An underground pizza joint started by a guitar-playing pizzaiolo who teaches himself how to sling pies and becomes a media darling--all from the comfort of his own home. (You can do it, too!)
This is the Elusive Butterfly of pizza stories that has it all. There’s an anonymous pizzaiolo, a hard-to-find location, an LA Times #1 rating, and that fabled west-coast snow leopard of pizza: a legit New Jersey slice in the City Of Angels, a trendy, tinselized town where a decent pizza fears to tread.
(I lived in Los Angeles for about two decades, and it was the land of pizza disappointment. Everybody was still residually agog enough over celebrity chefs cranking out small pizzas dotted with smoky fish, stinky cheese and carpet tacks that they didn't really care about the crust beneath the smoky fish, stinky cheese and carpet tacks. Somebody turned that pizza model into a chain of pizza joints and the rest is global pizza history. Things are somewhat better now. But I digress.)
What we have here is anti-chain pizza: a professional musician from New Jersey turned home pizzaiolo, a standard home oven, a pandemic inspired business model, and a zeitgeist quest for comfort food.
It’s like a speakeasy of pizza. A residential block at night. A shadowy figure looking around furtively, face buried in the upturned lapels of a trench coat, fedora pulled down over the brow. Knocking a secret signal at the door. An underground pizza slides through a pizza-shaped slot. Footsteps and tantalizing aroma disappearing into the night.
Well, maybe not quite like that. A guy can dream. But we are talking about overnight legend that is Secret Pizza L.A.
Only 50 pizzas a week, spread over three nights. Online ordering only. Contact through the website only. Secret Pizza L.A. became all the rage on the down low. I read about this, and felt like I was missing out on the best thing in Los Angeles since I walked into the Kansas of Eric Greenspan’s grilled cheese joint, went through the portal of a walk-in cooler door at the back of the store, and found myself in the Oz of Greenspan’s glorious Maré patio seafood restaurant that nobody knew about (which is why the place was packed to the gills and turning away schools of diners).
Secret Pizza L.A. had it all: pizza mystery, pizza scarcity, pizza idolatry, pizza delight. And all of it created by a pizza unknown. In a world where Nancy Silverton of Mozza and Chris Bianco are pizza gods, Secret Pizza L.A. was launched by a refugee from the New York tri-state area. His on-the-down-low pizza was turning him into an unnamed pizza darling.
Los Angeles Magazine called him an “anonymous pizza savant” who “has been churning out delicious, East Coast-style pies from his apartment and selling through Instagram.” As it says on the official Secret Pizza L.A. T-shirt, “LA’s best kept slice. Mostly closed. Rarely open.” This was appealing on so many levels. It was also appealing to the 50 lucky people each week who were winning the rights to order his $26, 18-inch pizzas.
I had to know more. I had to hear about the self-styled, homegrown pizza pro who was upstaging the pie-slinging cognoscenti of LA’s celebrity pizza joints. “The best pizza in LA is coming out of some guy’s apartment” is a made-for-Hollywood scenario.
Of course, Free The Pizza is late to the pizza party. The underground Secret Pizza has now attained a degree of sea-level respectability. They’re now registered with the county health department and slinging the pies from an actual commercial kitchen. But they’re still hard to get. There’s still a countdown timer on pizza reservations remaining. I reached out on Instagram and quickly had the attention of “Sean” (perhaps his real name), the anonymous pizzaiolo of Secret Pizza L.A. He agreed to do this interview.
Free The Pizza: So, without further ado, please meet Sean of Secret Pizza L.A.
Sean of Secret Pizza LA: Thanks for all of this!
Free The Pizza: Thank you for taking the time to do this, what with your crazy busy schedule. The fact that you and your pizza are hard to get only heightened the allure. It’s the kind of thing that creates legends. Congratulations. So, let’s start with the first question we ask everyone: What’s your favorite pizza memory?
Sean: There are so many that it’s hard to choose, so I’ll give you two. One was the first time I had Joe’s in NYC.
FTP: For the uninitiated, Joe's Pizza is a famous New York slice joint, and has been called a “Greenwich Village institution.”
Sean: This was when there was still the existing Joe’s on Carmine Street, but also the Joe’s right in the corner of Bleecker and Carmine. I was just walking by and I had no plans to eat pizza. But I caught one whiff of it and I didn’t think twice—walked right in, got a plain slice and it was perfect. I remember feeling the pain in my wallet because it was a good chunk more expensive than slices out in the NJ suburbs at the time, but anytime the smell drags you in off the street is a good day.
The other one is to prove that it doesn’t have to be “great pizza” to make a great memory. I was on tour in 2019, playing guitar with Mike Krol and had just had an emergency surgery for an abscess the day prior thanks to a chronic health problem. We were somewhere in New Mexico and stopped at a tiny Love’s Truck Stop. I went in to get a drink and at the counter was the freshest and most delicious looking gas station pizza I’ve ever seen. It was a Godfather’s Pizza with pepperoni and the cashier saw me eyeing it and deliberating. She said, “It just came out,” which was all the nudge I needed. I fell asleep in the van and woke up and ate it at room temp a couple hours later and it was incredibly delicious.
FTP: That doesn’t surprise me. Eating the absolute right thing for a particular point in time can all become cemented together as a perfect food moment. Today, you’re a self-taught amateur turned pizza pro. Before Secret Pizza, you were a New Jersey pizza hobbyist trying to make the same kind of pizza you’d get by the slice in the New York metro area. How did you begin making pizza?
