Dedham’s Johnny Burke, 36, got his start as a teenager working at Liberty Pizza in Wayland and later at his cousins’ bar, Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain, before going on to fine dining at T.W. Food and The Butcher Shop. But casual is more his speed: He now sells his own thick-crust pizza, garlic knots, and subs at Johnny Pomodoro in Charlestown, an offshoot of his eponymous catering company.
Tell me about the concept and the neighborhood. Why Charlestown?
We’re a modern Italian red sauce takeout spot — a hundred percent takeout, no seats. The kitchen’s two-thirds the size of the entire space, whereas our front counter is just a third. It’s really built for people visiting a couple times a week. We want to be a part of the community. We big have windows looking into the kitchen.
I fell in love [with the space] when I first walked in. It used to be a takeout Chinese food restaurant called New Speedy Chen’s. From the second I walked in the door, it just felt right. There are so many people walking around, so much foot traffic. But [despite] how amazing the neighborhood is, there’s not a ton of food there. There’s great food. There’s just not a ton of it.
Why takeout? Is this the moment for it?
So Johnny Pomodoro was a pop-up that we ran during COVID. I own a catering company in the city, and this was something that kept all my team members employed. It was so busy that we were hiring during the pandemic, not laying off or letting go, which was just a huge rarity. Our industry disappeared. Seeing all the feedback and all my team really enjoying doing it, we were like: We need to find a home for this place, not only for the enjoyment of doing it, but to differentiate our business plan. Large galas and parties went away overnight in 2020, so this was our strategy.
The whole idea with Johnny Pomodoro was we ran a different menu every week. We did Johnny’s Cantina, Johnny Pomodoro, Johnny’s Smokehouse.
Why did you stick with Italian?
It was what did the best, and it was the most fun to cook. No one says no to pizza and pasta. … When it comes down to it, to have your weekly dinner out, or you need something quick, you’re going to your local pizza shop.
I tell this story all the time. If you go to Wayland House of Pizza and you’ve never been in your entire life, and you grew up in Framingham and you order something off the Framingham House of Pizza menu at Wayland House of Pizza, they’re going to have it without you even looking at the menu. Let me ask: What do you normally order from a pizza shop?
I always get eggplant, roasted red pepper, and garlic pizza. I’m a veggie pizza person.
So, without looking at a menu, I would be confident you could call any of those spots and get it. And that’s who we aren’t. We are doing things that are noticeable, super fresh, approachable — things you’ve seen, but different. Our Greek salad is an iceberg with feta crumbled on top, olives, cubed cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and a big thick piece of feta on top with fresh oregano, olive oil, and shaved red onions. Like real Greek salad if you were to be in Greece.
Because we want to have a lower price point and really great product, you can’t order everything on your own pizza. They’re all formulated for you. We have maybe three toppings that, if you needed to add something, you could. It’s so that we can keep people really engaged and also feel really good about the inventory and the freshness of the product.
Take me back to the very beginning. What was your first food job?
Liberty’s Pizza in Wayland, Massachusetts. My family was half in West Roxbury. My cousins owned Doyle’s in JP. When I was 18, I started working at Doyle’s. Then, actually, instead of going to college, I went south and worked for Emeril Lagasse, believe it or not. Then I came back and worked at the Charles Hotel at Henrietta’s Table. That’s where I spent a few years. Then I went and worked for Barbara [Lynch] for about four years, left for Europe, and then came back and was at T.W. Food. My sous chef there is now my executive chef for our entire group. My boss there is our executive chef here, and also the chef de cuisine and butcher at Butcher Shop and No. 9 Park is my culinary director. There’s a lot of Barbara over here still.
What was it like, working for Barbara Lynch?
I loved it. I mean, it was a different time, you know? Back then, you woke up and you’d eat, breathe, live cooking. From 2008 to 2012, you never knew what you were doing every day, who you were serving, what was going to be happening. It was just such a romantic time to cook back then. With the pandemic and also so many bigger restaurants opening … back then, the chef-owned and operated stuff was just so awesome. I’m nostalgic. It was like what the movies depicted.
How has Boston changed as a food city?
I’ve been so focused on my team and what we do here that I really haven’t eaten out a ton, but I have some comments on this regardless.
