A Conversation, A New Oven in the Works and Pizza Eating in Mount Vernon
818 N Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202 (map); 410-528-0818 iggiespizza.com
Pizza Style: Thin crust, somewhat similar to Roman style
Oven Type: Gas-fired deck oven
The Skinny: Thin crust avoids becoming entirely crackery, and pizzas are topped with well-executed combinations of high-quality ingredients. Mozzarella is made in-house. This is one of the best pizzerias in Baltimore
Price: 14-inch pizzas, $11.50 to $16.95; 8-inch pizzas, $7.50 to $9.95
Delivery: No. Take-out is available. Both fully cooked and "take and bake" available for pick up
It's 10 a.m. on a gray, damp Saturday morning and inside the doors of 818 North Calvert Street, tea has been brewed. The steam from the tea drifts up from a cup, placed at arm's reach from owner Lisa Heckman, who is weighing out flour, water, salt, and fresh cake yeast to mix the dough which will be used the following day. In two hours, the doors will open and one of Baltimore's busiest and most popular pizzerias will crank out a few hundred thin-crust pizzas by closing time at 10 p.m.
Before opening Iggies in Baltimore, Heckman had already established her food notoriety by running the ship at chef Edward Kim's Soigné, in South Baltimore, where she was the managing partner. After her stint at the upscale Pacific Rim–Mediterranean fusion restaurant, she spent a short time at Mount Vernon's Ixia before turning her focus toward pizza and Iggies.
However, the journey toward pizza really started years ago and 90 miles north in Philadelphia. Heckman grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and moved to Philadelphia to attend graduate school at Drexel. She would stay in Philadelphia for 15 years and owned a catering company there. During those years in Philadelphia, she discovered Tocconelli's, which was where the seeds for pizza inspiration were sown. Heckman would eventually focus her pizza enthusiasm on making pizzas at home and from there, well, you can go to Iggies to see and taste where the road eventually led.
Before opening at noon, I had the pleasure of talking with Lisa and her husband, Peter Wood, who before Iggies was with the Wine Source in Hampden and is the oven master at Iggies. My chat with the "Heckwoods" would take place around Lisa mixing the dough and Lisa and Peter making pignoli cookies while Jorge and the rest of the Iggies crew handled food-prep and cleaned in preparation for another busy Saturday. Lisa also typically makes fresh mozzarella at this time of the day, but had taken care of it the previous night as she knew I was coming.
So, without further ado, some tidbits from our conversation and some pizza eating:
Pizzablogger: As a business owner, not as a pizza maker, what is the most challenging aspect about operating a pizzeria?
Lisa: (immediately) Staff. Nearly everyone has been here since day one and they are great. Our biggest challenge has been in finding someone for the front of the house. The cashier has been a constant turnover position and we are looking for a person who will take on more responsibility than just working the register, like taking on some managerial duties. But, you know, there really aren't too many. Compared to having done fine dining, staff is really the only issue.
Pizzablogger: Now as a pizza maker, what is the biggest challenge?
Lisa: They've evolved, changed over time. Right now our biggest challenge is the oven. We need another oven. Last night we were really slammed for two straight hours and the oven can't handle it.
Pizzablogger: You need a new one because it loses a lot of heat?
Lisa: Yeah. The recovery time is too long. Peter: It just can't maintain temperature at our busiest times. Lisa: So the five and a half minute pizza turns into the seven or eight minute pizza. So it's recovery time and turnover.
Pizzablogger: What type of an oven are you looking for? Are you looking to change the fuel source?
Peter: It depends on when you ask me! A deck oven is efficient and we're used to it. Sometimes I think let's not get another deck oven. That may be the most expeditious method, but we really need to focus on upgrading and I really like higher temperatures, but the problem with higher temperatures is you may have unforeseen changes down the road. Lisa: And I have no intention of changing our pizza. I really like our pizza....I know it's not Neapolitan, but for me it's my kind of dough, it's what I like.
Pizzablogger: Lisa, do you let anyone else measure and mix the dough...and don't worry, I won't give out your exact recipe [Lisa showed me the mix chart]
Lisa: I used to let other people measure it out, but they needed to realize that an eighth of an ounce is an eighth of an ounce, that 5°F is 5°F. It's hard to instill that attentiveness. And Peter's position, and he's right, is that you can have the exact recipe, but can you consistently duplicate that recipe, will you really put the care, the effort and the attention into the product? That's what matters.
