Anthony Spina opened O4W Pizza inside Irwin Street Market in January 2015. Over the past year, the New Jersey native has managed to forever change Atlanta's pizza obsessions by bringing us the Grandma pie, now one of the city's most crave-worthy examples of the form. Eater recently sat down with Spina to talk about his successful first year in Atlanta, his Jersey pizza roots, and the not-so-secret secrets to making great pizza.
Congratulations on a successful first year. What has the last year been like?
I moved here from New Jersey in October 2014 and opened this shop in January 2015. It's been crazy. The year went by really fast, that's for sure. When the Creative Loafing article came out and picked our Grandma pie as No. 1 in the city, it literally doubled our drawer over the next week. We were bombarded and totally unprepared for it. We became like a tourist attraction overnight. That first weekend that the article came out was just overwhelming, in a good way. It really did more for the success of our business than anything else.
Did you know you when you moved here you were going to fill a pizza void that Atlanta wasn't even aware it had?
I did realize that nothing here really tasted like my pie, and I thought that might be good for us. I had already been selected in the top ten pizza slices in New Jersey the first year my Jersey shop was open, so I knew my pie was good before I got to Atlanta. Not that one pizza is better than another, but I was pretty sure no pie in Atlanta tasted like mine. I never came here with the attention of Grandma pie being so popular. Grandma pie was just in my bag, it's a Jersey thing. A Grandma pie is a specialty pizza in Jersey â people like it, but they only get it once in a while. Grandma started as our specialty pie, but it turned into our regular pizza. I guess our regular Jersey round pie is our special pie now.
What's the history of Grandma pie?
Supposedly, this guy Umberto from Long Island started it as a commercial pizza on a menu. He didn't create the Grandma pie, it's always been around. Grandma pie is more like a home-style pie. That's where it got the name "Grandma pie." You find it in those true Italian-style pizzerias, in little neighborhoods with pizzerias that have been in places for a hundred years â the kind of place you never go to because it looks like a dumpy little joint. It is starting to get more popular, coming back around again, so you see Grandma pie pop up here and there.
Tell us a little bit about your background. When did you start making pizza?
I first started working in a pizza shop way back in the early ‘80s, before I was even of legal age to be working in a kitchen. We weren't doing anything great back then. Nothing was fresh, all canned stuff. It was the fast food of the time. When I was old enough to legally work in a kitchen, I spent a lot of time working with some really good pizza-makers and learned that pizza can be more than a fast food, more than just regular old pizza. I absorbed as much as I could over that time. I spent time managing a coal-fired pizza place before opening my own shop in Long Branch.
Can you say a little more about the coal, wood, gas pizza ovens?
Everybody gets confused these days about the whole Neapolitan-style pizza, which is a wood-fired pizza. Wood-fired pizza might be traditional in Italy, but in the U.S., if you want to really talk about traditional pizza, it's all coal-fired. That's what they had prior to gas; it was all coal. Lombardi's, Pepe's, Totonno's, Grimaldi's, they are all coal-fired ovens. It's not wood. Wood is like the neo-classic pizza in this country. If you hadn't previously been to Italy, you wouldn't even have known about wood-fired pizza until it gained popularity in this country in the last 15 years.
What's the secret to great pizza? The dough? The water? The ovens?
I really can't answer that, I don't know. Our ovens, we brought down from Jersey. They're typical deck ovens. We cook right around 600 degrees. It's all bottom heat. If we cook any higher, the bottom of the pies will just burn before anything else. We turn out our round pie in about three minutes in a hot oven, which is pretty fast for a deck oven. Pizza dough is all about hydration. The longer the dough sits in the oven, it's just slowly drying out, and drying out. That's how you end up with these cardboard-like pizzas. Our dough is a little wetter; we try to get it in and out of the oven as quickly as possible.
Let's be more specific. What's the secret, why is your Grandma pie so damn good?
There's no magic to it, no special recipe. I'm not doing anything special, it's not a top secret. There's nothing I'm doing that anyone couldn't do. It's basic pizza. Pizza is a simple thing. The thing that makes it so hard to do pizza really well is that pizza is simple. I mean, if you mess it up, there's no place to hide it. Sometimes people think simple means easy, it doesn't. Simple does not mean easy, simple means there's not really much to it. People ask me all the time about the recipe for the Grandma sauce, but there's nothing in it that's magical. It's not about a secret sauce recipe. Cooking is an art. For your art to be good, you have to love it. It comes out in the food. If you don't really have a deep-down love for it, it shows in the food. You have to have passion for what you're doing. That's the only secret to the Grandma pie.
Can you tell us about the plans for your new restaurant?
We are opening a second shop in Duluth, hopefully before the end of April. It will be similar to the Old Fourth Ward shop, but more. The Grandma pie will be the focal point of the new menu, now that I know that's what people want. I'm going to try to mix it up a bit. It's a big spot, so there's room to do more than what we have here in O4W. It will hopefully be more like a trattoria, with some table service along with the counter service. I have some ideas, and we're still thinking through these things, but I may try to do something with fresh mozzarella that I make to order for each dish. I make fresh mozzarella every day, like 20 to 40 pounds per day. At the new spot, I might try doing something like, say, a Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella made to order. Beyond pizza, the menu will be Tri-State Area Italian-American food, or Jersey-style Italian food. I'm going to try to show that I can do more than just pizza.