I still remember the first time I ever had any food from Blackbird Pizza. It was during a screening of Vegucated in the summer of 2012 and Blackbird provided the food after the movie. They had several different pizzas and a chickpea ‘tuna’ wrap. This was just as I was learning about being vegan and I was excited, and a bit surprised, to find a place that makes fantastic tasting vegan versions of familiar food. Soon there after they became a standard stop, usually after a run or a race when we wanted something really good, quick and soul satisfying!
They are the city’s first, and only, all vegan and Kosher pizza shop. They have some unique offerings from their Haymaker and Brunchbird Pizzas to their Cubano and The Ringer sandwiches. I quickly developed a couple of favorite foods to order that have never failed to deliver on taste, texture and satisfaction. I get a slice of the nacho pizza – avocado, caramelized onions, jalapeno peppers, tomato sauce, cheddar style Daiya cheese and their root beer BBQ seitan ‘wings’. The crust on the pizza is one of the best I’ve had, and too me the pizza is defined by its crust. The combo of the nacho toppings delivers creaminess, heat and sweetness. The seitan wings are hands down, in my opinion, the best in the city. The root beer BBQ sauce is perfectly balanced, with a deep flavor of root beer, smokiness and sweetness. The seitan is fried to a perfect crispiness. This is a true definition of a happy meal!
Not to say I haven’t indulged in other offerings there. At times I break out of my normal order and have seriously enjoyed their award winning cheesesteaks – Blackbird has won Best Vegan Cheesesteak two out of the past three years. Their seitan ‘chicken’ parm sandwich – a favorite of my 85 year old dad!
They magically recreate a cheese sauce for their fries that would stop the ‘cheese tho’ arguments about being vegan dead in their tracks. The Ringer sandwich is a perfect combination of “chicken fried” seitan, sundried tomato tapenade, smoked shallots, baby arugula, horseradish mayo that I reserve for post very long runs and I need serious refueling. This ain’t a sandwich for amateurs.
But in countless visits over the past four years I never got their calzone-until a couple of weeks ago. Driving down to see my mom for Mother’s Day we stopped and picked up Blackbirds to go and eat at her house. My wife Karen decided she wanted a ‘dip’ food. Give here a food and a sauce to dip it in and she is very happy. So she decided to order the calzone. I didn’t think anything of it.
That is, until I tasted it and then so did my mom. My mom is lactose intolerant and hasn’t enjoyed a number of the foods we ate growing up in very South Philly Italian household in over ten years. When my mom tasted it, her face lit up and a smile came across her face. I think she was almost moved to tears! She quickly exclaimed that this was not only delicious, but even better than the calzones she remembered having before being lactose intolerant. I was happy that not only was she enjoying the food but also we were sharing a meal that could bring back fond memories of eating so many countless meals together in our house. For me, I am upset that it took me so long to discover just how fantastic their calzone is – tender dough filled with rich and creamy tofu ricotta and Daiya cheese. This is a wildly legit calzone. A couple weeks later she is still talking about ‘that calzone’. So for sure, in the very near future we will have to make a trip there for a round of calzones.
Food isn’t just about being ‘fuel’, or satisfying a hunger pang. At times, food is what memories are built around and why I think sometimes people are resistant to be vegan. They feel they are turning their backs on actual memories. Thank you to places like Blackbird and the founder, Mark Mebus, for putting out food that is redefining what eating a traditional food could mean. It reminds us that the people around the table are what makes up the memories and the food is just a gateway to those memories-memories that can be recalled with delicious, cruelty free ingredients. Mark was nice enough to answer some questions for me and give a glimpse into his thoughts on a few topics.
ME: Was there a specific person who influenced you to go into cooking or how did you go about figuring out this is what you wanted to do?
MARK: Honestly I always loved food and cooking. My grandparents on my mother’s side were all Italian and we always had pretty big family meals with them. I think the general atmosphere around family meals like that us what initially attracted me to cooking.
ME: How did you get started cooking professionally?
MARK: I worked a number of fast food jobs as a teenager, but my first real restaurant job was at Candle 79 in Manhattan. I had gone to the Natural Gourmet Institute and interned at Candle 79. They hired me when my internship was complete and it was a great start into the world of vegan cooking. After that I worked under Rich Landau at Horizons in Philadelphia. Rich is really who I learned the most from in terms of flavor and execution of technique.
ME: Was a pizza place always something you wanted to open, what was the driving force behind that decision?
MARK: Pizza was something that my friends and I had always talked about doing. It was always the #1 food that vegans said they missed from before they were vegan. Also I think being able to do a vegan version of such a casual, neighborhood style establishment like a pizza shop is the best platform for showing people that regular foods they love can taste great vegan as well. Also I just absolutely love pizza and I think about pizza dough all the time.
ME: Blackbird has become an icon in the Philly vegan scene, is there any plans to expand what you are doing at Blackbird or a second location or even open another type of restaurant concept?
MARK: Actually we are opening a second pizza shop in Brooklyn NY right now! It is a collaboration with our friends at Champs Diner. It’s called SCREAMERS PIZZERIA located at 620 Manhattan Ave. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s mostly pizza by the slice. We do white pies and calzone too. All vegan obviously.
ME: Veganism seems to be growing by leaps and bounds not only here in Philly but globally. What is your take on its growth and how do you feel about seeing it grow so well right here in Philly?
MARK: I love so much how rapidly the vegan scene is growing. Especially in Philadelphia. I went vegan in ’98 and there was really nothing except Chinese food or burritos from Mad Mex. It’s incredible how many options there are and how interested the public in Philly is in vegan food and veganism. To be honest, I never really thought it would get as mainstream as it is currently and I’m very happy that it keeps growing.