San Francisco: Popping Up with The PizzaHacker
A pop-up food vendor, check @pizzahacker or thepizzahacker.com for locations
Pizza style: Neapolitan-inspired with some California-style toppings
Oven type: A wood-fired oven made from a modified Weber grill
The skinny: Pies can vary with conditions, but overall very tasty pizza, and very cool to watch him cook up pies in his 'hacked' oven
Price: Prices vary, but pies typically run between $13 to $18
Though pop-up food vendors have become the norm around San Francisco, watching The PizzaHacker (aka Jeff Krupman) cook up street-corner pizzas in the wood-fired oven he fashioned from a Weber grill is something else entirely. Standing three feet away while your pizza puffs up in the oven is pretty damn cool. And, of course, there's the ingenuity of that oven in the first place. But after trying Krupman's pizzas and then spending some time talking with him, it is his trajectory as a pieman that left me most intrigued. Krupman is already an accomplished pizzaiolo, but as someone who has literally 'hacked' his way there, it is clear that his evolution is still in process—sometimes even from pie to pie.
Krupman jokes that friends who know him well never would have guessed that he would be the one to build something like his Pizza Forge—he doesn't consider himself particularly handy. The oven, which has appeared in these webpages before (here and here), is a Weber grill that Krupman fitted with a dome and floor made of refractory concrete. He guesses it has taken him twenty iterations to get to the current model, and says there is still room for improvement. On a typical PizzaHacker outing, Krupman has the oven burning between 800 and 900 degrees and turns out pies in under two minutes, though this can vary with outdoor cooking conditions, such as the wind.
Krupman's crust starts with a naturally-leavened dough that he developed in the style of local bakery all-star, Tartine. Currently, he includes about twenty-percent whole wheat flour in the mix, and he talks about wanting to up this percentage someday, both for taste and because it's healthier.
When I caught PizzaHacker serving pies outside of The Corner a few weeks ago, his Neapolitan-inspired crust varied from pizza to pizza. I had arrived just as he was starting, and I would recommend against this, as it appears he needs a few pies to work out the kinks on any given night. All the pies I tried had a tender cornicione with a bit of chew and a medium-thin, nicely charred undercarriage. The centers of the pies were stiff enough that slices could be picked up by hand. The first of my pies, however, was a bit pale around the edges.
It was by my third pie, much later in the night, that Krupman fully hit his stride, and this is the pie I would like to judge him on. The lip was browner, with some blister-spots and a paper-thin crispness encasing that tender center. I'm not even sure this was his best work—pictures online show a cornicione with more rise than any of the pizzas I was served. Nonetheless, this was a very nice crust, particularly with Krupman's signature sprinkling of alderwood smoked salt ensuring a well-seasoned end-crust with a smokey flavor that went above and beyond anything imparted by the oven.
The PizzaHacker Margherita came with creamy puddles of buffalo mozzarella that had just a hint of tang. Krupman typically uses a home-made sauce, but this late in the tomato off-season he was running low, and so served the pie with a mild canned sauce. A healthy portion of basil, a drizzle of Bariani olive oil, and some Parmigiano Reggiano finished this pie off. Though it came on the palest crust I received, I'd say it passed the test for flavor.
That night, Krupman had rationed what was left of his home-made sauce for the Marinara pizzas he served. His sauce is nothing more than cooked heirloom tomatoes from local organic farms. The sauce had a slight bitterness, but mostly an elemental cooked tomato flavor that I quite enjoyed. Fresh-minced garlic and some oregano added depth to the flavors on this pie.
Krupman often serves a pie he deems the Crowd Pleaser, a combination of pear or fig and Gorgonzola cheese. But on my visit, his California-style offering was the Big Sting, a pie with nettles, pork sausage, minced garlic and pickled hot peppers, all topped with burrata. In an act of gluttony, I added an egg.
Krupman's sausage, which is ground heritage pork that he buys from Bi-Rite Market and spices a little differently each time, comes out lighter, more crumbly than typical pizza sausage. The stinging nettles are a newer ingredient for Krupman, and he talked about the fact that he is still learning how to use them to their best. I thought he did quite well, as the funky combination of pickly-spicy-porky-grassy flavors made me quite happy.
What's next for The PizzaHacker? In the near term, he expects that he will be popping up regularly on Thursday nights at Bloodhound, a bar in the SOMA, as well as at other events around the city. But the bigger plan is finding ways to take his pop-up pizzas to a more commercial level.
He has talked about selling a kit that would allow others to build his Pizza Forge, and about marketing his sauce, though finding viable ways to do these things has proven more difficult than expected. Most notably, it sounds like Krupman is thinking seriously about the possibility of a bricks and mortar location. He says that he has even put a few calls in to commercial real estate agents.
As a piece of local color, and an up-close-and-personal pizza experience, I would be sorry to see The PizzaHacker disappear off the street corner. But I am also supremely curious to see what would become of Krupman's pies if a few of the elements of uncertainty were taken out of his process. If he can navigate the more traditional bricks and mortar world, I have a hunch he'd be able to hack it.