Then there are things to account for like today...the dough will be a lot moister. A rainy day like today is my favorite kind of dough day. I need to adjust and add more water on dry days.
Pizzablogger: Do you make adjustments to the amount of salt you add depending on hot and cold days?
Lisa: No, I prefer to make adjustments to the initial water temperature when mixing to account for the [ambient] temperature.
Pizzablogger: I never noticed before, but it appears that after bulk fermentation you add olive oil to the individual panetti. Is this added after forming the panetti/doughballs or is additional olive oil added to the bulk dough just before forming the panetti?
Lisa You are correct. After a tray of dough balls are formed they get a "rub" of EVOO with our hands before they go in the fridge. Originally, four years ago, I made dough balls as soon as the dough was made, then criss-crossed the trays in the walk-in to cool them down faster for a few hours.... the EVOO prevented any 'skin' or drying of the dough. A couple of years ago I switched to our present protocol of bulk fermenting [at ambient temperature] first and the practice of rubbing the dough just never died. I have tried eliminating this step and occasionally would still get a 'skin' formation. Remember, we are at a lower hydration than most.
Pizzablogger: I think, when talking with other home pizza makers who think they are hotshots, they have no friggen' clue about the difference in a retail shop. Most of the time we concentrating on a pizza in an oven...and that takes enough focus right there to nail it. I don't think enough home pizza makers fully realize that what you're doing, sometimes there's eight pizzas in their at once, that's just a whole different level.
Peter: And on Friday and Saturday nights, from about 6 until 9pm, there are always eight pizzas in there.
Pizzablogger: That takes focus and I can tell when you get into it, you just get a look on your face and are locked in. That's why that damned sign is there (laughing).
Lisa: It's tough. People want to immediately walk in and stand there and chat with Peter. Peter: And like at 8pm on a Friday night. Lisa: He's really juggling and focusing on a lot, so I have to sometimes tell people to step away.
Pizzablogger: Before you opened Iggies, there was nowhere in Baltimore, at least that I know of, that was using San Marzano tomatoes and Tipo 00 Italian flour (Caputo). When and how did you decide to start using these?
Lisa: At home, when I was making pizza, I used AP (all purpose) flour and then I was thinking about doing this and then I started reading. I went to Washington DC and to 2Amys, [Pizzeria] Paradiso and other pizzerias. Then I got a bunch of friends to come over, long before we opened, and did blind taste tests with them, with different tomatoes and flours. And to me, hands down, there's no comparison.
Pizzablogger: I imagine when you opened that some people in Baltimore just didn't "get it"?
Lisa: Oh yeah. Some people still don't. People sometimes come to me and say their experience was awful. And I say, I'm sorry, what was wrong? And they will often say it's too loud in here. I just have to say I'm really sorry, but this is a pizzeria, it's not for everyone.
Pizzablogger: If you could change one thing about your pizzeria, what would it be?
Lisa: The oven. Peter: Or a PA system! I mean, yeah, do we want a 60 quart mixer? Sure. But hopefully next year we will be able to get one.
Pizzablogger: I spent a lot of time on pizzamaking.com to help speed up my learning curve, have you ever seen that site?
Lisa: Yes! I almost lived on it for a year before I opened. I read and learned so much from that site.
Pizzablogger: As someone who loves to make pizza and has dreams of opening my own place, what advice would you give to someone looking to make that happen?
Lisa: Stick with what you want to do. Don't let anyone tell you what needs to be done if you have a clear vision of your pizza....focus on the pizza and delivering a quality product and the people will come.
Pizzablogger: What is your favorite pizza on your menu?
Lisa: You know that's hard and I've been saying the Alice for so long....it's the one I made at home for a couple of years myself, but now I would say the Margherita.
Pizzablogger: How does the pizza of the month come into being? Do you have recipes on file or does one of you typically come up with it each month?
Lisa: It's mostly all in our heads as the month goes on. Sometimes they come together only a couple of days beforehand, but we usually play with it a week before. Peter always has something in the back of his head.
