By Kerry Byrne • Edited By Sean Labombard.
Of all the world’s match-made-in-heaven food pairs (peanut butter and jelly; chocolate, graham cracker, and toasted marshmallow, etc.), there’s no argument that pizza and cold beer are clearly in the top tier. Despite the prevalence of barroom pizza from sea to shining sea, there’s only one place in America where an eccentric form of individual barroom-baked pan pizza is a way of life. If you live on Boston’s South Shore it’s called “South Shore bar pizza”— or just “bar pizza” or in some circles “bar pie.” It’s a proud blue-collar culinary tradition in the pubs, taverns, dive bars, and working-class watering holes found throughout the communities south of Boston.
There’s really not one particular thing that makes South Shore bar pizza unique; it’s more a combination of many cultural curiosities and culinary idiosyncrasies that make it different from most any other pizza on the planet. From its size and history to the odd locations and the local lingo one must know to get an order correct, it all comes together to create what has, for quite some time now, been a phenomenon peculiar to the South Shore.
Bar Pizza Rules
So let’s get right to it—first and foremost, one bar pizza feeds one person. It is not meant to be split amongst a group and you don’t order it by the slice. While trading slices is fine, the pies are relatively small, so the first rule of bar pizza is: one person, one pizza. Any more than that and it disorients South Shore sensibilities, much like taking the Red Line past Park Street Station. Some say they’ve even seen newborn South Shore babies with a pie to themselves. Two parents, one baby— three pizzas.
As ironclad as the one pizza per person rule, the next oddity of bar pizza separates it from all other pies. South Shore bar pizza is a pan pizza. It’s ALWAYS cooked in a small steel pan and the best pans are old, weathered, and seasoned to perfection. Some local bar pizza joints have been cooking their bar pies in the same pans for decades. Literally 40 or 50 years, and they only get better with age.
Pans and head count aside, there’s certainly no rule as to what your options will be for toppings. The more traditional places might serve their bar pizza with cheddar cheese, but plenty offer a number of additional toppings. Some places, like the Lynwood Cafe and Hoey’s in Randolph offer a signature pizza with onion and salami or bacon—oh, and baked beans too. It’s unique to the Randolph area but oddly enough, the ingredients go perfectly together.
In many places you can also order your bar pizza to be “laced” or with “burnt edges.” It’s basically the same thing—a little bit of sauce is poured around the edge of the dough where it wedges up against the pan. This sauce then burns against the pan in the oven, creating a dark black delicious edge of burnt crust. However, different bars use different terminology, so be careful to notice whether you’re in “laced” or “burnt edges” territory. Ask for the wrong thing at the wrong bar and they very well may not know what you mean. Add this to the list of oddities that make South Shore bar pizza stand alone in all its glory.
Regardless of where you get it and what you get on it, all bar pizzas have a few things in common. For starters, there is no crust and no “flop.” The dough is stretched out in the steel pans, and the sauce, cheese, and other toppings go right to the edge. A small bit of crust might be exposed but for the most part, you never see that lip of crust common to almost every other form of pizza in the world. It’s also cooked crisp and is often described as having a “biscuit-like” or “cracker-like” crust.
Where to Buy A Bar Pizza
Let’s turn to the bars that offer these delicious pies – see our map here. The places that have been selling them for decades have their own laundry list of oddities that only add to and enhance the charm and flavor. Long-standing bar pizza joints may look like an abandoned house made into a bar. They’re often old, working-class joints and rarely have windows, fancy decor, or any semblance of modern restaurant design or style.
They are also often called cafes. Traditional cafes rarely sell draft beer or pizza. In fact, cafe literally translates to coffee and implies a coffee joint. But that’s not always what it means south of Boston. There are the Cape Cod Cafe in Brockton and other locations; the Home Cafe, also in Brockton; the Lynwood Cafe in Randolph; the Next Page Cafe in Weymouth; the Venus Cafe in Whitman; and Big D’s Neponset Cafe in Canton, all places you’d be able to get your hands on your personal bar pizza long before you’d find a cup of steaming joe. Another unusually named establishment, Town Spa Pizza in Stoughton is most certainly not a spa but rather a 65-year old establishment serving up plenty of varieties of bar pizza and other offerings.