Sean: My earliest attempts were buying dough from a local spot in NJ and then trying to make it on a small, 15-inch stone. I did this every once in a while, but was always kind of disappointed because the dough balls were for like 18-20” pies, so it would bake up all wrong and thick and weird.
I got frustrated, and found pizzamaking dot com and some videos on YouTube of guys like Tony Gemignani, and started shopping at Corrado’s Restaurant Supply in Clifton NJ. A guy from the pizzamaking forums helped me hunt down a slab of soapstone to bake on and I still have it today.
Once I learned to make my own dough it was a huge leap forward. That happened in 2010, so I've been making pizza for about 13 years
FTP: That all sounds very familiar. What was it like the first time you opened your home oven and pulled out a legitimate, New York-style pizza? What did that feel like?
Sean: It was great. My first attempts with my own homemade dough were okay, but I was trying to emulate a coal-oven style NY pie. I used splotches of fresh mozz and modeled it after Lombardi’s, Totonno’s, Grimaldi’s. Those pies were okay.
But when I tried doing low moisture mozz instead, all of a sudden I was like, “OH, this is cool.” It felt really good to see something I had eaten my whole life come out of the oven, knowing I had made it.
FTP: Making a great pizza in a home oven is like a little pizza epiphany. And this segues to something I always tell newbies: the best pizza oven for a beginner is the home oven. I bet you have an opinion on that.
Sean: Yes, I agree. You don’t need to go buy an oven and I think there’s so much value in being able to start right away. It’s so easy to get a steel, stone, or tile to bake on these days, and there are so many resources for figuring out dough and toppings.
In addition, I’ve used home ovens that perform better than some professional ovens, believe it or not. Especially if you’re only making one or two pies.
FTP: Have you used consumer-grade outdoor pizza ovens, like Ooni or Roccbox?
Sean: I haven’t! I’d like to try one day, but I’ve only used a few different home ovens, a couple of commercial-style and convection ovens, and then I’ve had the pleasure of baking on two different deck ovens.
FTP: After moving from making pizza at home for friends to selling Secret Pizza to doing pop ups, do you still love making pizza?
Sean: I do. I’d like to think that if I stopped enjoying making pizzas, I’d just stop making pizzas. I never planned to go full time into pizza, and even though people were asking me to do so, I didn’t decide to do it until I decided it was something that I actually wanted to explore. I’m still very much enjoying the process of scaling my pizza and trying some new things like Sicilian.
FTP: As a new pizza pro with a cult following, what single piece of advice would you give to the new home pizza maker who’s just beginning their pizza journey?
Sean: Just start! My first pizzas were terrible, but even bad pizza is pretty tasty and fun. And if you’re not satisfied, try to find someone on YouTube or pizzamaking dot com or anywhere whose pizza you like. Then try to learn as much as you can from that source! Watch them make pizza at your favorite spots. Revisit old videos and spots as you learn.
That wasn’t a single piece of advice but it’s all kind of one idea: start now and then keep learning.
FTP: It seems there’s a consensus among pros that making pizza never gets old. Do you feel the same way, and why do you think that is?
Absolutely! I think it’s because you’re constantly seeing how what you do impacts the final product. Even if you don’t get to taste the pizza, you see how it comes out when you handle the dough differently and how the toppings are applied, how it bakes up etc.
My background before getting into pizza was music, and it’s an endless journey where you’re just chasing the things you like the sound of and trying to get better at making those sounds. Pizza is the same thing to me, but more for the eyes and taste instead of for the ears. I can’t see either of those things ever getting old.
FTP: Do you want to tell us what your “day job” is?
I am a lifelong musician who accidentally stumbled into being a full time pizza person. But I'm working 60-70 hours a week on pizza right now, so there's no room for anything else at this time. My last day job was when I was in high school, and ever since then I've freelanced in music—playing, recording, teaching, mixing, editing, etc. In other words, I've got no kids and I'm used to living cheap.
FTP: I love that. Good on ya. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you feel is important?
Sean: I can’t think of anything else! I thought these were great questions. I’ve been working mostly alone for the past year, and pulling 70 hour weeks on average as I sort out things. But I’ve been looking forward to this just because of the interesting questions you had come up with.
FTP: Thank you for saying so. I should probably explain that I proposed this Secret Pizza L.A. interview back in November, and it has taken this long to make it so. And I have nothing but patience for a guy who’s working this hard and this well. I’m thrilled that you agreed to do this and it was worth waiting for. What other details would you like people to know? Like, where is the pizza now instead of your apartment?
Sean: We’re located at 3501 Monterey Road in Los Angeles. The website is www.secretpizzala.com, and it will be revised and updated sometime soon. Still, the best place to find out news, reserve pies, reach me, etc., is on Instagram @secretpizzala.
FTP: Now that you’ve gone from underground to a kind of sea-level respectability, is it OK to reveal your last name?
Sean: Ha ha, yeah. Ever since last August, I grew one because the LA Times asked very politely if they could use it. I figured I didn’t really need to hide as much since I was registered with the LA County Public Health Department instead of slinging from home.
FTP: I’m guessing your last name’s not Wayne or Kent.
Sean: Lango. Sean Lango.
FTP: Thanks so much for doing this. It’s a great story and congratulations.
Want the basics on making your own underground pizza? The silly little homemade pizza guide, Free The Pizza! (A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have), is ready and waiting to lead you astray.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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