In this great wide world, there are endless styles of pizza. You’ve got your Neapolitan and Sicilian, your New York slice and New Haven apizza, your deep dish and Greek, and onward. But in the towns that make up and surround the South Shore, there is only one style that matters. Here, bar pizza reigns supreme.
What is South Shore bar pizza? If you grew up eating at places like the Lynwood Cafe in Randolph, Town Spa in Stoughton, and the Venus Cafe in Whitman, you know. It’s made in a 10-inch pan, just the right size for each person to order their own while sharing a pitcher of beer. The cheese is mostly cheddar, which lends a buttery taste. The crust is crisp, biscuit-y. The sauce and cheese are spread all the way to the edge of the pan, where they mingle and caramelize in the heat of the oven. True aficionados know to ask for their pizza with burnt edges, or “laced,” a reference to the pattern formed by the crisped cheese. As for what’s in the top-secret spice blend for each shop’s sauce, your guess is as good as mine.
“Honestly, right now, there’s only one person that knows the recipe,” says Town Spa’s Matt Phillips, who at 30 has been working at the family business for nearly two-thirds of his life. “We have these little tiny spice bags that get made by one specific person. It’s not shared with anybody besides the immediate family.”
This style of pizza has been around for more than 70 years. Many believe it originated in Brockton, at the Cape Cod Cafe, purchased by E. James Jamoulis in 1947 and now operated by grandsons Jonathan and Jeremy. It is the ultimate regional, artisanal specialty, a unique point of pride for the South Shore, still made by hand by families that have been doing this for four generations. Its fans have always been passionate, even pugilistic — ready to get into it over which place is best, why your favorite is actually terrible, and whether or not pineapple has any place on pizza, ever (a deeply divisive issue).
But since the start of coronavirus, South Shore bar pizza may be having its biggest moment yet.
In mid-February, a public Facebook group called South Shore Bar Pizza Social Club launched, “devoted to our love of South Shore-style bar pizza, a working-class tradition in the pubs, taverns and dive bars south of Boston, Massachusetts.” Just a few weeks later, the state was under a stay-at-home advisory, everyone cooking for themselves and missing their favorite restaurants, often with time on their hands. It was the perfect moment to longingly debate bar pizza with strangers online, and to experiment with learning how to replicate it at home. Soon enough, people were posting recipes, sourcing the best pans, discussing cheddar ratios, and sharing pictures of the pizzas they produced in their own kitchens.
The group has now grown to more than 19,000 members, bringing area businesses much-needed exposure during a difficult time. Conversation, predictably, can get feisty. At the end of March, a private splinter group formed, called, simply, South Shore Bar Style Pizza. Last month, after a contentious episode in the other group involving a post about kale soup, South Shore Bar Style Pizza’s membership skyrocketed, ranks presumably swelled by defectors. “Well folks, we hit the coveted 1,019 member mark, a.k.a. THE SWEET SPOT!,” joked one of the admins, Evan Dumas. “While it’s been true for a while now, we are officially the 2nd Largest South Shore Bar Pizza group in the world (like, the whole thing...).”
Why do so many people care so much about a quirky style of pizza that exists nowhere but the swath of land between Routes 3A and 138? Because what we talk about when we talk about pizza is so much more. It’s family. It’s childhood. It’s tribe.
“There’s a lot of passion involved in it. There’s a lot of brand loyalty,” says Todd Mead, an auto builder and fabricator who lives in Colorado but grew up in Raynham eating pizza from Town Spa every couple of weeks. “It’s like sports. It’s like religion.” He remembers visiting his grandfather’s house in Stoughton, one of the adults would always run out and return with a tall stack of brown paper bags: Another quirk of South Shore bar pizza is that takeout is often bagged rather than boxed. “We were so excited when Town Spa and a 2 liter of Pepsi showed up,” he says. “I really looked forward to that. It’s ingrained in our entire culture. It’s like a religion to a lot of people. It’s part of your family to say ‘We’re going to the Spa’ and everybody gets excited about it.”
Maybe your family was a Lynwood family. Maybe you were raised on Hoey’s, another stalwart of the scene, run out of AMVETS Post 51 in Randolph since 1953 by three generations of Hoeys. Could be Christo’s in Brockton was your weekly ritual: There, owner Christos Tsaganis, a.k.a. “The Greek Salad King” (Greek salad being the only proper accompaniment to bar pizza), would call your party to its table in the Red Room, the Green Room, the Blue Room, or the ornate Gold Room. (The restaurant closed in 2013, and Christo’s now operates as a takeout business in Whitman.) Whatever your place was, that is your favorite, or at least your template for what bar pizza should be.