Furthermore, when you’re getting your order to-go, your pie is traditionally cocooned between two round cardboard plates and wrapped in a brown paper bag, cinched at the top for a tight fit. We can’t be sure how this particular oddity came to be, but long-time pizza maker Paul Desmond of Rag’s Tavern believes it was born out of necessity—these small bar pizza joints don’t have room for big stacks of clunky cardboard boxes and the brown paper bags save a lot of space.
The pizzas themselves are usually prepped well before you order. Most places ready the dough and the sauce (and often the cheese) in the pan earlier in the day and then stack the prepped pans in the refrigerator awaiting your order. Some bars might have 200 or 300 pans stacked in the fridge already filled with dough and topped with sauce, anticipating a busy night. Then they throw on the toppings and pop it in the oven after you’ve placed your order.
Some local die-hard foodies believe there is a “pizza maker zero,” one original pizzaiolo who invented bar pizza on the South Shore. Many think that South Shore bar pizza originated at Brockton’s Cape Cod Cafe following World War II. “The Cod,” in true bar pizza tradition, has its own eccentricities. For starters, it’s a good 50 miles from Cape Cod, and as we mentioned earlier, it is not actually a cafe.
It’s believed that bar pizza culture spread from Brockton along the old trolley routes to Quincy. Brockton in its heyday boasted the nation’s largest shoe industry. Quincy was a shipbuilding powerhouse that launched battleships and aircraft carriers in World War II and the two cities were connected by a network of trolley routes. It’s my theory that the bar pizza phenomenon caught hold among the old dive bars along this travel corridor. The trolleys are long gone. But even today, most bar pizza joints are found along the Route 37, Route 28, and Route 18 corridors that the trolleys once followed and that connect Quincy and the northern South Shore to Brockton and the middle South Shore. This is the heart of bar pizza country.
While the craze and fandom of South Shore bar pizza has been alive and well for decades, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has forced the community to go virtual. A Facebook Fan Page was set up in mid-February of this year and now has more than 22,000 members at last count. It’s called “South Shore Bar Pizza Social Club” and it’s wildly active and even educational! Members continue to actively support their local bar pizza makers throughout the restaurant crisis and many of these bar pie joints are selling more take-out pizza than ever. New bar pizza places are regularly discovered, furthering our local love of this tradition. In addition, hundreds of members have learned to make bar pizza at home, sharing tips and recipes, even places to score those pizza pans—all while keeping alive the tradition and culture of bar pizza even when the bars themselves are shut down.
So regardless of where it truly started or how you order it, whether you’re visiting the South Shore or grew up here, if you’re making it at home or hitting the local “cafe,” bar pie is more than just a different take on pizza. For the hardworking men and women who call the South Shore home, bar pizza is a way of life—a tradition filled with quirks and oddities that has spanned decades and shows no signs of slowing down.
Make it Yourself
Raynham native Todd “Todd-zilla” Mead, who came up working in the kitchens of a couple area “cafes,” has been busy transplanting the South Shore Bar Pizza Experience to his new home north of Denver. Developing this recipe, he figures he’s recently made 70+ pizzas; we are grateful that he’s kind enough to share the product of all that hard work with us.
Having tried all the pans out there, Todd-zilla unreservedly recommends the steel variety available through Bay State Restaurant Supply (9 Hervey St, Brockton, MA 02301; 508-586-6692). Since the pandemic-driven explosion of interest in DIY bar pizza has put these pans on backorder, we experimented with a variety of 10-inch steel and aluminum cake pans. Despite being an inch too tall, which might conceivably hamper top-browning, they worked just fine.
Editorial confession: although such a high degree of seasoning might off end dive-bar purists, we felt compelled to blend a single clove of garlic into the sauce. Your call.
For more pointers, resources, and many, many photos, check out www.BarPizzaBarPizza.com, the brainchild of John Menton of West Bridgewater, and of course, “South Shore Bar Pizza Social Club” on Facebook.
Kerry J. Byrne spent 25+ years as a reporter shaping trends in global food, drink, travel, sports, and lifestyle. Today he’s the founder of KJB Trending Hospitality, providing public relations and marketing consulting for great chefs restaurants and municipalities. Read a follow-up article by Kerry on the popularity of the bar pizza here.
Sean LaBombard is a freelance writer who enjoys exploring, eating, drinking, and experiencing everything that Worcester County has to offer. When he’s not writing, he spends his time reading, cooking, home brewing, and spending time with his quickly growing family.