James Hird, Icebergs Group Sommelier, had visited the original iteration of Pizzeria Beddia in Fishtown three times in five years, Beddia recalls (“that’s pretty impressive considering how far it is) and the opportunity to work together during his sabbatical proved too attractive to turn down. Together, and in conjunction with Group Head Chef Monty Koludrovic, Beddia has crafted a considered offering that substitutes organic flour from Utah, New Jersey tomatoes, aged raw cow’s milk cheese from Pennsylvannia for all-Australian products. It’s not that exotic, necessarily, Beddia concedes, but it’s all stuff that he has never used before – something that required he spend the first of his three weeks here acclimatising, so to speak.
“I feel comfortable with it, but then again we’re working with all different ingredients. We really have to try and make it great [despite all those differences] but it’s not going to be the same thing,” says Beddia. “It’s definitely the best pizza that I could make. I think it’s really good. I’m not going to say it’s not good pizza. I like to try and stay humble, I guess. It’s the same flavour profile but it’s not going to be the same pizza, but I think it’s almost better that it’s not. You can go to Philadelphia for that.”
Pizzeria Beddia will have its final night at Bondi Beach Public Bar on Saturday, July 28 from 6pm until sold out. A limited number of walk-in tables are available tonight and tomorrow evening (pro-tip: get in earlier than you think you need to). More information is available here.