Unless you’re Bobby Owens. His family owns Bay State Restaurant Products, operating in the same Brockton location since 1946. If you’re looking for pans to make your own bar pizza, many consider Bay State’s to be the best for the job. (Pro tip: They’re also great for making bacon, Owens says.) The business supplies them to many of the local shops and also repairs their pizza ovens, which they probably delivered, too, back in the day. Owens’s father built the bar at the popular Poopsie’s in Pembroke and the Gold Room at Christo’s. (His grandfather also put a bar in Rocky Marciano’s basement, but that’s a different story.) “We’ve been the behind-the-scene guys for a long time. There’s a lot of history in it,” Owens says. Now the bar pizza Facebook pages are shining a spotlight on his business. “It’s kind of cool. A lot of people are coming in: ‘Oh, you’re the Bobby Owens.' A lady came in the other day and said, ‘You’re like a little local celebrity right now.’”
So which bar pizza is his favorite? “I can’t really answer because if you grew up in Randolph, your favorite place is the Lynwood. If you grew up on Town Spa Friday nights and with Dad watching football Sundays, every time you take a bite it triggers that nostalgia and memories. For me, I grew up in almost every one of these kitchens. As a kid, I’d go in and do a job with my dad, and they’d say, ‘Hey, you hungry? You want a pizza?’ I got to make my own pizza and experiment with toppings.”
As for those toppings, pepperoni is ever popular. You’ve got your usual suspects — sausage, onions, peppers — but also linguica, thanks to the region’s sizable Portuguese population. Many places use Amaral’s, made in Fall River for nearly a century. Buffalo chicken has surged in recent years. But only one place is famous for its bean special: baked beans, onion, and salami.
“I don’t want to say we created it or anything,” says Lynwood Cafe’s Stephan Campanella, whose great-grandfather started the place in 1949. Now he and sister Pamela run the show; their mother, Elaine, still works there as well. “But I can remember as a kid, growing up back in the day, it was franks and beans night on Saturday. My grandmother always made it. There would be a sheet pan in the walk-in, and my grandfather would put a scoop on his pizza and eat it, and the cooks did it too. It took off from there. The bean special is almost iconic to what we do.”
As for that newfangled Buffalo chicken pizza, you won’t find it, even though Campanella says he probably gets 50 calls a day requesting it. Maybe in the future. “My grandfather always said ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’: the KISS method. I try to keep it like that, but times change. We might have to update a few toppings.”
The Lynwood is a standard bearer, adhering to the same principles espoused by classically trained fine-dining chefs: Use the best ingredients, and let them shine. “A lot of people ask what’s the secret,” Campanella says. “I’m very honest and I tell people the secret to our pizza is the secret to all good home cooking. If you just buy the best-quality ingredients you can get your hands on, it’s going to be delicious. We keep it simple and concise and consistent. If you come in today and buy it, oh my goodness, it tastes exactly as it did 22 years ago. You want the familiarity.”
It was Lynwood pizza that Mark Ross, an engineer turned independent film director and producer, missed when he moved to Vegas 17 years ago to develop casino games. It was his childhood standby. So he started making his own version. At the same time, he was looking for a new film project. Inspiration struck, and his documentary on South Shore-style bar pizza is currently in preproduction. “The [South Shore Bar Pizza Social Club] group inspired me. The people on it are incredible. Some have family ties, and they’ve been wonderful about sharing knowledge,” he says. When the COVID coast is clear, he plans to travel back to Massachusetts and start filming. “I don’t want to show people wearing masks in these restaurants. I don’t think anybody wants to be reminded of the year 2020.”
But perhaps no South Shore expat is as devoted to re-creating bar pizza as Todd Mead. In high school, he started working for restaurateur Ron Emma, the man behind Emma’s Pub & Pizza, then bounced around the bar pizza scene, learning the craft. His path eventually led to Colorado. “I didn’t start making this style of pizza at home successfully until the COVID thing happened, and then I really threw down on it,” he says. “I bet you I’ve made 20 different versions of the pizza. I really want to get this recipe unlocked. … My whole family started doing this. They all wanted to try to master their own. All of my aunts, my mother, they’re all trying to make this at home. I’m the only one keeping a spreadsheet, though.” He laughs. “The word ‘obsession’ has been used repeatedly in regards to this topic.”
He started off with a recipe that has been many home cooks' jumping-off point, developed by aficionado John Menton and posted on his website, barpizzabarpizza.com (where you’ll also find a handy copy of the South Shore Bar Style Facebook group’s master list of bar pizza spots). Mead has posted several instructional videos on YouTube and shared his adapted recipe on Facebook. There’s also a vision board of sorts, featuring dilapidated old vehicles and others — the Merry Pranksters' Furthur bus, Fozzie’s Studebaker from “The Muppet Movie” — with psychedelic paint jobs. It’s all grist for the mill. Next year Mead is planning to start Colorado’s first-ever South Shore-style bar pizza food truck.
Because ultimately, the best bar pizza is the one in your own neighborhood, no matter where that is. “We’re all good,” says the Lynwood’s Campanella. “We’re all small guys, all family businesses, working together to pay mortgages and stay in business. It’s just small businesses plugging away, making people happy.”