I hadn’t been to Drum Hill in Chelmsford since my mom took me prom-dress-shopping at House of Concetta in 1995. I ended up with a seafoam-green frock that looked like a shower curtain, paired with dyed-to-match heels.
In 2023, I got something far better from the neighborhood: pizza. For months, people had been asking if I’d tried Joanie’s.
“It’s real New York-style,” I heard. “Best pizza for miles,” someone else said.
So I drove a New Jersey-born pal — someone who’d devoured her share of oily slices while waiting for a late-night train across the Hudson River — up Route 3 for a field trip to the very same strip.
Dan Rodriguez runs the shop with his wife, Anne Thompson. The table-free storefront, between a Jazzercise studio and a nail salon, belies their pedigree: Rodriguez has worked at Clio, Harvest, Uni, and New York’s Blue Hill. The couple met while at Craigie on Main. It was here that Boston’s public transit system was actually helpful.
“The train would shut down at 12, and everyone would get out at 1 a.m. Once I got a car, I’d stay late and give people a ride home so they didn’t have to pay for a taxi. This was before Uber,” Thompson says. The pair got to talking, and now they have a 5-year-old daughter, Joanie.
Craigie was tough, and Tony Maws was an exacting boss. But it was good training.
“It was cool to work around people who were like-minded and passionate about food and doing things the ‘right’ way. It was something we bonded over — always trying to do the best job,” she says. “For us, that’s what has always made sense. If you can make it better, do that, even working at a pizzeria.”
They started the business during COVID, when Rodriguez was laid off from another pizza place, Posto in Bedford. They live in Lowell, and Rodriguez grew up in Dracut, so this is a neighborhood affair. (Rodriguez’s dad helps out, too.) While Rodriguez has worked at some of the area’s top restaurants, pizza was his calling.
“It’s so simple. It’s something everybody loves,” he says.
“What can we make that’s a really good meal and give people their money’s worth? Mickey Ward comes in to get pizza, and so does a guy who’s dropping his kids from soccer in a Tesla,” Thompson adds.
They call their pizza “New York”-style, though they use the term loosely.
“That’s a gateway word, to draw people in,” Rodriguez says. “I wouldn’t say it’s traditional. It’s got more char to it. Most New York pizzas have that blond crust. Ours is more colored. But we still strive for something that comes in a box that’s crispy and has good chew. It’s between New York and New Haven,” he says.
This is not a dine-in establishment. We ordered three 16-inch pies: the Joanie Pepperoni ($18), classic cheese ($15), and The Truth, with eggplant, ricotta, caramelized onion, and hot honey ($19), which we ate from my trunk on sagging paper plates. (Is there any other way?)
Slices are nicely foldable; each mottled blanket of mozzarella also has pops of parmesan and pecorino Romano nuggets for a savory punch. My connoisseur friend declared that this isn’t really New York pizza, though, except that the dough is thin and floppy (which is key). It’s not soupy enough; it’s yeastier, crispier, and cracklier than her native pies. Instead, consider this a more refined, less oily take on a New York original. Each pizza is cooked at 600 degrees for between six to seven minutes, a tiny bit shorter than a standard New York slice.
If grease is really what you’re after, order the pepperoni: These snappy little cups also function as miniature whirlpools of oil. The eggplant-ricotta pie has an almost smoky, layered richness, which you likely won’t find at your neighborhood pizza parlor.
For dessert, Thompson’s melty homemade chocolate chip cookies are essential. Like Joanie’s pizza, these are just the right blend of crunchy but soft. I’m still dreaming about them. And even though this pizza might not fool a native New Yorker, it doesn’t need to. This is a Drum Hill original: foldable, floppy, with gourmet touches.
“The dough makes our pizza the perfect texture, with a little bit of crunch, a little bit of chew. The character of the dough is something we worked on for a long time. We wanted something that hits that nostalgic little spot in your brain — pizza day! — but also more elevated,” Thompson says.
Life comes full circle: In 1995, my complexion looked like a pepperoni pizza, and I was blotting my skin with Stridex. Twenty-eight years later, I was blotting a delicious pepperoni pizza with thin paper napkins amid my kids’ soccer equipment, just a few blocks away. Nostalgia indeed.
Joanie’s, 83 Parkhurst Road #5, Chelmsford, 978-856-7015, www.joanieschelmsford.com