Interview by Megan Cole
We all love pizza, but Tommy Habetz is obsessed with it. Habetz has an eye for taking classic food favourites like sandwiches, the inspiration for his other restaurant Bunk Sandwiches, and making you fall in love with it all over again. But while he embraces tradition, Habetz also tries to put his own spin on what he’s creating, even integrating Chinese flavours with the Italian dishes at his newest restaurant, Pizza Jerk. With a new Bunk location recently opened in Brooklyn and slices being served up seven days a week at Pizza Jerk, we thought it was time to catch-up with Habetz.
How’s the pizza business treating you so far?
Tommy Habetz: It’s been awesome, except we have this little house on the property and it has no heat in it. I’m shivering here trying to get some work done.
How long have you guys been open now?
It’s been like two and a half weeks.
I heard that you were planning on naming it something other than Pizza Jerk, why did you change the name?
Usually when I’ve got an idea for a restaurant I’ll have a few different names I’m trying to decide on. It will be like band names, and I’ve got 10 names in mind. With this spot, I had a couple, and we were going with my initial idea which was Moon Pizza. We registered the business as that, and had announced that was what we were going to do. I was naming it after Keith Moon. I really had a vision for it, but when I found the spot we are at on Northeast 42 Avenue there was an existing pizza place a block away called Rocket Pizza. I thought it would be dumb to open Moon Pizza down the street from Rocket Pizza. I had already changed the name from Moon Pizza to Pizza Jerk because of Rocket Pizza being down the street, and then it ended up becoming Red Sauce Pizza. I could have kept the name Moon Pizza and felt okay about it. I liked the name Pizza Jerk, and I thought it was a bit more memorable. I’ve always liked names that stick out in your head. I was also listening to the band Railroad Jerk a lot at the time, too; the New York band from the ’90s. I was driving around and thought Pizza Jerk would be a good name for a place. It seems to have worked out. It’s definitely got a family pizza parlour vibe to it, and I think kids like the name Pizza Jerk, too.
Why did you want to do a pizza place?
I’ve just been obsessed with pizza since I was a kid. The first time I got my driver’s license when I was 16 years old the first thing I did was get a pizza in New Haven from Frank Pepe’s Pizza. When I lived in New York I would drive friends and girlfriends nuts trying to find the most awesome pizza spot in Brooklyn or Queens. It’s always been an obsession. It’s been so fun to recreate and be able to make any kind of pizza and be proud of it.
What did you want to do different from all the other pizza places in Portland?
I just wanted to be able to do the kind of stuff that I wanted to do. The menu is a reflection of me and my tastes. I’ve taken a kind of Bunk approach to it, where we’ve got the classic stuff and we’ve got the more interesting things too, like specialty pies and you can build your own, too. I really wanted as little pretension as possible, but we have to have a little. [Laughs] Just kidding. I’m trying to do a really high level of pizza, but we’re also doing slices and to-go pies. We don’t have a bunch of rules. Another big part with opening a pizza place is I’ve got two kids who love pizza, so I was getting tired of buying pizza for them all the time.
Tell me about the pasta you’re doing.
We’re doing a few pastas that we’re going to improve on. I want to do raviolis and fresh made pastas as well. We have spaghetti and meatballs, cacio e pepe, which is just pecarino romano and black pepper, and we have a sweet pork dan dan noodle, which is a Chinese noodle dish. We’ve been crossing Chinese and Italian quite a bit, like I’m doing a fried rice that’s gluten-free, and is just something I was experimenting with using the technique of fried rice with Italian ingredients, so we’re doing a fennel sausage and broccoli rabe fried rice. The dan dan noodle is kind of a cross between Italian and Chinese; it’s super spicy and tasty.
Something we’ve learned about you through our interviews is that you love music as much as we do. Are you planning to combine music and food like you did over at Bunk?
We’ve got some of our favourite posters on the wall. We’ve got some Jawbreaker, Nomeansno, Sonic Youth and some other great concert posters, and that’s just going to keep growing. We also play whatever we want to play, music-wise. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to do music here unless we did more of an outside acoustic thing in the spring and summer, but I’m all for it if the neighbourhood is. Right across the street last summer, I was blown away, but we’re located in the Cully neighbourhood, and they have a farmers’ market right across the street from us on Wednesdays and Thursdays in the summer. At the end of the summer there was a DJ and the kids were stepping up and rapping. It was amazing; the kids were so talented. I think there is a lot of music and soul in this neighbourhood. I’m excited to see how that progresses over the next few years.
Are you still busy with Bunk, or have you stepped away to focus on Pizza Jerk?
I’ve been here at Pizza Jerk working and putting in most of my time and effort over the next few weeks, but I’m definitely still involved with Bunk every day.
An you guys opened a Bunk location in New York this fall?
Yeah, we opened in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg. It’s going really well. It’s funny, our first review was horrible from an online publication, so we were like “Oh, shit!” and kind of lost our breath, but the subsequent reviews we’ve gotten have been really awesome and positive, like from Brooklyn Magazine and New York Magazine. Yesterday, my old boss Mario Batali started giving us a bunch of love. He was having his coffee and saw the review in New York Magazine and took a picture and posted it saying congratulations.
Would there be any nerves if Mario came out and ate pasta at Pizza Jerk?
I don’t think so, I’ve had to do it so many times before. I was more nervous when I was a younger chef, but I’d love for him to come have pasta here. He hasn’t been to Portland in a while. I think the last time he was here was on a book tour or something.
Maybe we should make a suggestion that he be invited to Feast Portland next year?
Yeah, I invited him to the first Feast, but he was too busy with The Chew and other stuff. But he should definitely come out for that; it would be a blast.