While New York has its signature hand-tossed thin crust slices and Chicago is known for saucy deep-dish pies, Baltimore pizza, absent of such hard and fast techniques or long standing traditions, mixes a hodgepodge of creative ingredients and cultural influences into its own inexplicable style. Local food critics and passionate Yelp-ers have offered their varying opinions on Baltimore’s pizza culture (or, some claim, lack thereof) but I’m more interested gathering insight from somebody who makes pizza for a living.
So earlier in the year, I went on a bit of a tasting tour with Josh Hershkovitz, the chef and owner of Hersh’s in Federal Hill. Running a busy restaurant and spending quality time with his family is a challenging balancing act for Hershkovitz, so he hasn’t had much time to explore the imaginative offerings of the rest of the city’s pizza shops, even some of the sturdy, touristy spots.
From proven Baltimore institutions to neighborhood hangouts to undiscovered treasures (you’d be surprised how creative and indulgent mall pizza can be), the city has a lot to offer. Hershkovitz and I sampled a few around town so I could learn more about Baltimore pizza culture and about Hershkovitz himself.
Hershkovitz grew up in Owings Mills in a tight-knit Jewish family and opened Hersh’s in 2011 with his sister, Stephanie. Together, they blend their Jewish heritage with their love for fresh Mediterranean flavors to create their own take on nostalgic Italian dishes, including classic Neapolitan pies.
“My grandmother used to have all 15 people in the family over every Friday night for the Sabbath,” Hershkovitz said. “But it wasn’t religious. It was just us getting together to eat.”
His family enjoyed cooking from scratch and he would help out in the kitchen as much as he could. His grandmother made traditional Jewish fare, like kreplach, while his mother, on the other hand, had a unique specialty: “[She] used to take flounder, cover it in crushed Cheez-Its, put frozen spinach in the middle, roll it up, and then bake it in a dish of ranch dressing,” he said with a laugh.
Hersh’s makes its own pasta, stuffs its own sausages, and pickles its own hot peppers and with an ever-changing antipasti menu and seasonal rotating pasta dishes and pizzas, Hershkovitz basically operates Hersh’s as a farm-to-table restaurant—he just doesn’t market it as such.
“I feel like we’re eating the way they do in the rest of the world,” Hershkovitz said. “It’s a good marketing point, but I think that’s the way everybody should be eating.”
Hershkovitz lights up when he talks about the farmers he works with. He works closely with Richfield Farms, located in Manchester, Md., from whom he gets ingredients like heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, and basil every Thursday at the farmers market in Towson. He also patronizes Zahradka Farm in Essex because they deliver fresh produce right to the restaurant.
As we made our way to the first stop on our tour—Matthew’s Pizza, located off Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown since 1943—Hershkovitz discussed his 2016 appearance on “Chopped,” the competitive cooking show on the Food Network in which four chefs are given a basket containing four mystery ingredients that they must showcase in a dish. Hershkovitz discovered chaudin, fresh green peas, sorghum, and vodka sauce in his basket. His appetizer dish of fried chaudin with bacon-vodka sauce and a “sorghum surprise” afforded him a hasty elimination after the first round.
“Everybody made a bad dish, but mine was the worst,” he laughed.
Matthew’s serves a personal pan pizza that mixes old world Italian flavors with regional ingredients such as their famous 8-inch crab pie (market price), topped with lots of buttery backfin crab meat, sweet caramelized onions, mozzarella and Reggianito cheeses, and a generous dusting of Old Bay. It’s pure, concentrated Maryland. But I especially loved the way the cheese melts into the dough—finally, a crust worth eating. We also ordered an 8-inch pie with red sauce, gooey mozzarella cheese, and thin-sliced housemade meatballs ($12), a pie that Hershkovitz fondly remembers from his childhood.
Growing up, Hershkovitz would help out in his father’s supermarket, The Markets at Highlandtown, right down the street from Matthew’s, but he didn’t pursue cooking as a career until much later in life. First he went to University of Chicago to study sculpture and philosophy. When he returned home to Baltimore, he opened up a furniture business where he made custom cabinets, libraries, and bars. He even built the bar at Hersh’s. But one day in 2000, he saw an advertisement in the City Paper looking for kitchen help at one of the most prestigious restaurants in Baltimore, the Charleston. With absolutely no formal culinary training or professional kitchen experience, he applied for the job anyway and earned a spot on the line making salads and desserts. There he found similarities between sculpture and cooking.
“[With] sculpture, you’re taking something and you’re putting it out in a space that somebody’s using,” Hershkovitz said. “You interact with the piece, and that’s what I loved about making furniture. But food took that to another level [with all] the senses it has to appeal to.”
Our pies arrived at our table on paper plate pedestals and we took a few moments to revel in all of their greasy glory. The crunch of the thick crust, sweet tang of the tomato sauce, gooey mozzarella cheese, and smell of crisped meatball slices quickly reminded us why Matthew’s is a veritable Baltimore institution.
But the most reliable way to determine a pizzeria’s quality, we decided, is to order a simple cheese pizza, so we stopped by Brick Oven Pizza off Broadway in Fells Point to grab some pizza by the slice.