Pizzablogger: Lisa, we spoke previously about the article in the NY Times about Nick Lessins [of Great Lake] and about how from a high level the customer is not always right. Now, I never put too much into reviews on places like Yelp or Urbanspoon because you never know who is a shill or who has an agenda, but the most common complaint I have heard about Iggies, both on line and from talking to people, is people say there is an "attitude" or occasional rudeness from the staff. What is your take on that?
Lisa: If it boils down to one word, I would say respect. [Lisa then tells me several specific tales of people taking other people's tables, silverware, jumping line, etc].
And the customer is not always right. You can't eat an entire Alice and then come up and say, "I don't like this pizza, what are you going to do about it?" Or even if you eat one slice and say, "I don't like my pizza, what are you going to do about it?" I'm going to take an honest look at it and if it's made right, I have to say I'm sorry, but I can't help if you don't like the taste. If it's burnt or not made right, I'll make another pizza.
Pizzablogger: To me that's a lot like ordering wine in a restaurant. There is a big difference between a wine actually being faulty and a person not liking it...a huge difference.
Lisa: That's exactly it.
Pizzablogger: Peter, what's most important, the oven or the person cooking the pizza?
Peter: You know, I often contemplate whether the oven is doing the work or if I am doing the work. But it's really like cooking an egg. Nearly anyone can drop some eggs into a skillet and wind up with something edible, so the pan is doing a lot of the work. But it really takes a person that cares enough about that egg to turn it into something that is not just edible, but something that people will look forward to eating and appreciate.
And with that, from behind Lisa and I, Peter's voice chimed "Showtime" and this portion of the review had come to a close. So, enough with the back and forth. They do make some pizzas at this place, right, you skinny, big nosed pizzablogger wanna be? So on with it already!
Going to see a show at nearby Center Stage? Want someplace which allows you to bring your own tipple of choice? Want a good space to hunker down with friends and catch-up while eating some good pizza together? Iggies is a good bet to satisfy all of those needs.
The gig at Iggies is thin crust, so if you like thin crust pizza, or any style of pizza which is of good quality and is topped with excellent combinations of ingredients which are prepared fresh daily, then this is as good a bet as you will find in Charm City. In addition, fresh mozzarella is made in house as well.
In Baltimore, Iggies is probably my favorite space to sit down with a bottle of wine and/or some beer and dig into a few pizzas. Brightly colored walls enclose the casual space at Iggies, which is a nickname for Italian Greyhound(s). The space contains smaller two and four top tables and also has two larger communal tables which make it easy to talk to a neighbor, if that's your thing, or to grab enough space to seat you and your larger crew of pizza vagabonds. Iggies gets very busy at nights from Thursday through Sunday, so plan on a wait if arriving during those times.
Iggies is BYOB and also self-service, which means there is no wait or bus staff. You get your own plates and get to clean-up after yourself when done. There is no tipping at Iggies, although Iggies does have a donation box at the register where any donations will go towards a new charity each month. Everything you need is provided for you at the table under the artwork of the owner's dogs making pizzas; napkins, silverware, glasses for your wine, wine keys to open those corks, paper cups and clearly marked recepticles for your dirty plates, recyclibles and such. Iggie's also sells a variety of sodas and bottled waters in the cooler up front. Damn, did you forget to bring that tipple of choice? Fortunately, a quick five minute walk around the corner will bring you to Sprits of Mount Vernon, so you've got no excuses, capisce?
Basically, the drill is you wait in line to place your order, go find yourself a table, get whatever dining accoutramants you need, plop your toosh down and wait to hear Peter Wood's voice boom out your name and order number, which you will hear over the din of a packed house. Metal pizza plates are stacked at the area where you pick up your pies, so don't forget to grab a couple of them up when your order is ready. If you have never been to Iggies before, I suggest you look over the "Helpful Hints" on their web page to get a better scoop on how Iggies works. Basically, treat your table and neighbors with a little respect and you'll be okay.
