Matt Michel of 1943 Pizza Bar: A happy blend of tradition and innovation

Long Island Wine Press

Matt Michel of 1943 Pizza Bar. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Great pizza is the holy grail for countless Americans, so it’s not surprising that the wood-fired pies from Rolling in Dough, Southold restaurateur Matthew Michel’s aptly named food truck, quickly amassed an East End following when the business was featured in a 2009 Vogue magazine spread.

“The issue came out in August and I started getting a bunch of Hamptons parties,” said Michel, who is 33 and grew up in West Haven, Conn. “Since then, it’s really taken off.”

In less than a decade, Rolling in Dough, which operates from a retrofitted 1943 K-6 International Harvester truck, has developed a loyal base of East End customers who tend to book parties a year in advance. Demand is so high, in fact, that Michel recently purchased a second truck, which he hopes will be operational by early June.

Fans of his pizza, which comprise savory combinations like a white pie with mashed potatoes, bacon and caramelized onions, include celebrities like East Hampton chef Ina Garten. After sampling his thin-crust pizza, she invited Michel to appear this past October in an episode of her Food Network show “Cooking with Jeffrey.”

“She has been at a few Rolling in Dough parties and every time it’s like you’re seeing one of your old friends,” said Michel, adding that he “isn’t crazy about being on camera” but knew he couldn’t turn down the opportunity.

“It’s so good for my business,” he said.

During the taping, he and Garten prepared a summer squash pie, antipasto salad and limoncello cheesecake.

Michel, who was inspired to launch Rolling in Dough after attending a food truck party with a similar concept in Connecticut, knows how fortunate he is to have established a hit business in the midst of a recession.

The exterior of 1943 Pizza  Bar in Greenport. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

The exterior of 1943 Pizza Bar in Greenport. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

No one could have blamed him if he had opted against testing fate and simply enjoyed his success, but Michel had further ambitions. In 2014, he opened the casual eatery 1943 Pizza Bar and the craft cocktail lounge Brix & Rye, both in Greenport’s Stirling Square. Cutchogue resident Jonathan Shearman is executive chef at the pizzeria, which serves food to Brix & Rye patrons via a concealed stairwell.

“1943 came from the need to have a larger commissary for Rolling in Dough,” Michel explained.

Initially, he planned to open just the pizzeria, which is managed by Seth Egan. But after wandering the building’s “dark, cozy basement,” he decided its speakeasy atmosphere provided the ideal setting for what would become Brix & Rye, where operations are overseen by his business partner Evan Bucholz.

“After about a week, I knew I had to take that space, too,” Michel said.

Brent Pelton, owner of Stirling Square, called Michel a “stand-up guy” who “consistently turns out good pizza.”

“We’re happy to have 1943 and Brix & Rye in Stirling Square,” he said. “We think they complement American Beech and other businesses located within the square, including the heart of Greenport.”

Despite his success, Michel has no formal culinary training. He wanted to enroll in culinary school following high school — “I have been thinking about restaurants since I was little,” he said — but his mother and father cautioned against it, citing a chef’s long hours.

Jonathan Shearman prepares a red pie made with local sausage, Verano sheep, cheese and basil. The pork is from 8 Hands Farm in Cutchogue. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Jonathan Shearman prepares a red pie made with local sausage, Verano sheep, cheese and basil. The pork is from 8 Hands Farm in Cutchogue. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

“My parents are very great, supportive people, but I think they were trying to steer me,” said Michel, who is the third of four children.

Instead, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and secondary education from Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., graduating in 2005. Two years later, he moved to Southold and began bartending at Jamesport’s Jedediah Hawkins Inn and The Frisky Oyster in Greenport. He founded Rolling in Dough in April 2008.

“I felt like there was a really good market for it,” he said.

For the first six years, Rolling in Dough was largely a one-man operation. But when 1943 Pizza Bar and Brix & Rye opened, Michel said he realized that although he “hates sitting still and focusing on one task for extended periods,” he couldn’t juggle three businesses himself.

“After the first year, I knew I needed more staff,” he said.

One of those employees is Shearman, a 27-year-old Smithtown native. The 1943 Pizza Bar executive chef has “brought a level of expertise and professionalism with him to our kitchen that you dream about in an employee,” Michel said.

The men have similar backgrounds. After graduating from Saint Anthony’s High School in Huntington, Shearman planned to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America but, like Michel, was discouraged from applying.

“Everybody was saying the culinary industry was too hard,” he said.

The finished red pie. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

The finished red pie. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Shearman studied liberal arts for two years at C.W. Post/Long Island University before deciding he was “wasting his time.” Instead, he applied to the culinary program at Suffolk County Community College’s Riverhead campus, graduating in 2012 with a culinary arts degree and an associate degree in hospitality and management.

Long before graduating, however, Shearman had developed an extensive résumé, working at a butcher shop and a Commack steakhouse and as a line cook at Pentimento in Stony Brook and Danford’s Hotel & Marina in Port Jefferson. From 2011 to 2014, he was head chef at the Fire Island restaurant Watch Hill.

Three years ago, Shearman ventured east when a former professor told him a new Italian restaurant in Southold, Caci North Fork, was looking for a sous chef. He landed the position and helped the fine-dining establishment make its September 2014 debut.

The following year, he was introduced to Michel during a visit to 1943 Pizza Bar. After bonding over their shared interest in golf, Michel mentioned to Shearman his plans to “bring on a chef and do some different things” at the restaurant. Was he interested?

“My initial reaction was like, “That’s where I’m gonna go,’ ” Shearman said. “I always did fine dining. [1943 Pizza Bar] is so casual and nice. It’s the direction I want my future to go in.”

Shearman, who was hired in December 2015, has spent the time since honing his pie-making skills, using cookbooks and sheer imagination to concoct weekly specials like braised radicchio and red onion with smoked prosciutto and ricotta.

“Matt just lets me go,” he said. “He gives me free rein to come up with stuff. That was one of the selling points for me: He was like, ‘I want you to be creative and do what you want to do.’ ”

The eatery offers more than just pizza. Shearman and Michel have focused on developing weekly appetizers such as roast octopus and bay scallops, both of which are cooked in the eatery’s wood-fired oven.

“That was one of the things Matt wanted to do — try different appetizers,” said Shearman, who purchases in-season produce from local farms like Sep’s in East Marion and MarGene Farms in Mattituck whenever possible. “Tapas plates, things like that.”

Don’t expect the changes to be drastic, Michel said.

“We’re pretty happy with how things are going and we don’t want to mix it up too much,” he said. “We hope to have a bigger kitchen someday, which will allow us to add homemade pastas and more wood-fired dishes to the menu. For now, though, that’s just a dream.”

Menu aspirations aside, Michel is content with his career. He particularly credits his fiancée, Kirsten Jones, with his success.

“She never lets me make any stupid decisions and always lets me know when I could do better,” he said. “With her in my ear and my amazing staff, everything just seems to keep going in the right direction.”

Where does he see himself in five years?

“On a boat!” he joked.

In all seriousness, he said, “My business will hopefully grow and will probably change here and there, but really, I hope to be just where I am right now. I love my life here. I love Greenport. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

This story was originally published in the 2017 edition of the Long Island Wine Press

One Comment