“You have to see how somebody works with the holy trinity—the sauce, the dough, and the cheese,” Hershkovitz said.
A sign outside Brick Oven Pizza—locally known as BOP—boasts its crispy, homemade crust cooked in their wood-fired pizza oven. Their pies are pre-baked and then individual slices are heated to order in their wood-fired oven. BOP serves a decent slice of cheese pizza ($3) with a solid cheese-pull situation, which is what you want from a neighborhood corner joint.
Hershkovitz agreed, so we headed to Joe Benny’s off High Street in Little Italy. He scanned the room, enamored with the energetic atmosphere and engaged employees, including a crew of regulars playfully giving Gardella shit. Gardella addressed everyone—even us—like they were old friends, a testament to the importance of personable customer service.
“There’s definitely a Baltimore style of service—a laissez faire attitude,” Hershkovitz said. “I think there’s a difference when somebody can make you feel like you’re at their house. When you go to a restaurant, you can tell when they’re genuinely excited about what they’re about to bring you and the experience you’re about to have. You don’t know what somebody’s day has been like to that point, so it’s up to us to make it wonderful.”
Baked in deep dish pans in convection ovens in what must be the tiniest kitchen in Baltimore (a small nook at the end of the bar), Joe Benny’s serves a Sicilian focaccia pizza cut into vertical, pillowy strips. We ordered the Pasquale ($14), which addressed our personal pizza trinity of meat, cheese, and pickled things. It was a hearty vehicle to deliver lots of melty mozzarella and just enough vegetables to make it feel like we were doing our bodies a favor here. The tang of the pickled peppadews totally set it off. I preferred the center cuts of the pizza, where the cheese is creamier and the toppings more plentiful. Angelo’s—Hershkovitz liked it too, though he bemoaned the lack of a “crispy outside of the dough.”
When we arrived at Ribaldi’s Pizza on the corner of 36th Street and Keswick Road—a brightly lit Italian spot tucked in Hampden and once the location of giant slice institution Angelo’s—Hershkovitz immediately noticed that they use the same tomatoes he does in his pizza sauce, Alta Cucina from California. We snagged the last two slices of cheese pizza ($3) and because the few outdoor seats were filled, we enjoyed our slices on a neighboring stoop like old friends.
Like BOP, Ribaldi’s heats individual slices to order, though they use a standard gas oven deck. The slices were large with a crispy thin crust, but a scant layer of sauce and cheese left me a bit underwhelmed.
More inventive were the Neapolitan pies we tried at Paulie Gee’s off Chestnut Avenue in Hampden. Paulie Gee’s has established itself as a mainstay in New York pizza culture and has opened multiple locations from Brooklyn to Miami. Here in Baltimore, the restaurant is spacious, romantically lit, and smells of burning oak—the wood they use to fire their pizza ovens. We ordered the Regina ($16)—another Trinity Test—topped with fresh tomato sauce, a little bit of fresh mozzarella, salty guanciale, and fresh basil. Simplicity prevailed here, and while we both wished this pie were a little cheesier, the sweet, vibrant red tomato sauce made up for it.
Then we got a little weird with it and ordered the Stinger Bell pizza ($15), topped with house-smoked mozzarella, thin lemon slices, olive oil, lemon bitters, fried basil, and spicy honey (also weird: a fancy pizza chain from out of town with a pie named after a drug kingpin from the “The Wire,” but hey). Regardless, the smokiness of the cheese played well with the tart lemon and sweet honey.
“This smells fantastic with the lemon,” Hershkovitz said. “It’s got a lot of cheese on there, so it’s a little chewy, but if I get a bite with the lemon and the honey, it’s really nice.”
When our pizzas arrived, Hershkovitz immediately checked the bottom of the pies to examine the char they had from the wood-fired ovens. I’ve noticed he does this at Hersh’s too. If it doesn’t have the proper amount of char, he won’t serve it to the customer until it’s just so.
In addition to providing a memorable culinary experience for his customers, Hershkovitz is also concerned with being on the right side of history. For most of 2017, Hersh’s sold a pizza called the La Resistenza, topped with a zesty marinara sauce, salty guanciale, red onion, spicy arugula, and a drizzle of good olive oil. From each La Resistenza sale ($15), Hersh’s donated $3 to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in light of the current political climate. They recently took the pie off the menu after serving 1,253 of them and donating about $4,000 to the ACLU.
“It [was] our second best-selling pizza of all time, and it [didn’t] even have cheese on it,” Hershkovitz said.
In 2014, Hersh’s fielded threatening phone calls when the restaurant offered free pizzas in exchange for unwanted Ray Rice jerseys after the former Baltimore Ravens running back was caught on video punching his wife in an elevator.
Hershkovitz is unapologetically vocal about his political leanings and personal ethos and as we wrapped up our tour, he offered a sentiment that matters even more than the ideal char on the crust or the tastiest California tomatoes.
“Nothing gets done from being timid and not saying how you feel,” he said. “I’m never gonna feel bad about being unequivocally on the right side of something.”