The end stage of a dough ball at Iggies begins with the dough ball being opened up by hand and then aggressively rolled into a round, or "skin". The skins get a coating of olive oil painted onto them and then are staged for the make table. After being topped at the make table with your vittles of choice, they are once again staged closer to the oven, which handles a pretty heavy workload. On many evenings, the oven is filled with eight pizzas for hours on end. After a five and a half to six minute bake, the cooked pizzas are finished, your name and number is called out and it's chow time. This process is shown in the following video and Peter can be seen firing out pizzas, some onto the counter for in store patrons and others go into boxes for take out. Iggies usually runs like a well oiled machine.
The thin crust at Iggies and is somewhat similar to Roman style pizza. Some bites of the crust at Iggies result with a loudish snap and the crust cracking into pieces. But unlike other pizzerias employing a very thin style where the crust is entirely crackery, even bordering on being almost like a lavash, there is still some softness and chew to some parts of the Iggies crust. It never gets completely lost or relegated to the sole position of a support structure. Lately, this softness has been somewhat exacerbated and often the entire top portion of the endcrust is soft and a little undercooked compared to pies in the past, as evidenced by the mostly whitish tone of the upper crust in many of the pictures accompanying this article. But as previously mentioned, Iggies is in the market for a new oven.
Fourteen pizzas are featured on the menu at Iggies and are available in 8" and 14" sizes. Topping combinations run the gambit from more California style combinations like the Anatra (roasted duck, blue cheese, asparagus, red onions, mozzarella) to more familiar stalwarts like the Margherita.
Being ultimately a traditionalist at heart, the margherita is definitely my favorite pizza at Iggies. To start, it is one of the few places in Baltimore that serves a margherita which uses an actual tomato sauce, or "ragu" as Iggies lists, instead of sliced tomatoes. The sauce at Iggies is always bright, fresh and has a good note of acidity to it. It's high quality tomatoes that have been drained and strained to get to the tomatoey heart of the matter and it's one of the best schmears of sauce in the city. Mozzarella is made in house and arrives out of the oven with some texture to it and still "alive", as some Italians refer to it, instead of completely melted into the pizza. I definitely like my basil whole or roughly torn, as opposed to julienned, and the Iggies margherita delivers this as well. Some bites deliver just sauce and cheese, others just sauce and basil and others that delicious amalgamation of sauce, cheese and basil. Part of the simple beauty of the margherita is that is can be a changing tapestry of flavors as various combinations of ingredients get scarfed down on any given bite.
The Alice is one of the original pizzas from back when Lisa was cooking in her oven at home and is, according to Heckman, the most popular seller at Iggies "by far". I have never had an affinity for sliced tomatoes on pizza. To start, the tomatoes are usually not of a good quality and tend to have a dried out texture which detracts from the pizza. The Alice pizza at Iggies is the only pie I can recall where I not only can tolerate the sliced tomatoes, I actually like them. The combination of the fleshy tomatoes, garlic spinach, pesto, goat cheese and parmesan seem naturally tailored to fit together.
Where Iggies can really shine is the pizza of the month. Each month a new pizza is released and the highest selling pizza of the month out of any calendar year is permanently added to the menu. Last year's pizza of the year, the Diavola, features spicy Italian sausage, tomato sauce, black olives, hot peppers and a quartet of mozzarella, asiago, Romano and Parmesan cheeses. Occasionally the pizza of the month can push the envelope of having the crust lost under too many ingredients, but usually these pizzas are a combination of excellent flavors and should be looked for when eating at Iggies.
Over the years I have had every pie on the Iggies menu more than once and what stands out about Iggies is its consistency. Like any pizzeria, it has the occasional off night, but this is a seldom encountered event at Iggies. The consistency of the quality here is to be commended and is likely due in large part to the fact that the "Heckwoods" are in house almost every night Iggies is open.
Iggies may not be the full-on, completely hand-crafted artisanal pizza that drives many hardcore pizza enthusiasts crazy late in the night....and that's OK. What Iggies offers is one of the finer examples of really thin-crust pizza I have tried. These thin disks of pizza topped with good combinations of fresh, bright flavors, which are accomplished more competently than most of the other Baltimore pizzerias offering the same style, are examples of what can happen when quality ingredients, pride, and care are put into a pizza.
With a new oven set to debut at Iggies in the future, I'm looking forward to whatever Lisa, Peter and the Iggies crew will come up with next. To use one of Iggies slogans, this is indeed "pizza with a purpose".