If you want to know the story of Red Wagon Pizza, you needn't look further than the enormous black-and-white photograph prominently displayed above a bank of booths on the north wall of the dining room.
At first glance it's just an old-timey piece of Italian-Americana, not unlike the evocative photos of the Old Country that add a little authenticity to a Punch pizzeria. In fact, it's owner Pete Campbell's grandparents and their young family, enjoying a scratch pizza pie in 1950s New Jersey, where the family lived at the time.
It was his grandpa's WWII tour of duty that started it all, Campbell says. Inspired by Italian food, the returning veteran brought recipes back to his home in north Jersey to share with family and friends. As Campbell fondly remembers, "Pop Pop" would make one dough ball for the family pie, and then a second, which the kids were allowed to quarter and make their own. "We never got it round -- so it was always a pizza roll or a calzone," he says, though he notes he made his first pizza at the age of 2.
He had the bug, and the urge to make and share pizza never left him. Prior to starting Red Wagon Pizza, Campbell says, he obsessively worked on his recipes, making around 4,000 pies out of a $50 wall oven for friends and neighbors over the years -- his only request for reciprocity being that they offer critique and feedback so he could perfect the dough.
Because pizza is deeply rooted in geography, Campbell says he wanted his space to reflect a deeply "American" sense of place, something that would capture the inter-generational American pizza he serves.
This got him thinking about the railway system and what the lighting would have been like in a 1940s train station. He brought on BluBulb custom lighting artisans to refurbish industrial and vintage materials for light fixtures. A set of vintage World Book Encyclopedias made it into the design after Campbell had a long conversation with his son about what life was like when he was a kid. "This was our internet," he says.
The chairs are authentic Emeco Navy chairs, first built for use on submarines and warships in 1944. They reputedly had to be durable enough to withstand torpedo blasts, so they should be able to handle the wear and tear of a neighborhood pizza parlor. They're deceptively expensive, worth at least a few hundred dollars apiece, and, Campbell says, unbelievably comfortable: Once people sit, they don't want to leave.
The furniture fits in nicely with the service ethic of the place. Campbell wants guests to feel as though they can "camp out" -- the bar stools mimic the comfy leather of the booths, and there are USB outlets along the bar.
Campbell's mother gifted him the vintage pizza plate that can be seen in his grandfather's hand in the family portrait.
The oven is a Mugniani wood-burning oven, and Campbell says it's fairly common in the pizza game (it's the same one used by Punch). Originally, he wanted to paint it red-wagon red, but once it was put together Campbell loved it as is. As we chat, it's still registering about 400 degrees of residual heat from last night's service. The Red Wagon name came to Campbell as a universally recognized symbol of Americana, and a couple of Radio Flyers flank the oven.
Red Wagon Pizza is still in the "soft open" phase, but is open now open for nightly dinner. Eventually they will also be open every day for lunch.
Red Wagon Pizza 5416 Penn Ave.
Send your story tips to Hot Dish.