The pandemic in general shut a lot of places down that were special — places that might not have all the glory but were still really tasty. We’re hopefully in a rebuilding phase. … There are tons of people opening restaurants right now, which is awesome, but I haven’t really seen too many of the chef-owned ones, right? The dollars to open in this city right now are crazy. It is so expensive.
What we’re seeing a lot of — which I have zero problem with, because it’s going to be bringing the hospitality industry back — is more Capital Grilles or places like that. There’s safety to those places….
I’m excited to see chefs coming back and saying: I’m going to use my capital to open. That’s what I’m excited for. I want to see more of the mom-and-pop shops opening. You can see them in Cambridge. … I’m excited to see the industry return back and people who just really enjoy cooking and loving food and serving people because it’s in them to return. It’ll take time.
That’s no disrespect to anyone who is doing that. I’m not saying there isn’t any of that right now. It’s just not as prevalent. I’m [thinking of] those romanticized times back in 2008 to 2015, when some of the best chefs were working out of the Franklin Café because they just loved going there for drinks after working at Coppa or The Butcher Shop. Even back in the day when it was, like, Sibling Rivalry and Hamersley’s Bistro, everyone ended up at Toro for industry night on a Thursday. I’m really excited to see that return back.
What’s your favorite thing on your menu right now?
The Uncle Johnny Pizza: caramelized onion and chicken cutlet on our tray pizza. Some people call it Detroit-style. I’m just not going to call it that because we’re in Boston.
When you’re not working, where do you hang out?
Oh, God, it’s so lame right now! We hang out at Brickhouse in Dedham because I have a 1½-year-old. If you want something cooler, we’ve been loving Waverly and Dovetail in Charlestown.
What’s your favorite dive bar?
Oh, man. Silvertone is definitely what I find myself craving when I want to go out, but I don’t know if that’s a dive bar.
What’s your favorite snack?
An ice cream sandwich. Like, Hood ice cream sandwiches. They sell them at the store down the street, and it’s just enough time to wolf it down and no one can see it by the time I get home.
If you had to describe Barbara Lynch in a word, what would you say?
Let’s not do that one! This is the thing: I don’t want to romanticize it. Oh my God, there’s so many. Leader. Let’s go with that.
Which chef do you really admire?
I’m a little out of the mix right now, but the team over at Dovetail. Chris [Willis] at Pammy’s.
It’s just kind of everything you want in a space. You can tell there’s so much thought that goes into stuff and yet it’s simple — really simply elegant. I just think it’s really good.
What’s been your biggest kitchen disaster?
Back in the day, I was in such a rush, I mistook cayenne for paprika. Maybe it was hummus. … I absolutely annihilated it and didn’t realize it until we were plating it up. It caused a little bit of hecticness. I was prepping at Stir and going into service. We were using the Vitamix, and I was scraping the sides while it was on. A wooden spatula got caught and chopped tons of wood into a chicken liver mousse.
I was with someone — I won’t use their name but they’re pretty well known — and we forgot foie in the oven when we were roasting whole lobes. We roasted them until they were totally melted. We basically ruined a couple thousand dollars’ worth of foie gras lobes.
This wasn’t really my fault, but one time we had a guest at The Butcher Shop who I was doing tableside truffles for. It completely crumbled, and they got the whole truffle. It was a $20 add-on, and they got $400 in truffles.
What’s your least favorite and your most favorite pizza topping?
My most favorite pizza topping, honestly, is pepperoni and pomodoro sauce for the most part. My least favorite is stinky cheese. I just don’t want any sort of warm taleggio on my pizza.
What other places in Boston have great pizza?
Haymarket Pizza had some of the best pizza in the city. And if you’re an eggplant fan, their eggplant pizza is absolutely nuts. It closed for good 2021. So that’s what I’m saying. This [stuff] is closing left and right.
And I love Leone’s in Somerville. Pinocchio’s in Cambridge is so darn good. And I’ve got to give a shout-out to Dedham’s Brickhouse. We have a pizza called the Brickhouse on our menu, because my chef and I used to get the Bolognese pizza over there. [Theirs] is thin crust. It’s super tasty. It’s the polar opposite of our pizza because ours is thick and pillowy. Theirs is super thin and crunchy. It’s ridiculous.